Self-Ironic Surrealism in Immigrant Sociopolitical Poetry
Claudia Serea, Writing on the Walls at Night (Unsolicited Press, 2022)
History is what we take in, Mom says, the small bites of the
present. Eat up, dear. It’s all on the table in front of you. (31)
Claudia Serea’s excellent new collection of poetry, Writing on the Walls at Night, showcases rich imagery, ever-surprising details from the everyday life, frank sociopolitical statements, and raw emotional honesty, in addition to an impressive stylistic freedom. The book includes prose poems, poems with very short lines, and even a few political jokes, ranging from naturalism to surrealism.
Moreover, its motto inscribes it under the sign of fairy tales and childhood innocence, which inform its vision and aesthetics: “You should never hesitate to trade your cow / for a handful of magic beans” (Tom Robbins). The “Prologue” places the readers in “Grandma’s kingdom,” where the blades of wheat and the sky beg the speaker to stop and listen to their stories until she agrees, only to discover that she has already passed grandma’s house. Poetry then replaces the magic beans, there are none, Serea warns us in the first section’s title, and leads us on a journey toward ourselves instead of the castle of an unfriendly giant. Indeed, the book’s final piece, “What Happens in the Poem / Stays in the Poem,” a surrealist letter to the readers, invites us to take “a dream vacation,” to our pain, a luxurious place with “five-star hotels, fine dining” and “penny slot machines” whose prizes are “pound after pound of shiny poems.”
Taking a trip to both her childhood pain in Ceauşescu’s Romania and immigrant challenges in today’s US, Serea combines the allusions to well-known world folktales with tragicomic surrealism, which echo not only Romanian Urmuz, Gellu Naum, and Nora Iuga’s poetry, but also the theatre of Eugène Ionesco and Balkan-style self-irony. Often, what could seem made-up to Western readers is paradoxically realistic and likely clear not only to Romanians but also to all who have [had] the experience of dictatorships. In “The White Ear,” for example, Serea evokes the Romanian KGB-style secret police through details familiar to many of those whose phone calls were recorded: “There were noises on the line every time I called: click-click-click, / and a whirr.” The poem’s central image, however, is apocalyptic, “A city of ears, one in every apartment and several others / clustered in listening offices, eavesdropping day and night.” Romania’s poverty artificially-enforced during the 1980s appears in several poems, such as “The Line.” A large crowd, the speaker included, queues in front of a store for “whatever they bring. Oranges. Chocolate. Cheese…toilet paper.” The Kafkian description is again realistic, “The line in front of the store was so long it had a Line / Committee and a Line Master who kept the Line List,” and the final conclusion points out the metaphorical grotesque of everyday life, “There was no meat. I walked back home with a necklace of / toilet paper rolls.”
The Romanians’ PTSD and intergenerational traumas are portrayed with less self-irony and more tenderness. “Tonight, the Radiators Speak” exposes the speaker’s inner conflict: her child version, who struggled with the cold in unheated apartment buildings, remains upset with her adult self, “I don’t love you anymore. Why didn’t you take me with you when you grew up?” In “A Peach, an Apricot, and a Nectarine Pit,” the trees mom plants in her dream, grow and bear fruit in the daughter’s one and foreshadow “the pear tree at the corner of Mortimer and / Elliott Place,” when both women have become “small fleas, / hiding inside God’s beard.” The childhood trauma cannot be resolved in adulthood not even more than thirty years after the fall of communism in Romania, not even after emigrating to the U.S.
Serea portrays most of the Romanian characters from her past along the borders between folklore and politics, naturalism and surrealism. Baba Marina peeled “potatoes and the eyes of the dead, / throwing them into the boiling pot.” A music maker recorded on X-rays discarded by a hospital Western songs that were banned in communism, until “the Komsomol / Music Patrol raided the apartment and confiscated everything,” but the music survived “on skulls, vertebrae, and / femurs.” Maria, the speaker’s grandmother, who had a “mud and straw house,” sprinkled her stew with salt extracted from tears, and “talked to Virgin Mary “woman / to woman, mother to mother.” The speaker’s grandfathers fought in the Second World War, returned almost dead, but survived, while “Maria, Ioana, Stefana, Gheorghe, Ion, Constantin” were carried away on freight train like cattle and “came back in spring as snow crocuses.” In Serea’s childhood memories, History casually tears apart human beings.
The book also portrays the American everyday reality, emphasizing its tragicomic surreal nature. In Herald Square, the Statue of Liberty, the silver man, and the copper robot spend their lunch break together. A “white rabbit rides a bike and stops at the traffic light,” advertising “the penthouse bar at 250 Madison Avenue.” Beyond the physical pain from standing all day, Serea raises the question of loosing one’s identity under the pressure of market economy, “I wonder if the silver man sleeps with the paint on, or if he / showers. How the paint runs off his face like mercury, revealing a / strange person in the mirror.” Moreover, she exhibits empathy towards inanimate objects, “Just like us, the objects long to be together,” and dedicates a poem, “The Secret Wishes of Recyclable Objects,” to their inner lives. Yet, Serea’s surrealism never shies away from harsh sociopolitical statements. On one hand, she reminds us that for a few decades most Romanians obeyed the dictatorial regime and “spoke a wooden language. We wore the / words on a string around our necks,” while the flies showed courage and “stained / the photo of the beloved leader [Ceauşescu] in the newspaper that lined the / table.” On the other hand, she acknowledges becoming “just another corporate slave” in the US and trading poverty for consumerism: “I left the kingdom of caterpillars for the empire of metal worms. / Here the mulberry trees … bear coins for fruits that never fall to the ground.” Eventually, she mockingly challenges the “Dear Reader” for the Dracula stereotypes: “Before turning the page, stock up on salt, garlic, and / wooden stakes. I’m from Romania—can you see my fangs?
In addition to her thought-provoking perspectives, Serea’s diction is also unique. Benefitting from her linguistic and cultural doubleness, she often translates ad literam Romanian idioms, expressions, and sayings, enriching her English-language poetry with surprising metaphors and imagery. In Romanian, for example, “to steal your own hat” [să-ţi furi singur căciula] means to do something questionable that eventually turns against yourself. Paraphrasing the Romanian idiom, the poem, “Everyone Was Stealing Everyone / Else’s Hat,” recalls how most Romanians bought almost everything on the black market from those who in turn stole from their workplaces, while especially grocery stores were almost empty. Serea playfully but honestly points out the absurd of lacking the basic necessities in a socialist country where theoretically “everything belonged to the people,” while also acknowledging everyone’s guilt, hers included: “But we knew we’d be shot in the stadium if caught red-handed. / What about magenta-handed, or maroon-handed? /…/ Mine were pink; yours were orange; / theirs were purple.”
The hat is one of the images that haunt this book, a remarkable allegory of the experience of communism. “The Russian Hat” is the title of the book’s final section and of a poem with this title, in which it becomes a metaphor of brainwashing, attempting to smother the speaker’s “thoughts in fur.” It is also an active agent of PTSD, as it follows her to America where it starts “bellowing Russian ballads loud enough to cover the noise on 34th street.” In a final twist, the Russian hat reminds us of the Westerners’ commodification of the pain of Others. Swiss-born Ursula buys it for 5 bucks, drinks vodka, and listens to the “Russian army choir songs,” which the hat sings, perhaps the same ones soldiers now sing while invading Ukraine. Serea’s indictment of the Soviet domination is severe without being didactic: Stanton, Ursula’s rescue cat, does not trust the Russian hat.
The pain Serea revisits in this collection is both historical and present, collective and personal. Despite the ingenious and often beautiful imagery, her appeal is for responsibility, “The past is filled with silence and / smoke, but the scent of the fire still talks.” In “There Were No Magic Beans,” she asks, ““It’s easy to talk now, but what did you do then?” This is one of the questions we ask ourselves after the fall of each dictatorship, wondering why it took us so long to stand up for ourselves, or after leaving our birth countries and making strong anti-regime statements from the safety of exile. An ethical question no one can answer.
Bucharest-born Diana Manole immigrated in 2000 and is now identifying herself as a proudly hyphenated Romanian Canadian scholar, writer, and literary translator. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and has been teaching at Canadian universities since 2006. In her home country, Diana has published nine creative writing books and earned 14 literary awards. The winner of the 2020 Very Small Verse Contest of the League of Canadian Poets, her recent poetry was published in English and/or in translation in the UK, the US, Belarus, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Albania, China, France, Spain, Romania, and Canada. Her seventh poetry book, Praying to a Landed-Immigrant God, is forthcoming in a dual-language English and Romanian edition from Grey Borders Books.
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