Train Ride to Bucharest by Lucia Cherciu: Reviewed by Cameron MacKenzie

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Lucia Cherciu’s Train Ride to Bucharest is a remarkable collection, less a compendium of gathered poems and more a complete narrative attempting to tell one singular story in a manner that is perhaps the most difficult, and thereby the most true.

Broken up into four sections, the collection guides the reader through the childhood of a girl born and raised in an eastern bloc country to her arrival and subsequent life in America. The poems seem to be delivered in total from this last position of spatial and temporal remove, the past worked and reworked in a series of images that spark and fade and reoccur throughout the collection. The book begins by placing its emphasis on the land itself that this narrator has left, principally understood through its women:

    I was born in wine country so everyone
    leaves out wine bottles on the steps at the gate—
    and when I call my mother and ask her how she’s doing
    she says she’s making wine,
    bartering plum brandy for fire wood.

The figure of the mother weaves in and out of all the women in the collection, from butchers to teachers, each one struggling against the intractability of the land, of the government, of the men. The guiding image of the collection appears in the aptly titled “Stealing the Pattern”:

    At nineteen, my mother spent a winter hunched over the loom

    …She sheared the wool, spun the thread,
    steeped the colors.  Hues melted:
    subdued orange of onion skins, red of beets.

    After patience and toil, flowers cropped up
    on her warp and weft.  After months of grind,
    peonies took over the house in…winter…

The image of the weaver provides the metaphor for the collection entire, as the poems collected here are less freestanding pieces than they are snatches of visions, ideas worked upon, words posited in one poem to be taken up again in another and explored. Plums, berries, brandy and frozen solid trees appear and reappear rhythmically throughout the collection, often tied to the traditions of life the narrator has by now left behind. Descriptions of various folk cures sometimes take up entire poems—strong poems to be sure, because Cherciu is at her best when she allows the simple language of this lost world to tell the story she is at times tempted to explain.

In “Only the Rich Had a Well,” for instance, the narrator tells us that the wealthy members of the village “didn’t plant tomatoes,” or “potatoes and thyme” or “radishes or even onions,” but instead filled their yards with “roses and gladiolas, not plum trees /  but ornamental cherries.” That poem, taken by itself, would ostensibly describe how the rich waste precious resources for their own vanity. Rendered plainly and without ostentation, it is perfectly fine.

And yet later on in the collection, in “A Bucket of Bitter Cherries” the images and ideas of the previous poem, reappear, inverted: “The old man went to pick black cherries, managed to fill two buckets / but then had a hard time carrying them / back home… / …when he got to the creek he left one of them on the side of the road in a prominent / place, for someone to find it, because there was no other way.” Aged eighty-seven, the man was “lucky enough to walk” but still “laughed to himself” about:

    …the plum brandy he could add them to
    for taste and color, or make wine with them, spend the day
    canning preserves, as if his summer too was in that valley
    sitting on the bank of that creek.

Here the cherries return, but these are delicious, black cherries of an elderly peasant who can’t help but think of a multitude of uses for them. And yet as the title tells us these cherries are “bitter” as well, that is useless, left behind perhaps for another but, as the poem closes on the notion of inevitable loss, we know that the other will never come. This inversion is interesting by itself, but the refractions are carried forward into “Pickled Peppers,” where the narrator realizes she needs “small twigs from a sour cherry tree” for her recipes. “Now if you were back home / you would just step into the garden to get the twigs / but here it's a game of patience,” meaning here, in America—here, away from home. The narrator chooses to turn away from those memories of cherries and trees and instead simply calls her mother, enticing her to “tell stories about how you should place / the handle of three forks or spoons / under the jar when you pour in the boiling water— / and listen to her until you forget about pickling peppers.”

In this single strand of a collection made of such threads, cherries have moved from an ornament for the rich to a potent and lost emblem of the unattainable past to a mode of mediation for the mother-figure that is the center of the collection entire. In that last poem, the narrator considers buying her own sour cherry trees and planting them,

    …in the front yard,
    build a fence around each of them so deer don’t get them
    and then wait four to five years
    until they start to bear fruit

And so now the narrator, safely ensconced in America, has the comfort and the ease to emulate the behavior of those idle rich from the first poem, those who could afford to plant trees the fruit of which was simply ornamental. In that new comfort, the narrator longs for a connection to a past as remote to her as the youth of the old man who had to leave behind that basket.

These sorts of refractions saturate the collection, making every such found sequence something infinitely more powerful than any single poem.  Indeed it is the sequence of memory itself which the true subject of Cherciu’s discussion.  As the collection unfolds, the narrator becomes increasingly able to recognize that these scenes and characters have in fact been embodied in her own living—that she has become, in essence, the sum of what she remembers. Studying a picture of her mother as a child, the narrator sees that

    …She is held up
    by a mother who looks like a child herself—both smiling
    against the background of hand-woven tapestries.

    Wrapped in a silk scarf delicate like the wings
    of a butterfly, an old woman, now gone for sixty years,

    looks familiar, as if I should know seven
    of her great-grandchildren, spot them passing by.

In this manner Cherciu suggests that we are a condensation of our memories, fated to become the shapes we first learned, and upon which we cannot help but meditate.

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Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. His essays have been collected in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective and Edward P. Jones: New Essays. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career is forthcoming from Madhat Press. He teaches English at Ferrum College.