“Lilies from America New and Selected Poems” Carmen Bugan
Carmen Bugan’s family were forced to leave Ceaușescu’s Romania where her parents’ typewriter was buried in a crate behind their house and used on certain nights to type up political pamphlets before being buried again. In ‘Portrait of a family’
‘A few lines cowered the grass, outside the windows,
With the neighbors who watched the girl answering questions
To the strangers who settled into the house.
And yet someone followed her sister on the streets
And photographed her pure black eyes,
Unsuspecting in the paintings on the walls.
Now that the strangers have left the house,
The poem would like to know:
Can it place once more the paintings on the walls,
Will the son tell the secrets of his mother’s milk,
Will the handcuffs come off the man’s hands,
Will the girl stop answering questions,
Will her sister burn the photographer?”
Neighbours, themselves fearful of secret police, acted as spies, reporting the family who were put under surveillance which led to the arrest of the father who was eventually released. The poem is from the viewpoint of the painted family portrait watching the family members react to visits from officials, “the strangers”. It creates an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia, even the poem asks if the portraits can be re-hung after what’s been witnessed, but the family’s life will never return to how it was. There’s a natural flow into examining the life of refugees, in ‘At a gathering of refugees’
‘We both stood among
Those who owned their land, spoke
Of homelands as if they were reachable;
As if she could sail home to take her seat
At the kitchen table, begin kneading her bread.
As if I could just open the gate to my garden.’
It’s not just physical limitations or waiting for a regime change that makes the country the speaker grew up in unreachable, it’s that hindsight makes it impossible to return. There’s a breach of trust and injustice, but still a longing for something that was familiar.
More recent poems follow the uncovering of police archives and the discovery of what was recorded, in ‘We are museums’
There are records of us eating sour soup and polenta, drinking linden tea,
Mother knitting sweaters at two in the morning to exchange for eggs
And flour; you will find her sitting on the bed “alone by herself
Talking to no one for many hours,” framed forever in the state archives.
On the top floor, where we are further up from the earth, you will see us
Trying to escape: the girl asks her father to “please talk about Kant,”
And he says, “plan to live without me if I am assassinated.” We are
Museums. I am writing this down so you can come inside us to see.
There are no secrets anyway, everything about us has been recorded:
Night dreams and rage, irony and double-meaning, shopping we did
At the pharmacy, tears on our cheeks, even the illusion that
There might have been something we could have kept for ourselves.’
Nothing was secret yet what was recorded was the mundanity of everyday life, except of the father’s instruction. It’s clear the parents suspected they were being spied on but wanted to keep life as near to normal as possible for their children. The title is repeated in the poem as a reminder that this wasn’t normal life with a reasonable expectation of privacy. Not only is there the shock of discovering precisely what the secret police were recording but also now that the records are public the sense of intrusion is doubled. These records were of people, not statistics.
The poems also look forward, in ‘New Life’ a girl records that
‘She had walked out of the ruins of her own house,
Crossed eight countries, mostly on foot,
Scaling snowy mountains, descending on railway tracks
To signal the way to her parents who pushed the pram:
Made her own map of this world.’
The poem ends,
‘The map of the world the girl has drawn
Is being absorbed by the map of this century –
Soles of shoes scattered across the way to hope.
The road to a better life has not yet been planned,
Everyone is waiting for an architect.’
The initial impetus to flee is about reaching safety or at least getting away from a dire circumstance. Little thought is given to arrival, which brings a new set of uncertainties including hostility from receiving countries and the lack of a clear path to establishing a new home and settling into a foreign place. Sadly refugees often spend a long time in an insecure limbo while waiting for applications to processed and an outcome decided.
Carmen Bugan’s poems prove a worthwhile witness: they record without judgment and explore issues of exile, seeking refuge and injustices of incarceration and surveillance by state police without self-pity or recrimination. Despite the gentleness of the language, they explore the sinister nature of humanity, the creation of a state where arbitrary decisions by state officials cannot be appealed against, where neighbours spy on each other through fear and lives are unjustly disrupted. Their calmness seeks compassion.