I wrote my first poem when I started learning German in school. My personal diaries were filled with my poems in German. I would stay up past 5:00 AM scribbling away, with my dad yelling at me from his home office “Go to bed!” I told him to follow his own advice. But of course, we both just kept writing. In those early days, I felt like German was my secret language and that in it I could freely express all of my dreams, loves and torments.
English is my first language. My father is from Romania and in 1969 he fled the brutal Ceaușescu communist dictatorship. My mother is American. We spoke English in our home because my parents thought, “What’s the point to learn Romanian? The Iron Curtain will never fall.” Growing up in Durham, NC, I felt like I didn’t know a part of me. My father was an immigrant and everything related to Romania was taboo – we didn’t know our family there – we could not travel there. My father would tell all inquiring minds that he was from Italy or France. We listened to Adriano Celentano and Eros Ramazzotti in the car when my dad drove us to school in the 80s.
So how did I learn Romanian? I moved to Bucharest as an adult with the support of a Fulbright. I took Romanian summer schools, private lessons, absolutely immersed myself, and forced everyone to speak Romanian to me (even when English was much easier for both parties). I needed command of the language to complete my Oxford doctorate on the Criterion Association. I also needed to know Romanian for my soul, and this need for language and homeland – this “dor” – is captured in Green Horses on the Walls.
My poems are not developed through a MFA poetry program. They have been written for open mic stages as spoken word poems. I got my start in 2010 when I moved to Washington DC. As a lonely post-doc, I rode my bike to the nearest Busboys and Poets one Wednesday night to share a poem I had written. From that moment on, I presented my poetry under the stage name Lady Godiva. Now, I am making my way as a spoken word artist in Denver, Colorado, and have my first “performance” alongside a well-known Denver poet at my upcoming socially-distanced “invite-only at a secret location” book launch for Green Horses on the Walls.
Spoken word poetry is often about social and political issues. The first poem that I am sharing, “America World Police, Inside Empty,” I wrote in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I write a lot about the crimes of communism in Romania. Both of my father’s parents were imprisoned by the regime; his uncle was on the Canal labor camp for a decade; and the entire family was followed and harassed by the Secret Police on both sides of the Atlantic. Today in 2020 we don’t have the awareness that we need in education and also in American society about this tragic history of the 20th Century. I hope my poems can bring some of that painful past to light. For this article, I have chosen “Nu e rolul meu [It is not my role]” to demonstrate how communism destroys families. And finally, I have included my book’s eponymous “Green Horses on the Walls” – a poem that speaks to my existential crisis as an artist trying to live up to my immigrant father’s expectations, as he tells me I only want cai verzi pe pereti (a saying that I know most Romanian children know all too well).
America World Police, Inside Empty
A US Military base on the banks of the Black Sea
A bus leaves full of men and women in fatigues
Going to the Eastern European capital for a day of museums …. i.e. “Fun”
Headphones blaring hip-hop
After this Sunday
From Mihail Kogălniceanu -MK – being shipped to death
Romania is the gateway to Iraq and Afghanistan
It’s death upon death
This same day back home in middle America
News of the soldier’s high school best friend
On the streets of Youngstown
Nu e rolul meu [It is not my role]
We sat across from each other in this Camden pub
Both 5’ 5’’
One is a professional model (guess which)
The other is a roving intellectual
Last time I saw Mirela was in a photograph
Black and white, she was brunette then and very tiny
Wearing an ie – the traditional Romanian blouse
Standing next to Moș Crăciun, Galaţi’s Santa Claus
“You know, Cris, you were my Neverland.”
I-am zis că am știut pentru că ea a fost la fel pentru mine [I told her I know because she was the same for me]
“I lived for the next box of toys and clothes
For our grandmother to return from a trip and tell me of you guys
Through photographs, you, Tisa and William were my family
I’m not close to my parents you know?
But when bunica noastră [our grandmother] died – it all stopped
No more contact from you
And no one ever told me why
I asked my father
Over and over again
‘Our fathers are different,” I told her.
“My father serious – yours the family rebel.”
In that moment I had the chance to tell her ….
But she was so happy
And I decided that: Nu e rolul meu
It’s not my role to tell her that I had been told
her parents tried to starve our grandmother to death for her apartment
It was 1994
Property had just been returned to Romanians by the state
They locked her in hers
A 90 year old woman with Alzheimer’s and deformed hands from a lifetime of filling medicine bottles as a pharmacist
My father only found out because a Galaţi friend got wind of the terror
And called him in North Carolina
I was twelve
My sister was ten
My brother was four
And my American grandfather had been dead for two years
I know now that we forgive family
But that doesn’t mean that we have to discuss everything
Mirela and I are friends now
Și nu e rolul meu
Green Horses on the Walls
Cai verzi pe pereți [Green Horses on the wall]
Asta a fost de la-nceput în mintea mea [That’s how it was in the beginning in my mind]
Visurile mele [My dreams]
N-au fost posibile [Were not possible]
Am fost nebună [I was crazy]
Bătută în cap [Hit in the head]
Cristina – fii serioasă [Cristina – be serious]
Vrei doar cai verzi pe pereți [You only want green horses on the walls]
Green horses on the walls
The Romanian expression for having delusions
From the start I was told my dreams
That I was crazy
That I needed to be serious
That theatre was a hobby
I was always merely chasing the green horses
And it was time to grow up
Because they didn’t exist
But I know my need to write exists
I know that the open page is the reservoir for my joy and pain
I know the sweat-stained floors of an empty theatre welcome me
I know that my dimensions cannot be confined to a DC-CV
A list of degrees and honors -> now perhaps those don’t truly exist
Can they capture a beating heart?
Caring for our elders and children?
Or the next play that it is on the tip of my pen and igniting my mind with excitement
The straight-jacketed list to DC impress is what confines
My truth is displayed on the open canvas of my art
My truth runs with the green horses
Through the fields, down Rockville Pike and eventually all the way through the heart of DC – 14th St.
I hear them calling –
Cristina! Hai acasă [Come home]
Calling me home …
As I walked today through a canopy of trees
I crossed paths with a butterfly
And I came home to write this poem
And neither were or are – delusions.
Cai verzi pe pereți – a durat 34 de ani [Green horses on the walls – it took 34 years]
Pentru mine să știu [For me to know]
Adânc în inima mea [Deep in my heart]
Că sunt exact cum a creat și a vrut Dumnezeu [That I am exactly how God created and wanted]
Și pentru asta sunt pur și simplu mulțumită [And for that I am simply grateful]
A message from Cristina: I hope you enjoy my book. You can purchase it via Amazon and other online sellers. You can also reach out to me directly by Facebook DM (Cristina A. Bejan) if you would like to order a signed copy at a discount. Thank you – mersi frumos – for your interest!
Cristina A. Bejan is a historian, theatre artist, and poet. A Rhodes and Fulbright scholar, she has had fellowships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Wilson Center and Georgetown University. She has taught at five universities in the USA including Metropolitan State University of Denver and Duke University. Bejan received her Masters and DPhil (PhD) in Modern History from the University of Oxford and her BA in Philosophy (Honors) from Northwestern University, where she also studied theatre.