As we head into 2017 and a presidency that has so many people feeling fearful, it’s instructive to read Edible Flowers by Lucia Cherciu.
In this collection, published by Main Street Rag in 2015, Cherciu writes some about Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, but mostly about Romania after, as it recovers from a brutal Stalinist dictator. The bulk of the book occurs after Ceaușescu’s lethal secret police, called the Securitate, infiltrated every part of society; it occurs after an era of tight-fisted media control, a government-dictated swelling of the population (and massively overcrowded state orphanages), terrible deprivation, and, ultimately, revolution and overthrow.
I wouldn’t have the heart to read an entire collection about life during Ceaușescu’s dictatorship at the present political moment, but I was curious to get a glimpse, and to envision life after, and Cherciu paints picture after picture of beautiful, resilient people, coming back.
I feel especially moved by Cherciu’s picture of the giving economy in “In This World, May It Be for Your Soul.” The poem describes a practice of the people of Romania who, in giving any gift, say a particular expression three times: “Pe lumea asta să fie de sufletul tău; pe lumea cealaltă să fie de sufletul lui,” a sentence that translates to the poem’s title.
“In This World” describes how you might buy a shirt in a loved one’s favorite color to give to an orphan at church, or you might bake some of the loved one’s favorite flat bread and offer it to a childless widower.
… and remember to say
the name out loud, while you both
hold on to the warm loaf, and like signing,
the old man replies, seeing it,
“May it be received”: “Să fie primit!”
I’m sure that as a spiritual tradition, this gift-giving practice is much older than the period of dictatorial reign, but I note how especially beautiful it is to build a ceremony around giving and around practical, unquestioning receipt. If we have a practice in the U.S., it’s to say, “Oh, no, I can’t,” or “You shouldn’t have,” or some other such nonsense as we regard the item we dearly want, offered by someone who dearly wants to give it to us. So many times we’ve missed out on some boon, small or large, because of our foolishness, and we’ve missed out on the blessing of letting someone enrich us. But with a tradition of gracious receiving, and after a period of intense privation, the people of Romania understand giving and receiving as acts that go beyond us.
Many of these poems do address life in the Romania Cherciu knew in her youth, in the heart of the Ceaușescu regime. In her poem “Torture,” Cherciu describes a lesser form of torture than we usually associate with the regime, through a view of children being forced to spout the dictator’s own nonsensical sayings:
Political Economy during communism
was a jumble of quotations
by Nicolae Ceauşescu, absurd
words, monotonous syntax,
sprinkled with socialist means
of production, agricultural cooperative,
and golden future.
Dulled by the inertia of nouns
and non-existent verbs,
we swayed softly
trying to spit back a silk thread.
Cherciu closes with a powerful image of the rote sentences as bats flapping their wings.
The final poem in the collection, “With the Horse Through the Cobblestones,” shows the speaker of the poem herself, visiting a neighborhood her family once occupied and where her father would work with a borrowed horse cart. The place is surreal, when viewed through the stunned speaker’s eyes:
This copper afternoon,
I hardly recognize the streets:
some of the houses razed,
concrete slab buildings in their place.
Our neighbors have built
an opulent house, diamond mirrors
stuck in the walls outside,
the sun dancing in liquid shine.
A young boy, maybe nine years old,
is watching a horse that seems
to be grazing, but there’s nothing
on the street, not a blade of grass,
only old cobble stones. He asks me
if I’m looking for something.
Like a visitor to a neighborhood that is both familiar and greatly changed—like myself in America in 2017—the speaker would have a hard time saying what she’s looking for and what she lacks. She seems to know it’s vital, though, and like me, she seems to wonder how much of it is likely to come back.
An interview with Lucia Cherciu …
What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
I always wanted to read all day, and I had a library card to all the libraries I had access to in my home town in Romania. Being a poet and a teacher just means I get to share my love of reading. Also, when I came to the United States in 1995, I suddenly expanded my access to libraries and discovered the magic of interlibrary loans!
What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
The word that would define my book is “home.” Living in a different country is like being in a novel every day, because I am never quite fully at home: when I am home in America, I miss Bucharest, covrigi, kiortoş, and sarmale (these are names of treats and food, and you want to get on the plane to Romania just to taste them). Then when I am home in Bucharest, I miss the childishness and playfulness of speaking in a second language all day long.
Describe your worst poetic habit.
I start too many poems at once. While writing a poem, I get ideas for another poem, so I start a new one at the bottom of the page, and while writing the second one …. Magic happens in the process of writing. And if I get stuck, then I switch to writing in Romanian, to use a different side of my brain.
It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.
Being bilingual and what it feels like writing in two languages; raising your children to be bilingual.
It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry. [Your name] was a poet of/who/with …
Lucia Cherciu was enthusiastic, elated, exuberant, and energetic about things some other people didn’t care much about, such as poetry.
Lucia Cherciu was born in Romania and came to the United States in 1995. She has a Ph.D. in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and she is a Professor of English at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY. Her latest book of poetry, Edible Flowers (Main Street Rag, 2015), was a finalist for the Eugene Paul Nassar Poetry Prize and is available at http://mainstreetragbookstore.com/?product_tag=lucia-cherciu. Her poetry has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net. Her web page is luciacherciu.webs.com.