Mihaela Moscaliuc’s Cemetery Ink
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021)
One-third of the way through Cemetery Ink, Mihaela Moscaliuc’s third book of original poems, the author claims: “I eat / with someone else’s tongue.” Although excerpted from a verse meditation on the culinary and medicinal uses of salt (“from The Book of Salt”), these lines encapsulate the poet’s unique position in world literature. Born in Romania, where she lived until her early twenties, Moscaliuc now resides in the United States and writes in English. By her own admission, she is neither an American nor Romanian writer, citing instead her identity as an immigrant poet. This is not some superficial pose. On every page of Cemetery Ink, Moscaliuc keeps one foot in both worlds, laying claim to neither, yet sensitive to the rhythms and nuances of lives lived there—and throughout the globe. Her stance is redemptive. Whether observing goats in Luperón, remembering cherry trees in Edinburgh, or warding off violence in a New York City subway, each poem examines how one’s love of this world “sometimes starts, in unlikely spaces.” In “On lava,” which occurs at Nea Kameni, in Santorini, the “obscene whimsy” of the molten landscape prompts Moscaliuc to admit “This is new territory, neither yours nor mine.” At home nowhere and everywhere, she embraces and interrogates estrangement as a matter of course, which extends to her relations with people. “I miss you” she says in the same poem: “If you are who I think you are … you take this missing as it comes.” Such rigorous examination of others and self, in concert with the author’s critical intelligence and deft craftsmanship, allow the poems in Cemetery Ink, regardless of their subject or style, to crackle with dynamic fire.
Given Moscaliuc’s searching temperament, no one kind of poem dominates Cemetery Ink. Some poems focus on Romanian exile and return; some track visits to far-flung locales; others begin as informed musings on art and culture; while still others appear to pay tribute to various literary voices, such as Mihail Sebastian and Gerald Stern. Moscaliuc’s approach to form is equally varied: long-lined narrative poems exist alongside comparatively condensed lyrics. Whatever the subject or form, memory, juxtaposition, and collage are crucial ingredients throughout much of the work. Among my favorite poems are those that chronicle recent visits to Romania, foregrounding her confrontation with an inexorably-altered past that prompts both sympathy and alienation. In “Americana,” old friends mock her gullibility even as they ask her to bear witness to their shared histories. In “Bread,” she “relearn[s] frantically” the language of hunger. “Body,” she says, “I returned you to the land of our making / without translator,” in which bread means more than bread.
Perhaps more than any other poem in the collection, “From the rented window” telescopes her nation’s moral tragedies from a strikingly intimate perspective. The poem begins in straightforward observation:
Across the street, the man urinating against the bus stop fence
shakes it like there’s no tomorrow.
The sound, common enough, turns no heads but the drunk’s
who flares into a sputter of obscenities. The lightened man
empties pockets—Here ya go—onto the flattened grass
and climbs onto the bus bound to prefab quarters at the crust of town.
In this crude scene, social inequity unfurls as a common, even mundane occurrence. Although escalation of conflict is averted by the callous tossing of coins, Moscaliuc immediately recalls homeless persons being bludgeoned on this very spot, “two decades ago, the same spring / a mouth I’d coveted drew so close, I couldn’t hear a thing.” The reverie is interrupted when “My husband motions me from the rented window to his computer screen.” With a little research, he discovers that the street below was a key location of the Iași pogrom. On June 29, 1941, over 13,260 Jews were tortured or killed by “students, factory workers, craftsmen, veterans, / neighbors.” In just two stanzas, then, Moscaliuc joins one injustice to another and yokes collective culpability to individual responsibility: “Did you know, my husband’s silence asks.” The urgency of this ethical dilemma is tempered, though not dampened, by the poem’s clever construction, whereby emission signals oppression and evasion wrestles with admission. Details and images repeat and expand the way themes and figures occur and develop in deftly-crafted musical scores. The result is compelling, even unexpectedly pleasing, in a poem so otherwise steeped in disturbance.
Although “From the rented window” extensively references recent Romanian history, elsewhere such allusions are more condensed and circumspect. In “Bread,” a gaunt man riding the train with Moscaliuc tells tales of “cloven-hooved politicians / [and] spiders that abandon radiated eggs,” aptly conjuring the residual horrors of Chernobyl across two brief lines. As “Carne de los Muertos” reveals, the same disaster prohibits the continuation of certain agrarian traditions, such as gathering mushrooms: “Cemeteries used to be ideal hunting ground. / Not anymore. Even our sludge is too polluted.” Sly social commentary surfaces in “After tram 2 leaves the depot,” where “Lampposts will glare, ignored, / till the precinct’s budget empties.” Rather than harangue readers with rants about this former Eastern Bloc nation’s mismanagement of resources, it is concisely (and vividly) rendered as incidental detail in a poem where “tram doors lag open too long / and silence escorts the gusty chill.”
The poet’s self-exile and occasional returns aren’t her only points of concentration. Cemetery Ink is dedicated to Kiernan and Fabian, respectively the author’s step-daughter and biological son. Here, Moscaliuc’s identification with two worlds is enacted on the familial plane. In “Blessing” the poet addresses her “son, enwombed,” as “errant breather smothered into loveliness.” The poem is a kind of prayer, bidding him, “Neither fish nor son yet,” to “hold dear …organisms / wayward in their drift.” She bequeaths to him who is neither wholly American or Romanian her own searching spirit. Her relation to Kiernan, though less direct, is equally visceral. In “Mosquito,” one of the collection’s finest moments, the mother-daughter bond is forged not through blood but avowal. Moscaliuc begins with a striking analogy of the titular insect:
She will absorb blood
three times her body weight
then land on the nearest post
to extract and evacuate its water.
Limber enough now for flight,
she will rush the cold-pressed juice
to nourish eggs.
If the mother’s onerous task, performed out of instinct, indicates the extent of her commitment to offspring, Moscaliuc believes this can transcend biology: “Forget the origin of blood. Focus on the mother”. However, whereas the mosquito’s “intense labor and devotion” can be “undone with a casual swat—”, the poet endeavors to survive the role she inherits through marriage.
Forget the origin of blood.
I wouldn’t have sacrificed
nearly as much as the mosquito
to nourish eggs, see them hatch—I didn’t
—but would have sharpened, would
sharpen every blade needed
to protect you.
For Moscaliuc, this realization is especially poignant given a separate sacrifice, presumably made before meeting the girl to whom the poem is addressed:
You were a child and I’d just stopped
being one. Vacuumed, I’d re-emerged
as mother without child.
Objective, authentic, and ultimately vulnerable, these three lines achieve, without affect or strain, an intensity found only in the greatest poems.
Beyond “Mosquito,” Moscaliuc’s sympathetic understanding of non-human life is evinced throughout “Creature,” a poem where, one night on the coast of the Aegean, she brushes a centipede off her lips only to later accept, metaphorically of course, its pincers into her mouth, so that: “By sunbreak, we’ve woven / the first line of a new myth.” “Assimilation: The Lamancha goat,” incidentally one of three goat-themed poems in Cemetery Ink, sees the poet again using analogy to clarify her own predicament: “Descended from the Murcian goat … she assimilated swiftly into American mainstream.” But if through such assimilation the goat becomes exploited (“Your milk’s been seized to sweeten seized land”), the poet is too savvy to suffer a similar fate, perhaps because, she herself is a forager: in “Erotic,” she admits, “I walk the day to harvest / what I see.”
Moscaliuc’s persistent gaze upon the world includes critical consideration of how others observe and construct reality. Perhaps the most ambitious poem from the new book is “Culpable metaphors: On Henri Rousseau’s La Bohémienne Endormie, or Sleeping Gypsy.” Referencing Rousseau’s famous painting of a woman sleeping in the open air while visited by a curious lion, the poet deconstructs imperialist assumptions about otherness and hegemonic fetishes for the “exotic.” As Moscaliuc dutifully mentions in her “Notes” following the collection’s poems, Roma is the correct name for people sometimes called bohémiens for their wandering existence at the fringes of society and, more pejoratively, “Gypsies” for their assumed “resemblance” to Egyptians. An important subset of Romania’s population, Roma are an ancient people whose longstanding traditions and worldview challenge and disrupt a streamlined, post-industrialized world. Thus, the sleeping bohémienne, as imagined by Rousseau, is a canvas on which he and countless others have projected their biases and fantasies. Like the woman who has woven “strips of old skirts” into her long tresses, Moscaliuc stitches through this poem multiple points of view to create a complex and startling tapestry. Rousseau, François Sudre, Holocaust survivor Maria Mihai, and even the lion each has a perspective to contribute, though perhaps Moscaliuc’s own summation strikes the most memorable chord:
Her name is Metaphor.
She’s been trafficked for so long,
Forced to play tenor, vehicle, epithet,
power the heart of twelve-thousand lyrics,
dance or sob in hundreds of poems,
bear the brunt of others’ fantasies,
some inked on biceps and calves.
Angel whore, prescient scoundrel,
excess, abscess, what has she not
been called, what craving has she not
been called upon—
Only this morning she made the news,
a stand-in for the pandemic,
her history ablated, her flesh
once more tapestried as pollution.
The history of Romania is one of identification and isolation. In one sense, it embodies the farthest flung reaches of the Roman Empire, maintaining to this day linguistic and cultural affinities with its ancient colonizers. At the same time, the nation, surrounded by Slavic peoples to the north and South, and the Black Sea to the east, has needed to establish common ground with those whose roots tell a different story. It is, in other words, a nation prone to identity crisis. (Internal geography may exacerbate this, as the Carpathian Mountains bracket the land into semi-discrete regions.) Had Moscaliuc chosen to write in her native language from an exclusively nation-centric perspective, she may have been too tethered to that crisis to create a suitable distance to observe it. Therefore, far from constricting her, self-exile and the adoption of a second language have provided the poet both the means to sing clearly and imagine, as she does in “Mess up for beauty,” “harmonies lifting not from lovers’ beaks / but from their wings.”