A teaching from the Sfat Emet for Rosh Hashanah
A post-Rosh Hashanah poem

Claudia Serea's Angels & Beasts

Angels & Beasts, the newest release from Phoenicia Publishing, is a strange and wondrous collection. Here's how the publisher describes the collection:


1346421538In this largely autobiographical collection of 74 short prose poems, the poet presents her life in three sections. "Angels & Beasts" recalls her early years under the regime of Nicolae Ceasescu, a world of secret terror in which the child interweaves reality and malevolent creatures from Romanian folklore. "The Little Book of Answers" covers the years between the Romanian Revolution (1989) and Serea's emigration to America in 1995. Finally, "The Bank Teller's Name is Jesus" involves the immigrant's impressions of her new home, always colored by the past she carries with her. Serea's masterful use of brevity, surrealism, irony, and black humor allow her to express -- and the reader to confront -- unspeakable horrors. She is a survivor, but a survivor with wide-open eyes, determined to move forward holding the darkness and light together."


That's the book jacket text. But as descriptive as it is, it doesn't do these prose poems justice. Here's one of my early favorites -- one of the lighter ones, I think:

Some angels walk among us looking just like regular people. Sometimes they even play football, like this guy with a sweaty t-shirt. He takes a long drink of water and looks at me knowingly. When he pulls his shirt overhead, I can see the scars where the wings fasten. I'll bet he has them neatly folded in the duffle bag he carries after the game.

I love the image of the sweaty footballer whose scars suggest the temporary amputation of great beating wings.

Here's one of the more disconcerting ones:

White as milk, the stag carries the souls of dead children. He drinks the tears from their mothers' eyes and grazes on thin memory grasses. He stops at the abandoned house to rummage through the rbble, looking for small clothes. The children's souls are nestled in silk swings hooked on the stag's antlers. He carries them gently over treetops and roofs, and into the moon.

I don't know how many of those images are drawn from Romanian folklore and how many are the author's own imagining; regardless, the poem haunts me. (A glance at the notes at the back of the book tells me that the poem is inspired by a Christmas carol about a mythical stag who carries baby Jesus in a silk swing in his antlers.) It's not so much the fact of the souls of dead children, or of an animal who carries them in his horns; it's the "thin memory grasses" and the image of the stag rummaging "through the rubble, looking for small clothes." My heart seizes every time I reread those lines.

One of my favorite poems in the book is this one:

My brother and I emerged victorious after hours of waiting in line, holding a couple of bags with livid animal feet inside. The chicken feet were called flatware, and the pig feet Adidas sneakers. Mom will be so proud of us, we thought. On the way home, we counted: four pieces of flatware, two sneakers, enough to eat for a week.

She says so much in so few words. Hours of waiting in line; livid animal feet; four chicken feet and two pig feet, a week's worth of meat. I can hardly imagine the life which gave rise to these images, to this sharp economy of language. And yet the poem is also -- we have to admit this -- hilariously funny. The chicken feet were called flatware, the pig feet Adidas sneakers! It's the kind of childhood misunderstanding that makes adults giggle despite ourselves. So here I am, laughing helplessly at my imagined vision of two little children who misunderstood the names of the animal feet they were proudly bringing him for a week's worth of dinners.

You turn on the city lights with the strike of a match. The angels march overhead in rows that flicker and flutter, past the sandwich man who holds the sign: BEST WINGS IN TOWN. FREE DELIVERY.

That's from the third section of the book, the section arising out of life in America. Reading it, I think of striking matches to light Shabbat candles, of flipping a switch and seeing a room blaze to well-lit life, of the bright skyline of Manhattan, of the scrolling LED advertisements of Tokyo and Times Square re-visioned into angels, of the horrific massacre of a million tiny angels to make the town's best hot wings.

I'll close with one last poem, also from the book's third section:


Yes yes yes.

The answer is yes.

Yes: in fall, the leaves get their yellow passports and emigrate from the trees. They all look for a better life in Dirtland, but very few make it there. Most of them are blown down the street by the fall wind. That's how I got here, my dear.

Yes: every church on earth has a mirror church in the sky. This is true for mosques, too. The churches hang upside down and float over mountains and fields, while cardinals toll the bells.

Yes: an orange lily hands from the sky. Its pistil drips the noon light on earth until the hummingbird sticks its tongue inside and drinks.

Here in the hills of western Massachusetts the leaves are beginning to blaze. As they brighten and fall I know these lines will return to me. How many of our ancestors took the leap from the familiar branches of the shtetl, the old country, the old town, looking for a better life? What would they say about the lives their descendants have chosen? I love that reading these poems is reopening these very personal questions for me.

Learn more about the book, read excerpts, read praise for the collection, and order a copy for yourself: Angels & Beasts at Phoenicia Publishing.