for Isabela V. (d. 1988)


1988. March. We do not leave the mortuary vault.
At night we huddle on spread blankets
As we did at the rock concert the summer before.
We drink from plastic bottles, cheap wine,
To celebrate the sexy quiver of your lip, the shifty curvature,
The ember ghost of each flaunted lisp.
Lascivious tongue: oyster slit metaphoring what, you had asked.
Ambrosian tongue: changing despairs like workshirts.
Viperine tongue: fangs loaded with subversive jokes.

When we blacklist the teachers who threaten
To fail us if we attend the funeral—
Suicide is the ultimate insult
to our harmonious communist life

You wink in approval. We rise
On numb toes to kiss your eyelids.
We do not leave the mortuary vault
For three days. March. 1988.



*Excerpted from Father Dirt (©Alice James Books, 2010) and reprinted with permission.



What is the best way to know a people, a country?

I would say through its art, and especially through its literature. I trust a nation’s literature more than I trust its official history, of course. There’s a truthfulness in literature that is far more reliable than the truths claimed by history. By the time it gets out of history’s production process, truth is far too often tainted, corrupted.

Where does your writing come from?

From a great infatuation with the English language, its capabilities for deliciousness and sensual pleasuring, and from fear—fear of forgetting, fear of failing to register—consciously or at least intuitively or emotionally— change.

Some days my pre-America self and its native Romania seem distant, unfathomable. Those are scary days, days that insist that I return to and revisit the past.

I guess fear may work in curious ways on our psyche, shaping and reshaping who we are and how we relate to others. I was born and raised in a country and at a time when people shared the last piece of bread with you before asking your name, but they were also, for good reasons, extremely paranoid and suspicious.

“No one can enjoy freedom without trembling” said the Romanian-born French essayist Emil Cioran. I have to agree; you do experience freedom differently once you’ve experienced it as lack, dissolution, fear. You can no longer afford to waste it; you need to make something out of it, again and again.

One thing you would change about the literary scene in America?

I would make translation a more integral part of who we are as a culture. I find it embarrassing that only about 3% of our publications are translations, and, within that, only about 0.07% are translations of literature. I think it tells a great deal about our insularity and self-absorption, and I wish I didn’t see in it a predictor of our future.

How do I envision change? I guess I would start with a somewhat draconian measure and make the rigorous teaching of foreign languages mandatory, kindergarten throughout college.

A question I ask my students the first day of classes, before we delve into Inanna and Gilgamesh: What would you have been 5,000 years ago?


Things you find particularly irritating?

Ignorance that takes pride in itself, and cell phones.

Reciprocated or unreciprocated loves—beside those of family (hello, M, my love) and friends?

Dark chocolate, (ideally 75% to 90% cocoa) pure or colonized by sea salt or coffee, cocoa or chili nibs; good cabernets or sexy blends (Ménage à Trois—an affordable favorite); dishes that taste as good as the best lines of poetry; The Duke & The King, The Felice Brothers, Leonard Cohen, Bon Iver, L P, Gogol Bordello, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen; too many poets to dare start a list; William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera, Ian McEwan, Andrei Codrescu; snowdrops and the smell of ocean.