The garden strewn with dry bean
Pods rattling on their stems
As we shook them out of sacks
Onto sheets spread on the grass.
Holding thick oak sticks we sat
In a circle and beat the stalks:
Sending the freckled beans up
Free as heavy rain drops.
Grandfather waited for the wind
With instruments for sifting:
A clean straw rug, a tub-sized
Wooden bowl and a tin bucket.
That’s how he remained
Pictured in my child-mind:
A shadow in the summer breeze
Standing behind the orange sun,
Hat pushed to his brow,
Hands lifting a bucket of beans,
Which sounded like a downpour
As they fell cleared of husks.
Preparing for birth
In a room with a wall of bright windows
seven women with bellies plump as November
pumpkins kneel facing the fruited trees.
Morning sun comes to kiss now a throat,
now a cheek, a knee, or the space
between breasts moving with dreams.
“Now we’ll rehearse birthing sounds”, says
the teacher, “so bring your hands to the floor,
straighten your spine, breathe in, unfold your ribs.”
She walks among us, pauses to open her palms
on each bending back; we respond to her hands,
in-breath then towards ground exhaling “aaaaaaaah”.
Turning inwards, an accordion forgetting language
and origins, I practice before the recital
as our harmony reaches towards the apples.
Tomorrow we will be strangers again.
In the pain of birth, in the blood of life
each will be alone in crossing the miraculous.
On a ten-year wedding anniversary
For Jessica and Jeff
Here, half-gone autumn over treetops.
Up the mountain the snow has settled
already: a swan beginning to nest.
Today the seasons are mixed in my mind:
that afternoon when we planted flowers,
gathered forgotten, other years’ leaves
then went to the village to be by ourselves.
How you come to me now like a pair of hands
rising from chest towards the lips, as if for prayers!
Who can say what love is, where it comes from
or where it goes; maybe it was there
before we were born, waiting for our hands,
in our hands it took flesh, with our fingers planted
peonies and gathered dead leaves left by those
from whom we bought this house, it sings in our children.
The diamond ring arrived ten years later yesterday—
a messenger through time, like the light of a star
burning since long ago, reaching us here and now.
After Twenty Years : Reflections on Exile and Language
On 29 October 2009 my family and I celebrated twenty years since we left Romania under death threats if we dared to speak about what happened to us under the Ceausescu regime. On 17 November 1989 we were greeted at the airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by sponsoring members of a protestant church who braved the first snowstorm of the year. On 14 December 1989 the Revolution in Romania began, ending just before Christmas with Ceausescu and his wife being summarily shot against a wall. We watched their execution, agape, on a television given to us by our sponsors. We spent the first few years learning English and attending services in a school gymnasium away from our Orthodox roots. With time, the Romanians from Grand Rapids found us and we found a home among them, building together a little church of our own. My parents still live there but my siblings and I have a more peripatetic existence so that now I am writing this from the French-Swiss border, via England, via Ireland. My mother and father were political dissidents in Romania. They typed anticommunist propaganda at an illegally-owned typewriter. My father, who had already been imprisoned for political activities during the 1960s spending seven years in prison during that time, carried out a public protest against the Ceausescu regime in the centre of Bucharest on 10 March 1983. He was tried behind closed doors and given a ten-year sentence for propaganda against the socialist regime after which he was sent to Aiud, the harshest institution dealing with political dissidents. He suffered unspeakable torture and periods of solitary confinement until the general Amnesty of 1988 when he was released. From 1983 until 1988 my mother, my sister, my brother and I lived under daily surveillance from the Securitate (Ceausescu’s secret police): we always had to inform them if we were going any further than our hometown, they had their own keys to our house, came and left as they pleased, day and night. After my father returned, we lived under house arrest for one year, after which were exiled, and given political asylum, to the United States.
If I may be allowed a joke playing on an American cliché, I can say that our exile to the States was like dying and going straight to heaven. This is not to reduce the experience of our deracination or its significance but to signal that the definition of exile has complicated with the post Cold-War mass migration. What I mean to say is that I am not certain I consider myself an ‘exile’ in the traditional understanding of the term. Not as far as my relationship with my native tongue and not as far as my relationship with my native land go. Now, twenty years on and nearly as much since I wrote the poem ‘In exile’ which reads ‘And I’ve been searching for home/ ever since the train whistled in the darkness’(Crossing the Carpathians) , a true exile is one who continues to speak his or her mother tongue, who yearns for the native land and whose perspective in life (or whose literary perspective if we were speaking about the writers) is always informed by a deep need to return to that native land. The tradition is very old. We remember Dante’s sadness at ascending someone else’s stairs, the way he defined the experience of exile as loss. In contemporary times we understand exile through Milosz, who except his poem ‘To Raja Rao’, always wrote in his native Polish and translated his work in English. Nabokov, who wrote in English as well as in his native Russian, spent most of his life translating his own work from one language to another. Yet, I chose to write my poetry only in English, banishing forever the sound of Romanian from my creative life. I wonder if I ever truly had a choice in the matter and I wonder if writing poetry in English invests ‘exile’ with another sense—complete abandonment of the past. However, isn’t the very meaning of ‘exile’ based on one’s experiencing the new ‘home’ through the yearning for the native language and land?
I would like to explain myself and raise the question of the importance of the notion of ‘My faithful mother tongue’ (to think back to Milosz’s profound poem) to one’s sense of freedom and therefore to complicating one’s identity as an exile. What I am if not an exile, seeing the traditional exilic circumstances of my physical, spiritual and creative existence, I cannot tell. Perhaps the definition of ‘literary exile’ must be stretched to include people like me who represent a particular repercussion of politics between Eastern Europe and the West, during the communist period. Maybe exile should be understood through the metaphor of adoption: we were ‘adopted’ and in turn we were quick to assimilate. So, should I consider myself an adopted citizen? One can say that adopted children, though always given away by their genetic inheritance are encouraged to be more like their adoptive family. Generally they embrace their new situation and identify mostly with the adoptive family. With exiles, with refugees, that might have been the thinking in America: if refugees are placed inside American families (as we were placed inside a church community) and if they are left to develop within the adoptive culture, they will become more loyal to the local values, severing their ties with their countries. This in the context of the Cold War means that the political refugees, like us, while benefitting from a deeply humanitarian gesture, provided a voice against the home regimes, helping indirectly the fight for western values. Does it mean that I declare myself American, not Romanian, in my writing? No. But it means that I cannot refer to myself as a traditional exile. I am strictly-speaking an American citizen, I chose that. Like most, I am a consequence of politics much larger than myself, a politics between Eastern Europe and generally the West, which is still very difficult to untangle and makes it nearly impossible for individual people to place themselves in the world . But because I am seen, correctly, as one of those people without a home (a ‘hearth’) I feel that I must define myself as something.
Poetry arises from life. The aesthetic experience, however imaginative and fictional, clings to the core of lived life. My creative process is directly influenced by my experience with my native language. The effects of linguistic repression manifest themselves creatively: I do not write in Romanian and I do not seek the medium of translation for my work written in English for there is nothing I want to say back to my language in my language. I have suffered many interrogations as a child, interrogations which denatured language with their brutality. Everything we spoke in the house was recorded on tape by the Securitate so faithfully that I (and we as a family) have created versions of ourselves which simply did not want to offend the oppressors out of fear for our own lives. Not only that we did not speak about missing my father and about the terrible things we were hearing and seeing around us, or about the hundreds and hundreds of interrogations my mother suffered, the fears that she might not be allowed to return home or that the Securitate might harm or kill us. We became very silent all together, resuming our conversations to revolve around the domestic tasks: Did you chop the wood? Can you bring some water? Shall we air out the rugs? We even tried to lie about the time when we would wake up in the morning and take the bus so that we would not give the guards outside the window the time to prepare to follow us. This is not a language to grow up with. A lot can be said about this, a linguistic study of oppression needs to take place if one is to understand this relationship of political oppression and the development of one’s sense of identity through self-narration. Who was I at 15, 16, 19 years old? Was I a silent girl, a lie of a person, a terrified human being, a brilliant, surviving child? Maybe my family’s dossier from the Securitate, doctored as it might be, might give a sense of just how much we were controlled. Language is the product of culture, it represents most intimately what people feel and how they live their lives, the language of the oppressors and the language of the oppressed are products of large-scale activities, not isolated incidents of abuse. The Securitate developed a language specialized to deal with the types of surveillance they carried out on people. The number of people being followed and monitored and the number of people who did the following and monitoring are so large, there is hardly any ‘innocent’ population left in the country.
For this reason, I have come to hate the language into which I was born. This is not a judgment, this is an emotion which has lasted twenty-years; I am absolutely certain I am not alone in this experience. But this phenomenon is also a very strong symbol of survival: like water, if words are stopped at a dam, they will go around and burst out in another place --in another language. In English I was tongue-tied for sometime but once I had learned the language I could speak honestly about what had happened to us and to me. Once this began to take place I started to own myself, to have and to express my opinions, to write poetry without fearing the consequences. I became free and I declared my ‘Salut au monde’ as intensely as Walt Whitman declared in his poem that each of us is invincible, with his or her rights upon this earth. So I threw myself into the English language and into life with fury: I danced on the streets in the middle of the night not fearing the darkness, I taped my poems to trees on the University campus in Ann Arbor when I was a student, I found my father’s files in the University library and I became proud that other people knew my parents did not bow their heads, did not sell themselves to a dictatorship and that we survived everything with our hearts and with our minds intact. Finally, it was I who banished the Romanian language from my poetry. It had no place in this light, in truth-telling, in the huge effort to live as a happy human being on the other side of the earth. I never returned to Romania, except for one-week visit in 1995 when I took leave of my grandmother who was dying of cancer, because when my father put his life and our lives at risk in order to bring down the Ceausescu regime, not one soul joined him. People ran to see him, saw him and then hid, terrified wherever they could.
Writing in a non-native language has its own troubles. For one thing, I speak about a life and about experiences alien to the culture in which I write. This, in the hands of someone who is a native speaker can achieve a splendid, fascinating, strange effect, while in the hands of someone whose command of English is imperfect can have a stilting effect if not crippling all together. But I have faith that I will grow into the English language, even as it grows to assimilate the stories and the language of displacement so commonplace now. Writing in English is better than relying on translation, for poetry in translation has its own category and there is a completely different set of expectations associated with it. There is also the question of reception of the East European poetry in translation especially as it reflects the politics of translation, which favors content over the achievement of poetic language, leading ultimately to the marginalization of the poetry even as it is being featured. This paradoxical situation of raising poets to the status of a heroes only to obscure their poetry may be unintentional but it is a condition which puts poets such as Z. Herbert, Akhmatova, Tsevetaeva, Mandelstam and Brodsky on the wrong pedestal despite their lifetime efforts to write immortal poetry.
There are contradictions in what I am saying. Recently I wrote my memoir from the period up to emigration. While I wrote this book, Burying the Typewriter , I felt the deep call of my native earth and I felt the melancholy call of my murdered youth. I am a seed which sprouted from that earth. There are Romanian words which I repeat in my English poems, there are songs and prayers which I sing and recite to my son when he goes to sleep at night, and which open in me this great chasm between who I think I have become and who I could have been had I chosen to take my native language with me through the various countries I have lived. This is why I think the metaphor of adoption works for my kind of exile. Adopted children can grow as strongly and can have lives as enriching as those of natural children. My mother was adopted. She has created a rich life for herself counting all her sorrows as blessings. It is not bad to live on the side of forgetting. But I want now to add: it is more complicated than that. Understanding one’s condition emerges from between these contradictions.
As writers we must seek to understand our relationship to our language and know why it is we treasure it, why it is we want to imagine a better, a more peaceful world in it. Those of us tossed up and down by the various tides of history have to fight to find a place for ourselves in the world and in the languages of the world, for this is our right. That many of us will reach old age and die without having a plot of land which we can name ‘home’ is true. But I hope that all of us will find the right language, in whatever language, to express truth and beauty.