ON IMMIGRANT MODEL by Mihaela Moscaliuc
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS, 2015
REVIEW BY PATRICK STEIN
As the title suggests, Mihaela Moscaliuc’s brilliant Immigrant Model is centered around experiences of leaving and of looking back. It posits a world in which the boundaries between time and space are not drawn arbitrarily — where a person and a setting define each other so fully that the movement from one to another means a life completely divorced from the ways of the past, where the feelings of an old home are only accessible through memory. In this way, Immigrant Model posits the question of what, if anything, keeps a person the same through the crossing of borders.
A useful metaphor might be the change from one room to another. The process of going through a door causes the memories of the past room to be forgotten and replaced with a new set; in this case, it’s likely to lead you to forgetting the reason or reasons you moved. Expressed more powerfully, we have the embarrassment of looking back on the ideas of a few years past, that feeling of what was I thinking. Extended across decades and continents, the effect amplifies into a total alienation from past experience. Immigrant Model is a valiant attempt to ferry us across these barriers of memory, with the infectious curiosity of Moscaliuc’s poetry propelling us forward.
That curiosity is expressed as a kaleidoscopic swirl of fluid colors and snatches of dialogue. Every poem is relayed by the adult Moscaliuc as an impression of earlier experience; in keeping with both youth and memory, no scene stays still long enough to be explained. Some new image or association always arises to take the place of the old one. Especially in the first few of the book’s semi-chronological sections, all we have to hold on to are a few intensely felt visual motifs — rotting fruit, old women, trampled flowers, scraping stones, and even, in one particularly visceral section, irradiated and bubbling bodies:
In his mouth, on cheeks, tongue,
they bloom. Black petunias, black
to smell, black to touch. At night,
petals hover below the bulb
like miniature kites, speckled with blood.
They are of flesh, these flowers
that channel poison away from the heart (“Radioactive Wolves: A Retelling” 19-25).
This passage comes from an extended meditation on the Chernobyl disaster, which takes up the book’s fourth and most powerful section. Placed in the very middle, this difficult selection of poems gives real weight to the more abstract malaise around them; as the radiation spreads to the countryside of Romania, the illness and rot that blooms there comes to represent the inadequacies of the Ceausescu regime. It is no accident that the poems on nuclear meltdown, a potent symbol of the breakdown of progress, are followed by sections of increasing disillusionment with Romania, ending with the revolution of 1989 and the violence it presaged. While the actual act of immigration is never depicted, the emotions set loose by Chernobyl allow us to fill in the gaps.
Ultimately, it seems, Moscaliuc’s is a freeform and impressionistic style, concerned not necessarily with offering an “objective” historical account, but rather with conveying the subjective experience of a place and time. This focus on the visual and the subjective allows Moscaliuc to imprint herself on her world without ever appearing to touch it. Although her poems tend to focus externally, her presence is intrinsic to all of them; more than most works of art, they represent their creator largely through what she leaves out. As she says in “Memoir,” “the story of a people is the story of their denials” (1); in Immigrant Model, Moscaliuc has proved that the same goes for individuals: the only way to express the lived qualities she has lost is to omit herself from the telling.
Moscaliuc’s collection is proof that people rarely notice themselves unless they’re made to — and her existence in America makes her notice. In fact, it is only after leaving home that Moscaliuc really becomes a character in her own poems, as she loses the privilege of simply fading away into her background. The most sustained of these looks at Moscaliuc’s life today is the poem “Clawed Soleares with Strong Sun and Suitcase,” which is steeped in the guilt of abandonment. Specifically, the six-part poem starts on a beach in Spain and ends with Moscaliuc entering a new apartment in America, othered into the second person:
I know so little about your arrival: you stepped down onto a platform
stubbed with syringes and dried sheets of flattened swallows,
then what? Was the sun strong enough, nourishing?
Strong in the night, your departure,
the apartment in quarantine for months to clear out the odor of sin (98-102).
The ‘promotion’ in these sections from a third-tense ‘she’ to a ‘you’ highlights the primary difference between being at home and being an immigrant: you are no longer allowed your anonymity. To simply be, in the easy-going, affectless way of Moscaliuc’s childhood, is impossible when your act of being disagrees with the setting you find yourself in. The eponymous final poem symbolizes this powerfully: in posing for a college art class, Moscaliuc finds herself becoming uncomfortably aware of herself as an immigrant model, seen not just as an unknown body but as the given example of a well known type. It’s this assumed familiarity that rankles her; she feels ‘their eye’ turning her into someone foreign; you as opposed to us. This is the significance of a simple tense change: she is no longer the Romanian seeing America, but the Romanian being seen by America.
In the end, Moscaliuc sneaks into the art room at night, “to see herself in various stages of completion” (“Immigrant Model,” 18-19). When she sees her depictions she freezes for a moment, comparing the images in front of her with the memories of her childhood. Then she tears the sketches from their easels, hearing the babble of her village’s creek and singing, for the first time in many pages, in Romanian.
Mihaela Moscaliuc is the author of the poetry collection Father Dirt and translator of Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper. Her poems, reviews, and translations of Romanian poetry have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, and Mississippi Review, among others. Moscaliuc is the recipient of two Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Awards and a fellowship from the New Jersey Arts Council. She is an assistant professor of English at Monmouth University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program in poetry and poetry in translation at Drew University.
by Mihaela Moscaliuc
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-0822963349