by Mihaela Moscaliuc
112 pages—University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
Newly released from Pitt Poetry Series, Mihaela Moscaliuc’s second collection of poems, Immigrant Model, travels between her Romanian upbringing under Ceaușescu to the survivors of Chernobyl to her current life in the United States and abroad with her husband and son. Moscaliuc’s journey—never governed by simple chronology but by the cycling and unrelenting needs of bodies connected through blood and story and landscape—demonstrates an unparalleled and often harrowing physicality. This is a book that leads from the tongue and the belly, from the survivor’s instinct to taste and to tell. It doesn’t always seem to know where it is going until it gets there, but it knows what it needs to bring for sustenance along the way: moldy suitcases lined with overripe pineapples and family legends, with jars of pickled mushrooms and plums, with folktales and țuică.
In Immigrant Model, narrative is above all an act of survival, a guiding force in the face of trauma and dislocation. Moscaliuc sets this tone from the first, as in the concluding lines of “Memoir,” the collection’s preface poem: “I opened my mouth to the sun to soak up the heat, / keep what I’d seen out.” Here speech is a filter of sorts, allowing nourishing energy into the body and mind while simultaneously keeping out what is painful. Indeed, mouths and tongues surface repeatedly throughout the collection—tied both to food and to speech—which, under Moscaliuc’s rich and sensual language, effectively become one and the same. In “Beets,” for example: “…the beet’s hot tongue / pries open my mouth. I take it all: laced earthsmoke, / vapors rising straight from heart rot.” Thus the physicality of experience essentially forces the act of narrative as food becomes inseparable from desire, taking inseparable from giving, loss inseparable from love. In poem after poem, food and story seem to run as parallel or interconnected forces, both serving as a means to repossession. Moscaliuc’s characters hoard in order stave off emptiness—in order to retain and return, to reclaim a sense of self and home, no matter how sinister the cost. In “Still Life with Apples, Pajamas, and Miners,” the truth (both written and spoken) is sacrificed for nourishment: “Mother has scraped the / newspaper ink off the smoked sausage she’s been saving for Christmas. / I know I can’t ask what she bartered for it.” In the “Exclusion Zone” section of “Radioactive Wolves: A Retelling”—the single-poem section dedicated to the experience of Chernobyl survivors and victims—“fat peppers, / hot tomatoes” gleam and swell unnaturally as an entire community’s story shrivels to expletive: “We curse and keep eating.” In “Alien Resident,” the speaker’s mother is shown sleeping in a toddler cot in New York City, “jars of preserve / ticking under the mattress like hand grenades.”
Such doubling density is characteristic of Moscaliuc’s world, a world in which symbols teem with life, and narrative threads are wound and rewound like “loops of raven braids.” Here stories become the guiding thread that leads the speaker through the labyrinth—preventing the “I” from getting lost amid layers of betrayals (from the familial to the national), mass and individual exoduses, botched escapes, intended and unintended returns—as well as the very labyrinth itself. Here, in this world of large-as-life talismans and icons, we find recurring themes, objects, and phrases arranged stanza-to-stanza and poem-to-poem like stepping-stones, transmuting slightly with every reappearance. In “You Ask Why I buy Pineapples and Let Them Go to Waste,” for example, Moscaliuc’s first words—“This is that pineapple”—immediately transport the reader from the title’s presumed present tense to a 1980’s German ditch in which the speaker’s parents debate defection, ultimately returning home with the pineapple, “darling kept whole for weeks by kids / pouring in an out at the news of my parents’ brief escape West.” When the heroic pineapple—kept intact by the merit of its story—is ultimately dissected, it mutates yet again, its interior taking on the horror of the world (and stories) around it: “The inside had collapsed into a vitreous mess, / or so it seemed with all those bloated bodies trembling / in and out of focus on the mute TV.” And in “Rehearsal,” a similar metamorphosis takes place as the speaker’s father photographs his own father in a coffin, an image which gives way to a lover’s command: “Let’s rehearse dying,” then oscillates between grandfather and lover before concluding in an intimate embrace with “my true love:” “how smooth the braiding of tongue, the thick, sweet lull, / our torsos a skipping rope for the rehearsal of la mort douce. / Die in me, as I die, as I die in you.” Ultimately, this final death of true love takes on the tone of a conception when we encounter an eerily related phrase, “Let’s play dying,” in “My Son, at Six,” a poem that occurs several sections later.
Throughout Immigrant Model, the act of speech is an act of the flesh. Telling is what ties a person to the body, what keeps her from vanishing. And so it follows that the loss of one’s narrative equates to the loss of one’s flesh. Either way, there is a price to be paid, and we see this paradox laid out concretely in the searingly powerful “Ana to Manole,” a retelling of a Romanian folk ballad in which Ana is entombed within a monastery wall by her mason husband Manole. In Moscaliuc’s version, language used for the wrong reason becomes a curse: “You fashioned the voice out of fear…” Ana is well acquainted with the cost of silence: “I stayed quiet with you, / so quiet all but my blood disappeared.” But she learns there is an even greater trap in language. Because a false narrative—a story that is not organic to an individual but pressed upon them by another—can, literally, turn the body to stone:
These then are the two horrors that haunt Immigrant Model: to be imprisoned by a false narrative, one that does not truly see and understand you, or to lose your narrative altogether. Of the many visceral betrayals Moscaliuc chronicles, the Chernobyl section, “Radioactive Wolves: A Retelling,” is perhaps the most brutal in that it shows both body and story stripped of one another. Here we see the betrayal of the natural order, of the self as it flees the body, the body lingering even when it should not: “When I burned your clothes, / petals of skin escaped into the gooseberry bush.” And we see, too, what is left behind when the story is peeled from the flesh:
This is a story stripped of its carrier, divorced from the body and left to climb the ruined walls of an abandoned community—a tangle of displacement. It is a story that can no longer be used for food or for love. It is an absolute loss.
“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,” writes Moscaliuc in the book’s first two lines. And perhaps it is not until the book’s close that we see the full meaning of this statement: that, ultimately, every poem in Immigrant Model is about the search for an organic form—a body that tells its true story, that reflects everywhere an individual has been, everything she has seen, every act of love or betrayal or loss that has seeped into her flesh or blistered her tongue. In many poems, as above, this search ends in deepest tragedy. But in the book’s final and titular poem, “Immigrant Model,” Moscaliuc’s work—her unflinching refusal to avert her eyes in poem after poem—finally pays off. Here we see the immigrant as artist’s model, entering the studio at night to witness every half-completed and erroneous depiction of herself:
This concluding moment, then, is Moscaliuc’s final refusal to avert her eyes. It is her definitive and hard-won transformation: an embodiment that truly captures every loss and betrayal, that sheds the skins of every false story and swallows them whole, so that she may rise once more, blood-speckled and finally full.
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, critic, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in: Cider Press Review, Colorado Review, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Salamander, Sugar House Review, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Free Library in Kingfield, Maine.