Immigrant Model by Mihaela Moscaliuc
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
Reviewed by Michele Bombardier
The first word of the first poem of Mihaela Moscalius’s Immigrant Model gives a clue that this book is a portal: Noica, which, according to Wikipedia, refers to Constanti Noica, a mid-Century Romanian poet and philosopher and prolific writer who became a political prisoner, sentenced to forced labor by the Communist regime after WWII for his literary work. Noica wrote a book called Six Maladies of the Spirit in which he coined pseudo-medical phrases to address analyses of memory, culture and the individual. From this launching point, Moscaliuc takes us across time and place into Romanian experience. The first poem continues:
“Noica says somewhere the only fruit that never ripens is man.
The story of a life’s perpetual green is the story of averted eyes.
If I served you that story now, crushed in salvia or paprika,
you would scrape it into the compost bin and wrap your palms
around my warm skull. Your poor palms. Your poor chords,
trying to console me as I extol each warden I bribed to save my life.”
Salvia, I learned, is a hallucinogen. Nearly every poem in this book is studded with rabbit holes, stories within stories, a resplendent vocabulary that expand her poems across millennia and cultures. She references a vast range from architecture, Romanian, Norse and Mesopotamian mythology, chemistry, Eastern European history to several works of literature and history. Moscaliuc asks a great deal of her reader with her strong use of uncommon vocabulary and references which require investigation, but the reader is richly rewarded for the effort with deep and vibrant poems of place, loss and survival.
Many poems are women’s stories, lush in detail from bra cups, milk and placenta to tell stories of survival and betrayal in times of upheaval. “Sheela na gig” is a rambunctious poem with long lines and sensual detail on the dangerous power of women and showcases a lovely novel word: anasyrma, the art of lifting the skirt to reveal the genitals. Moscaliuc closes the chapter on the horrors of Chernobyl with poems about the infamous Romanian children’s orphanage, Cighid, and ends with this section from “The Good Mothers”:
Mama Lulu with honey shanks
would cradle all of us, but I was the special one.
When she nestled me on the throne of her thighs,
I rose and bell on her shudders.
Her heaving gave out so much warmth
I figured that’s what it must feel like
to sink into God’s lap.
Refusing sentimentality, Moscaliuc looks at the dark side of the iconic Mother figure. She refers to Elena Ceausescu, “Mother of the Nation” who masterminded Decree 770 forbidding contraception and abortion. She parallels the telling of the dictators’ deaths in the poem “Apples” with her own mother peeling rotting, falling fruit. I was initially confused by the inclusion of Chernobyl with poems about Ceausescu’s Romania, but learned that not only did a large radioactive cloud cross into Romania (600 miles away), but the Chernobyl crisis of 1986 had a major influence on the Romanian Revolution in 1989.
Turning The Bones is a gorgeous and surprising poem about the famadihana, a custom in Madagascar of taking bodies out of family crypts, rewrapping them, then dancing with the corpses to live music before putting them back. It’s a love poem, lyrical, with long lines and intimate details. The poems in this collection are rich in sensory and historical detail, and layer time and place to give an unblinking look at suffering under oppression and the abiding connection of family. Immigrant Model speaks loudly against what Moscaliuc calls “the stench of silence.”