Immigrant Model by Mihaela Moscaliuc
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
$15.95, 112 pages
In the narrative poem, “Still Life with Apples, Pajamas, and Miners,” Mihaela Moscaliuc writes, “History’s made in the kitchen, she repeats.” “She” is the narrator’s mother, coring apples while outside her kitchen, outside her door, Romania crumbles into chaos. It is December, 1989, and the monstrous dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu has just been executed. The poem goes on: “Twenty-five years she’s built meals out of nothing, pickled everything: mushrooms, legumes, watermelons, plums, tongues, grape leaves.” Food and hunger are powerful metaphors throughout this grim collection for the survival – of peasants, refugees, nuclear accident victims, immigrants.
Moscaliuc’s poem, “Memoir,” acts as a sort of preface to the collection (appearing on page xiii, before regular pagination begins). Indeed, the poems in Immigrant Model are a memoir, a vivid recollection of some very intense episodes in history, both hers and the world’s. The poem begins with the line, “”Noica says somewhere the only fruit that never ripens is man.” (Constantin Noica, Romanian philosopher and poet) Thus, in some metaphorical sense we are permitted – invited – to identify food references – particularly fruits and vegetables – as alluding to humanity and its struggles.
“A bearded bride in black chiffon” – what a terrific phrase even to read! – starts the first poem in the first section of the book, “Self-Portrait with Monk,” a poem that sets the tone for the rest to come, as the speaker describes her voyeuristic spying on a monk who goes about his daily ascetic activities, haunting, dreamlike.
I have already retraced the salty route of his fingers on the spines
of pickled grape leaves, in ground lamb hand-rolled in herbs sun-dried.
He cooks and feeds and scrubs but never eats, my monk,
spends lunch elbow-deep in suds or scratching the bellies of cats.
This poem is followed by another full of food images, “You Ask Me Why I Buy Pineapples and Let Them Go to Waste,” a poem about trying to escape from Romania during the Ceaușescu era – disguise, sneaking, fleeing, chasing – ultimate futility. Then comes “Chernobyl” (“and those babies were born/and we hoped this was no longer God.”)
Read the rest for yourself, I could say here, but that doesn’t give the full picture. These poems are about displaced lives, adjustment, survival, the future, but they’re also about myth and art and the deep human ritual that keeps us going when everything is so bleak. They’re about families, generations, and the collective historical struggle to prevail that these entail. Myth and art and ritual form the foundation of the struggle. “Rehearsal,” for instance, is a macabre, even surreal poem with the refrain, “Let’s rehearse dying,” a ritual preparation (“…he’s ready for a cocktail with death”; “Let’s rehearse dying, my body dares”; “Let’s rehearse dying, commands a lover”; “our torsos a skipping rope for the rehearsal of la morte douce [sex-and-death]. Die in me, as I die, as I die in you.”).
“Turning the Bones” – “He has been hoarding beef, pork, rice, and local brews” – is a poem alluding to a tradition in Madagascar in which the bones of ancestors are dug up and re-buried – a festive occasion, a reaffirmation [life-in-death].
There are also grim poems of immigrant lives in the United States (“Ghost Mothers: Un-naming,” “Alien Resident”), but by far the most relentlessly powerful poems are the sustained narrative about Chernobyl (“Radioactive Wolves: A Retelling”) and Romania. The poems involving Romania (“The Summer I Waited for the Revolution and Fell for Peacocks,” “Romanian Touch,” “Still Life with Apples, Pajamas, and Miners,” and others) occur throughout the collection, but the most affecting might be Moscaliuc’s second poem with the title, “Memoir” (“The story of a people is the story of their denials”) with its penultimate line, “We loved as only people who cannot get enough of death love.”
But all of this bleakness is punctuated by those food-related life/survival images in poems like “Beets” and “The Immigrant Wife’s Song” (with the subtitle, “The wormier, the healthier”) and “Still Life with Placenta and Cherry Tree.”
The title poem, which concludes the collection, is worth quoting in full for the image of the immigrant seeking her own identity, which in a sense sums up the thrust of all of these poems, and the positive note on which it ends.
Berenson recalls how once, upon seeing a counterfeit,
he felt an immediate discomfort in his stomach,
and that is what she feels these mornings,
cropped at wrong angles in the hallway mirror,
chipped stars in her hair, skin almost translucent –
a shade darker before it touches air,
the gnawing in her belly thrumming as she hurries
to the art class that teaches color, paid for in kind,
her body an eloquent model of afternoon stillness.
One teacher dubbed her nature’s ventriloquist:
she channels rivers and thistle blades, the bite
of a last sunray, but has no understanding of human
expression, no artistic empathy. As students sketch, she re-roots:
the desiccated belly of her Moldavian village creek
toothed with rocks, eyed with shriveled minnows,
but she can still feel their eye, the hammock of her body
swayed by the screech of charcoals’ smooth incisions.
Tonight she steals in to see herself in various stages
of completion, looks for the hand knowing enough, kind enough
to release her. Fals, fals, fals, she croons as she sloughs off
each sketch, the verdict swift as a mouse down an owl’s throat,
then leaves the studio to finish off the night.
She wakes up full, pellet of fur and bones at her breast,
brand new, eyes speckled with blood.