Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 124 in September, 2010.
By Richard Milazzo
(Craiova, Romania: Scrisul Romanesc Foundation, 2010)
Review by Jim Feast
Given the large place Romania has had in the news lately, it is certainly a welcome time for Richard Milazzo’s Eastern Shadows, a bilingual work in which the author’s originally English poems have been translated into Romanian Each poem is given a date and place of composition, so it is possible to follow Milazzo’s itinerary as he travels from the U.S. to Western Europe and then to Romania, arriving in the time of the reign of the “player president,” Traian Băses.
President since 2004, Băsescu is not only known for ushering his country into the EU (which is now imploding), but for his championing of the U.S. imperial mission, supplying troops to support our country in both Iraq and Afghanistan, even going head to head with his defense minister when he objected to getting involved in these adventures.
Thus, in light of this history, Milazzo’s journey becomes a highly ironic one. In the stereotypical Western depictions of trips to Romania (or its province Transylvania), the hero enters Eastern Europe where he or she discovered an exotic world, more vital and earthy than that found in more civilized conditions, but also more dangerous and transgressive. This is the template Dracula follows. In Eastern Shadows, though, this is reversed, and we get a trip into a second darkness, in that, from the viewpoint of prime minister Popescu-Tăriceanu, for example, who also broke with Băsescu over his foreign policy, the U.S. is the original darkness, a nation recklessly running into a quagmire in Afghanistan (whatever the merits of its anti-terrorism strategy), and dragging Romania, the second dark star, in its wake. Yet, here’s the rub. America has the resources to keep its populace’s mind off the war, while Romania doesn’t have that luxury.
Milazzo does not lay this all out explicitly but as he moves from the U.S., on to Paris and then, step by step through Eastern Europe to end in the Amzei Hotel, Bucharest, his short lyrics turn more from descriptions of local, quiet street scenes, seemingly unaffected by the ongoing war, to thoughts of battle and carnage.
But before pointing to the intellectual acuity of his work, let me note an interrelated aspect: his surefooted and ingenious use of an image, one that is carried over from poem to poem, delicately modified as the author moves East. The trope is that of depicting himself and other entities (such as the nation’s soul) as eagles or as large, thickly plumaged birds. It is with the aid of this recurrent motif that he is able to delve unsettlingly in history and international politics.
To briefly chart Milazzo’s voyage, it begins in New York, the heart of the beast, on which the poet calls down an anathema: “May it collapse and bring all the godly // And galleried world and corporate cells with it.” He provides a vigorous denunciation, but one that is self conscious enough to realize if the empire falls that he, also, the bird-like poet, will go down in equal flames.
And may he, too, who wishes all this,
Choke upon the ashes
And shadows and wings inside
The mirror’s coldest fire.
Now, it may seem that with this poem he has already shot his bolt. What more can he say in condemnation of a predatory society and its government? Although, this poem may seem to be an all-out attack on the shortfalls of American life, looked at more carefully, it is basically aimed at economic royalists, hoping for their eclipse in an apocalyptic moment.
Moreover, as he shifts ground, it becomes clearer that the abstraction evident in this poem, where he speaks nonspecifically of the “galleried world and corporate cells,” references a similar abstraction in the U.S. Here, a war we are conducting may appear briefly on TV, but there it occupies consciousness only an instant. As the poet moves to humbler countries, ones that can’t afford all the filters the American populace has to censor events, the realities of conflict become clearer.
In Hungary, for example, Milazzo makes a powerful trip into the country’s past in “Budapest Dream.” It opens with him being hunted down. “I rode the magic stag .... Pursued by dogs and Christians.” It seems he is a hated pariah, perhaps Jew or gypsy, in any case “heathen.” A bird steps in, his savior.
And for heathen relief
Did fly the golden eagle
By using a fairy tale motif in this lyric, Milazzo forcefully underlines that even romantic legends in the Balkans are marked by the memories of interethnic hatreds and struggles, which have shaped imaginative consciousness.
Finally, he enters Romania. There, not only the poet, but the thugs and bully boys have become animals: “the wolves // from Sighet, wearing black boots // Circling each other, eyeing each other.” In this land, the ony sounds one hears are “the screams // Of a dying bird plummeting to earth // And the door locking.”
All his poems in Romania are unrelenting, whether the focus is the past or present, in depiction of an all-pervasive violence, not only shown in the country’s participation in American wars of subjection, but in the tenor of everyday life. Still, there are counter-forces, such as (a bird again) the presence of an angel. “And the snow pristine and light // Like the wings of a cold angel // Covering the branches of the trees.” Where in other places, he dreamed of escaping in the claws of a bird, in this landscape with an historical and contemporary omnipresence of coercion, the only hope is to disappear altogether, as he says so gracefully:
Perhaps if I become a tongue
Of fire or an icicle
I will meet you in a lick of smoke
Or a drop of water
It’s remarkable — if you think about it and consider the last line-- that Milazzo can draw such beauty from such a glum topic, which is the warping effect of war, which has pervaded every society he visits and has succeeded in washing away almost all, but not quite all, hope. He still unearths that hope.