Immigrant Model by Mihaela Moscaliuc

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Mihaela Moscaliuc’s new collection digs deeper into her Romanian upbringing while broadening its scope to touch upon those Eastern Europeans affected by Chernobyl. The title itself refers both to the ways nations treat “others” with the same systematic, patented assumptions and dismissal, and Moscaliuc’s own experience as an art model. While Moscaliuc’s previous collection, Father Dirt, sought to offer up her experience of growing up in Romania under Ceausescu to the reader, Immigrant Model is in search of answers for the poet. In the modern poetry pantheon, Immigrant Model‘s closest cousins are books like David Wojahn’s Spirit Cabinet and Craig Arnold’s Made Flesh – works in search of personal understanding that ask questions the body cannot answer. In each vivid description of her parents or an altercation with a Hispanic waitress, there’s a desire to comprehend bubbling up behind each word.

    Many of the poems simmer with sensuality, be it the sensuality of discovery and the intimacy that comes from understanding, or that of sound and language. In “Self-Portrait with Monk,” the speaker spies on a peculiar cenobite, searching for a way to inhabit his space and connect with him. They retrace “the salty route of his fingers on the spines/ of pickled grape leaves, in ground lamb hand-rolled in herbs sun-dried.” There’s nothing amorous about the work, and yet these small touches–caresses and hand-made food–establish an enthrallment of the senses. Food, and subsequently the lips and tongue, appear in nearly every poem, as Moscaliuc  looks to link pleasure and communication within her narrative lyric snapshots of life and the struggle to breach the gap between other and other. The tongue is split between languages in “Memoir;” a goose is roasted on a “tongue of pines” to bless Romanians on their journey to a new life in “The Red Eviction;” beets are masticated in an effort to foster understanding between lovers in “Beets.”  Food is used to navigate relationships, mark history, keep the dead alive, and allow for or block off communication.

The collection is at its best when it examines the perception of the immigrant, both from an internal vantage and that of the culturally unaware. In “Plaza de Las Flores,” this occurs on a personal scale, with Moscaliuc ordering a Gypsy arm at a restaurant. Moscaliuc’s greatest strengths as a poet are her diction and clarity of scene, both managing to always avoid being too precious or threatening to speak from the ivory-tower of poetry Here, they go a long way to helping her navigate several moving parts: her own confusion as to how a dish of whipped cheese and chocolate lances adds up to a dish with such an offensive name, her son’s innocuous question about angels, her answer serving as a lesson for both herself and her child, and the way the waitress moves from the typically ignorant server to a culturally unique individual via her tattoo. The description of the tattoo alone, “mermaids against coral, the cochineal reds of their hair/ streaming in one fringed wave as bodies/ spiral in unison, heads flung back, fingers splayed,” showcase that stunning balance between vivid description and accessibility, being neither pedestrian nor overly prosaic.

Mihaela Moscaliu Moscaliuc’s gifts as a poet allow her to stick the landing with her more ambitious pieces. One through-line of the book is Chernobyl and the way its sad history adds another dimension to the perception of the immigrant as unknown and unwanted. Beginning with the poem aptly titled “Chernobyl,” which details how the mothers of mutated children “curtained carriage tops/with brocades severed from dowry pillows,” the writings focusing on the Ukrainian city and the effects of its nuclear disaster begin to move from external reaction to the internal experience of women living through it. The vivid descriptions give the work a cinematic quality, while the personal details imbue the imagined women with life that lifts them higher than the page. In “Radioactive Wolves: A Retelling,” Moscaliuc parses through the strange history of the event, detailing both the absurd (The producer props a violin against the condemned door/ calls it “Chernobyl Symphony”) and the sacrificial ( “Tonight I undo the life in my belly/for the guards, so I may enter/ for the guards I invent/ two children, in fulfillment/of the regime’s requirement.”)

The way the two larger topics of Romanian life and Chernobyl complement and comment on each other is a thing of beauty. There’s an ambition and hunger present within the collection that felt absent from Father Dirt, which often eschewed the larger questions of immigrant life in favor of painting a more personal image. Sensuality, pain, and questions of what it means to be part of different cultural worlds while navigating life and memory flit throughout the characters within Immigrant Model and are rendered in uninhibited free verse, as if Moscaliuc needed to write these poems to understand something within herself. Unsurprisingly, the only missteps found within the book are those that seem to tamp down the explosiveness and voracious sense of questing for closure found within most of the pieces.

Eric Farwell is an adjunct professor of English at Monmouth University and Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in print or online for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Esquire, Spillway, PANK, Ploughshares, The Village Voice, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, and The Writer's Chronicle. More from this author →