Reading Mihaela Moscaliuc’s “Cemetery Ink”
Mihaela Moscaliuc, Cemetery Ink, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021, $17.00
Review by Judith Vollmer
There are souls who make us believe the soul exists.
Shifting spaces and beings move furiously through the remarkable poetry of Mihaela Moscaliuc. Passageways writhe into and back from realms of the dead, and from the rubble of a layered underworld and a nearly ruined surface, we hear a range of voices, and return bearing their star-essences or their soil on our skin. Moscaliuc’s ravaged earth-plane breathes poems radiant and visionary.
While reading Moscaliuc’s newest book, her third, Cemetery Ink (Pitt Poetry Series 2021), I marveled at the stitching and inter-connections the poems achieve, within sequences and in individual poems. Moscaliuc’s central subjects are family and place; social justice and economic chaos; and deeply personal examinations of emotional and physical perception. Her song-stories, lyrics, testimonies, and ekphrasis re-examine, contort, annihilate and, ultimately, create an increasingly deep investigation of the lyrical narrative. Her new book gives a sense of having-been-imprinted or tattooed, expanding her canvas, and welcoming the reader into a larger community of souls. I found myself re-visiting her earlier books in an enticing backstitching, and then approaching Cemetery Ink with the second-sight or double-vision I love most in poetry. H.D.’s idea regarding a “double globe” serves as an example: a penetrating, new insight occurs when one returns to a place, person, object and experiences “seeing” it as if for the first time. It’s important to note that Moscaliuc writes poetry in her second language, English, while her native Romanian might coexist beneath the surface of the work, or might occur as a companion to it. And more immediately, read concurrently with the Russian invasion of Ukraine begun on February 24; the renewed threat of nuclear war; and the plight of millions of refugees entering Romania, Poland, and other countries in Eastern Europe, Cemetery Ink further amplifies both the form(s) and content of Moscaliuc’s first two books. Cemetery Ink’s acute layers of then/now/then/what next? lift off the page with “double” focus and effect, with bolder images and a wider soundstage.
The price of entering realms of the dead (world of beloved grandmother, bica; uncles; unknowns and unnamed, e.g. the victims of Chernobyl) who haunt the central speaker’s psyche and physical body, and who also populated Moscaliuc’s second book, Immigrant Model, is steep. The stain of cost touches nearly every curve of Cemetery Ink’s palette of copper, sepia, ecru, cream, rust, bronze, incised gold, russet-flecked embroidery thread, and scarred neck-chain. Visiting the dead—or, maybe more accurately, living alongside or through them, as a medium or soul-traveler might—invokes dance or trance. The poems narrate, then give way to the lyric, joining with Eros.
Previously paid, and paid again, the extracted cost of war and environmental annihilation devoured a central figure I’ll simply call the woman, who survived Chernobyl’s dead-zones:
My teeth bled from the root,
the nuclear fallout plumped my lips till they swelled
like a wondrous vulva. I pawned my body in hope of self-
forgiveness and joined my sisters in their search for flesh.
(“The Summer I Waited for the Revolution and Fell for Peacocks,”
Immigrant Model, 7)
The woman re-appears in various forms and voices in Ink. Moscaliuc’s adoptive city, Iasi, Romania, like Zagajewski’s Lviv, or Milosz’s Seteniai, or Warsaw, or Krakow, provides a template and palpable guide. Moscaliuc’s focus stays with the street girls, orphans, girls suffering through rape and suffering more in “recovery,” girls lessoned in obedience and subversion by men who discard them and women who strip them of protection, individuality, and expression. The girls develop their own languages and survival skills, pushing against Ceausescu’s totalitarianism. They fight disease and obliteration, and are aware of but denied entrance to American/dominant culture, aging before their time. A few of the spared, by accident or immigration, might enter the America of the 1990s, as Moscaliuc herself did. Her body of work as poet, translator, essayist; and, with her husband, poet Michael Waters, anthologist, has established her unique practice.
Cemetery Ink, Moscaliuc’s most austere book, would seem to abandon us to the world of the Undead . The book might be read as a brittle globe of profound abjection, but it also includes oases of sustenance and pleasure. Juxtaposed or abutted quasi-triptychs and rolling panels of narration and song create startling music. Listen for forward-motion in syncopations that pause only briefly in death-knell, prayer, and spell. We seem to travel in visceral time with the poet’s hands and eyes. Consider food on the dinner plate in “Brains.” “Swished in a bowl of milk,/they release memory scraps./Chilled, they hold thoughts.” The voice of Ink is at times cerebral and cool, but also classically Romantic in its reach for something transcendent, a passageway out, up, or through.
Dirge-like tempos and tones construct several poems, including “Maggot Therapy,” “After tram 2 leaves the depot,” “I should be able to tell when the end is near,” “OB-GYN clinic, Iasi, Romania, 2015,” and “The homeless women of Iasi” whose figures are
flogging trees with headscarves—
their pantomimes re-populate
sidewalks with ousted ghosts.
They pose no threat
but we detour cautiously.
Abjection may not be present in the street women or the asylum or the trams of the post-Ceausescu city—because all are trying desperately to survive. Rather, abjection and stupor indict Moscaliuc’s central speaker. And us. “We,” escape, we “detour cautiously,” whether privileged traveler, observer, recorder, or emigrant; we escape the street women for a world where we write and document and recollect.
POISON, IMAGINATIVE THEFT, AND INTUITION
Seduction toward appropriation is among the poisons Moscaliuc observes, then keenly destroys. Moscaliuc revisits this complicated traverse better than any younger Western European or North American poet I know of. I say this because she refuses mere didacticism and creates feasts of aesthetic temptations irresistible and assumed (Art, after all, can be an “earned” commodity by labor of our own labor). Then she exposes the trap. Narrative thinking-through encounters lyric bursts of denial or repudiation at every turn.
In style, social substance, and clinically precise observation, her work sits alongside poets whom she’s translated (Romanians Liliana Ursu and Carmela Leonte), and contemporary voices Zagajewski, Kaminsky, Trethewey, Boland, Wojahn, Seshadri, Forché, Boruch, Mikołajewski, and the early lyrics and character portraits of Harper and Rich, among many others.
Moscaliuc’s restless state of mind sings the loneliness of “making the poem,” via notebook and diary riffs. Ink lifts into poetry quasi-confessional gestures as in “Sortilege” which confronts a young woman’s first-identifications with Art, seduction, Ovid, film, Virgil, a Bosch-like countryside—and slants all against a mother’s tender caretaking and fable-making. At center, in a past still vivid and violent, is the delectable strawberry of Roman Polanski’s film Tess. The poem, like several others cast in the geography and energy of Iasi, and others located in points far away and tropical, mega-urban, and remote, rivets us to one of Moscaliuc’s most pressing investigations: the mystery of initiation.
Moscaliuc’s work has steadily explored the Inanna/Kore/Persephone tableaux, often as requiems on emigration and arrival. In Ink, her speaker goes into the Underworld as pre-indicted ekphrastic detective with no exit path. “Culpable metaphors: On Henri Rousseau’s La Bohémienne Endormie, or Sleeping Gypsy” performs an autopsy on appropriation—that sad, capitalistic trove and void—. The one who owns the gaze of initiation must experience its first love affair with Beauty and Invention and then be cast up and spit out onto mortality. “Rousseau,” becomes immersed in cost, payment, what is owed Other(s) occupying the space of artist’s “model” or “trigger,” or “assumed subject.” In “Rousseau,” Moscaliuc visits representation and appropriation in extended meditations in dizzying sarcasm, elegy, wit, rage, and plain-spoken reportage before swerving toward her own documentarian reading of Gypsy or Bohémienne or Roma heritage. Note: at end of this essay, see Moscaliuc’s explication of terms, names, identification with Roma culture within her Eastern European community of origin.
Both “Solfilege” and “Rousseau” enact filmic moments, against several more formally sculpted lyric pieces. What unites several of the poems’ forms and strategies might be the fact that their internal perceptions keep recurring, and the initiate is denied something “else,” as in “Forget the blossoms”
Here’s how I live: I scaffold,
take in chaos, watch scaffold collapse,
peek at stars, start again.
“We are to live life like an initiation. But to what?” writes philosopher-critic Giorgio Agamben in his book The Unspeakable Girl. Moscaliuc steers us toward response by means of appetite for abundance. “Forget the blossoms” closes with the speaker’s embrace of an urban cherry tree, in an ecstatic command: “sink your teeth unapologetically/in those beauties gravid with wait./ . . . blood red, your lips incendiary”
The speaker’s journey feels protected by her art and practice, her “scaffolding,” the boundaries personal and historic constantly shifting. The palette in so many of these poems, following the book’s opening hymn to the father-photographer’s “developing tank,” is daguerreotype, but exquisitely wired up. With magical swans, and sepia rune-like twig designs, we reside in the mortal “paradise” near the lover and her beloved, the daughter and mother, and a stark portrait of stepmother addressing stepdaughter in “Mosquito,” whose cadence seeps through chosen, claimed, earned “bloodline” via tenderness:
Forget the origin of blood.
Focus on the mother,
the serrated blades and syringes
like a team of eminent surgeons,
then the throb of panic
when she senses she won’t make it home.
Intense labor and devotion
undone with a casual swat—
When I took you to pick a dress
but wouldn’t buy you accessories
for the wedding, your dad’s and mine,
you blurted, “You’re not even my mother.”
You were a child and I’d just stopped
being one. Vacuumed, I’d re-emerged
as mother without child.
The poem deftly indicates a hidden “casual swat” which a mean stepmother/mother might wish on stepdaughter/daughter, alongside the surgical-domestic “Vacu[u]me[ed]” and assortment of knives. But here too is intoxicating syringha—sweet lilac flower of springtime’s Persephone implied in “syringes,” and the half-hidden treat of “concert” and the ferocity of the poem’s ending, “I wouldn’t have sacrificed/nearly as much as a mosquito/to nourish eggs, see them hatch—I didn’t/—but would have sharpened, would/sharpen every blade needed/to protect you.” Moscaliuc makes her vow to the present moment, double-stitching magical homonyms.
CLAIMS FOR BEAUTY
See the lover of paradise claim loyalty to the world: how can she not, indelibly marked as she is by “elsewhere.” How else does she come to learn that food equals medicine. Sustenance arrives as salt from the beloved’s skin. Truth is the delicate issuance passed back and forth between mother and son, as in “Blessing,” sung to the child still in utero, or as the epigraph states, “for my son, enwombed.” Hear “entombed.” Here are its opening benediction:
May you harvest your language from the alphabet of butterflies,
may their wings brushstroke your name on translucent scrolls,
filter air for your breath, teach you flight the way I can’t.
and its somber turnings:
Errant breather smothered into loveliness,
the pearl has its own song.
If you drag it ashore
language loses meaning,
so bring your ear to the ocean floor.
There, neither fish nor son, eavesdrop.
Neither fish nor son yet,
call sister sister and lie awake by the echo.
While there, bless the echo and learn
how to lie to me beautifully.
Several braidings are at play. The “breather”/brother is cajoled toward “call”[ing] to his sister while reposing in utero, the oceanic humanesque of in-between. The mother/Erotic Other, like a sea goddess calls to her son to “lie” (inside me, against the curved wall of my womb) and to “lie to me beautifully” once awakened and in combat against mortality.
Cemetery Ink rarely departs from the solemnity of garden as “denuded” or mortal love like a “chute,” “Woman and branch—a symphony/of breakage,” or fragility so intimate as we sit “at a table lit only by natural light/(as candles endanger the pages)” Visions of Beauty shadow and hide themselves. Earth-life, on the other hand, is deliriously layered. Pathways are root-deep in pinworms, maggots, rats, lies, rotted fruit, ruined waterways, scum, shredded blossoms and ripped out tongues. The Earth-life sings the beautiful homely, as in “Beets” (Immigrant Model) in which the beloved is served up beets as essence of butter and the color ruby, itself, on the same plate as his/the beet’s own “whiskers.” In Cemetery Ink, weighing love, weighing the broken world, the speaker carves out and serves up her own heart.
Common literary and popular currency at present, in certain circles, focuses new attention on witchcraft and, in more literary moments, the figure of the witch. The trope—except when interrupted by utopian goddess cultural studies of Second Wave feminism—hasn’t been widely investigated in American literature since Sexton and Clifton. Moscaliuc makes it new, in part by querying the organic or ethereal riches a woman might willingly trade herself for. A woman with eyes bright as a Vernal Equinox crone-mirror, one of Moscaliuc’s muses, I venture, walks into the woods each Spring, no one permitted to accompany her. She carries her sharpest knife, the one we see only at mushroom gathering or chicken butchering time, a knife that might slice through a child’s thumb or a man’s cock. Why her search is private—likely secrecy. Or privacy and quiet. She guards the place so she can harvest the mushrooms for her family and herself, memorizing the place, unpolluted, untrammeled. Moscaliuc’s character portraits of girl, Bica, self, reveal themselves in so many of these marvelous poems. As in the mushroom woods, the cemetery releases memory in gasps of fresh grief or new astonishments as we walk down, and in. Moscaliuc’s painterly representations and abstractions record glyphs, mantras, goats, vulvae, fossils and jars, paintings and “Silk wheels” that turn and turn, guiding us into poetry so we are free to love the world. This is all true, even as the poet’s questions linger: who, among us, gets to be the initiate, allowed to approach and enter, and to what?
Marguerite Yourcenar epigraph is from That Mighty Sculptor, Time, translated from the French by
Giorgio Agamben quote from The Unspeakable Girl is translated from the Italian by Leland de la
Durantaye and Annie Julia Wyman, from The Italian List, Seagull Books (London 2014)
One of Moscaliuc’s notes on “Culpable metaphors: on Henri Rousseau’s La Bohémienne, or Sleeping Gypsy” explains:
The sequence is dedicated to Roma friends who have remained, over the decades, an integral part of my life, and whose own lives continue to inspire my commitment to social justice. . . Although the Roma people were commonly known in mid-nineteenth century France as “bohémiens,” mostly because they were thought to have migrated from Bohemia, this term referred, more broadly, to people living on the fringes of society. Whenever possible, to avoid the exonym “Gypsy,” which is perceived as derogatory in most Roma communities, I kept the original “Bohémienne.”
Judith Vollmer is the author of The Sound Boat: New and Selected Poems (University of Wisconsin Press), along with five previous collections, including The Apollonia Poems, which also won the Four Lakes Prize. Her writing has appeared in Poetry International, The Women’s Review of Books, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. She is a professor emerita of English at the University of Pittsburgh–Greensburg and teaches privately.
Mihaela Moscaliuc is the author of the poetry collections Cemetery Ink (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021); Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015); and Father Dirt (Alice James Books, 2010). The translation editor for Plume, Moscaliuc translated Liliana Ursu’s Clay and Star (Etruscan Press, 2019) and Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014). The co-editor of Border Lines: Poems of Migration (Knopf, 2020), and editor of Insane Devotion: On the Writing of Gerald Stern (Trinity University Press, 2016), she is associate professor of English at Monmouth University, New Jersey. Born and raised in Romania, she lives in Ocean, New Jersey.