Reviewed by Raphael Kosek
In Lucia Cherciu’s first book of poetry in English, we see a vivid world of both communist and post communist Romania through the eyes of a native who has lived in the U.S. now for twenty years, a world the poet has left and returned to as both an intimate and an outsider – a dual vision. The drear communist “landscape” of concrete and bribery are in sharp contrast to the colorful and vibrant landscape of peasant villages where traditions and beauty, cruelty, poverty and loneliness exist side by side. The poems record both the events and people the poet grew up with, as well as the intense love she feels for these people alongside some of the brutality and loss revealed with a chilling candor by the poet who can be an impartial lens.
In the title poem, “Edible Flowers,” she says of her emigration here:
Being a foreigner means
you can’t scavenge for plants,
don’t know poison ivy,
don’t recognize bad mushrooms,
can’t name weeds.
And she presents us with the dilemma all foreigners must feel when the poem ends with
just reading a book
isn’t like learning directly
from the old people from your blood line—
the mere fact that you are here, breathing,
a sign that they have tried it and survived.
And the people in her poems have learned to survive in a beautiful and cruel world. These poems reveal a hardscrabble existence where beauty must also be practical, flowers had better be “edible” yet women “jump fences at night / to steal bulbs of gladioli from a stingy widow” and “collect recipes for mixing dirt / to bolster shy seeds.” Beauty and necessity exist side by side: “My neighbor grew Sweet William, / a meek, quiet woman / whose husband worked at a slaughterhouse / and brought home a whole raw liver / pressed directly on his belly so the ward / didn’t find it.”
Cherciu’s Romania is a world where some cling to their culture, while others cannot wait to get away. In “The Smell of Soup” a mother does not get her wish:
“Make sure she eats soup every day
and doesn’t forget her Romanian language,”
that’s what her mother said
when she gave her up
The poem ends with the child refusing to speak any Romanian and “it turned out / she couldn’t even stand / the smell of soup.” In the most chilling of poems, an old widower arises on a frigid morning to go out and ax his barking dog after baiting it with bread, the last living thing which survives around him. Cherciu’s very evocative and precisely visceral images recreate the world of “leftover communism” she catches so startlingly: “A peasant with a live rooster on her lap / sits next to a delicately made up blond / with tall boots and a short skirt.” One cringes readiing the honest and brutal “Stray Dogs” where the dogs “never know . . which bowl of / freshly ground meat / has broken razors. / The sound cuts / through the night.” The poems also reveal the touching intimacy between mothers and daughters: in one poem a mother washes her elderly mother, scrubbing so hard as if attempting to wash “away whole years.” In another, a forty year old mother lets a seven year old daughter suckle at her breast “behind the barn so nobody could see / the plump girl, all eyes and long dark hair.” These images are haunting and indelible.
A poem called “Torture” is about having to memorize dismal communist dogma as a child in school where “sentences we were forced / to learn by heart / flapped their wings / like blind bats.” But these are hardy people who have learned to survive and have faith as in “Even if they already / had three passengers, they never failed / to stop for hitchhikers, trusting / the way one prays for rain.”
We see the poet’s own situation in several poems about parents longing for the return of their children who have left the villages, and even Romania itself:
Sometimes they returned
on long flights made longer
by the enormity of prayer
After all, Cherciu has left that world which is why she can recreate it so vividly in words that are nearly edible. In the poem “Sealed with a Drink” she describes the terrible bickering over property boundaries when land was being reclaimed after communism. As her father tries to show her “property lines,” [she] didn’t listen. Then / the borders didn’t seem / to matter. A lark spread its wings / hiding in the folds of a black cherry tree / sewing the seams of sky together.”
And Cherciu has sewn the conflicting pains and beauties of her world together in these poignant, honest and evocative poems.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 17, Issue 2.
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