Poetry and the Language of Oppression is a book of essays about the writing process and the challenges of addressing social issues in a language meant to express personal feelings and the inner life. I talk about the power of language in our personal lives and also in our public, civic, lives in the Oxford Comment Podcast. But these essays also a tell a personal story of the Cold War and of government surveillance, and how writing is a healing process.
Night in the church
In memory of Tanti Bălaşa
The congregation chose to have your wake in church.
They placed your coffin on a table overfilled with flowers,
Your frame smaller on white satin—coffin like a crib—
Something which makes me think again about the time
Before birth, when the body swims in the womb,
Outside memory, inside mysterious life.
The icon under your crossed hands, the cross, the candle—
As it’s always been: in custom and in ceremony.
Yet, unlike other people, in your last day above the ground
You are lying in the center of the church.
What did you say all night to the saints at the altar?
And what were your instructions on the way to Heaven?
I think of you being honored as a stateswoman.
And stately you were in the communist factory
Kitchen, commandeering a small team of cooks:
Workers lining up for the bowl of sour soup,
Worshiping you as much as their mothers: to my own
Taste, no one has surpassed your cooking skills.
No one has measured ingredients more precisely,
Immeasurable in kindness to everyone you were.
You loved red wine and loved singing hymns,
You were the choir mistress. Last we met
You offered the plum wine. Together with
The big family, we sang. And laughed. And God,
We gossiped in those flowery native words.
I remember now how you wanted me for your daughter,
How I have never left my mother, and how she
Would have never let me go, despite the hardship
And the pain of those last few years in Romania.
So you kept asking me to take the next bus home, or
The one following the next, till the last one was due.
“Come once more before you leave this time,”
You asked. Today I can’t remember if I did.
Today your sister, my mother, is crying
On the phone and sending pictures of you in the coffin,
Your face out of focus, a table with bread and fruit,
A stand with candles that become smaller, kneeling
In the sand. You come to me in that soft light
Around your table when Dad cried as we sang.
September 18, 2021