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Poetry can assuage pain

This is The Bishop’s Institute for Ministry & Leadership August 2016 book review of Carmen Bugan’s "Releasing the Porcelain Birds."

Note from The Rev. Dr. Douglas Dupree, Rector, Bishop's Institute for Leadership and Ministry :

Carmen did her Doctorate in Philosophy in Balliol and wrote a very poignant memoir of her father and childhood that won several book awards in the UK titled Burying the Typewriter: A Memoir. Every time her dissident father wrote and distributed an anti-Communist government tract either she or her mother would grab his typewriter and bury it in the backyard before the Ceausescu’s regime secret police came knocking on their door.

"Releasing the Porcelain Birds" by Carmen Bugan

A porcelain bird cannot sing, fly, or eat nor does she have a heart …instead she sits on a shelf for the world to admire; her beauty never fades. Therefore, releasing a porcelain bird makes no difference. In her book, “Releasing the Porcelain Birds,” Carmen Bugan has revived the porcelain bird-like nightmares of her childhood, transforming them into lyrically poetic memories. Thus her collection of poetry is so appropriately named because through the beauty of language, it brings to life the story of her family and their egregious treatment during the dark days that preceded the Romanian revolution in the late 1980’s.

In 1989 with one suitcase each and running from death threats, Bugan and her family were able to leave Romania and seek refuge in the United States. Her father had been jailed by the Communist regime, her family haunted and hunted. In 2010. Bugan took possession of volumes of files on her father, and in 2013 she gained possession of files on the rest of her family. With those in hand, she transformed the memories and the truths into tender narrative, “writing herself free” as Kelvin Corcoran says, and creating for the reader a vivid picture of resurrection and new life despite a dictator’s attempt to crucify.

In Bugan’s words:

My family was framed forever in the state archives…these files reveal an extra-narrative of my life I did not write…My collection of poetry is about reclaiming my story out of the mess of history, regaining my identity, it is a meditation on the language of oppression and an attempt to give words beauty and to rescue my story out of that mess.

(BBC Interview, May 31, 2016)

In this collection of poems, Bugan reclaims the beauty of her life despite the humiliating experience of harsh isolation and constant surveillance of the Romanian secret police during Ceausescu’s reign of terror.

With titles like “We are museums,” “Life without a country,” and “Is this window ours?” Bugan weaves the secret police files into her memories. Some of the memories, she says, are burned into her psyche and yet some do not exist at all; they only exist in the display cases of the secret police. As the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney said, “poetry can assuage pain.” And so this collection does just that…assuaging the pain not only of the Bugan family, but also the pain the reader feels as Bugan tells her story.

We have now become museums. The inside of our souls

Was turned out like the lining of coats hung to dry,

And our souls have dried. Out of us came the warm breath

That you see when you blow on a window or in the winter air. (11)

So begins the poem “We are museums.” Like a publicly owned museum, the Bugan family’s life was appropriated by the secret police of Romania, and all that they said and did became public knowledge.

There are records of us eating sour soup and polenta, drinking linden tea,

Mother knitting sweaters at two in the morning to exchange for eggs

And flour; you will find her sitting on her bed ‘alone by herself

Talking to no one for many hours,’ framed forever in the state archives. (11)

The book also contains translated copies of the state archives which Bugan juxtaposes with her poetic interpretation as well as the original copies of the surveillance files which are included in an Appendix. “The aim of this appendix is to give a visual sense of the historical material that led to the making of these poems, and a sense of the original secret police language for those who can read Romanian.”

If you only have time to read one poem, go straight to “A birthday letter,” because there you will find the essence of Bugan’s hopeful message. “…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,” (21).

The life of a refugee is hard enough when she must run from her homeland, but finding a hidden chronicle of her life behind a glass case ignited a flame of revenge for Carmen Bugan…revenge against the people who stole her family’s identity, revenge in the form of transforming what could have been a book of bitterness into a book of poetry. Bugan’s porcelain birds did fly after all.

A first edition of “Releasing the Porcelain Birds” is available from Amazon Books here:

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