Review of Angels & Beasts by Claudia Serea.
Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, 2012. 87 pp. $13.95, paper.
Divided into three distinct sections detailing Claudia Serea's experiences growing up in Romania and later emigrating to the United States, Serea's newest collection of poetry, Angels & Beasts, employs surrealistic techniques in subtle, yet striking ways. Comprised of seventy-four short prose poems, Serea's collection shares her life, both in the real and fantastical sense, by extending her narrative to encompass not only her own story, but the stories of many as she interweaves the narratives of her grandmother, the cleaning lady, and the bank teller with those of angels, mystical creatures, and inanimate beings. In doing so, she amplifies these stories and the voices behind them whether they belong to a family member, a rosebush, or even a post in the ground, and thus brings together a beautiful chorus that tells a collective story mirroring life's dichotomies and complexities.
Whether these narratives are rooted in reality or mythology, Serea illustrates the oppositions and contradictions in such tales through both her poems' content and form. Many of the poems alternate in the way that they are titled, some titled traditionally, while others adopt the first part of the first line as their titles. Additionally, Serea utilizes the space on the page to further convey these oppositions as shorter poems are often paired with longer ones on the following page and vice versa. However, while these poems often speak in opposition to one another, using wildly different situations and points of view, they function well in tandem as voices in a choir would, their pitches complementing each other to form a stunning harmony.
In working together in such a way, Serea's poems inform and balance one another as the collection progresses. At times, Serea brings these oppositions together in the same poem, introducing characters from Romanian folklore that are both animal and human or spiritual and corporal. Beings such as angels that detach their wings and play baseball or who sit in a wheelchair on a street corner often make appearances as well as the half-man-half-a-limp-rabbit who, in a poem named after him, loves "with his half-heart- / half-a-rotten-carrot..speaks in half-truths, goes half the distance, / cuts time in half."
Yet with every half that Serea provides her readers, she also offers its opposite. In the poem, "Since their white and black feathers look the same at night," she presents "the guardian angel and / the angel of death" together, both perched on her shoulders, one no more important than the other, because she "need[s] both." She needs light to accompany the darkness, joy to accompany the pain, life to accompany death, and her poems reveal these needs, none more so than the poems "Yes" and "No" that appear one after the other.
In a way, these oppositions work as inverted mirrors, a prevalent image in this collection, because with every image, there is also its twin, except backwards or upside down. In the poem, "Yes," Serea writes that "every church on earth has a mirror church in the sky.../ The churches hang upside down and float over mountains and / fields while cardinals toll the bells." In arranging such images in this fashion, Serea prods her readers to open their minds and see the world in an entirely new way.
Her strategy is most apparent in the poem "A man walks," in which a man struggles to carry a large mirror in "murky knee-high water." He places the mirror on his head and as he balances it, he looks up and sees "his entire life and the faces of the 160 people dead in the deluge." The mirror shows him life, but also its opposite, and reveals his image back to him in an unexpected light that is representative of how the poems work in this collection--as images that are extraordinary and startling in their profundity.
In acting as a collection of images and voices in counterpoint, Angels & Beasts offers a magnificent portrayal of darkness and light and the necessity of both for balance and stability. Whether these representations of equilibrium be in the real or fantastical sense, the poems in this collection are beautiful and compelling in that they stand as inverted mirrors themselves--mirrors into our own world in all its beauty and ugliness. As such, Serea's Angels & Beasts proves the existence of such beauty and ugliness in not only her world, but in ours, too, making this collection a remarkably insightful book that explores the surreal in the ordinary and vice versa and what is meaningful in it all.
Tawnysha Greene is currently a Ph.D. candidate in fiction writing at the University of Tennessee. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including PANK Magazine and Raleigh Review and is forthcoming in Rougarou: An Online Journal.