Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “From One Leaf to Another,” we see the tree as a symbol of strength, being sturdy in its roots, yet it is still vulnerable through its branches and leaves. Of all the things in nature, how did you settle on that image?

Romana Iorga: It’s hard for me not to write about trees. We live near a forest, where my dog Willow and I go exploring every day, and by the time we come back, my mind is a forest. And I know my dog’s mind is a forest too, because her paws twitch and her heart beats faster whenever she dreams, as if she were still leaping over fallen logs, still dolphining through the ferns. Our forest has been a life-saver during the pandemic. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I hope to surround myself with trees wherever we go, if a time ever comes for us to uproot ourselves.

I’ve always been aware of the presence of trees in my life. There were certain trees during my childhood in the old Soviet Union that had distinct personalities and were closer to me than my human friends. Friendships came and went, but the trees were always there when I needed them. I grew up in the city but spent each summer in my grandmother’s village. There was this oak in front of her house that had a sort of cradle at a low height, where the trunk split into thick branches, each one of them a trunk in its own right. This oak was my castle——a favorite place to read and imagine after the daily chores were done. There were many apple trees and walnut
trees in my grandmother’s garden that were ideal for climbing and seemed to help me up, especially when I wanted to avoid doing the above-mentioned chores. I would sit up there, hidden from the adults below, telling myself stories, and relishing the feeling of being invisible. I would eat apples or split the young walnuts, still encased in their green shells, with a pen knife, reaching for the milky kernel. My hands were always stained with walnut juice at the end of the summer. Had I, by some mysterious occurrence, been turned into a tree at that time, no matter what kind, I wouldn’t have minded. I’ve mourned many trees in my life. Leaving them behind has always been difficult and seeing them again after a long absence——an ecstatic experience. My mother, who was also a poet, had this story about a little girl standing under a cherry tree, asking it to share its fruit. So strong is the child’s faith that she will receive an answer, that the tree drops its branches so she can reach the sweet cherries. I’ve always loved that story. I am the little girl in it. I really did ask for cherries from the mother tree and I like to believe that it was kind enough to offer them to me.
So this is a long, convoluted answer to your question. I write about trees all the time——they are infinite. I could easily imagine a world without people, or one populated by monsters, but not one without trees. Of all the dystopian futuristic movies I’ve seen, those in which the trees are all gone have hit me the hardest.

RR: One of our favorite lines in this poem is “All you do is litter the universe / with words—what is the difference? / They might as well be leaves.” How do you tend to land on certain lines or images?

RI: There’s this insistent thought I have that trees (and nature in general) are constantly sending us encrypted messages that we only rarely manage to decipher. Leaves fluttering in the wind, leaves falling in autumn, leaves splashing their shadows on the ground. Insects crawling on tree bark. Animal tracks. The flight of birds. The sounds of the forest. Wind. Rain. Snow. The way light falls at different times of the day. The actual shape and structure of a leaf——of anything, really. Our own bodies. How could all of this possibly be random? There’s always a pattern in things, like a secret, barely discernible heartbeat. So I tune in and what surrounds me tells me who I am. I’ve described this poetic sixth sense before as “simple hearing,” and I think it’s our one real superpower as poets. We think of ourselves alone and misunderstood but we’re incredibly connected. We’re not so different from the delicate mycorrhizal fungi that have a rich, underground life and are in symbiotic relationships with most plants on the surface of the earth. We could have that kind of enriched life if we chose it——because it has chosen us, all we have to do is say yes. I can’t help but think here of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” with its resonant ending:

        “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
        the world offers itself to your imagination,
        calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
        over and over announcing your place
        in the family of things.”

RR: We love how emotion is conveyed in your work. Can you tell us about your process in terms of developing voice and emotions in your poems?

RI: I’m not sure it’s a conscious thing. It all comes down to tuning in, to simple hearing. I try to listen to what a leaf might tell me, or the rain, or a stone in the riverbed. I’m only human and project my own thoughts and emotions, of course, but I strive to get to some palpable truth. I genuinely want to know how a leaf thinks and feels, how it sees me. (That darn human ego that is so difficult to abandon.) I hope the leaf doesn’t find me dangerous. I hope it’s not disappointed. The thought that it might not care about me at all is too painful to consider. And yet, I feel like leaves do care——about one another and about us. They help us breathe, after all, don’t they? We wouldn’t be alive without them. Once we give an object a soul——or see the soul that is already there, waiting to be noticed——voice and emotion begin to flow naturally, as if from an external source, one that is seemingly outside ourselves, yet is deeply resonant in the cavern of our body——it illuminates and fills our body with air. And meaning. And purpose.

RR: We see that you have lived in at least three different countries. How has the exposure to so many different cultures and environments influenced your work?

RI: Like everyone else, I’ve been shaped by my experiences. Their echoes find their way into my poems, though sometimes it’s not until years later. Wherever I lived, I’ve sought solitude. I found cities and crowds overwhelming, so I withdrew to places where my mind could quiet down, like libraries and museums and bookstores, or places where I could feel a stronger connection with the earth, like parks and gardens and, of course, forests. I’m not always aware of what’s happening inside me (though I know something is happening), or how I’m being changed (though I know I am), until I can look back and put my finger on a particular moment in my life that was the beginning of a new me. So many such moments.

Growing up, I was nourished by Romanian fairy tales and various mythologies: Greek and Roman, Norse and Egyptian, etc. I was introduced to poetry early on and never learned to fear it. Poetry was a lingua franca in our house. My mother, as I already mentioned, was a poet and my father an actor who loved to recite poetry. I was sick a lot as a child and spent more time with books than I did with my peers, which explains so much about my adult life.

All those summers spent in the village have left their mark as well. My grandmother’s faith influenced me. She believed in this salt-of-the-earth animism that, I’m thinking now, was not entirely Christian. Churches and religious services were banned during the soviet period, but the peasants continued their faith-directed rituals in secret, they baptized, married, and buried their loved ones according to their beliefs. So I was witness to many of these clandestine rituals, including the baptism of my two younger sisters. Faith was not something you shared with the world, because it could bring the wrath of the regime down on you or your entire family. My grandmother taught me to bless nature for its gifts, not to take more than I needed or waste what I had been given. I find myself sometimes seeing the world through my grandmother’s eyes and can almost hear her voice in my ear.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that language has affected me more than culture, and silence (or listening) has affected me more than language. Which is to say, I know my body has been to many places that carry official names and are fringed by boundaries and customs and various political distinctions. In my mind, however, they all converge into one borderless country, where I remember trees, or sand dunes, or some nameless river more than monuments or people or events. I might be wrong in this assessment, but I won’t know for sure whether I am until years from now. Memory is so strange. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of my real-life (as opposed to imaginary-life) experience in poems and I’m fascinated by how different it is from other people’s recollection. I’ve been writing more narrative poems lately and find it easier to tap into my past experience——possibly because I finally have the necessary distance to see it clearly and also, because I’ve given myself permission to write about it.

RR: We understand you write in Romanian as well as English. How is writing different in each of those languages? Do you prefer the poetry in one language over the other? Why?

RI: I prefer poetry in all languages to any other kind of writing. Even to fairy tales. I feel guilty as I say this, given how formative fairy tales have been for me, so I’ll explain. When I was young, fairy tales were a way of escaping myself. I would imagine myself as the heroine of a particular fairy tale, while being aware at all times that I was playing a role, that it was make-believe. Poems, on the other hand, brought me deeper into myself. They seemed to know me. They revealed something I didn’t know about the real me and they continue to do so. My preferences at the time leaned toward the Romantic, imagistic, mystical poetry, rather than the nitty-gritty poems about daily life. My tastes have shifted over the years, but I still fall hard for poems about love or about death or preferably about both at the same time. And the more nitty-gritty details they contain, the better.

My first poems (in Romanian) were mostly odes to my pets (real or imaginary, though let’s be honest, they were mostly imaginary), or elegies for things I had lost (it’s amazing how many things my eight-year-old self imagined she had already lost). I started studying English at 17, when I went to university in Bucharest, and I wrote my first poem in English a decade later, once I was accepted into a graduate creative writing program in the US. After struggling for a few months with word-by-word translations that always seemed to miss something essential from the original versions of the poems, I realized there wasn’t enough time in the day to write in Romanian, then translate my poems into English. So my switching to writing exclusively in my adoptive language happened because of practical reasons. I lived in the US, I hoped to become part of a literary community there, so it felt natural to write in the language of the country I lived in. Or, at least, it felt natural after doing it for a while.

Now I live in Switzerland, yet I continue to write in English. Why? English has become the language of my heart. I already abandoned one language, I couldn’t possibly do this to another. And truth be told, I don’t have enough energy to throw myself into French the way I did, at 17, into English——with joy and absolute confidence that the language wanted me in return. That unreasonable confidence has gotten somewhat tattered over the years——the more I read, the less I know, to misquote Voltaire——but the joy is still there, untainted. I write to feel that joy the way I go to the woods simply to feel. Language sustains me almost as much as trees do. And similarly to my experience in nature, I try to listen to what language has to say.

In the last couple of years, this listening in has brought up fragments from my past——stuff that I didn’t expect to be resurrected or had forgotten ever existed——and those fragments often come to me in both languages. So what I end up with are either warped-mirror poems, with slightly different versions of the text in English and Romanian, or poems written mostly in English but with a few key words sprinkled about in Romanian. The chosen words are always the most meaningful in the poem and spring directly from my childhood. Grafting them like precious shoots onto the rootstock of English helps me reconcile all my distinct selves. I grew up with so much guilt—it was part of my upbringing (in retrospect, shaming and guilt-tripping a child seems to have been a national pastime, and adults threw themselves into it with abandon)—that each of these poems has proven to be therapeutic, even the ones that I’ve only written for myself. Especially those poems, I think. There’s no life without loss and I haven’t been spared, but having language to make sense of it all, and enough time on my hands to think, and trees to share my thoughts with, has made the difference.

Romana Iorga’s work in Issue 8.3: 

“From One Leaf to Another”