Nest of Songs

I want to nestle you in the songs of orioles,

Weaving mating calls across the maples

Their voices concolorous, suasive,

Wheedling leaves from enchanted trees.

This house withstood the test of isolation

Four seasons and one more

With just some paint peeling off the walls,

But not you; you whittled in silence

With the wall of one sentence: “I do not know.”

Yet, here we are, above the ground,

Suspended between spring songs tangling

In air all around the garden and the streets,

Palms of the magnolia opening to say, “Hold this.”

                                    31 March 2021

Waiting for Spring

Under the last of the snow the trees

Wiggle their roots; the warming sieve

Awakens branches and their twigs

That stood numb with cold for months.

Last evening before supper

Half a dozen young deer galloped

Through the yard, their sound

A surprising stampede of happiness.

Booming birdsong, as if the hearing

Itself has sharpened in our bodies,

And windows are raised, doors flung open,

Our eyes train on imagining new buds.

But it is fraught, all is fraught this spring

When the mind rushes everything in

To offer consolation: when the blue jay

Is perceived to have arrived to cheer us up.

We have not left the island in one year,

No one has crossed our threshold,

We remained closed in, in the house,

The way the trees seem dead in winter.

Half a million dead: who can count on

The accuracy of the number?

The earth groans with the cadavers of those

Who last year went about their worries

With notepads filled with things to do,

Bills to pay, families to feed–

Just when the world came to a halt

“only temporary” like an unplanned vacation.

 25 February 2021

A Prayer for My Children

A Prayer for my Children

  On the US Presidential Inauguration 2017

This year what you learn at school

Sitting at your tiny desks in the sunny room

Is the ‘lock-down drill’.  We come from other

Countries, you remind me as you recount how

You hide in the closets, quietly

While the teacher pulls down the blinds in a hurry:

‘Is this a free country?’ you ask me

And I say ‘These are changed times.’

Out there on the campaign trail, the man

Who is now our President-elect, who talked about

Grabbing women by the pussy, calling it ‘locker room talk’

Used an arsenal of other words you should not know

And should not use, according to the laws of common decency.

‘Politicians are all the same, everywhere’, your father says

‘Vulgarity and corruption are as old as the world.’  But none of this

Excuses or heartens our hearths.

This year we bought our first house, stripped rooms

To the bare bones of wood, repaired every wall,

Sealed all the holes, changed the wiring to make it safe,

Gave it a brand-new roof, painted it all new.

Neighbors came by to thank us for the love we put in the house,

The smiles we brought to the street with the new colours.

We planted out first rose bushes and our first tree.

How can I give up on the hope that you now plant your roots?

The world within must meet the world without, my children

And nothing but love will come out of my pen

And nothing but hope will spring from my heart.

We’ll have to work at words together, pruning them back to their roots,

Our prayers must echo in the prayers from others.

I want you to take the bus to school where no one needs

The lock-down drills. I dream for you to remain innocent and play

With your friends in the fresh air, among trees, and flowers.

Time Being

Time Being

We did not make these doors,

Yet we too must walk through them.

Truth and Justice swing on rusted hinges,

Vandals bang them on the wall.

There is blood on the marble floor.

The soldiers walk in with their guns

Like schools of fish in the sea,

Choreographing the shape of a monster.

*

The miasma of lies suffocates the air.

The righteous are affected by disaffection.

Newsmakers are tangled in headlines,

Isms rhyme with schisms.

We did not build these doors

But we must walk through them

To the other side: where Androcles

Stands with the lion at his feet.

Green Horses on the Walls

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.

Green Horses on the Walls

The Fragility of Democracy and the Responsibility of Hope

The Fragility of Democracy and the Responsibility of Hope

On 6 January 2021, President Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol building, where elected officials were in full session certifying the votes of the 2020 presidential election. They smashed windows, pounded on doors, and went through the building unimpeded, making their way to the Senate floor, rummaging through the desks hastily abandoned by the senators who had been evacuated in an unprecedented emergency.

It is clear that the protesters felt that the election is compromised and the result is false: the Trump campaign, factions of the media, and the President himself have done everything to convince supporters that their votes were stolen, without reflecting on the consequences of their lies or their inflammatory language. As a result, the behavior of the crowds sent another message to the rest of the country, that had nothing to do with emotional hyperbole or with rightful grievance: “Keep Trump in power or else we will achieve this by force, the same way we are defiling the building where the work of government takes place.” The implications of this event are disturbing: the American democracy–the system that allows citizens to make their choice of a president by casting their vote–is in great peril.

31 years ago, when my family and I arrived in America as political refugees from communist Romania, having endured years of persecution dealt by a cruel dictator, my father said: “My 12 years of torture in prison are rewarded. I brought you to a free country. Now you go live in peace.”  As my children were watching the desecration of the seat of government on national television, I understood that everyone, including me, has a civic duty to speak against complacency, and against the vulgarity of public language: democracy is just as fragile here as anywhere else, and we all have a role to play in safeguarding it.

The events of 6 January, which are a culmination of four years of a destructive presidency based on lies and distortions, make it imperative to restore a sense of dignity to language, and invoke a responsibility to hope. Without a kinder language and the sentiment of hope, we will sit helplessly and watch brute force, and brutish greed, take over our lives.  

It would be a mistake to dismiss those who put their feet on desks and tore through offices while waving the TRUMP flag as simply “the mob”: they represent a large segment of the American population who voted for Trump and they were empowered by an erratic, law despising president and his corrupt supporters to the point that they are not able to distinguish truth from lies. They created chaos, fear, and put many in danger. We cannot sweep the events of yesterday under the rug.

Though more than half of the country is ashamed and horrified at the vandalism that took place in Washington, those who descended on the capital represent division, anger, and ultimately a massive loss of values. The loss was incremental and is the result of a deep-seated arrogance in society. The idea that “bad things will never happen here, because we are the greatest on earth” runs deep and unchecked: we need to see the reality around us and do the hard work of admitting that our lives will not improve as long as we trade fact for fiction, reason for destructive emotion, and straightforward language for manipulative slogans.

Can Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the lawfully elected leaders, make a reality of their promises for racial equality, social justice, care for the environment, education and health? It is both too soon and too late to question them. But one thing is for certain: they cannot make good on their promises by themselves, they cannot make a better America simply by willing it. There must be a commitment from the rest of us, those sitting on the margins, those feeling merely shocked, disheartened and depressed, those who prefer to remain “apolitical”, and those who profit by demagoguery. Today’s public language matches the vulgarity of feelings that is perfectly evidenced in Trump’s speeches.

America needs to seek a different prosperity: one that has to do with the soul and will animate the very language which brings us together as human beings living with one another. When we will find the calming words that will help us sit down together to understand our grievances, voice our hopes, and admit to our fears, we will be able to trust our institutions again and preserve democracy. We must find the words that mean what they say and say what they mean.

What does it mean to have a responsibility to hope? What does “the responsibility of hope” mean? For me it means that I must find a way to see very clearly the lives of my children unfolding in peace, and in trust that their civic duties and their civic rights are in place to help them negotiate the difficulties ahead. I must hope a responsible hope. Freedom, trust in society, a fulfilled life are not things simply given to us by people in power. They are given by the values that help us elect our leaders. My children’s understanding of power and governance should not be shaped by the images of yesterday, when law, order, and respect for the election process were shattered with the windows and stomped on. The hope we need now must border on stubbornness: against the mob, against a derailed democracy, against corrupted and corrupting language—the kind of hope that validates the trust in ourselves to discern right from wrong.

The Italian writer Giani Rodari wrote a book called Tante Storie Per Giocare (Many Stories to Play With) which my children received as a gift from their grandmother some years ago. The stories are short and have several endings from which the reader can choose and discuss.  In the light of current events, I offer a story of our own time and place, written in a similar form:

Once there was a man who was elected to the presidency of a big and powerful country. When the first term came to an end four years later, people chose another president. The man refused to accept defeat and called his supporters, who vandalized the seat of government, sending fear and anger everywhere.

What happened next?

First ending: the violence was so shocking, everyone, including the president, realized that things went too far, and the new president took his office peacefully. A great lesson was learned.

Second ending: it was the beginning of a long civil war.

Third ending: everyone decided to think about something else. Almost no one voted in elections since.

Discuss your choice of the ending.