Červená Barva Press, August 12, 2015
Paperback, 96 pp., $17
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Claudia Serea—widely published poet, translator, and author of two previous full-length poetry collections—released her latest collection with Červená Barva this August. To Part Is to Die a Little is an émigré’s chronicle. The book’s four sections recall the four seasons, which function on a metaphorical level as the seasons of life, or more appropriately for this collection, the seasons of an immigrant’s life, an experience that is rendered with tenderness and honesty, one that does not gloss over the grit and sweat, the disappointment and loneliness, that belong to the immigrant’s experience. But also part of that experience are the possibilities of acclimation and even of happiness, gained through hard work and an unrelenting tenacity.
The first section, How Do We Know It’s Time?, explores the leaving of the home country, which is, in this case, Romania. In “The last one to leave Romania turn off the light,” we are privy to the breathless mantra of wanting to leave:
When I grow up I will emigrate
when I finish school I will
emigrate when I finish college
I will emigrate when I look
for a job I will emigrate when
I marry I will emigrate when I
have a child I will emigrate
when I get a divorce I will
emigrate when I’m old
I will emigrate when I die:
The last one to leave Romania turn off the light.
This is the mantra of the collective unconscious of the Romanian people, one that could belong to any number of nations. The poem insinuates the gap between life in the home country and life in another country that holds the promise of success and a better quality of living. The gap is what separates, what stands in the way; physical space, absences, emptiness—these define the individuality of things, of people, of national identities, of the shape of a hope. “The space between” delineates the physical spaces between ordinary objects, between people, and finishes with the couplet, “between knife and bread, / between life and death.” The distance between Romania and the US becomes the distance “between life and death.” So that mantra is not just so many empty words, devoid of meaning; rather, they mean everything.
This first section gives us snapshots of Romania—its “cathedral gates” and the “flickering field” (“Daffodils’ Street, number 11B”); the rain falling over Cismigiu (“Bucharest I”); the “supermarket with empty shelves, / People in line in front of the bread store” and “the cement factory / where we play among mountains of sand / and rusty mixing towers” (“What I see from my bedroom window”)—and what it is like to leave it:
The teacher with curls draws the letter t
with one leg, a hat, and a cane.
H is a sway; e is a whip.
Through the teeth: The. The. The-uh.
The, not za. Tongue out, out!
Lick the pencil. The. The.
The Brooklyn Bridge in the open book.
The plane that takes me there.
—from “The English Lesson”
“The English Lesson” conveys the preparation, the sense of excitement at embarking on this new life, but what of leaving it? In the title poem, “To part is to die a little,” a friend leaves for Germany. The day before the speaker leaves, she watches a snail’s slow progress and it is an apt correlation for how her progress could be in the new country. Unbeknownst to the snail, however, it is headed straight for a “big bird’s ruby beak.” It will be carried away and ultimately, transformed.
The second section, Caffé Verona, captures the experience of the newly emigrated. It opens with a sensory focus—the coffee in “Caffé Verona”; seeing traits of poets in lawyers, young lovers, and marketing guys (“Identifying the poets”); and noticing the roar, the death, the pain, the loss beneath the quiet, smooth exterior of the suburban façade (“Suburbia”). The poet takes in her surroundings in the process of acclimating to the new environment and discovers that, as in the suburbs, “There is a quiet relationship / between the things / that keep a civilized appearance” (“A civilized relationship”). And there is variety here, too: among the thoughtful and atmospheric works, there are also pieces that are lighthearted and wry (“Olga,” “A Buddhist proverb told by the Thai busboy,” others). The experience of other immigrants is also beautifully captured, and identity is explored in the poem, “Scenes from the hit Broadway musical A New York Restaurant.”
The third section, Letters from Romania, functions as a bit of a foil to the previous section, which delineates life in America, albeit with similarities: life is difficult in both places, but in different ways and for differing reasons. This section following the previous lends contrast and perspective to each. Where a poem like “Whispers & shadows” is atmospheric, poems like “Twilight” are pensive, recalling one’s own absence in the childhood home, and the ways it is experienced by the parents. “Swallows on a wire” takes that felt absence to another level, to the very tangible way that time has passed and silence cocoons the lockbox of memories, which is really noticed with the evidence of passing time, with the aging of parents:
My father tells me they have lambs.
His handwriting is tight and small,
like swallows on a wire,
He tells me the Bostonian shoes that I sent are nice,
but he can’t wear them, his legs are swollen logs.
I’m thinking he’ll probably keep them
inside the silence of the old armoire,
together with his death clothes.
The power of “Swallows on a wire” is partly in the way it captures the depth and significance of living in another country, away from family, and partly in the sadness of the impending loss of a parent and the distance between parent and child, physical and otherwise. “Es-tu-là” is the maternal complement of “Swallows on a wire.” These poems are tributes, honorifics, to the parents and family home, and perhaps even, indirectly, to the mother country. “Notes on a napkin” continues, in a way, where “Scenes from the hit Broadway musical A New York Restaurant” leaves off, in the sense that it captures the dichotomies of the weak/commoner and the powerful/wealthy, elements that comprise much of the concern of the émigré.
The collection is beautifully arranged; its poems appear in chronological order which, for the subject matter at hand, is effective. Not only are the sections ordered, but so are the poems within each section. Section three, for example, begins with childhood memories and ends with death and silence, the most natural of endings:
Gone, the woman who smoked
and read our cards stained with misfortune.
Gone, the bear that danced on a chain
over our bones—and took the pain away.
Gone, the children with coal eyes
who laughed and stole our shoes.
Gone, the nomad gypsy sky,
replaced by Wednesday morning.
In this case, the ending (the leaving of Romania for good, that is, in spirit) signifies the beginning—the mundanity and total acclimation of Wednesday mornings, which lead us to the final section four, Paper Cup City, a meditative collection of poems that capture the perspective of the fully acclimated émigré, one who has worked hard and steadily and who has earned her success and present peace. This moves us into new concerns, namely those that appear in the section’s title poem, “Paper cup city,” a poem that speaks to how easy it is to get wrapped up in the monotony of everyday life and forget about the elsewhere; thematically, this informs, subtly, much of this collection, reflecting back on the immigrant, the immigrant’s family, and the not-yet-emigrated. It also applies to the never-emigrated/never-will.
The shining star of this collection is “Let me fall,” for its gorgeous, elegiac language and wonderful sense of movement; it is an inspired ballad with a breathless quality:
Let me fall into the silence of the grass,
into clover, cassis and dill,
let me return
under the plum trees laden with night,
let me bleed birds
The collection wraps up with several poems that capture the divided heart of the immigrant (“I won’t choose. / New York is my bread. / Bucharest—my clear water.” [from “Two lives”]) and in which it becomes evident that a heaviness has lifted. Music comes into the poetry, beginning, especially, with “Let me fall.” This music may be the background to the mutual understanding of head and heart: one locale supports the life and the other the spirit.
“To Part Is to Die a Little” is a brave, honest, and sometimes wryly witty chronicle of the life of an immigrant. Serea has successfully captured, in this collection, what it means to suffer, to want, to desire, to struggle, to persist, and finally, to succeed.