IN THE HALLWAY of our house, next to our family pictures, there was a photo of Dad from when he was in his forties, wearing a white shirt. I remember wanting to talk to him, to explain to him just how disrupted and different our lives were, how unrecognizable they had become following his arrest. So I took the picture down and wrote a poem to him. The void of his absence was filled with a presence that I was able to create in words.
My sister and mother ‘found’ him in the poem, they read it silently to themselves, they cried, and this is how poetry opened that shared space of comfort in our grief. Writing mediated, facilitated this situation when my father ‘could be’ with us even though he was in chains, far away from us, not knowing when he would be able to see us again. Because my father was a political dissident, we were under secret police surveillance 24 hours day and microphones recorded everything we said. Silence, though tormenting, was a way to hide our feelings, it protected us from interrogations. In writing I had both silence and words.
That first writing period in my life remains the most intuitive, direct, and spiritual. It was the time when the face of God appeared to me, its features like those of the saints in the Byzantine icons around the church: a gold halo around a face framed with white hair, eyes blue like Alpine lakes. God was benevolent and smiled at me. There was always a lit candle in his hand that I understood to be the candle of my life. Those years, when we lived by drawing just enough strength to make it to the end of the day, I knew our family couldn’t possibly imagine the answers to our future and I relied on every image of God I could conjure to ease the pain. He appeared in the sky above the house, radiant like the sun, and next to the window at moments when the sound of keys clinking in the front door told us the secret police were letting themselves into the house. It was the time when I understood that the poems helped to heal the damage done to our family by those who had power over us. Those poems did not have political overtones, they were simple expressions of pain.
My grandparents taught us the thanksgiving prayers, those in which we asked for forgiveness, and those in which we asked for good health. There was a prayer for everything and for every day of the week, but my one constant request was for God to enlighten my mind–lumineaza Doamne mintea mea. I didn’t understand then what a ‘clear’ or an ‘enlightened’ mind was, but I remember visualizing it as a clean, sunny room. This was my grandmother’s kitchen with its large oak table on which there were always small dishes of salt and pepper, and left-over polenta covered in a white cloth on a wooden cutting board; the cupboard with the plates neatly stocked; buttermilk in a clay jug; the icons and the vase with flowers from our garden. Sun through the blue-framed window. And of course, the oil candle burning gently on the wall, beneath the icon of St. Mary holding Jesus.
Over time that room has become more spacious, yet everything remains orderly, simple and harmonious. I still pray often for a clear mind. I learned from experience that one is often plagued by cluttered, disorderly thoughts that are hard to shake off.
The need for simplicity and clarity in my poems, the rejection of obscurity and opacity originated in the childhood prayer where everything and everyone had its place. In almost all of my work there is an effort to restore things to their places: parents to the family, memories to their country, language to its experience. Language is always at the crossroads as it follows us in our turmoil, our joys, the boredom and the routine—so one cannot afford to take words for granted. Oftentimes I have been blessed with reasons to celebrate, but then there were times when I have doubted language too. At the times when there is need for claritas, more often than not there is also the need for caritas, for holding the world dear in our hearts.
Many writers see their work as a form of prayer. Seamus Heaney, for example, in his Nobel Prize lecture talks about bowing to his desk ‘like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu’ because, just like a monk, he felt ‘constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture.’ Heaney’s humility is very moving: unsure of whether his poetry could actually assuage and appease the conflicted country where he was born, he nevertheless placed himself in the role of those who pray for understanding and for kindness. His poem ‘St. Kevin and the Blackbird’ based on the story of saint, offers a vision of self-awareness, patience, and personal sacrifice in the service of life: the arms must remain extended so that whatever hope there is, can grow.
There is something deeply joyful and fulfilling about writing. It is animated by the desire to reach that natural and immediately recognisable communication that flows from ‘heart to heart’. Over the past thirty years I have developed a series of metaphors for the process of composition: making bread, ironing, planting a field, giving birth, cleaning and healing wounds.
When I think of writing as making bread, the water becomes our tears, yeast represents our feelings, the flour is that wonderful material of language that can be transformed with the temperature of our hands, the little bit of salt, the patience and the heat of the oven where the poem becomes an offering for the soul.
Ironing is a powerful image too: if the table surface is not perfectly smooth, all the wrinkles show in the fabric of what we iron, so the metaphor serves as reminder that it is good to know one’s values before setting out to smooth the language into a perfectly crisp shirt that one wears in public. These metaphors come from the ordinary, domestic life, which, because of the circumstances of my family’s political persecution in Romania, feels now like an extraordinary blessing.
Here is a poem I wrote while expecting the birth of my first child, where the holy oil functions to bring about the blessing I so much hoped for, and in the end received:
From the beginning
The river shimmers under the bridge;
Scales on the back of fish.
Broken ice in the pond glitters,
Life grows inside of me, prepares.
Now that I know you are
Moving and growing,
I make one cross with holy oil
On my belly and one on my chest
So we can breathe together
And borrow dreams from each other:
Me, your unborn imaginings about
World and sun waiting for you.
You, my blood in which I send you
Fresh food and words,
So when you join us here,
By the water, we can talk.
At some point in her life, a woman will have two hearts in her body: her own and the heart of the baby growing inside. Her body transforms as it works to nourish and shield the new life. The waiting months are filled with anxiety, anticipation, and a new sense of responsibility. One feels a very deep sense of being grounded in the world, dependent on it, part of it. Then arrives the threshold of birth when the life which was hidden inside one body shows itself and announces its arrival with those first cries, when new lungs fill with the air of this earth. The mother, forever changed by experience, returns to having only one heart. This is how we are all part of this world.
In recent years writing poetry is a bit like this for me. Writing has become more playful and spontaneous. The transition between the state of inspiration and the finished poem has become more mysterious too. There is the urge to articulate something, then the senses are all awake, and the poem grows at the back of the mind while life in language follows its course. Images form and grow until one day they are born.
When I am writing, the energies of the words bring me back to the intense solitude and yet, at the same time, I know that I belong to the world in the most natural and yet mysterious way. It’s an awareness of being in awe at what the words can sound out. The language given to me had travelled through ages, had changed with stories, and had guided so many people. Because of this, the poems often take their own routes – not the ones I plan for them—and I am happy to relinquish control. Just like bearing children, writing poems is an experience where hope meets the marvellous.
For Alisa, who shouted, “Mommy, I keep losing your steps!”
The water is writing on sand
Many drafts of the same story,
One more shimmering than the next.
I go there to memorize their turns
And feel their calling power,
Wrestle with their yesses and whys,
I get involved, make footnotes on some pages;
The ocean erases them impatiently
Offering shells the size of my feet,
Shhh, it says, now listen.
My daughter says the clouds try to bloom
Above the water—white hydrangeas–
But the water pulls them down;
Clouds are children of the water, I say,
It’s hard to let go of children.
Under the bridge this morning the river
Passes for a mirror half fogged over–
Visions and revisions touch its surface
As we look on; mommy, my child says,
The clouds caress the water.
A white hawk appears above us
Held up by the warm breath of the earth,
The tips of its wings recall silver lining
Gliding out of view like a thought hard to hold.
Read more about Carmen Bugan at:
Written during Lockdown 2020
JUNE 2020 Carmen Bugan MONK