I am delighted to announce that Shearsman Books will publish my collection of poems TIME BEING written entirely during the Covid-19 pandemic! Poems from this collection were published in the Irish Times and Literary Matters among other places.
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
snow brings cursive tree
writing in relief; red ink
wings correct the text
This October, winnowing
The day has shortened, hours are
Books between tightened bookends,
Light slants into the under-growth.
The sun places its last kiss on the roses
As insects devour their dying leaves.
And so the summer sighs into fall:
This is the autumn I have no words for.
Apple picking, meals with friends—
Distant memory. Fear gnaws at the heart.
The virus, like a sickness of the conscience
Has spread together with the war among
The righteous. Hope rattles its inflamed lungs.
Justice coughs, kindness wheezes and spits,
Faith plays double game with oath
And governance, truth has lost both legs.
I see us dancing in the kitchen years ago,
Salted vine leaves on the wooden board, herbs,
Mother holding house the way the breast-bone
Covers the heart from whatever could strike,
Father calling for the music, “Children, where
Is the cassette?” We were on Helen Street.
There are calls. There is silence during
The calls. There are quiet walks in the garden
After the calls. The virus roams.
The sun has shortened its working hours.
Time pushes its bookends of light closer
Together. Many will not see the winter.
We walk around the yew tree. Blue jays
Hide inside tight-wound branches.
The back garden is a busy landing strip.
A cardinal perches on the kitchen rails,
The chipmunk family argues in the gutters
By the stairs, crickets in widened cracks
Sing away the nights in the basement,
As I pace upstairs in the dark kitchen;
A wood-pecker knocks on the dormer:
Here is the harvest brought by these
Visiting creatures—memories squirreling
Their freedoms away:
Now I see her, never happy on her own
But glowing whenever we were with her,
I see her taking her smile from our faces.
I am absolutely delighted to announce that my new and selected poems will be published this September with the wonderful publisher, Shearsman Books. The book represents the work I have done in the past fifteen years of publication, though, more accurately, it shows the writing I have done in the past 25 years of writing poetry in English.
Finding Stability in Literary language
Guest post from former GWG member, instructor and great friend Carmen Bugan, now living in the US. For a beautiful review of her latest collection of poetry, see here. You can buy her book here. Meanwhile, just sit back and enjoy this brief meditation on the redeeming power of language in literature.
I have said elsewhere that today’s English language suffers, and I keep returning to that thought because the evidence is everywhere. Our language suffers from materialism, texting-talk, marketing-speak, slogans, an obsession with celebrity, a fear of ‘the other’. You could say it reflects our character which craves a fast answer for every want and constantly searches for the easiest way out, a quick scheme to get rich and a magical recipe to eternal youth. I wonder how much this contributed to the recent election, and more-over, to keeping in the White House a man who makes life-changing political pronouncements via Twitter. We are all better than that and deserve more than being tossed from one quick promise to another. We are capable of self-reflection. Signs of this abound in the endless stream of protests on the streets where you could feel America is more alive than ever before.
The English language itself has resources that could help us heal. One of these is stability of meaning expressed in fiercely beautiful words. I am returning to classics and here I want to quote an excerpt from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which I know will mean different things to different people:
‘There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing to quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew and that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.’
Metaphorical as it is, literary language constitutes a major resource. The protests on the streets of this country, the loud town-halls that are becoming a force of nature, might be touching the nerve of life as ordinary people are feeling ‘war-mad on a stricken field and refusing to quarter.’ Maybe the spirit of America is Buck, ‘leading the pack’, ‘sounding the deeps of his nature’ harking back to freedom. Or maybe readers will find the resilient spirit of this country in other books, in other stories, in other metaphors, in other words equally filled with ‘the tidal wave of being’. In the current political situation, which is chaotic and mad, there are books which we can open and could open us and perhaps, for the moment, they could be our first aid by keeping us steady.
Since you died, the earth turned green
Since you died, the earth turned green
For my father
It’s May again, the grave is green and healed,
The cemetery trees are filled with birdsong,
And Stefano shows me the cormorants
Above the Mill Pond, carrying
Branches in their beaks to their island nests.
Mom, Loredana, and the priest sang
On your birthday. They poured wine
On your grave and around the cross,
And now I wonder if it’s peaceful
Where you are, if you hear the noise of time.
You loved birds. Today Stefano took me
And Alisa to his secret place, where
Great Herons have set up their nests: they look
Like white candles in the trees. Candles
With wings: like us driving home in the night
This year, with lit Easter candles in our hands.
An Accordion for Your Eightieth Birthday
For my father
Now that I think of it, I should send you
Eighty songs, and eighty flowers, just one candle
Because we have one life only
To make up for that accordion you so much
Wished to have all of your life
First from your father, and then secretly
Probably from anyone who would have given it
To you. I only learned about this wish of yours
This year and you know, I dreamed
That perfect, shiny, echoing instrument.
But it turns out it would be too dangerous to ship
From Ireland, or France, let’s say
All the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan
Where you now have difficulties breathing
Just a day before your birthday—but nothing serious—
Only a passing clogged up nose. The accordion
Is like an egg, you see, you cannot really ship it
You bump it a bit and the sound cracks.
But I have been researching and even dreamed
To take a journey to those places in the country
Where artisans make them from special wood,
Turn that tree into a lung, a back and a chest
That sing when you coax them with your touch.
I can see you, a little boy sitting next to the village
Accordion player, tapping your foot, wanting
That box for yourself, wanting the music inside
And God, what life has given you instead.
But here we are on your eightieth birthday, Dad,
I am so proud you made it through famine, prison
Labour camps, exile, cancer, and lately isolation.
I am so proud I am saying, and I am so poor
(a poor poet, you can laugh, yes, dreaming dreams
Like warm loaves of bread, that accordion for you)
Oh, God, I am proud you are turning eighty
Tomorrow, please accept this accordion
This year, as generously as you accepted
Everything else life has given you
Instead of what you wished for—some times
(Like you) I think dreams might count for more.
It wasn’t just a feeling:
The sun stood still,
The light in the hours was weak
And the ravens came out,
Curious about us being there.
They were black like ink.
Perched on the high branches,
They surveilled us.
As if from the longest night
The ravens came out on top of trees
And looked us in the eye.
You turned away from them
Sensing how I was drawn
By their powerful wings
That flopped above us.
The sun stood still,
The light in the hours was weak,
So much like this time of my life,
When luck stands still.
The ravens were feasting in the fields
I loved their powerful beaks
They took my soul under their wings,
It wasn’t just a feeling.
We counted the ravens—two
And then three, five, more—
They flew so low in the fields
As I walked after them.
Death is a sacred time,
I walked with the ravens in the fields.
I had forgotten that it was the shortest day,
When I asked you to join me.
All I wanted was a walk in the fields,
We always see hawks and herons there,
We look for omens about going away
From here. My luck stands still.
Death is a sacred time.
The ravens did not speak to me
From the tops of trees. They looked
At us as fellow travelers and left.
The water in the sea was clear.
I’ve come through the longest night,
You see, my dear. The Earth continues
To tilt: it’s not just a feeling.
December 21-22, 2022
For my father
The mortician gave you a smile you never had
Your folded hands upon the cross felt like wax
The grandchildren kept exchanging the tiny icons
We placed upon on your chest, nothing felt right.
The father who used to annoy me rose
From the death bed as an angel, who circled
The roof of my house in the guise of a white crane,
To undo the knot of my soul tied in the letting go.
I’d like to believe that in the first morning
When your soul left your old, tired body
You sent the gift of secret strength
To all of us, according to our want and need.
To whom do I owe these glorious mornings,
When the sun makes the sky manifest as a soul?
I owe these mornings of hope to the kind
And merciful God, who made you and made me.
Inside the grave of yellow clayish soil
At the Vatra Monastery in Michigan
Your body does its own journey of returning
To the dust of this earth. It’s peaceful there.
In the end you agreed with me about us
Becoming nothing but stories, sharing
Not much more than memories half-remembered
When the body grows tired of itself.
“Hai, stati sa ne mai amintim” Come, stay a bit,
Let us remember for a little while. But this morning
My words feel as rigid as the sick and dying body,
Weak in recalling the last moments when we spoke.
My poem fails to give you the presence you had.
Your folded words upon the final prayers feel like wax.
The grandchildren keep listening to your final voicemails
That sing you alive in our ears. Nothing feels right.
29 December 2022
Burying Dreams at Sunrise
A couple of months ago, on November 9, 2022, my father died. I keep thinking of the custom and ceremony that were such a big part of his dying and burial: the priest, the prayers, the family gathering. I believe my mother, my sister, my brother, my children, and I could not have made it through the initial grief if we did not perform all the rites and rituals as we did.
The one person I did not want to be at my father’s funeral, yet agreed to join us anyway, was my husband. We are in the middle of an extremely difficult divorce, which is not appropriate to portray in print. However, his presence was in a lot of ways inevitable to the process of letting go of my father, and I am realizing this now, as we are returning to Court for the third time, in the ritual of letting go of our own marriage and our own family.
I am coming to think of the divorce as a form of burial. All these arguments, failed settlements, and Family Court presentations with their attendant anxieties are part of the process of coming to terms with a harsh reality. The security and trust we once experienced as a family are gone for good. The experts of all kinds help minister the burial of a dream, and hopefully will help clean the slate for each of us, and especially the children, for a life ahead. I know that the future will resemble nothing of what we built over years and years with different hopes and dreams.
My son and I took some time to talk today after school. As I was explaining to him that he cannot avoid the grief over our situation, that it is perfectly normal to feel torn and frustrated, the perception of divorce as burial seemed compelling. My father died and his body had to be returned to the earth—disposed of—safely and properly. The rituals helped us deal with grief and look ahead at life without him. My marriage, the body that housed the dream of a safe and happy family, has died. The divorce is a long and painful ritual meant to bury the marriage and create the possibility of a life ahead without carrying the disintegrating corpse around. At my father’s funeral, somebody had to carry the cross during the procession, the closest family had to carry the coffin to its vault, everyone present had to throw earth on the coffin, someone had to lead the prayers, someone had to speak about my father and his legacy. Everything had to be balanced, there was a reason for all the gestures we made. In a sense, everyone had to agree to let go. After the burial, we accepted to return to our lives—without my father—each of us carrying a different burden of grief.
I tried to explain to my son that hopefully soon we will all be ready to let go of our little family too. We are becoming accustomed to new words in our lives—legal words that are cold and artificial, that carry the legacy of loss. But the longer we lug the dead body of the marriage about because we can’t figure out how to bury it, the more likely we will become irreversibly sick from its toxic fumes, as it decomposes in our arms. The sooner we end the divorce—carry through with the burial of our family dream—the sooner we can draw our lives ahead.
The mechanics of the divorce itself remap our lives but unfortunately not many practical decisions are in my control. During the past year I was able to win a fabulous job across the world. The dream of returning to my academic career with this job could have come through easily a few years ago. But I am warned that my hopes for the job—and financial independence—will be shattered soon. What the judge will do in Court, as he will minister over the burial of my marriage, will re-draw the future of each of us: I could be opening a new part of the map for my children and help them embrace the larger human family. Or I could be kept here, dependent on my husband’s child support and alimony, struggling. It’s terrifying.
I looked into my son’s eyes which were full of pain. I wonder what he saw when he looked into mine. Every day I look into his sister’s eyes too. Their eyes are full of questions about what will happen to us, about how and where the Court will say that we must live. Unlike a burial, which is usually peaceful and swift, the divorce is not. Those who help in the disposal of the marriage have a lot of power over how, where, and when our future will begin. The children and I are deeply exhausted. I can only hope for the best.
I wake up without fail before the sunrise just so I can see the sky fill with light, hoping to see a new path ahead. I pray continually as I bury dreams. Freedom, that old word that cost my father and my childhood so much, has returned to me with a new sense of urgency. It seems as elusive as a fish from the sea I once rescued and held in my hands, before I put it back into the water and coaxed into the depths.
The Bells are Tolling
The bells are tolling
ION BUGAN, 4 May 1935 — 9 November 2022
For three days now the bells of our village church in Romania have been tolling for Ion Bugan. Our house, the one my parents built, stands right behind the church. The kitchen window faces the inner part of the altar where wine is turned into communion. Our first house, and the air above our village, are filled with the sound of bells, their peals scattering like the autumn leaves.
For the past three days the priest of the church that my parents helped build on the other side of the world, in America, has been draping the patrahir over my father’s body. This is a sacred time of gathering and farewells.
“What are you thinking?” Mom asked Dad a few days ago when he was lost in thought. “I am waiting for the gate of Heaven to open,” he said. He had been dreaming of dead friends and family for days. She lit the candle for him, to help him see the way. Mom, Loredana, Elvira, Catalin, and I were with him, making a bridge of encouraging words, as his breath became more labored.
We stopped to greet family memories as we journeyed the final hours with him. We remembered when we climbed on his back in the Black Sea: “My turn, Taticu, throw me in! Let me dive from your shoulders, Taticu! My turn!” He always pulled us from the water, we were never scared with him. Mom remembered digging the family well with him. When he was wheeled out of the house, his burial suit at his side, the house emptied. Our grief is so deep that it is possible to say that our hearts are empty and filled at the same time.
The story goes that for 40 days after dying, the soul hovers around the house to say the long goodbye. This is the time when the angels are taking Dad on a journey through the whole of his life, to remind him of everything he has done, good and bad, so that he prepares himself for the Final Judgment.
The angels will take him back to Tecuci after the war, when he was so poor, he wore shoes with broken soles, the top part tied around his foot. He’ll see his first job as an electrician, when he was so proud to wear the work name tag. He’ll see his beloved Carpathian Mountains and the sea, his trips around the country, his motorcycle, the friends.
Then he will stop again in the many prisons where he was tortured because he opposed oppression. I am sorry he will have to see those prisons rooms again: some of them have now become museums, and he took us to see them for ourselves when he was alive. They are terrible rooms, where the human spirit was destroyed for generations.
But not Dad’s spirit, for I am sure the angels will take him back to America, where we danced in the kitchen for every birthday and shared Mom’s wonderful meals. I hope the angels won’t forget to take him to the kitchen table, where we played chess and argued about politics. I know he will see again his precious grandchildren: Stefano, Sorina, Mirela, and Alisa. He had the biggest smiles around them and had so much advice for them. They remember him in his state-of-the art garage, where hundreds of tools are labeled and placed in perfect rows, ready to fix intricate car engines. The last time he could walk, he asked to climb in his car and turn the engine on once more.
Today is burial time. In these final hours, before we consecrate his body to the earth, we honor Ion Bugan, for he was a man who lived a life of sacrifice and heroism, a sacrifice which will always be remembered in our native country. The bells toll for Ion Bugan on two continents today. May he receive a warm welcome in Heaven, for he has done good work here, among us.
Writing workshop for the International Women Writers Guild
For my parents
The priest gathered us under the cross
In our living room, parents seated,
Children kneeling. The book opened,
The words of old prayers flew about
Like freed doves, trained to return home.
We don’t know if my brother opened
The last bottle of wine, or if I protested
Dad’s dying one last time, when I offered
The glass of red instead of the morphine,
Because, for God’s sake, we’ll do this right.
Mom and my sister nursed dad through
The small hours, talking softly about
What will happen to all of us scattered
Too far from home. Dad told us to plant
A row of fruit trees, fix the writers’ shed.
It’s Sunday morning. The sun rises
In the autumn-burned trees, above our church.
The priest alone waits for us with holy oil,
Holy wine, incense, prayers, and songs.
My brother, my sister and I walk through
The door. We light three candles. Our faces
Are reflected in the face of Christ glowing
In the icon lit by stained-glass-windows-sunrise.
The priest calls us to the altar, where we
Drink the tiny spoon of wine. Peace.
I walk alone to the room I filled with flowers
Nearly seventeen years ago, preparing
For my wedding. The mind has a way
Of layering parts of our lives, so that dying
Father, lost marriage, and those August roses
Reflect each other in the memory of icons
I kiss this morning. My father’s cold hands
Are in mine: “Bravo” he says
When I kiss him all over his face, “Bravo”.
“I’ll stay a little longer,” he says, “you fly home”.
Grand River is covered in a fog that glows
In the growing morning. Maples emerge
Candle-like orange through dewy ribbons
Above the fogged-over water. And I take flight
Through the thick cloud, up towards the sun.
Sunday, 16 October 2022
Dreaming of Holy Basil
International Women Writers’ Guild–on writing the personal essay
I look forward to teaching for the IWWG this July: