BORN ROMANIA, NOVEMBER 27, 1924. DIED NEW YORK, APRIL 14, 2014, AGED 89
EXILED FROM her homeland the Romanian-born poet Nina Cassian wrote about the intensity of love, loss, death and decay, honed in the country which expelled her. She fell foul of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania in 1965 when her satirical poems criticising the regime fell into the hands of his secret police, forcing her to seek asylum in New York. Cassian was not only a poet but a composer, translator, author, journalist and film critic. She translated Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht into Romanian and had published over 50 books of poetry.
Born Renée Annie Katz, Cassian was her pen name, she described her childhood in Brasov with her cultured Jewish parents, as idyllic, until antisemitism drove the family to Bucharest in 1935, when she was 11. Forced to study in the Jewish ghetto, she trained as a pianist and studied painting, literature and composition at Bucharest University and the city’s main conservatory.
ShejoinedtheundergroundCommunist Party during the war and fell in love with the handsome poet Vladimir Colin and joined him in the proscribed Communist party youth wing. During their six-year marriage they both contributed tothemagazine Orizont. Hersecondmarriage to writer Alexandru Stefanescu, lasted until his death in 1984.
Her first published poem, I Used to be a Decadent Poet, was published in the daily Romanian paper Romania libera in 1945. The surrealist strand of the French modernism poets ran through her work, evidenced in her first poetry book, published in 1947. She encountered fierce hostility from official literary sources for her refusal to conform to their narrow vision. The attacks stung but also frightened her and she spent years attempting to write in the required proletarian style, even though she knew the rules were patronising and her beloved Romanian folk tales, full of magic and metaphor, were closest to the people. She later rejected most of her work from this period.
Cassian experienced a brief, exhilarating respite in the post-Stalin era and composed music, illustrated books and translated Brecht and Shakespeare into Romanian. Under the dictator Ceausescu in the mid-1960s, she wrote freely. But this was a false dawn — lasting barely until the early 1970s. In September 1985, on a Fulbright scholarship to New York University, she discovered the home of her friend, the dissident poet Gheorghe Ursu, was searched and her satirical poems about Ceausescu were discovered copied into his diary. Ursu was arrested and murdered. Recently widowed, Cassian also discovered that her flat in Bucharest had been pillaged, and opted to remain in New York, applying for political asylum the following year.
She began writing in English, and her work, which now included poignant themes of exile, appeared in New York cultural journals, like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and later in volumes, including Life Sentence,
‘PRIDE, LONELINESS AND ART’
Take My Word for It and Continuum in 2008. She taught creative writing well into her early 70s, and her Romanian poetry was translated into English.
The mordant wit that had driven her from her homeland was evident in some of her funnier poems. One of them, Please Give This Seat to an Elderly or Disabled Person, appeared in New York City subways. It read: I stood during the entire journey; nobody offered me a seat although I was at least a hundred years older than anyone else on board, although the signs of at least three major afflictions were visible on me: Pride, Loneliness and Art.
She expressed fears that she would die a spinster. In fact she married three times, the last in 1998 to Maurice Edwards, former artistic director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, who survives her.