by Alina Ștefănescu

reviewed by Carmen Bugan

It is exceedingly rare for a poet to achieve a spiritual unity with an adopted language that replaces the relationship with the mother tongue. Fluency in another language is a matter of deliberate, rather than instinctive, linguistic choices. And for the immigrant poet, the longing to feel at one with another language becomes part of one’s condition. This longing is the subject of Alina Ștefănescu’s Dor.

Dor attempts to define the reality of an immigrant’s experience of a new language as a fall from one language into another. One reaches for everything available—other people’s words, memories, and words such as “family” and “love” that transcend boundaries—to soften the spiritual crash. The Romanian word “dor” (“longing”) prompts a restless search for an equivalent in English and surfaces in various guises and word combinations that she defines, in her introduction to the collection, as “dor-words.” These insert a sense of wistfulness into the English. In “Dedication”, for example, the speaker misses her father, whose name derives from the word “dor.” Her native Romanian, in which “mothers name / their sons Longing,” is characterized as a language of yearning. The word “dor,” which sounds not unlike the English word “door,” allows Ștefănescu to carry this yearning from Romanian into English. In doing so, she makes the space between languages—the seams, the fissures and openings of words—visible.

In Dor, the Romanian-in-Alabama poetic self is naturalized with all its rights, privileges, and, one expects, responsibilities to participate in the American life. The collection is a record of losing previous selves—an act often portrayed through do-it-yourself abortions, as in “My Polish Child”: “I felt a color. Not an expression / of life.” The experience of loss takes place in synesthetic terms, as colors, at once removed from feeling and grieving for it. In another poem, “Apologia,” set in the U.S., the loss is described with imagery that reflects independence, individuality, and heart-wrenching solitude:

No doula or doctor or nurse or friend intervened. No expert stood between
my breath and the sky,
my breath and the clouds, clotting,
my breath and the unwanted baby,
my life

What is created with pleasure, or love, or deceit—we don’t know—is “unwanted” and dealt with in complete solitude in the street.

At other times, the self is an exuberant accumulation of identities—lover, wife, mother, inconvenient political commentator, woman who creates linguistic fusions and fissions. Dor reflects a third language that only those who leave their homelands learn to speak. That third language, explained in “The Communist at Catholic School: A ‘Multiple-Choice’ Test,” is the result of what the speaker terms “failed” conjugations in capitalism. It expresses self-consciousness about “the heritage of boiled cabbage,” where one smells the refugees “from the way their stories pickle, / from the sourness they leave on the tongue.” And yet, “it’s the sour that protects; vinegar preserves / the vegetables. Aşa se face.” As an immigrant attending the titular Catholic school, the speaker is bound to fail the religious, cultural, and grammatical tests of belonging. Assimilation, the poem suggests, requires accepting oneself as an “unreliable narrator” who will speak that third language of longing to feel at home.

One of the most moving pieces in this collection is “Pickled Plums,” which reads:

I dub them, those three
citizens of my womb, the ones

I didn’t deport. Although I know
plums are hard to grow

on foreign soil. Plums are finicky,
unreliable, quick to revolt or

pout. Like my mother, I plant-
ed a Romanian plum sapling

in the northeast corner of
the yard to keep evil away.

Like my father, I take three
thimbles of tuica before dinner

to prepare the throat for
what the mouth may say.

Like the “finicky” and “unreliable” plums that are “quick to revolt” but are necessary to the new life, the poems in this collection will inevitably become the very alcoholic tuica, three thimbles of which will “prepare the throat for / what the mouth may say.” In adopting another language, the poet’s utterances are the un-deported—that is, naturalized—“citizens of the womb” that will help avert evil, keep alive the superstitions intrinsic in the old language, and give birth to “dor-words.”

Published on April 15, 2022