Claudia Serea


The System


                                    For my father


The informant

Some see toads


from the tip

of my tongue.


I see money

and back doors


for my familyís



I see


white as flour,

in the window

at night.


I brush them off

and go back

to sleep.


The soldier

 I follow orders

to hit/



those who couldnít

possibly be

my mother/




I pluck and gather

men and women

at gunpoint,


tulips of tears.


I squeeze the trigger

gently, gently


but their bodies

arenít worth

my bullets.


The interrogator

The skin doesnít talk.


Muscles donít talk.


The back doesnít talk.


Eyes donít talk.


Hair doesnít.


Only the bones.

The bones talk.


The general

You canít say

there were murders

or torture.


I donít believe

anyone died

in prison.


Beside, people die all the time.


In prison

or outside.


I donít remember

what happened.


I never interrogated anyone.


I just helped,



No one made arrests.


Not of 2,000 students.

Or 200.

Or 20.


Iím a patriot.


It was my moral duty.


I sleep well at night.

Do you?


The first witness

I was the first

to press

the hot wax

that sealed

someone elseís fate.


I pointed my finger:



the cursed one.


There was a huge eye

in the sky


watching us,




The second witness

I thought I saw

this man

giving food

to a shadow.


I didnít see a face,

only the bread

and cheese.


Everyone knows

he feeds shadows.


Everyone knows.


The third witness

I only did

what I was told.


With my mouth,

I shoveled,

dug a hole,


and buried a man,



How was I

supposed to know


the other man


carried death

in his pockets?


The prosecutor

My mouth lays mortar.

My words are bricks.


I build walls of speech

around others,


walls with eyes,

tall walls.


I hide people.

I disappear them.


Theyíll never get out

the same.


Nobody will know

they ever existed,


only the wind

through empty streets.                                                                         


The judge

Iím not


in truth,


only in

the law.


When one


is ruined,

itís a tragedy.


When millions

of lives

are ruined,





The courtroom clerk

In the end,

all that remains

is paper,








in a file.


No one will know

whose fingers


those lives away,


only the hands

that signed

and stamped them.


The courtroom audience

Weíre being led,

led into darkness

by a few


a few hands.


This way,

this way.


Clap all at once,

at once.


Put on these masks.


And these.


Wear these hoop




and rings


made of bones,

clean-picked bones.


 The first guard

Abandon all hope,

Ye Who Enter Here.

óDante Alighieri



youíre worth



than dirt.


Youíre worth-




a worm.


Give up



to make it out



The second guard

Iíll crush youĖ



hit you



you piss



until youíre sorry                                                                             

you were born.


My dog

will drink

your bones.


The third guard

You only have

the right to work.


You only have

the right to die.


See that fence?


Walk toward it

and Iíll shoot.



for a watermelon rind


in the roadside



Do it.


Make me

do it.

The leeches

The guards

have boots,


but prisoners

have sweet

lean feet.


We lunch

on them


and multiply.


They taste salty

and warm,


still alive.


The fourth guard

I do my job,

then go home

to my children.



what did you

do today?


I helped





who didnít


to live.


Daddy, do we


to live?


Shut up.


And eat.

The dragonfly

From above,

everything looks



and neat.


Guarded by men

with wolf-dogs,


the rows

of bent backs



hills of dirt


from one place

to another.


The sun



on my helicopter



My fatherís quiet friends 1958-1962


Craiova, Gherla, Giurgiu, Salcia, Periprava



1. The gruel

Iím lumpy, lukewarm, and gray,

and you could use me for glue,

mortar, or clay.


Inside your cupped hands,

I breathe my steam,

soft as a prayer.


Dip your tin spoon

inside me.


Lift me

to your hungry lips.


You donít have to like me.

 2. The blanket

I canít protect you from nightmares,

or from the hands that grab you in the dark

and push you back

into the beating room.


Forgive me.


Iím so thin,

worn to threads by the bodies

I covered before you,


I canít even protect you

from the cold.


But I can offer you my checkered field

where you can move the armies

made of bread,


molded with saliva

and hardened

into soldiers,

horses, bishops, towers,

and queens.


At last, this battle is yours to win.


3. The piece of glass

You guard me with your life.


You spit on me

and smear me

with shavings of soap,


and sprinkle lime dust

from the walls


until I have a new,

smooth skin.


Now Iíve become a surface

for poems


and equations

with multiple unknowns.


Todayís lesson is French,

taught in whispers.


Write down the words

with a sharp twig

and repeat them.


No one can wipe them

off your mind:


Je suis,

tu es,

il est.


I am.

You are.

He is.


We are.


4. The small stone

All you need

is a stumble


even if earns

you a boot

in the ribs.


And you pick me up,

hide me

under your tongue,

and carry me inside.


Iím your phone,

your postcard,

your smoke signal,


the only one who can talk

through ceilings and walls


and send a coded message

to the man released today:


Ring the bell

to my motherís house


and tell her

Iím alive.


5. The moon

 I come to look at you at night

to see if youíre still

curled on your cot.


Thousands of years,

I witnessed

the butchering of men

called history.


I canít help anyone.


I rise,

stir the howls in wolfs,

and swell the tides,


but I canít pull you out

from your brotherís

murderous arms.


I can only hold

your hope



in a tin cup

in the sky.


The prison clerk


Sign here,

on the dotted line.


Hereís your belt,

your keys, your shoes.


Youíre free to walk.


Youíre free to close the gate

on nightmares.



Let them visit

only at night.


The outside world

will fold around you,


and unfold women,

flowers, clouds.


Youíre free to look

and marvel at their faces.


Donít they know?



Do not look back.


Donít tell anyone

what happens hereó


whoíd believe you anyway?



Go on.


Hereís the list

of things to do.


Youíre free to sing

the pre-approved songs,


to work,

even to whistle.


The system


The small

toothed wheel





and makes

another steel

wheel spin.


They hum,


and click



the machine


that crushes,



makes paste,




and delivers


the new man.



óWhereíre you going, lamb?

ó Nowhere, Maíam.


óWhat do you remember, lamb?

óNothing, Maíam.


óLamb, who slaughters you?

Who skins and sells you?

óThe masters, Maíam.


ó Lamb, who buys you?

Who roasts your ribs into a crown

and eats you?


óEveryone else, Maíam.

The whole world, Maíam.


Rumors travel

from mouth to mouth.


I hear there are fields

where I can lie in the grass,


press my ear

to the mouth of the earth,

against its clay lips,


and listen

to the thousands of voices

murmur and pray


in the wind.


The informant

I follow a man

who walks,



like any

other man.


I follow him

in his dreams

on steep streets.


Today, he buys pears

and eats them

with abandon.


His past is a closed door.


I tempt him

to open it.


He offers me

a pear.




Other poems


What it was meant to be


Don't hurt me don't hurt me don't don't

Shhhhh, says the nurse,

holding my hands and arms

down on the table

It hurts so bad, it hurts, hurts

I jerk my feet

locked in metal bracelets

Sh-sh-shhh, says the nurse.

Metal tools open,





the vacuum cleans my inside walls

of flesh, tissue, cells

the blade scrapes

and scoops

and the human soup

goes into the bucket


the wind vacuums the trees

the birds vacuum the sky

Hold still, Honeyó

but it hurts so bad

This is the price you pay

for independence, Honey.

We can't stop now.

There is no going back.


I told you the first time

I won't let you do this

to me again,

the second time,

I won't let you

do this to me again, I said,

I won't

let you do this to me again

the third time.

At 18,

weíre so forgetful.


Metal prongs.


The wind in the trees.

What it was meant to be

still is.


Later, I craved

peach compote.

You came to the hospital gate

holding a jar

and a spoon.

The peaches floated

in clear, light brown syrup.

Round clouds

swam into the liquid sky.

You handed me the spoon.



The hedgehog talks to the bee about God

What do you mean,

he has a little bit of dirt left?


And he doesnít know what to do with it?


What kind of God is he

if he doesnít know?


And why did he send you to me?


He wants me

to tell you

what to do

with the dirt?


How much dirt are we talking about?


A few crumbs?


A lot??


And why is he asking me?


He made me so ugly

and full of spikes,

and now he wants my advice?


And I canít even charge

by the hour?


Let me get this straight:


he made the whole entire world,

and now he canít think by himself

to make some hills and mountains

out of the leftover dirt?


He canít think

to make the man

just like him?


My father, the great stone statue

My poems are my mistakes:
let me make them.

My friends are my mistakes:
let me have them.

So what if they are the sons of workers?
So what if they are not refined
and well read?

You can't keep me
in a tight-lidded jar.


Donít you see,

Iím a five-alarm fire,

not a firefly.

And I don't wanna be a doctor,
I don't want to be
a doctor so you can show off
and climb the social ladder,

and if you need a doctor in the family,
I'll marry one.


I can't wait to marry
just to spite you,
the son of a peasant
just like you,


you, the great stone leader
on your pedestal,

with your raised hand
pointing to the brilliant future
only you could see.

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 waived my flags
in the kitchen.

You were my huge Lenin statue
I tied with ropes,
pulled down,
and dragged away.


Don't get me wrong,
I always wanted to be like you,
to be you.


I wanted to have your poise,

your walk,

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,

to dust.

A simple man

about to lose his child.


You cry too easily,
I said.


The Golden Era

It was a time when babies cried

inside their mothersí wombs


because children always tell the truth.


Wealth was measured in cream for coffee

and chicken for soup.


The days of the rich

were made of imported chocolate

and hair spray.


The days of the poor

were of cold tea

and thin air.


It was the time when God

was taking orders in a restaurant


and delivered steak and fondue

to only one part of the town.


On the town streets,

the saints were walking without shoes.


It was a time when no one talked,

but everyone clapped

and sang.


We found out we were happy

from the news.


It was a time

when no one told us

what would happen,


but everyone knew.


Allís well in hell

Nothing to watch on TV

but speeches.


Large industrial plants manufacture

wooden clocks,

tin birds,

and bells with no tongues.


Thereís a 3-year waiting list

for a car without gas.


We play outside all day

with chalk and a ball.


The key tied around my neck

jumps up and down

and prints a dark bruise

on my chest.


Lights off early

in the entire cement city.


Dear comrades,

we know you need

your beauty sleep.



The bullet that found Mrs. Cosma

while she was hanging laundry on the balcony


                                                December 1989

With a loud bang,

Iím off


and zoom through the air,

deathís faithful bee.


Was I meant

for someone else?


Or was the sniper startled

by the womanís domestic gestures

at the top floor?


It doesnít matter now.


A soft splash

into her flesh


and Iím in.




The body breathes

and folds


and the shirts billow

and flap


their white,

surrendered sleeves.


The Line

The line in front of the store was so long it had a Line Committee and a Line Master who kept the Line List. What is the line for? someone asked. People shrugged: donít know; whatever they bring. Oranges. Chocolate. Cheese. No, itís for toilet paper, answered the boy in front of me.


The Line Master consulted with the Line Committee and approved the Line List. There was a line to get in Line, which got even longer when the factory shift ended. The Line Master was very proud.
He had an important job to do. Everyone was quiet and obeyed the Line Rules: no cutting, no pushing, and no telling political jokes.


The president of the United States is meeting with his Chinese counterpart at a summit on human rights.

ďDo you have elections?Ē asks the U.S. president.

The Chinese president blushes and answers softly:

ďYes, evely molning.Ē


Itís meat! the boy yelled, and the line rippled with excitement.

I saw the truck! Large packages. Enough for everyone!


The first Romanian astronaut leaves a note to his wife:

ďIím flying in space on Soyuz. Iíll be back Friday.Ē

On Friday, heís back from space and finds a note from his wife:

ďIím waiting in line for meat. Donít know when Iím back.Ē


Hereís 50 lei, the teacher said in front of the hushed first grade class. Go get me whatever they bring in that line. I hope thereís meat.


What do the cannibal parents tell their children on Christmas Eve?

ďIf you donít behave, Santa wonít come this year,

and we wonít have any steak for Christmas.Ē


The light was dim. They announced theyíd sell the meat through the back door. 300 people stormed to the back. The Line Committee was outrun. The Line Master fell and lost the Line List. Everyone yelled and pushed. Crushed bunions, sharp elbows, sweat. Donít get in front of me, motherfucker. I waited in line four hours. The little girl cried.


There was no meat. I walked back home with a necklace of toilet paper rolls.


Claudia Serea is a Romanian-born poet who immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. Her poemss and translations have appeared in New Letters, 5 a.m., Meridian, Word Riot, Apple Valley Review, and many others. A three-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, she is the author of Angels & Beasts (Phoenicia Publishing, Canada, 2012), The System (Cold Hub Press, New Zealand, 2012), and A Dirt Road Hangs from the Sky (8th House Publishing, Canada, forthcoming). More at





respiro@2000-2014 All rights reserved