The Country With No Playgrounds, Elena Croitoru
Live Canon Poetry, 2021 £7.00
The Country With No Playgrounds is a slim volume which vividly evokes an experience of growing up in Ceaușescu’s Romania. Croitoru captures this world powerfully by employing dazzling precision of language, image, juxtaposition and structure.
The pamphlet opens with a perfectly chosen line: ‘We grew up in our spare time’. This is designed to instantly wrong-foot a reader, pinpointing as it does the stunting nature of a childhood spent under such a regime.
In ‘How Far, How Far’, this precise use of language is also demonstrated. The poem describes how the speaker and her family were ‘coffined in a one bedroom flat’. Swapping ‘confined’ for ‘coffined’ is shocking; one carefully selected word conveys so much.
As part of her precision, Croitoru chooses images with exactitude. In ‘Pencil Case’, ‘a cracked parrot’s egg’ becomes a symbol for an emotionally-starved childhood — ‘the frailty of’ the ‘cream shell’ with the ‘dead bird inside it’ seems to resemble the thwarted potential of the children who gather to touch it.
‘Mechanical Frog’ describes a wind-up toy frog that is ‘rehearsing life, better at it than most’. Again, the poet has hit upon an image which conveys an experience of oppression with concision and sharpness.
Croitoru is adept at balancing two images or happenings against each other in exact and revealing juxtapositions. The narrator of ‘Tangerine’ describes how ‘The day they came for him / I was given a tangerine.’ An unnamed man is taken by the authorities:
They shot him
with machine guns while I ate
honey-laced watery flesh.
Sweetness and darkness are held alongside each other, the sweetness cloyed by the darkness.
These poems are structured with great accuracy. ‘Mechanical Frog’ is just one of several that contain powerful line breaks. It ends by telling us that the speaker held the frog to her ear so that she ‘almost didn’t hear / the gunshots’. By splintering the last line, ‘the gunshots’ is left bare and stark.
This sharp pamphlet skewers an era, a country and a childhood with great precision. There are many excellent poems in this brief collection, and many more examples of perfectly-chosen words and images. It is quite an achievement.