Friday, October 20, 2017

Q&A: “Sortilege in Strawberry Fields” by Mihaela Moscaliuc

Q&A: “Sortilege in Strawberry Fields” by Mihaela Moscaliuc



To celebrate the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Poet Lore, available to order from The Writer’s Center e-store, the Poet Lore editorial staff is spotlighting the work of contributors. This installment is one in a series of Q&As with contributors, conducted by Managing Editor Sarah Katz.

SORTILEGE IN STRAWBERRY FIELDS
by Mihaela Moscaliuc
~unu~

(Watching Tess in Romania, 1986)
The close-up hints lips will unseal.
Will it drift toward or will she?
Her neck inches forward
as if nudged by breeze. Lips part,
the quiver so intense the camera misses it.
Eyes follow Polanski’s long shot
but I cling to the strawberry
suspended a wisp away from Kinski’s lips.
Quick as a striking match, Alec’s fingers snip
the stem, lob the raw red forth.
She tears flesh apart, the fragrance amped,
perhaps, by the flame of her own tongue.
I trap the heat between my ribs,
harness it to daydreams. I char
the secret files that chart our most intimate
routines, singe the tongue of the headmistress
who shames me for red-staining my lips.
When classmates start diving off top-floor balconies,
I cleave to the colossal strawberry,
force its seeds into narratives.
~doi~
Pregnant through the open market, she wanted to bury her face in the fragrant mounds. Women would hiss and whisk her away. Thank God for quick fingers. On the way home, she’d fish them out of the bag bloated with dill and parsley, stuff them in her mouth whole, ecstatic. You liked them too. I could tell by the kicks. If only strawberry seeds were all one needed to grow prescient or promiscuous. Wives’ tales.
Still, she fears my strawberry birthmark,
sin she transposed onto my skin
as I rubbed my way out.
~trei~

Did it drift toward or did I ?
Tess: I would rather take it in my own hand.
Alec: Nonsense.
Why spill the juice, leave fingerprints?

His wife leads me to a patch she’s known since childhood
on a steep incline below the woodlands.
We’ve come here barefoot, barehanded,
left pans of morels simmering in the house we rent in the village.
Our bodies nestled in wild grass, she teaches me
to eat the ripest off the stem, without touching—
says this way you become one with them,
says this way you’ll recognize the truly sweet,
says he cares deeply for you, my husband.
~patru~
In Dürer’s Mary and the many animals, the infant inspects the strawberry plant that landed in his hands, possibly a gift with moral lesson, or just pure distraction. Eve’s son more than Christ child, he doesn’t see five petal wounds, triptych leaf, globule of unadulterated blood.
He’ll pull at the red bell, try to bring it to his mouth. Thick volume on her lap, Mary’s content something keeps him occupied. These days she rarely finds time for her favorite books.
~cinci~
No harvesting of strawberries, Virgil warns children. The cold, evil serpent hides nearby
I thought I was practicing vigilance, learned songs that kept snakes away. Still, he came to breakfast, slathered his toast with strawberry jam, drank mother’s milk. He taught me secret languages, how to slither through cracks, how to feign stillness.
~sase ~
When I wouldn’t bleed and wouldn’t bleed
I feared a life of weighing strawberry flats in the communist co-op. Grandmother’s divination undammed the menstruum.
Lucky this one time, she warned.
~sapte ~

Ovid sings its virtue as nourishment that needs no cultivation. Nonsense. To protect the beds from pill bugs, I half-bury popped cans of Bud.
~opt~
The strawberry of The Hungry Bear, hyperbolic as Bosch’s in The Garden of Earthly Delights, enchants my five-year-old every night. The little mouse, afraid the hungry bear will steal his giant red ripe strawberry, cakes it with dirt so it resembles a hill, chains and padlocks it, adds glasses and moustache for disguise. He sweats, he agonizes. Nothing to do, the narrator suggests. Eat what you can and give away the rest.
My son feels for the mouse. He thinks up other ways of concealing the strawberry from the hungry bear. I tell him the bear too is hungry. He doesn’t know enough about the bear’s hunger to care. He wants the mouse to never let go. He can get more from Costco, he reassures himself as the story ends.
He can’t, I insist. The Costco ones they taste nothing like the strawberry the mouse wants all for himself.
My son cries inconsolably. I cry too, but I don’t take it back.

~nou ~
Romania, 2011
About a third of Romania’s workers have migrated west for work, leaving children in the care of relatives, neighbors, or older siblings. Regardless of whether they work as aides for the elderly and infirm, in construction and on docks, they are known as “strawberryists” since most resort first to— or fall back into—strawberry-picking as means to support themselves and their families back home.
They found him dangling from the horsewhip,
strange fruit with note pinned
to the stem of his body: I’m sorry
we’re parting upset, Mama.
Strawberries snatched you away,
you said, for the love of us, to end the wanting,
and their ripeness must have sweetened your days.
Here they’ve stretched and stretched,
so I’m bringing you back.
Tuck me in the earth as you did in bed
and make this an excuse to stay.
I left Ana my sword. It works only
on dragons visible to strawberry orphans.
I got stronger, as you foretold,
but sadness crowded me this way,
that way. I leave you a nice selfie
in my phone. Please return the horsewhip
to the Gypsy boy at the end of the street.
He let me borrow it for nothing.
Sarah Katz: In her introduction to a portfolio of your poetry in the new issue of Poet Lore, Kimiko Hahn describes your work as "an apt response to what the French feminists challenged us women to do decades ago: Write the body." This approach is evident to me in your six-page poem, "Sortilege in Strawberry Fields," in which you begin with the opening of the 1979 film, Tess. The main character, Tess, (played by Nastassja Kinski) and the strawberry suspended in front of her mouth by Alec d'Urberville (played by Leigh Lawson), is the object of the speaker's attention. The first section ends on an ominous notestrawberries are at once an object of lust and as a tool and/or medium for violence:

She tears flesh apart, the fragrance amped,
perhaps, by the flame of her own tongue.

trap the heat between my ribs,
harness it to daydreams. I char

The secret files that chart our most intimate
routines, singe the tongue of the headmistress

who shames me for red-staining my lips.
When classmates start diving off top-floor balconies,

cleave to the colossal strawberry,
force its seeds into narratives.

At this point, the poem has shifted its energies from focusing on the actress's actions to the "I" that is engaging with the actress on the screen: "I trap... harness," "I char... singe the tongue," "I cleave…." To me, this shift signals that the speaker, as Hahn has suggested, is using the body of the actress to relate her own physical experiences as a woman who craves ownership over her bodyif these are the right words. And as that last line promises (“I cleave the colossal strawberry, / force its seeds into narratives”), strawberries become multidimensional over the course of the poem: first as a symbol of empowerment; then as a trap for women and economic trap for Romanian workers; then as a forbidden fruit, as an unfairly stolen fruit, as a dead, lynched body. It is an urgent and cogent undoing, I would say, of strawberries, which are typically thought of as fruits of romance and desire.

So, finally, my question: What is it about the form of the long poem that supports your effort to "write the [woman's] body"?

Mihaela Moscaliuc Thank you for this insightful and beautifully articulated question.
Although I was not consciously responding to feminists’ challenge that we “Write the body” or trying to produce or engage with l'écriture feminine, I see now how that must have been part of what I was doing in “Sortilege in Strawberry Fields.” It feels so gratifying to have readers and critics who understand your work in ways you don’tor didn’t without their aid. Perhaps Julia Kristeva, Hé1ène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Judith Butler, in whose writings I immersed myself for a while, were prodding me on as I kept writing myself in and out of that ‘original’ strawberry you mention.
The Tess D’Urberville scene referenced in the opening section of the poem recalls one the most disturbingly pleasurable memories of my adolescence. In retrospect, I see it as a first encounter with/experience of jouissance, though I wouldn’t be able to explain why or how. Perhaps that’s why the poem emerged—out of this inability to make sense of the experience, as an attempt to recreate it rather than explain or theorize it. Your comments on the use of diction that juxtaposes pleasure and violence is right on. I remember staring at the strawberry suspended between Tess’s slight open lips and Alec’s fingers and wanting that big old communist cinema screen to freeze. It was my first encounter with the erotic, but what I was experiencing was complicated and confusing, fraught with intimations of aggression, violence. I fed on that tension and turned that erotic charge into a tool-weapon that helped me navigate various personal and social situations. In communist Romania, this was a time of escalating deprivation, oppression, and censorship. Women’s bodies were surveilled and policed.
As you so aptly point out in your question, in this poem the strawberry becomes an extended metaphor that shifts and changes meaning as it attaches itself to other memories, ideas, images. I’m reminded of Cixous’s statement, somewhere in "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975) that a woman’s “libido is cosmic, just as her unconscious is worldwide.”
I hadn’t planned to write a long poem, but as I finished the first section, I realized that I was not done—that every strawberry I’d seen, tasted, or fantasized about carried the traces of that “original” one, and that my subsequent experiences with eroticism and violence might have been shaped, whether I'd known it or not, by that first encounter. Perhaps in some ways this is a poem about untranslatability as well. So much of what I see in a strawberry is bound to my particular experiences with particular contexts (including life in communist and post-communist Romania).  
I am grateful to Kimiko Hahn for inspiring me, through her own work (and her use of the zuihitsu and the haibun) to experiment with longer, unruly cross-genre forms.   

MIHAELA MOSCALIUC was born and raised in Romania. She is the author of Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and Father Dirt (Alice James Books, 2010), translator of Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper, and editor of Insane Devotion: On the Writing of Gerald Stern. She teaches at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

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