BY DIANA NORMA SZOKOLYAI
On a journey that begins in South Florida and ends up in Romania, the country of her family’s forgotten history, Tara Skurtu plays "the amoeba game," a game that has no rules. With subtle and serious humor, with the vivid spontaneity of memory and dreams, and with surgical precision, these compelling, mysterious poems hold up a lens that reveals the slippery and changing dimensions of our many selves.
If you’ve ever longed to name the nameless space between lovers, or searched for home under foreign skies, Tara Skurtu’s chapbook Skurtu, Romania, will leave you haunted with traces of those journeys. This poetry collection reads like a verse novella told from the first person point of view. It is a search for the self in a foreign land, a quest for the shape of love and how to interpret it. The collection opens with the speaker’s attempts at situating the body in a place and in relation to the intimate, yet silent interlocutor ‘you.’ At the beginning, in the poem, "Limit," the poet sets us up for the kind of archaeological dig we are about to embark upon, removing layers from languages and relationships, "My body, a strange passenger/surrounded by walls/of books in a language/I don’t understand. I’m trying/for sleep in another country./I’m taking pictures of/pictures of you."
The imagery in the poems beautifully oscillates between a bird’s eye view and a macro lens perspective, from "everywhere" to the graphite at the point of a pencil, from a speck to a forest, from a dream to "a lattice of wormholes." The particular moments captured between the lovers reveal a space that is at once intimate and isolating. There are as many moments shared as there are forgotten, and there is something lost in the translation of memory. In "Spoiled," the reader is reminded of the disappointment that expectations can lead to, as the lover brings the speaker "a perfect apple," but although it looks perfect in the palm, "I bite the apple and wish/I hadn’t—the flesh mealy, a mouthful of sweet mashed potatoes I spit/into the garbage." The disconnect between desire and experience, between dream and reality, is playfully examined in exquisite detail.
What is revealed so delicately in these poems are the unexpected small sacrifices a lover makes to connect with a beloved, and in a strange land, that means being "stuck in your village, walking/a chicken on a leash" or eating "the one thing I told myself/I’d never eat—I swallowed/the bite whole." The difficulty of being stuck during the search for a place in a new country, new language, and new relationship is paralleled with what the speaker observes, like "a fly [that] zips/into the flytrap. Its body puttied/to the glue strip, legs waving/like six wet strokes of black ink."
What is most profound can be boiled down to the movement of a knee, as Tara Skurtu masterfully choreographs words to create a visceral dance between the flight and fog that characterizes searching, making the quest for a common language palpable. "I press the nib, I push out words—place words, blank words." As the collection progresses, we see the speaker taking solace not in abstract language, but instead in the concrete, sensorial experience of the world. "I couldn’t unstick the poem/on my walk in the rain, but when/I reached the market in Berceni,/the curbside cabbages calmed me."
By the end, the speaker is beginning to dream in the language of her lover, learning to see in a new language. Closure is not complete, it is a story about to be told over a nightcap, and we end on the brim of the glass, smelling the cognac. The poet has set the chapbook up to be read with a kind of cyclical fluidity, and it beckons to be read again. "Let me be a line, a word/ in the middle of a line." I urge you to read Tara Skurtu, a compelling and important contemporary poet.
The poetry chapbook Skurtu, Romania was published by Eyewear Publishing last winter, and Tara Skurtu’s first full length poetry book, The Amoeba Game is coming out this October (2017), also from Eyewear Publishing.
Tara Skurtu received a 2015-17 extended Fulbright, a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, and two Academy of American Poets prizes. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, and Tahoma Literary Review. Tara’s debut poetry collection, The Amoeba Game, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing. She lives in Romania.
Diana Norma Szokolyai is a writer and Executive Artistic Director of Cambridge Writers’ Workshop. She is author of the poetry collections Parallel Sparrows and Roses in the Snow, as well as co-editor of CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing.