“the company of everything”: Sarah D’Stair Reviews CEMETERY INK by Mihaela Moscaliuc

Elemental. That’s how this book feels. Each new verse, sound, phrase, and image seems foundational, building a life, then living and breathing in it. Mihaela Moscaliuc’s Cemetery Ink excavates the historical and the quotidian in equal measure—the dignities and indignities housed in single bodies; motherhood and its cruel complicities; the visions, loves, terrors, intimacies, and estrangements that comprise the selves we see in the streets or next to us in our beds. 

Many of the poems are informed by the poet’s travels primarily to her native Romania, but also to Greece, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. The poems are structured like an unfolding, allowing us glimpses of the speaker’s intellectual and emotional processing of what she sees. Yet the voyages are not only physical; Moscaliuc treats history itself like a touristed landscape, aching with peopled stories to be unearthed, celebrated, and mourned.

Moscaliuc’s epigraph is a “Found Poem” adapted from Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years (1934), a novel that traces the author’s experiences as a Jewish writer and philosopher during the horrors of the Nazi regime. This fraught introduction compels us to see later poems about hysterectomies, manicured Instagram images, pandemic masks, and the death of George Floyd as continued emanations of violence along the same historical timeline.

In all the spaces, both physical and intellectual, the speaker visits, she exists somewhere between tourist and resident, outsider and intimate friend. There is a kind of dissonance inherent in this positioning, mirrored in the broken structure of poems like “The homeless women of Iaşi”:

their pantomimes re-populate
sidewalks with ousted ghosts.
They pose no threat
but we detour cautiously,
afraid their siren voices might awaken
the penal colony in our ribcage.

The dissonance is also expressed spatially, as in “From the rented window” in which the speaker, the cultural inheritor of the city by birth, looks out over Iaşi while the husband, eyes set on a computer screen, researches the 13,260 Jewish people who were killed there. 

In “After tram 2 leaves the depot,” one can almost hear the rhythmic clang of train tracks, so charged with implicated history, in lines like, “Tracks pulse below / as night’s retreating” and “she does not, will not / rant and rage.” These sonic resonances place us right alongside the speaker sitting in the train car, who cannot understand why a wronged woman in the back row “will not // answer my prayer / for a deluge of profanities.

The body of motherhood—mitigated, distressed, mutilated, and policed—becomes a haunted refrain in Moscaliuc’s work. The tender poem “Mosquito” considers the “intense labor and devotion” of a mosquito mother attempting “to nourish her eggs,” only to be “undone with a causal swat.” And the poem “Syn-” takes as its subject the brutal practice of symphysiotomy, in which pelvic ligaments are divided to aid in delivery, sometimes requiring the mother’s bone to be sawed through.

In these distressed moments, fantasy, and even imagination, become gratuitous. The real is devastating enough.

Yet Moscaliuc also gives the female body itself a voice, empowered beyond the “mental wards, electric chairs” that have attempted to subdue it. The womb is the speaker of “Wandering womb borrows language from Aretaeus, 2nd century,” outlining key moments from the history of gynecology. We learn that pomegranates were once used a pessary, and that Faith Haworth in 1670 cut her own prolapsed uterus from her body, the first recorded hysterectomy. We hear the ways the womb has suffered “divinely sanctioned punishment for whatever suits / the times.” Cradled by Moscaliuc’s skillful poetic hand, its myth becomes its strength, its own deep self-knowledge: “In a word, I am erratic and don’t I / know it”.

In Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Jane Hirschfield writes, “if you gaze deeply enough into being, eventually you will awaken into the company of everything.” Moscaliuc’s verse brings this philosophy to aching, pulsing life. Here is one example of many: in “Sortilege, strawberry fields,” a strawberry featured in a scene from Roman Polanski’s Tess threads through images of pregnant women in open markets; intimacy among two women connected by love of a man; Virgin and Ovid and Bosch; communist co-ops; red birthmarks; inherited fear; a children’s story; Cost-co; and children abandoned by parents who, in need of work, travel to western Romania to pick strawberries. All of it is weaved together into a single consciousness, the living body of the poem, like concentric circles radiating out from the intimate to the geopolitical and beyond. 

Moscaliuc’s poems are indeed like bodies themselves, alive with history, alive with mourning, alive with the images and pop culture phrases that populate our shared knowing. They are composed from the atoms of accumulated trauma and joy, from intimacies stored in cells, coursing through nerves and arteries. Her stories are told not through narrative, but through confluence, synthesis, conflation; flesh in words, the soul historicized and vital.

Amid all of this, the poet also offers us sharpened ways to “love the world.” “John Cale’s 75th birthday concert, NYC” shows us one of them. This love exists within tensions between wonder and despair, devastation and miracle, vitality and decay—all at once, like the sadness, and then surprised joy, of the young boy on the subway:

It shouldn’t be this hard to love the world,
I want to reassure my boy, but on the subway platform
his composure dissolves into sobs.
That’s how loving it
sometimes starts, in unlikely spaces,
in bodies razored by fear, wings that detach
in flight, cages, colossal mothering.
Then Look! he exclaims: rats
scuttling nonchalantly on the humming tracks.

Cemetery Ink, by Mihaela Moscaliuc. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, April 2021. 96 pages. $17.00, paper.

Sarah D’Stair is a poet, novelist, and literary critic. Her poetry chapbook One Year of Desire is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, and she is the author of Central Valley (Kuboa Press, 2017). She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She lives and teaches in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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