Nothing Important Happened Today by Claudia Serea
Reviewed by Eric Norris
Reviews are reviews. We take them with a grain of salt. We may pick up the book in question, we may not, if we like the cover, after we check our pockets. There is nothing like word of mouth, however, for a recommendation. This is how Claudia Serea’s book of poems Nothing Important Happened Today dropped into my lap.Claudia Serea was unknown to me until I was introduced to her work last month by Jee Leong Koh, as somebody I might be interested in reading and reviewing. For that suggestion, I am immensely grateful. Nothing Important Happened Today, published by Broadstone Books, is an impressive collection: a small scale epic, you might say, where the union of personal revelation and historical revolution gives birth to something remarkable on every page.
The ironic title of the book is taken from an apocryphal diary entry for July 4th, 1776, made by George III, then King of England, the day the United States declared independence from the British Empire. Some days turn out to be of vastly greater importance than we give them credit for at the time. Just as with poor old, mad old King George in the eighteenth century, the truth of their importance may take time to trickle into our consciousness, if it wanders past our sensory filters at all.
In other words, Nothing Important Happened Today is an example of “poetry of witness,” where the personal and political are inextricably linked: Serea being an eyewitness to the overthrow of the regime of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, during the series of revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe in 1989, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The book is divided into six sections and the trajectory it follows is both autobiographical and historical: from Serea’s childhood in Romania to her immigration to America and her adjustment to life there. The book begins, naturally, with a wake-up call, a prefatory poem that is set apart from everything else, outside of history, but not outside of time. Here is an excerpt from that piece, “6:30 a.m.”:
The sun climbs
over the gleaming city,
over the homeless woman curled on cardboard
guarded by her quiet dog,
over the halal street vendor
frying rice in Faith’s Lunchbox,
over dissonant scaffolding,
over the man
with a jack-hammer
stammering in a cloud of dust.
We see the distantly glittering city of possibility, the spires of Manhattan, from the perspective of New Jersey: its grinding poverty, its perpetual forces of renewal, the place of lost causes and second chances, creation and destruction. The sort of business that Elizabeth Bishop identified as “awful but cheerful” in her poem “The Bight” continues unabated and unapologetically in Claudia Serea’s work.
The equivalent of “The Bight” might be found in “Faith’s Lunchbox,” the halal food cart, I suspect. Whether it exists in real life or is the invention of the poet is immaterial: the play on words is a glorious detail, in a book rich with such gems.
Beyond the sizzle of frying rice, you can feel the jittery energy in the jaws of the dusty man with the jackhammer, stammering, trying to say something, something perhaps important, but impossible to hear above the noise. This is where the poet’s voice intervenes from above, to lend perspective to the moment that is passing.
The sun rises and brings
a rewind and replay.
The sun rises,
and no one wants to be saved.
From here, we move into the nightmare world where the poet’s personal journey from revolution to revelation begins, in “The history of small nations,” a poem that deserves to be read in its entirety:
The order comes at night:
‘Evacuate the trees.’
Rumors and fear rush
through the branches in the dark.
Old voices speak
of emptiness left behind
and the certainty of death.
entire populations relocate.
Legions of refugees flee
the wrath of empire.
They plead and pile at my door,
mounds of hearts flecked
with blood and fire,
and small red leaves
of Acer palmatum,
fingers spread apart.
This poem takes the reader to a very weird place, a kind of fabulous forest, both real and surreal. We are unsure whether the command to “Evacuate” is being given to the trees themselves or to the numberless and invisible persons taking sleepy refuge there, in a land that seems to originate in the poet’s dreams. Hence, the confusion of images: the piles of hearts that metamorphose into piles of red Japanese maple leaves, pleading—perhaps even silently pounding—with their outstretched palms at the author’s door. These are children’s hands, the hands of refugees.
A chill falls on the heart very quickly reading these lines, especially given the refugee crises currently engulfing the Western world.
What a terrible fall it is.
This fall returns later, in a substantially altered and enlarged form, with echoes of Sylvia Plath, in the poem, “My father, the great stone statue,”
I lived in fear of you,
in a dictatorship
the size of our apartment.
I was afraid
but fought you anyway.
At 16, I waged
my own revolution,
the one of all the girls
in the world.
I chanted, screamed
and waved flags
in the kitchen.
You were my huge Lenin statue
I tied with ropes,
and dragged away.
The parallels to Plath’s poem “Daddy,” including the direct address to a statue, are pretty clear, I think, and require very little explication. Hitler has been replaced by Lenin, in Serea’s treatment, fascism by communism: the two ideologies share a common frontier of horror, I guess. The tone here is, however, different from Plath’s. Serea builds on “Daddy” and its kittenish—even kitschy—treatment of evil. Serea’s poem is less of an exercise in psychosexual fantasy than an examination of historical fact.
Look at what Serea does with the plinth of Plath she employs here. After the fall, the Ur-father—Lenin, Ceausescu, the State, the literary construct we are now familiar with—is transformed by events, not into the marble rubble we might have expected to find, but into a person, or rather, I should say, two people:
Don’t get me wrong,
I always wanted to be like you,
to be you.
I wanted to have your poise,
your sure foot.
At 27, I needed to prove
that I’ve grown.
I broke the news
over the steaming food:
I got the visa today.
A cloud entered the room
and sat at the table.
And you, who always wanted to emigrate,
you couldn’t ask me to stay.
You crumbled before my eyes.
You, the strong one,
distant on your pedestal,
broke down to pieces,
A simple man
about to lose his child.
You cry too easily,
“I said.” You can almost hear the italic emphasis, though no italics are present in the text, thank God: italics would be superfluous and would detract from the interior drama of the domestic scene, which occurs in a kitchen. The real revolution occurs here. Here is where the power in the poem changes hands and the poet seizes her future for herself. But it is a future that cannot escape the confines of the past completely, I am afraid.
You cry too easily,
How many times had the father reproached his daughter for her feelings with those identical words, in the kitchen of that poky little apartment? How many times had Ceausescu’s State tortured its own citizens, in similar terms, behind closed doors, in some infamous corner of a concrete dungeon: the earth-muffled chambers of the secret police, lit by naked bulbs, blinding brutalities, and the fecal stench of fear?
You cry too easily,
This is the pivotal poem and the pivotal phrase in Nothing Important Happened Today. Contrary to the title, everything of importance happens here, between these two people. Nowhere is Claudia Serea’s special poetical talent—her ability to take a tiny turn of phrase and turn it into a monument of historical significance—clearer than in this poem.
According to the notes for the book, over a thousand people died as a result of the riots during that December, including the notorious Ceausescu and his wife. The savage events in Bucharest set Romania apart from the other more or less bloodless “Velvet” revolutions in Prague and elsewhere.
Yet, I think, to dwell too much on the blood-bespattered history of the Romanian revolution is to lose sight of the forest because of the trees in Serea’s work, however huge and dark the shadow of those events looms over the landscape. Boom boxes boom, boys are discovered, lindens are loved, glasses of moonshine clink, and more. The title poem, “Nothing important happened today,” takes us elsewhere.
The evening smells of cow manure.
A spider weaves a web on the satellite dish,
making its own small news.
I could live like this.
The sky hangs wet stars on the clothesline,
Cassiopeia’s white dress
and Orion’s belt among tank tops,
and t-shirts with AC/DC.
How fertile that evening! How easily and innocently the four regular iambs of that first line of tetrameter flow! O, there is history in that opening line, history of a different order, earthier in origin, almost unbounded in its fertility. This is a place where things are liable to grow, nurtured and grounded as they are in nature, both below and above, by the ambient air; as if the sky itself were a placid pasture, daintily dotted with the droppings of invisible cows.
The cows may be AWOL, but we know they are still about. We can tell from the freshness of the image—the manure. They may return to visibility in the morning. Who can say for certain? Who can penetrate the mists of midnight? Whatever happens tomorrow, the lingering scent of manure this evening is reassuringly real.
Here we glimpse a parallel theme, the main theme of the book I would argue: the important, politically underrated Nothing—independent, but not disconnected from the interconnected world of revolutionary news we have received already.
The satellite dish has been reduced to its proper place, a gigantic ear, carefully cocked to eavesdrop on the Heavens with the help of an insect: the spider going about its arcane arachnid activities. “I could live like this, too,” perhaps, the reader thinks, along with the poet, connecting the silken strands of the spider to the clothesline bejeweled with stars.
Looking up, we find the freshly laundered mythic figures of Cassiopeia and Orion. There are those shorts, too—for some reason I can’t help picturing hot pants—and the electrically charged musical t-shirt. It is wonderful, really, this vision—magical, sublime—cinematic—in fact, a lot like those quietly profound and lovingly arranged shots of laundry you see in the films of Yasujiro Ozu: the principal difference between the genius of Ozu and the genius of Serea is how the clean laundry is displayed for the audience. In Ozu’s Japan, they use bamboo poles. In Serea’s America, a glistening line of poetry will do.
I would like to say more about Claudia Serea’s work, but I can’t do adequate justice to the manifold beauties of this book in a 2000-word review. Briefly stated, what I most admire about Nothing Important Happened Today is the emotional range. Whether she is talking about the personal sacrifice of a young man she only knows as a photograph,
with the speed of the clouds.
At nightfall, you were scared.
You offered your chest
to the metal rain
so I can write
in English, today,
or the transcendental value of thongs with black lace and velvet roses,
Desperate times call
for great lingerie,
Claudia Serea seldom misses the mark.
It is true, here and there, an extraneous stanza may creep in, to mar the conclusion of an otherwise perfect poem with an over-elaborate explanation of something that is (or should be) self-evident to the reader. I can think of only three or four instances in these 131 pages where that happens. But I will not be the one to point an accusing finger at any stanza here. I am not even sure these stanzas have done anything particularly wrong, you see. They are just there. They might be innocent bystanders, surprised—as any of us might be—to find themselves suddenly caught up in history.
Therefore, I have marked those poems in pencil for future study. Because I think this book invites future study: as primary source material, testamentary evidence to a revolution that once took place; and as terrific poetry, home to a wonderful new voice.
Eric Norris‘s poems and short stories have appeared in Softblow, Assaracus, E-Verse Radio, Jonathan, New Walk, Glitterwolf, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Raintown Review. He lives in Portlandia, USA.