cold hub press
Paperback, 37 pages
Review by PQ Contributing Editor Kaitlin Keller
Claudia Serea’s compelling and emotionally prolific collection of poems, The System, recounts her father’s trials as a prisoner in a Romanian gulag during the 1950s and 1960s. Not only is the work a tribute to the author’s father, but it is also a testament to the political and social tumult and oppression that existed in the communist puppet state in the decades following World War II.
The “system” that Serea speaks of takes on various meanings in both the writing and structure of the work as a whole. It refers most prominently to the political justice system (however ineptly named). The book itself, in a clever and shining technique, functions as a system—one that catalogs participants responsible for instigating suspicion of the father as well as members of the formal justice system who carried out his sentence. It also documents a system by which the father survived.
The title of each poem is a person, group of people, creature or object that either sees or partakes in Serea’s father’s captivity, and each is a speaker who comments on the action. The book begins with “The Informant,” presumably the person responsible for alerting the authorities to a crime—real or imagined—committed by the father. The poems are brief, precise, and self aware. The comments the speakers make on their roles in the incarceration directly reflect their often flawed personalities. “The Soldier” remarks coolly about his job:
I squeeze the trigger
but their bodies
“The General” reveals his fascist-like manner and exhibits a detachment from the malice and cruelty of his given duties. He speaks in simple, straightforward, militant language and convinces himself that he is responsible for no wrongdoing. There is an element of self-deception, of course, an irony that the author employs to expose truth. The General notes:
I sleep well at night.
The language used in each poem is specific to the stature of the speaker. For instance, “The Judge” is unaffected by his decision to send a man to prison and the guards are brutal and sadistic. “The Second Guard” claims:
I’ll crush you—
until you’re sorry
you were born.
The second section in the book is titled “My Father’s Quiet Friends in Prison 1958-1962” and consists of five objects the father used for meager comfort while imprisoned. This other system was concocted by the father for survival and introduced by the author as a system of helpers rather than oppressors—a thin veil of optimism in an otherwise bleak collection. “The Gruel” claims that it can be used for “glue, mortar, or clay,” as well as food. “The Blanket” tells the father that while it does a poor job of keeping him warm or comforting him, it may be used as a chess board for entertainment purposes. “The Piece of Glass” serves as a writing tablet. “The Small Stone” is a tool for communication. And, finally, “The Moon” is a spiritual nexus—a source of hope in a hopeless place.
The book ends with a second “The Informant” poem, suggesting that the injustice suffered by Romanian citizens was cyclical and that Serea’s father was only one of many people falsely imprisoned. He would certainly not be the last.
Serea uses simple language coupled with understatement to voice difficult subject matter. The System is ultimately about the endurance of the human spirit in the face of an ultimate evil.
Kaitlin Keller received her MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her latest literary venture involves raising awareness of the “novel in verse”—a hybrid genre which blends elements of poetry and verse with the formulaic structure of fiction novels. She is also currently penning the sequel to her first manuscript, Siren. She is a fanatical music lover and karaoke singer. Never dwelling long enough to call one place home, she currently resides in Manlius, New York with her husband and her constant companion, Fizzgig, her faithful Shih Tzu.