Green Horses on the Walls, the chapbook of performance poems written by the historian Cristina Bejan, is an absorbing book that grapples with and grips key moments of life in honest and direct language. Moving from family memories of crippling fears during totalitarianism in Romania, to the psychology of the diasporic existence marred by confusion and rape, these poems are suffused with an equanimity rare to find in victims of political or sexual abuse. At the heart of these poems is a dreamer, who will rightly and courageously “walk on air, against your better judgement” as the poet Seamus Heaney has written in one of his poems.
Cristina Bejan is a Romanian-American historian, theatre artist and spoken word poet based in Denver, Colorado. She has written eighteen plays, many of which have been produced in the United States, Romania, the United Kingdom and Vanuatu. She is founding executive director of the arts and culture collective Bucharest Inside the Beltway. Under the stage name “Lady Godiva,” she performs her poetry across the United States and Romania. She has written Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania: The Criterion Association (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
Her chapbook will feel familiar to immigrants who spend their lives sending packages back home, and trying not to look back too much. The children, curious to know about their parents’ country, where the packages are going, will snatch secrets, and live with them, as in “Opening the Orange Envelope”:
“My most vivid childhood memories from the 80s are not of listening to JEM or playing with Barbie, but rather they are of my parents routinely sitting us down in the middle of our house in North Carolina and directing us on the assembly line of putting together packages for our relatives in Romania. We prepared them with so much care, stacking the blocks of soap, old T-shirts, coveted blue jeans and cartons and cartons of cigarettes. My father showed us who these packages were going to, with black and white photographs he pulled out of an orange envelope. When he was sleeping or out of the house, I would regularly sneak into his home office upstairs and open the orange envelope and peak into a world forbidden to me.”
There are truths, hidden fragments of truth “under the mattress” where no one looks, or no one is supposed to look except the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, which haunts the family both in the outskirts of Galati, Romania, and in the States, and will haunt the consciousness of the curious child who cannot stop asking questions and will become a poet.
But the truth of this poet is in dreaming, the dreaming beyond pain, mistakes, and hard lessons, as in the title poem:
My truth runs with the green horses
Through the fields, down Rockville Pike and eventually all the way through
the heart of DC—14th St.
I hear them calling—
Cristina! Hai acasă [Come home]
Calling me home …
As I walked today through a canopy of trees
I crossed paths with a butterfly
Bejan’s poems dream through countries and languages, bringing to us images from various places on earth, each one memorable. Yet the primary locus of Bejan’s imagination, and the unmistakable sound of her voice is in the fissure between America and Romania, between English and Romanian—where new attempts at articulating the self emerge and renew themselves. It’s a book that has captured my attention completely and gave me, also a Romanian, a way back to my own Galati.