Books We’ve Loved

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Books We’ve Loved, we asked our editorial board members and select guest editors to reflect on a book that has been particularly meaningful to them in the last year, with the intention of creating a list of book recommendations for our valued readers.

Karen Anderson on Mihaela Moscaliuc’s Cemetery Ink

Mihaela Moscaliuc’s Cemetery Ink will wake you up from a sleepy, cicada-drowned August with a flick of its wrist, now icy, now rough, now scorching, now smooth. Written from Romania, from the Dominican Republic, from Ocean, New Jersey, its language is, as Moscaliuc’s language always is, both beautiful and brutal. Her speakers know they are simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, injured and complicit, and the poems insist on this doubleness: repentance and amend, the deep-rooted pleasures of give and take.

Written to daughters and sons, husbands and strangers, dead painters and live mothers, Freddie Grey and George Floyd, Henri Rousseau and Neculai, centipedes and goats and wandering wombs, it reminds me that the world is full of address, peopled by those we are subject to, responsible for.

“Elegy for my mother’s employer” is a case in point: love and precision (“your small frame/and freckled breasts”) are shot through with fury (“Six months of this shit’s enough”). This boss’s flamboyant “why not?,” is paired with a litany of her abuses, a woman who “waltz[es] while my mother cooks onions in the rain/so they won’t pollute the inside with their crass smell,” who “kick[s] across the floor/each cocktail dress in search of the one/that will outshine the daughter.”

The end chimes with itself—Mother’s “fine,” rings with “harm” and “hell of time” and “dying” and “native ground” to remake her mother’s apparent powerlessness as a calm that reaches beyond the arc of her employer’s cruelty. Such a keen eye and ear meet such moral care here, this book cannot help being hopeful, even as it is spiky with truth.

Writing Prompt

Karen Anderson writes that these poems insist on the “deep-rooted pleasures of give and take.” Write an elegy for someone or something you’re responsible for that insists on this same duality.

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Karen Leona Anderson

Karen Anderson

Karen Leona Anderson is the author of the poetry collections Receipt (Milkweed Editions) and Punish honey (Carolina Wren). Her work has most recently appeared in Pleiades, Little Star, Alaska Quarterly Review, ZYZZYVA, The Best American Poetry, and other journals and anthologies; her poems have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Grant. She is a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.