Nina Cas­sian

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -


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,


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.

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