‘A Happening’

Nina Cassian died earlier this week. Born in Romania in 1924, she was forced into exile in the mid-1980s when the government obtained evidence that she had been writing politically unsuitable poems. She lived and worked in the USA subsequently; an obituary in the New York Times provides further info and extracts from a couple of her poems.

A selection of her work translated into English appeared as Life Sentence in 1990. There are several poems in the book that I remember liking a lot, but there was one moment in particular that I associate with it. It occurs in ‘A Happening’, a poem which relates to observing ‘an amazing fight / between a woman in love and a man / who wasn’t’ and who was leaving the woman for someone else. The first and longest stanza focuses mainly on the woman, who was doing all the talking – passionate, animated – until its last two lines:

To avoid her eyes, he looked at his hands –
noticing a certain contrast between them.

The poem goes on for another four lines, but they felt like annotation in comparison with that image – quiet, acute, coolly devastating…