John Lucas welcomes a multi-faceted new poetry collection by Mihaela Moscaliuc
As her name suggests, Mihaela Moscaliuc is Romanian by birth. As the name of her publisher and the title of her collection suggest, she now lives in America. And as the contents of Immigrant Model demonstrate, she is a first-rate poet. In its implicit generalisation, the title itself is resonant with an understanding that poetry, to be any good, cannot rely on undigested gobbets of personal circumstance to stand in for art. This isn’t to say that there’s any one model to which the immigrant experience can be expected to conform, but it is to say that the material out of which these poems are so well crafted is, or certainly ought to be, familiar to any contemporary reader. Anyone claiming unfamiliarity with the historical, political and social issues that thread through Immigrant Model would have to be vacuum packed and sealed.
Still, Moscaliuc’s poems are emphatically not “issue-led”. Although the eight sections into which the book is divided do give a sense of compartmentalisation, they all testify to her devotion to her craft as a makar. There’s no special pleading, no heart-on-sleeve appeal to reader sensibility. (Though you’d have to be very insensible not to thrill to the wide-eyed receptiveness of some of the poems, even, dare I say, their charm, let alone their sonic sophistication, the careful attention paid to vowel-sounds and stress.) The smells of a suitcase nurture the soul she writes in one poem, and nurture, which means both nourishment and education, means also, therefore, a leading out, a journeying.
Memory is nourished by journeys and there’s much journeying in these poems. Occasionally this segues into what might seem tourist verse, but isn’t. There’s a morally indefensible kind of post mod. poem that’s been doing the rounds for some years, according to which everywhere’s the same because you’re always you. This is not merely offensive in its cliché about the presumed universal self-reflexiveness according to which we can’t know anything beyond ourselves, it’s intellectually dishonest because it contradicts the post mod. Mantra that the self isn’t one and the same, ever. You aren’t you. What’s refreshing about Moscaliuc is her relish for experiences that grant her access to lives very unlike her own and, then, the degree of attention she grants them.
Observation is also nourishment, and comes without hint of condescension, though it certainly includes a kind of comic wonderment, as in “Plaza de Las Flores,” which begins
I want the sherry cream but order instead
a Gypsy arm, offended yet too curious to pass.
The plate lands between elbows on which I’d propped my head
an arm away from the street musician
who’s giving his heart to the Spanish version of ‘Hello Dolly.’
Whipped cheese gaffed with chocolate lances.
If you were being pompous you’d say this poem is about the clash and misunderstandings between different cultures; but the tone wards off portentousness, and there’s sheer pleasure to be had from the lines’ agile movement, the rapid notation of what’s registered.
Other poems, long and short, are warmed by a kind of loving regard which also takes for granted the propriety of the comic. Here in its entirety is a poem called “Romanian Touch”, dedicated to the poet’s parents.
Even after they’ve stopped making love,
they spend hours saddled across each other’s backs,
squeezing blackheads or peeling off flaking strips
of summer burns, taking pleasure in slow desquamations:
skin-deep, the burdens and affections of their marriage.
Desquamations! Now that’s what I call affirmative action.
Against this, though, poems of estrangement occur throughout the collection: love, family, relationships are affirmed not by overblown statement but by being closely attended to, because and despite of a deep sense of alienation. And at the centre of Immigrant Model are two sections, IV and V, the subject of which the terrible accident at Chernobyl – not far from the Eastern border of Romania where the poet once lived. Section IV, which has as epigraph a remark by Colum McCann, “We get our voices from the voices of others”, is a kind of melange of voices, fragmentary utterances bearing witness to the event. Impossible to quote from the section in order to give an adequate sense of its achievement in providing some sense of the enormity of what occurred and of its after-effects, but it is important to note that no single voice would have been at all adequate to what Moscaliuc manages to produce. The testimony is necessarily fractured, partial, offered as discrete, minute particulars. Hence, to take examples at random,
All books disappeared, all important ones,
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on X-rays.
The medical bulletins, too, vanished.
Those who could took potassium iodine.
For that, you really needed to know someone.
They flung us here, like sand into the reactor
I kiss him through the gauze
like a late bride, eager & slightly rueful.
Sections VII and VIII, parts of them in accomplished prose, the rest in verse, are equally concerned with recent history, here the history of Romania under the “monster” Ceausescu and his wife. But where Sections IV and V had been predominantly bewildered, grieving, aghast, here the tone is a mixture of taut contempt, anger, and, again, bewilderment at what history does. This includes the execution of the Ceausescus
We core peel cut till the firing squad assumes position. We watch the despots
wither — two frightened creatures crumbling against the wall, half the size
when authenticated. Cored out so easily. On the capital’s street, an army of
children keeps firing at parents and brothers, too frightened to stop. No one
knows whose fingers command the bullets, who’s carting away bodies.
Rather less than a year later when, courtesy of the British Council, I spent time in Bucharest, giving talks and readings and meeting writers, I was aware that still nobody knew whose fingers commanded the bullets. But I learnt that Ceausescu, who (rather like Putin), was conscious of his short stature, took care only ever to be photographed when he could be positioned to look as though he was standing taller than others, and, back home, I heard from my poet friend, Barry Cole, who worked for the COI in London, that Madame Ceausescu, who had precious little education, was nevertheless credited with a book on Chemistry which was re-printed each year (copies were distributed world-wide) and whose existence was sufficient for her to be elected to the life-long Presidency of the Association of Romanian Writers. The book, written for her by accredited scientists, was, so Barry told me, thick-sewn with deliberate errors. Wither, crumbling, half the size, the carting away of those who in life had commanded fleets of limousines, ships, planes. Poetry, which survives in the valley of its saying, has its revenge.
John Lucas is a poet, novelist, critic, biographer, literary historian – and also a publisher who runs Shoestring Press. His own most recent books are a critical survey Second World War Poetry in English from Greenwich Exchange and the poetry collection Things to Say (Five Leaves Press). Forthcoming works include: a critical study of George Crabbe; a new poetry collection, Portable Property; and The Awkward Squad which deals with some cricketing rebels.