Poetry, at least, they could not take away from me!
– Eugenia Semyonova Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind
My ten-year-old daughter’s invisible horse is restless—it yearns to trot down the street, nibble at patches of grass. This horse I can’t see has been with us since we moved to Birmingham, where horses are illegal. But laws do not keep the child from creating the company she needs.
And so we set out to trot, to traipse. The sun shows his teeth as the horse pauses to graze. The daughter discovers a game to play with shadows on the asphalt: she seeks to stay inside mine as we walk, she keeps pace so that no foot crosses outside, no toe trespasses the border between my shadow and the light. Her game evolves in relation to time, in relation to the lengthening of the silhouette as the sun’s angle shifts in the sky.
My daughter’s eyes glued to the ground, my mind wanders back into Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir, the joy she reclaims from carceral decades of surviving Stalin’s purges, the pleasure of daily ten-minute walks where prison rules prohibit the prisoner from looking up (“the order is to keep our heads down”)—and what it means that Ginzburg tries to “steal a glimpse of the sky.”
Ginzburg’s memoir was among the overwhelming number of books in my mom’s house, the ladders of spines lined against walls, with lengthy justifications for why the monks sat next to Czernowitz, Rilke near Romanian folklore, and Hannah Arendt leaned against Martin Heidegger on the shelves. The arrangement bothered me: the idea that all these voices could exist in a single room, or that Arendt kept speaking to Heidegger, kept forgiving him despite the fact that she owed him nothing—that she never once needed his mind in order to think, to imagine, to challenge every box she’d been given, every room ruled by the minds of men.
“If you ever wind up in prison,” Mom said, “this is all you will have. The poems you read and recited, the stories you remember, the books whose lives go on without you—and in your head.”
Her warning to a rebellious, hierarchy-despising teen daughter echoes to me from Ginzburg’s book, on this street Mom never visited, in this land which still exists in her absence. Something both lives and dies in the rules we construct to bind loyalty. The mother, too, is a monument. I am haunted by mine.
Why did I see anything? Why did I make my eyes guilty?
Why was I so thoughtless as to harbor the knowledge of a fault?
– Ovid, Tristia
Ovid waits out eternity in the Black Sea harbor of Constanta, where his statue limns a space between my longing for Romania, the land of my birth, and Ovid’s own estrangement inside it. Exiled to Tomis, the town’s name in antiquity, Ovid lived out his banishment among my ancestors, whom he called “the wild Danubian spirits.” Scholars have debated the reason for Ovid’s exile, often settling on the charge of maiestas laesa, or offending the dignity of the state; Augustus used this charge often during his reign to exile or execute his political opponents. And yet Ovid’s statue remains, the displaced gaze with it. All statues are aspirational in their longing to be remembered, to be rendered monumental on the landscape.
There is a photo in which I sit near Ovid’s feet, trying to occupy the space of his gaze, his shadow darkening half my face. Ovid’s retelling of Narcissus involves a turning away from the reflected image. “He perishes by his eyes,” Ovid writes, suggesting that the act of seeing cuts Narcissus off from the possibility of being loved by the beloved. To see one’s reflection is to be lost in the echolocation of memory, in the singular moment where time and space coalesce.
In many refugee families, shadows float away from the present, detached, never claimed; they shift through rooms without being addressed, and yet, there is something solid that they offer us. The shadow of a statue may be the image reflected back to us when we look closer. The flick of a horse’s tail on the stairs. The absurdist iconographies of light that illume new relations among objects in altered time.
“Modernity is our antiquity,” Svetlana Boym wrote in The Off-Modern, “We live with its ruins which we incorporate into our present.” I think of Dorothy Salcedo’s conceptual “anti-monument” in Colombia, and how it turns guns into floor tiles, how it questions the wars between corrupt leaders, US interests, and local drug lords. It exists in this shadow-space of statues and legal statutes: in the specific terror that laws render legal to support rulers, in the prisons’ violence and silence erected to protect the anointed.
Any monument’s shadow may be a form of anti-monument, a space in which the unspoken becomes speakable, an alternative to the memorialized variant of a person that a state finds worthy of preserving. It creates an encounter between the legalized crimes of a regime and the systems used to prosecute crimes against a “national interest,” that seven-tongued chimera of nonsense every dictator takes to heart. It is here, in the anti-monument’s shadow, that I encounter the hushed statue of Ion Isaciu, saboteur.
Fascination is the relation the gaze entertains—a relation which is itself neutral and impersonal—with sightless, shapeless depth, the absence once sees because it is blinding.
– Maurice Blanchot
During the pandemic, I phone my Dad often to check on him, to catch up, to miss each other in Romanian. This is how my great-uncle appears in my life forty years after my parents defected. Born in the village of Carta, Ion was the chief engineer in a mine in Baia Mare, a Transylvanian city in northwestern Romania located an hour’s drive from the border with Hungary and the Ukraine. During the Bronze Age, this rocky region was roamed by Thracian tribes. Later, the Dacian King Burebista dragged it into his kingdom out of desire to mine it, to use the gold and silver laden rock for jewelry and ornamentation.
Ion Isaciu was my father’s only living uncle (his other uncle was killed when shot down by American planes near Bucharest). Ion was my grandmother, Augusta’s, only brother. Their father was a Uniate priest, which prevented Ion from being a Romanian Communist Party member. As a minority religion, Uniate clergy were marked dangerous to Romanian regime.
Since the Baia Mare iron mine was not productive, Ion followed official procedure in determining that it should be closed, enabling workers to begin excavating other areas. In accordance with official protocol, Ion had the mine flooded to keep it from collapsing and causing landslides.
Two Party members who worked nearby alleged that he had flooded the mine in order to harm the Republic’s productivity. After being arrested on a criminal charge of Sabotage Against the Republic, Ion was taken to a small prison and tortured by police until he would sign whatever they laid before him. Ion declared his guilt.
I ask Dad why Ion signed if he wasn’t guilty. Romania didn’t have plea bargains—why would an innocent man admit to a crime against the state if he had nothing to gain from it.
“Well, he was guilty of things. He felt guilty for things—maybe it was the Uniate upbringing that made him so conscientious.” My father told me that Ion admitted to thinking bad thoughts. For instance, once he found himself hating the police who whipped an older man for walking too slowly in the city. He often suspected his friends joined the Party for access to vacation houses rather than belief in equality. Like many progressive persons, Ion struggled with his own ambition, noticing how much individualist opportunism hid behind the good of the nation as peers joined the Party to enrich themselves, to gain access to luxury goods like scented soap. According to my father, “No one was innocent, really.”
“We all had bad thoughts,” Ion had said. He claimed that the tortures freed him from fighting. He described a particular method of liberation known as The Statue, where Ion was propped against a wall, and a semicircle was drawn around his feet. If he stepped outside the circle, a guard would beat him with a metal stick. So Ion stood until his legs collapsed … it took three days for his legs to become so inflamed that they would no longer hold him up. Ion fell and was beaten several times, but each time, he got up and tried to stand again. He tried to stand and not step outside the line they’d drawn around him.
Ion also told my father about being locked in a small metal safe, bent and crumpled, until he began losing his breath, and how “it is very painful to suffocate slowly, to feel each breath drawn like thousands of knives and yet no oxygen.” Ion described the guards, the torturers, as young and kind people, ordinary kids eager to climb the Party ladder. “They did not allow me to die,” Ion said. Instead, they opened the safe for a minute to let him breathe—and then locked him in complete darkness again.
“Most humans don’t get to die suddenly,” Dad says, loosely evoking Mom’s unexpected death from a pulmonary embolism in her sleep. One day people will describe this slow suffocation as waterboarding, and it will be illegal on US soil, so Americans will fly into other countries to apply certain methods of torture that teach us to lie.
Did Ion lie? It depends on the language. “In your words, Alina, a lie is simple—it is black or white—” Dad says, “but torture teaches you to speak a new tongue.”
As he reminisces, I consider how silence hides inside our wide-open mouths, our boxes, our binaries, our caricatures of justice, the good vs. bad constructs. Ion told Dad the biggest divide was between those who knew the language of torture (either as victims or torturers) and those who imagined it based on their readings or media.
Like many Americans, I’ve been arrested, handcuffed, shoved into the back of a police car on my chest, and dragged into a courtroom by Ohio cops as my baby sat in his car seat and wept. Arrest is a rite of passage in the US: It means almost nothing; in my case, it meant I failed to pay a ticket in New York state. But I didn’t learn the language of torture—I didn’t learn anything except a banality, namely, that was difficult to be a single mom and survive on one income.
The language of torture is the same in any country. As Ion suggested, those who don’t speak it like to read about it and to imagine themselves written into it—or else, to imagine they would never be the ones writing it. No one is innocent.
“When I was applying to get into university,” my Dad continues, “we had to list the names of all our family members so that family pedigree and social hygiene could be verified. If I did not list my uncle’s name, it was a gamble. Anyone who looked hard could have found my lie. For it was a lie to leave Ion off my statement—it was a lie, another crime against the purity of the state. Just as my uncle’s crime was a crime against the family, a crime against the future of his blood relations.” So Dad lied. He left Uncle Ion Isaciu out because having an uncle in jail would mark my father as having Bad Social Origins, which would lead to his expulsion and exclusion from university studies. “I erased him,” Dad admits. “That’s how it worked—you erased those in prison to survive.”
As for Ion, he was imprisoned at Sighet and Aiud for two years after the prosecutor accepted his declaration of guilt. Like most, he pled guilty to all charges and signed a confession. Dad doesn’t remember seeing him or ever visiting him in prison: “Everything was very hushed, carried in wooden language over wooden tongues in the house of not-saying-what-happened, so I knew only that he was at Aiud, the prison for political prisoners.”
When I ask if Ion knew his name was anathema, Dad doesn’t answer. His silence takes the shape of a statue, a document, a report.
Aiud Prison is one of the largest and harshest in Rumania. No letters or packages from home are allowed political prisoners, except that they are occasionally allowed to write home for winter clothing. […] Punishment consists of confinement in the “reserve,” a box almost without air; forced labor; or labor on the famous Danube–Black Sea Canal.
– CIA report, January 1954
Aiud was known for its absolute separation from the world. It was impossible to cross its lines and see relatives. One’s name was added to a list if one even tried. Dad doesn’t talk about the CIA; he doesn’t mention how it groomed Eastern Bloc defectors with science degrees, how it marked the lives of relatives left in homelands. To be a toy in the teeth of big men—that is the Cold War. It is every war men have ever devised. I learn these things on my own, in stacks, scouring legal documents and archives. (I learn nothing about this history from college or American media.)
Maybe no one is innocent, but it still shocks me that my father erased his only uncle, that he did whatever worked for his own future without standing up for the wronged, without laying a claim to his blood.
In the 1950’s, the Romanian Communist Party changed leadership; the old guards were purged. When this occurred, the Party changed the laws to deal with a new political heresy or intra-Party conflict. Ion woke up one morning and discovered that the death penalty now applied to cases of sabotage. Like most humans, Ion did not want to die. In terror, he repudiated his confession and said it had been signed under torture. My grandmother had never given up on her brother’s life: she saw a window of opportunity. After years of seeking an appeal, my grandmother secured a meeting with an official who allowed the trial to be revisited. People who had been imprisoned as enemies of the state were being suddenly released and rehabilitated. Because the definition of a crime depended on “national interest,” crimes changed like sunshine touching water, in the way that the sun cannot be measured. In this, the sun is unlike the tides. There are no tides in Romania: nothing was predictable; everything shimmered, scalded, silenced, changed.
Just like under capitalism, my Bunica sold the only objects of value left to pay for her brother’s defense, including the old rugs. She sold the family piano, which her sister’s, who had been a professional pianist before dying by suicide. Many artists quietly committed suicide after the war; guilt was the tablecloth where everyone sat to share bread.
There is no torture in Romania, though we acknowledge that some of this man’s accusers have now been found guilty of crimes against the state. The judge spoke from the bench in his black robe.
“Revolution does not change the judge’s costume,” Dad says. “Revolution only changes the words he uses to dress justice.” Nonetheless, he calls the judge a hero for setting Ion’s confession aside and granting a retrial. Witnesses who had worked in the mines came forward and said Ion Isaciu was the best mining engineer in the region, an exemplary socialist worker. Not a saboteur. Our story ends in happiness: The judge found my uncle innocent and freed him on appeal. But Ion couldn’t technically be rehabilitated because he wasn’t a Party member.
When I ask Dad what he remembers about his uncle, the statue returns. “He was a quiet man,” Dad replies. “He didn’t go out much.”
…no memory is guarantee, existent and itself, indifferent to the future of him who harbours it; nothing past is proof through its translation into mere imagination, against the curse of the empirical present.
– Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
As for Baia Mare, a multinational space where street signs speak in both Romanian and Hungarian, it has made itself famous in what one might call an act of sabotage—but not against any particular nation—against all nations, all peoples, all life. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall, a gold mining operation formed by joint venture between an Australian company and the Romanian government caused what some have called Europe’s worst ecological disaster since Chernobyl. While mining for gold like Burebista, part of the gold processing plant malfunctioned, releasing 70 tons of cyanide and heavy-metal-infused water into the River Tisza. From there, the cyanide traveled to Hungary, then into the Danube, where it killed more than 1,400 tons of fish, eagles, storks, and mammalian water-dwellers like otters. Ultimately poisoning life, soil, and water in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, and Bulgaria, the cost of this corporate misadventure led to the likely extinction of several fish species.
There was no sabotage. There was no national interest. There was gold, money, and death.
Ion’s crime was not an act, not an example of one’s DNA being left on the scene of a crime, but in his body and mouth and mind being the crime itself. The crime in situ; the mind as site. In this sense, not being of the right social class was damning. The Party member’s word trumps that of the sad Uniate.
Ion lived less than a decade after leaving the prison. He did not work anymore. “I think he retired,” Dad texts me later. He died in his early sixties, a man outside time, the statue in him inseparable from the body. Or maybe Ion’s story of being convicted due to the Party purges is like nothing that exists in the US and my attempts to domesticate it—to create sympathy by equivocation—underserves all involved, both dead and living. Things are not the same everywhere. Because things are not the same, it is a crime to cross borders.
…either Poseidon will honor my curses
and send him dead to hell
or else he’ll go off into exile
and spill his bitter life on strangers’ ground.
Euripides, Grief Lessons: Four Plays
In Anne Carson’s translation of Hippolytus, hope consists in the ability to live one’s life in the land of one’s fathers. The worst threat and curse Theseus can offer is Ovidian: “I want you outcast from your father’s country / bleeding a bitter life away in alien places… Beyond the Black Sea and the boundary of Atlas if I could, I hate you so.” To die in an alien place erased from the maps is, perhaps, the alien exile’s punishment for leaving.
But to live in a prison is connected to poetry. I ask Dad if Ion recited poems during his decades of imprisonment, and he tells me he doesn’t know.
Ovid did one better. In a letter from exile to his stepdaughter, Perilla, Ovid encouraged her to write poetry, to follow that hunger despite fear of winding up like him, cut off from his language, homeland, and family. “There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal save talent, the spark in the mind,” he said, “my talent remains my joy, my constant companion: over this, Caesar could have no rights.”
The statue’s shadow inflects my relation to the image of the American self, the white immigrant, the bootstraps of complicity and self-erasure, the family history elided as part of the deal in arriving. The bright sun picks me apart in the disquiet of a child’s game, in the way Ovid’s exile speaks to crimes against rulers, in any monument’s irrevocable unfinishedness.
My dad’s father, my Bunicu, refused to be called by his American handle. “I am not Grandfather; I am your Bunicu,” he said.
Bunicu’s biggest fear was of dying in the US and being buried in American soil. This fear—“the horror of the unauthorized, uncontrollable thought of a foreign cemetery”—was mentioned by Marina Tsvetaeva in “Vanya,” an essay addressed to the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke. For Tsvetaeva, Rilke’s death touched all deaths in her mind, altering the idea of death itself. Greeks and Romans thought it was a curse to die in a shipwreck or to be buried away from one’s family. In Tristia, Ovid says this is because it’s important “to bequeath your remains to your kinsfolk, in expectation of a proper tomb.”
Like Ovid, my Bunicu borrowed from the Pythagoreans the belief that the spirit survives the body and is tethered to the place of burial. Bunicu knew the death he wanted: an eternity with his kinfolk, buried in the soil of his mother-tongue, where strangers reading gravestones would pronounce his name correctly. He worked through his retirement years as a mining engineer in Anniston, Alabama, in order to gain US citizenship so he could be closer to his son and grandchildren. He paid in labor but never lied about the curse of being separate from one’s ancestors. Ovid died at sixty and was buried, as he had foreseen and feared, on the shores of a foreign land.
When I was in college, after my parents divorced and remarried Americans, after Romanian became the lingua non grata in the defectors’ newly-spoused houses, Bunicu sold his apartment and whisked my grandmother back to Romania so they could die there. So their bones would stay home, near her brother’s. Bunicu said his soul could not rest, cut off from his home for eternity—there are one thousand whispering shadows in that. The work of translating their stories includes not just the words but also the acts, the stone and the sea, the great-uncle exiled from the mouths of his kinfolk, the language one loses, the statue my daughter doesn’t recognize in me, in the story of how her mother came to America, the things an eye can neither unsee not look down from, the game light plays with poetry on a sidewalk.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.