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

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.

                                       –October 2020

Finding Stability in Literary language


23 Feb 2017 10:21 AMSanda Ionescu (Administrator)

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.


Poetry and the Language of Oppression

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