Father Dirt, by Mihaela Moscaliuc. Alice James Books, 80 pp., $15.95.
The Tyranny of Milk, by Sara London. Four Way Books, 100 pp., $15.95.
A Little Middle of the Night, by Molly Brodak. University of Iowa Press, 82 pp., $17.
Incivilities, by Barbara Claire Freeman. Counterpath Press, 80 pp., $14.95.
In her 1991 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Nadine Gordimer speaks of the Word. For Gordimer the Word is neither fetishized gospel nor bland edict; it is a writer's everything: her birth, the materialization of her existence. Gordimer's words on words are prescient. "The word," she opens her lecture, "flies through space, it is bounced from satellites, now nearer than it has ever been to the heaven from which it was believed to have come." She continues,
Gordimer combated apartheid, fought for AIDS victims, and wrote fourteen novels (and many more essays and short stories). She used the Word for activism, and she speaks to this challenge in her speech: the writer, she insists, "must take the right to explore, warts and all, both the enemy and the beloved comrade in arms," never shrinking from suppression or threats of censorship (or worse). For her, this has often meant writing about ugliness or strife, taking a reader deep into worlds as complicated as they are fraught with darkness.
Like Gordimer, the poets Mihaela Moscaliuc, Sara London, Molly Brodak, and Barbara Claire Freeman have created spaces of destruction in their art, gazing directly and powerfully at subjects that would be easier to avoid. Their speakers tell difficult stories of addiction and abuse, oppression and fear. Yet in each book, what lingers in the reader's mind is not darkness but ultimate triumph: two children in Brodak's poem "Roman Girls" noticing a world "small enough // to sing to in all directions"; the speaker in Freeman's "General Motors" imploring readers to "Walk with me to the end of the moment"; London imagining Holsteins feasting at her dinner table; and Moscaliuc's tiny yet complicated joy in bathing her newborn son.
"Humans," Gordimer writes, "the only self-regarding animals, blessed or cursed with this torturing higher faculty, have always wanted to know why." As women writers and scribes of struggle, these four poets transform wanting into an active search for knowing, making a thorough and at times traumatic study of what has made us us. They use their words to make the rest of us see.
Many of the poems in Father Dirt, Mihaela Moscaliuc's first book, display a dark mix of political failure and personal suffering, and a sharp look at life in Communist Romania. The setting, which shifts back and forth from Romania to the United States, allows the reader to view the speaker's shifting relationship with her home country. In the prose poem "Phonecall from Romania," the speaker, a Romanian woman, and a loved one abroad in America converse on the phone about their respective situations. "You know what they do to gypsy kids, you must have heard the stories," says the speaker before imploring, "Hope you've fattened a bit since you left Romania. Eat, don't let America starve you." Put at risk by their countries new and old, the women still reach out through "a stack of scavenged ... phone cards" to reconnect.
When the authoritarian state makes human connection impossible, Moscaliuc's poems grow even darker—hauntingly so. The title of the poem "Destroy the Family, You Destroy the Country" is a quote from Lenin, and it is Lenin's philosophy that leads a Romanian school to publicly condemn one girl's suicide and another's abortion. Of the girl forced to decry her abortion over the school's intercom, the speaker notes, "Mara leaves with the village cop and we return to Marx and Lenin. / Her words hang above us, curved blades without handles." These young women represent Moscaliuc's greatest thematic preoccupation in Father Dirt: the lost children—the orphans and the deceased and the still-struggling. The collection contains a lone photograph of children pushing against bars in a Romanian orphanage, and from Moscaliuc's verse we understand why they push so hard.
Born and raised in Romania, Moscaliuc speaks with the exacting exigency of a witness. Her attention to detail—the crosshatches made "on rationed eggs," the "plastic bottles" of "cheap wine" consumed at the suicide's forbidden funeral—moves us importantly from political abstraction to indisputable truth. In the midst of trauma, metaphor and imagination grant a magical glow to each fragmented, unsparing memory; thus violence and despair are transformed into art and the memories become less severe. Moscaliuc recognizes the seduction possible in this mode of oral historicizing, and in "Metaphor," the poem's speaker notes: "You think I despise metaphors, and you're wrong. I crave their smooth / skin, their transporting kisses, but do not trust them ..."
Father Dirt challenges us to consider poetry, with its metaphors and skewed comparisons, a means to explore another country's suffering, especially, in this case, the suffering of its women and children. Ambassador and documentarian, Romanian and new American, poet and citizen, Moscaliuc has written a book as gorgeous as it is tragic. An iteration of Eve, learning dark truths about her childhood world, she makes us know, and shows us the small beauties in enormous suffering.
In "The Front," from Sara London's The Tyranny of Milk, the speaker's sister gathers H.E.P.A. masks and syringes in preparation for an attack on the unnamed Israeli city in which she lives. Looking for an escape from this aura of war, the sister tells the speaker over the phone of her
Before violence, hints the speaker, comes fleeting calm. In this world, an attack can be tempered by shields and its results tended with medicine, but it can never be prevented.
The poems in The Tyranny of Milk play with our perception of time, using short, enjambed lines and moving at a brisk, fluid pace backward into memory and forward into a looming future. In "Sweet Salvage," the speaker's "great-uncles / can't put the video / cameras down," and the poem rewinds and fast-forwards along with the technology:
For the great-uncles, danger lies in misremembering—or, worse, in never remembering at all. Without the cameras, states the speaker, you'd "never / know who did / what to whom, / or what to blame / when you wake." Like the speaker's sister in "The Front," the family in "Sweet Salvage" needs a clear delineation of "sides" in order to feel safe; they need to know, with the fixed assurance of film as an aide, who's guilty of family strife and who's innocent. As conflict enters the family unit, it threatens to rend it apart.
While London rarely examines severe trauma directly, that trauma is always present as a palpable possibility, especially for women. The poem "Tell Me" sets up a binary distinction, using the anaphora "in my country" to complicate understanding between the speaker and the poem's "you." "'In my country'," bemoans the speaker, "you say, 'there is / no word for it.'" We readers never learn what exactly "it" refers to, yet it is apparently a threat, and we learn that women have the most to fear from it. "It is always / the mother / in my country," the speaker says. "Tell me / it is different / in yours." While we cannot accept the speaker's challenge—we know "it" only as a dim, sinister presence—we can readily imagine what it might represent in other cultures, including our own. Vague but powerful, the force could be the same one that drives Moscaliuc's Mara to terminate her pregnancy; it could be the violence Brodak examines in A Little Middle of the Night, or the faceless stock-market panic of Freeman's Incivilities. Here, what is not said, the vast white space found on most of The Tyranny of Milk's pages, casts dark shadows over the written lines.
"What remains," asks the speaker of the poem "Prey," "after myth- // making?" Imbued with memory, The Tyranny of Milk examines the myth of the family—what it looks like, how it acts, what it chooses to preserve. The characters in this collection traverse generations and build traditions. In the wake of myth-making, then, after the video camera has been turned off and the sisters' phone call terminated, we find canonization, inscription, the setting-down through poetry of how it once was. We have fear—the preemptive purchase of the H.E.P.A. mask—to teach us, and heartwarming interconnection to strive for. We have questions to answer about how we've come to be, questions about our own personal geneses. "Mother, Father, / who's to blame for such / mixed-up blessings?" asks the speaker of the collection's eponymous poem, in which cows come to dinner and the child speaker must learn what to make of a tiny disaster. Because many of The Tyranny of Milk's inquiries go unanswered, we must use our own myths to investigate those questions for ourselves.
Children are the subject of the early images of Molly's Brodak's first full-length collection, A Little Middle of the Night. In the opening poem, "Niger Lullaby," a "reed raft" and an "icky baby" recall the first voyage of abandoned infant Moses down the Nile. "Poem for a Child's Voice," immediately following "Niger Lullaby," explores a moment that feels and looks like a sort of birth:
As we read beyond these opening sensory encounters, we learn the truth of the speaker's premonition—"it will never be easier than now," the naïve and blameless time of childhood. A Little Middle of the Night presents scene after wrenching scene of addiction and loss set in such uninviting locales as prisons, hospitals, and unsafe city streets. The child in Brodak's forest arrives prepared for trauma, seeking out ugly sounds and proclaiming her lack of innocence. By the end of the book, we are fully alive to Brodak's struggles, "disarmed," as Brodak ends the collection, "by a little sun, waking."
The most intimate poems in A Little Middle of the Night examine the body, mapping its varied struggles. "Funny Old" depicts the speaker's father—a weathered, jailed man whose insides are lined with the places of his past: "One world: Poland, / in ho-hum infant Dad, / Vietnam black in his ribs, / & twilight Detroit for brains, / empty in empty." His lifetime of "travels" has ruined him; black-lunged and mentally vacant, he has lived out his body, much like one might run down an overdriven car. In "Ought," the speaker's own body is compromised, in need of salvation:
In treatment, the speaker has become habituated to the dual pains of disease (a tumor, "many millimeters, scalloped-edged!") and healing (the needle). We see the body in traumatized pieces—"the pit of my elbow / which has turned yellow," "a brain which cannot / afford" —and we read a poem narrated in fragmented, dreamlike clauses that blur colors and mix together the living and the inanimate.
An individual faced with illness, imprisonment, or poverty could be forgiven for seeing Gordimer's noble search for knowledge as irrelevant or naïve. We might expect such individuals to seek escape from their pasts rather than to celebrate or explore them. Writing, apparently, from the far side of such experiences, Brodak's speaker is able to resist the urge to shirk the past. Her confrontation with it enables her to capture, with a mix of earnestness and fork-tongued humor, moments that prove the joy of life: "Imagine:" implores the speaker in "Ought," even as she holds out her veins for puncture, "some people do not want to live." A Little Middle of the Night takes us from the dark forest of the collection's early pages to, in the poem "Real World Magic," the edge of a bed, squinting at the sunlight that shines so brightly, despite the rest.
In "Incivilities," the eponymous poem in her first collection, Barbara Claire Freeman writes that it is "[b]etter to live like an options trader awake before the market," in other words, able to act upon economic forces with some semblance (perhaps illusory) of personal control. Enjambed and unpunctuated, the poem reads like a streaming stock ticker. The rapid-fire pace never relents, making the book a breathless and demanding read. Woven around this streaming line are the ongoing cycles of history: we hear early on "the sound of wind circling the street / as history returns to count the times you've failed to buy at price."
Caught up in this endless cycle, the speakers of Incivilities feel acutely their powerlessness, despite vocally asserting their prowess in the marketplace. In truth, they are helpless in an environment whose power dictates all aspects of their existence. "Perhaps money makes us human—" declares the speaker of "Fourth Georgic," who imagines the market's presence in past and former lives:
Here, the act of buying and selling controls not just our fiscal destiny in the present but our afterlife as well—our sins follow us beyond the next stock cycle into the life cycle. If money makes us human, suggests the speaker, it also damns or saves us.
In Incivilities we see the cultural ramifications of this conflation of stock and soul, visiting on-site the physical stuff that's bought and sold so rapidly on Wall Street: wheat, corn, oil. The poem "Diminishing Returns" refers to money harvested from oil:
The poem's hyper speed, reminiscent of the energy of slam poetry, couples with sarcasm and pointed political references to present a sweeping look at the devastation the market inflicts on society. In this and other poems, Freeman imagines a political landscape whose scattered cities, documents, and laws (The Hurricane of Independence and the Declarations of Helplessness, Corpse Town, Poverty Hill, Deception Valley, Possibility Found or Lost) conjure up loss and waste.
In the eye of this stocks-and-corruption tornado stands a body with a voice, one that clings to its pitch and power against the storm. The speaker of "Incivilities (3)" asserts her need for self-actualization:
Even as the morning arrives with "her futures bound // to the sun," the speaker, unable to sever her ties to the market, hopes for escape, "beg[ging] / for moonlight," something quiet, something still. Like the women in Moscaliuc's school, forced to hear of the "sins" of others over the loudspeaker, the speakers in Incivilities can find no solace. So long as we play the market, the market takes it tax, and the "lessons of capital" are learned either in this lifetime or the next. Freeman masterfully evokes a vista somehow both prosperous and stark—flush with money, yet barren of prospects for redemption.
"Truth," writes Gordimer, "is the final word of words." In these four books, where chaos and destruction breed creative energy, the truth is traumatic, but never hidden. Freeman, Moscaliuc, Brodak, and London travel through suffering to places of knowledge and understanding. Each writer is palpably determined to shape her struggle into an instructive past. Brodak, grappling with illness and the ravages of tough-lived lives, fearlessly writes a father's ailing blackness. Moscaliuc remembers a friend's pregnant-then-vacant belly and a son's reality alongside that of her friend's apparition, linking them forever. Freeman rails against insurmountable forces, and we feel her righteous anger even as her speakers yearn for understanding and control. London's speaker, gazing backwards on photographs and memories, summons the strength to turn toward the future. The truths these writers evince come via poetry—an art, as Moscaliuc's speaker cautions, as manipulative as it is honest. It asks, even as it answers; it troubles even as it saves.