Carmen Bugan was born in 1970 in Romania. Her family immigrated to the US in late 1980s. Bugan studied at the University of Michigan and Balliol College, Oxford, where she obtained a PhD in English literature. Her books of poetry include Releasing the Porcelain Birds (2016), The House of Straw (2014), and Crossing the Carpathians (2005). She has also published a memoir, Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police (2012), and a critical study titled Seamus Heaney and East European Poetry in Translation: Poetics of Exile (2013). She lives in Long Island.
Peter Feng is a poet and translator from Qingdao, China. He received a PhD in English Literature from Nanjing University in 2011, and since then he has been exploring the interconnections between poetry, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. He has translated a number of American poets, including elsewhere by Scott Alexander Jones and The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (Shanghai Translation Publishing House). He is the author of Parallel Tongues, The Desert Swimmer, and Cruel Raven (co-authored with Sun Dong, Nanjing University Press). His poems appear in Poetry Sky, American Poetry Review, Big Scream, Grey Sparrow, Napalm Health Spa, and others.
The words ‘the source informs you’ echo in my head
that other voice—familiar, comfortable almost,
lining our private cries: ‘the inmate wrote’
to his wife and children ‘from the Aiud prison’.
Our letters journeyed through the clay-like
maze of secret police desks. Stamps, checks, dates,
signatures indicate officers and places. The paraphrase
of ongoing pain—half the time they paraphrased us.
That voice in introductions sticks to our words
like a skin disease impossible to cure. But then
some sentences from us burst free perhaps because
they’re not translatable, editable, condensable.
They stand out in quotation marks and spring
at me now like unexpected heartbeats.
On 4 May 1985 my father thought about his birthday.
‘Make a cake with fifty candles and take a picture’.
I remember the cake on the table in the winter kitchen
and myself thinking about him in chains all day.
‘My dear, the children are healthy’ Mother said.
‘Come to see me with my children’ he said.
‘Do you remember me coming home with snow
on my brow?’ a letter says. ‘Children I so much miss
you, I kiss you all and your mother.’ And me:
‘How beautiful it would have been for you to have been here too!’
‘Sell everything you can’ he urged ‘send the children to school.’
‘Do not despair, I might be coming home soon’.
We hung onto those few words that could cross
the clay-like murky territories between us and shone faint hope.
These letters were like skin that covered
and protected our bodies from the cold outside,
each word a capillary that carried and supported
the life in each one of us. Each word was limitless,
clothed our souls and warmed against despair,
shielded us from their world of terror,
transported chills, shivers, anger, warmth
from us to Father, and back from him to us:
they took us to each other as we were.
When the censor took our words and talked about them,
discarded our handwriting and wrote his,
he became a flaying instrument.
Letters we sent were not received
(until now, thirty years on).
We, Marsyas the Satyr tied to our tree.
The Censor scraped at capillaries of our words,
what survives is howling: ‘a year has passed with no news
from you’; ‘something awful is happening to you’;
‘no one looks after us anymore, they’re all busy’;
‘Mother is ill and short tempered, even grandmother has left’;
‘it’s an indignity you have nothing to eat’.
Thirty years have gone and we have lived
with exposed wounds, doubts, fears, uncertainties.
Now I find the family letters from back then
in the midst of thousands of records.
I reconstruct the way we used to speak,
the way skin used to feel when it was still alive.
Denatured letters in the handwriting of the censor.
I can see capillaries under the flaying instrument,
I reconstruct parts of the skin from the words
that were copied out. We now know
what has been taken from us and how
words alone saved us then
and bring joy now, the joy of finding them,
for in their frail syllables I recognize the old self.
Apollo has cleaned his instrument and left.