By now even the faith has got it wrong,
The Patriarch held hands with the invader
And praised the unjust war, with crossed candles.
The faithful broke ranks, the filigreed eggs
Sat in baskets like stones, the sweet bread
Laid on the table like a closed book.
And us, aghast at what love means
In different homes, to different people,
Unable to choose a place to pray,
Except God’s true garden: the forests,
And the sea marshes where perfect
Great white herons dance in pairs
Just above our heads, their sinewy necks
Above still water: love in mirrors—free,
Wild, calling out the pink crab apple blooms.
The dwarf pines send forth long cones,
An offering of candles lit by the sun.
Christ rises on great heron’s wings.
in the still sea:
a peony blooming
above golden sand.
When she stretches
In the water’s glow
she names my yearning
Ides of March 2022
Waves of the sea
in snowy wind:
manes of mares
white and restless—
of leaving winter.
March 12, 2022
The warring language floats in the winter air
At the words of one dictator. People forget
Preparations for Clean Monday to begin the war.
Across the border, children wake up
In the night, to the sound of bombs,
A neighborhood grocery store will turn to ruin,
And old men, together with young women
Will take up their guns, to join the army.
Old mistrust rises poisoning words.
If I could halt the madness with a call
To prayer, a reminder of old kindnesses
We all so easily tend to forget.
Today Europe is a woman
Whose body has been sliced by the birthing
Knife, over and over, her cesarean
Wound badly patched birth after birth,
Her womb crisscrossed; flesh hardened
Along ridges of history written in blood.
Protect its life-giving womb, slice her no more.
Consider the early patches of snowdrops
Under the wheels of the tanks.
Would those who fly the bomber planes
Notice the change of seasons in the sky
For the peace it could bring, and fly back home?
Will neighborly kindness revisit memory?
The world lifts its hands in prayer as Europe
Suffers. This is no birth.
Stony Brook, 27 February 2022
When we were pushed into exile over 30 years ago by the secret police of Romania, my father—who served 12 years in communist prisons—said: “Europe is sitting on a barrel of gunpowder.” He learned about hatred, greed, and brain washing in prison, where victims became torturers and then victims once again, depending on how the power swung. The Iron Curtain, the propaganda mill and surveillance, together with my parents’ typewriter—their weapon against oppression—became the language of my identify, and the language of my poetry.
Time passes. We are taught to assume that a sense of reason and human decency must be involved in decision making, especially when going to war. We go about our lives believing that once a war ended, lessons were learned too. We conveniently forget that there are no winners in any war, that what takes place is an exchange of designations between the enemies: the accusers and the accused simply change place. We try to ignore that fact that old rancor will resurface to re-settle scores. And then everything happens again.
So, when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, and the sound of mortar fire, war planes, and bombs filled the air, I felt the sting of history returning. Old wounds are open once again, the familiar words of provocation poison the air. As a poet, I ask myself which comes first, the warring language, or the war? I believe that finding the answer to this question could give us the possibility to ask another: which comes first, the language of peace, or peace?
I find myself, decades later, “on the other side” of Europe watching the people of Ukraine seeking refuge in the country of my birth, and a sense of solidarity with those invaded resurfaces in me too. If this barrel of gunpowder explodes, it’s going to draw in more than Russia and Ukraine, and there is no way of knowing the future. It is now, more than ever, when I see how “disorder arises among people of a great city” that I wish for those words that will calm the tempest. I pray for the words that “command passions and soothe hearts” Virgil described in the Book I of his Aeneid. Part of me is embarrassed to ask if poetry can halt an invasion, because poetry works too slowly on the soul to make timely change, and much of it is written as a response to a crisis. But then I want to push the shame to the side: the plain truth is that we are creatures of language.
I watch the reporting from various sources, the experts sharing their opinions of what could, or should, and should not happen next, and I see that what falls between the cracks of language is human suffering, despair. There is a store of anger being built under the stomping boots of the invader. This falls through the cracks of headlines too.
I pray that, as a world community, we will find a language that respects the homes of each of us, that we will speak heart to heart, and that we will learn to deal with greed and dictators. The earth can only hold so many nuclear bombs after all, before one of us trips on a trigger. As a writer, I wonder if a poem can mend the space between the trenches, I wonder if thinking, not quick anger, offers more consolation. The truth is that this war is much bigger than Russia and Ukraine, much bigger than bickering over territory and assertion of political power: we are fighting for our very souls. It’s here, in the language of the soul, that we must look for answers.
Stony Brook, 27 February 2022
Notes on Writing and Mothering in a Material World
Once again, I find myself at a turning point in life, when absolutely everything is at stake and every decision will have not only immediate, but long-term consequences. My husband and I are facing a divorce in full pandemic. As I was explaining my lack of financial resources to my lawyer, I began to reflect on the choices I made during the past 15 years in terms of professional career, mothering, and writing. On the precipice of poverty, I am asking myself how did I get here? And why?
I jumped off the academic track soon after a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford, to follow my husband to Geneva with our baby son. A daughter followed several years later, and I embraced the larger family, writing and publishing books and giving the occasional lecture or workshop around Europe, making documentaries, talking at international book fairs, and, well… writing more books and keeping the house spotless. Since we moved to the States and I succeeded at integrating the children into their new culture and language (they speak three languages), I have been searching, very unsuccessfully, for academic posts. Who’d want to hire a housewife who writes books that bring no royalties and who doesn’t show up at all the publishers’ parties, because she is busy doing homework with the children, taking long walks with them, or teaching them to cook and bake?
How come I am in principle “a high value individual” but at the same time there is no money in my bank to demonstrate my value? This brings up the larger question about why writers do the work they do, with the full knowledge that this is not a financially rewarding job any more than mothering is. I see very clearly that a large part of the marriage failure is a direct consequence of my choice to take up two jobs that have all the spiritual and emotional fulfillment one would dream for but offer no practical stability to sustain existence in a dollar-driven world. As I write this, I wonder how my mothering will be valued by the court, as much as I wonder how much my writing career will provide any financial confidence to the judge who will handle my divorce. Here I am at the intersection of language-citizenship, and divorce. But even in these dire circumstances, if I had a chance to do it all again, I wouldn’t change anything at all about the way I lived my life, or the way I made my choices.
Well, like all other professions, writing involves devotion and the trust that one contributes something to the rest of the world. Furthermore, writing falls into the category of the “service” jobs: the work serves people. A writer is a citizen of language. The way one partakes in this citizenship is to contribute work that keeps language vital, rich, and true to our experiences. Writing work that matters brings to the public an awareness about uncomfortable things about society and inspires hope for a better future; it articulates the individual’s place in the world. Lately, writing courses are flourishing, and more people are turning to the craft as a form of easing anxiety. Those of us who teach creative writing see the relationship between narrative medicine and the craft of writing for the benefits it brings to health professionals and patients alike. But if the teaching falls outside the traditional academic environment, the pay is shocking, no one can live on it. The benefits of language-citizenship are not commensurate with the responsibilities.
Ask anyone who does charity work or ask any nurse why she logs long hours for little pay, and you have a similar answer to the question of why a writer spends years researching, writing, rewriting, accepting rejections from publishers, and living with little crumbs from teaching outside the great academe. And yet, many choose this profession and are creating the language that everyone else can enjoy for solace, comfort, the sense that we are never alone in the world and our needs to belong to the world are not unique.
It takes stubbornness to work for nothing. Unlike the financially steadier service professions, writing is more similar to full time mothering, when the daycare, the homework, the laughter and the tears of the children, their private joys and sorrows, their discoveries of the world, and their emotional well-being, as well as their schedule-planning (with all the attendant anxieties and unforeseen interruptions) are the job responsibilities. If the stay-at-home moms are the citizens of the soul, writers are citizens of language. There are civic duties to both that should be valued a bit more by our materialistic and increasingly divided society, where worth and wealth go hand in hand. Those of us searching for the right word in the right place at the right time should make a living at it too that shouldn’t depend on striking the bestseller lists. But I suspect this depends on the value we place on the power of language and literature in society and on whether we view word-working as intrinsic to our lives.