By CAROL MUSKE-DUKES
Cecilia Woloch's new book, "Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem," is aptly
subtitled. The poems have an impassioned, wandering, breathless style,
as if the author were relating a harrowing tragedy, a story that has
never before been told. And, in a sense, this is the case.
The background of the Roma, the gypsy people, has never been fully
documented; the elusiveness of the nomadic tribe (both geographically
and historically) is legendary. The poet tracks her paternal grandmother
back to the village in the Carpathian mountains where she was born,
suspecting a blood connection to the gypsies, but her ancestor's origins
remain obscure. There is only the hint of the half-pejorative, half-awed
family reference to gypsy blood that draws Woloch into a kind of
romantic espionage from country to country:
Twilight: moving east
en route to Krosno, moving south
toward that corner of the map
where Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia touch
the upper curve of the crescent moon
of the northernmost Carpathians.
The Lemki, Wallachians--nomads--
followed the curve of this crescent, traveled
the peaks from Romania ....
She records in single-sentence descriptions that multiply, page to
page, like gravestones, the atrocities committed over the centuries
against the Roma. Still, during her travels, she is warned by a scholar
of gypsy culture that "it would be nonsense to create personal
This is the question the reader, caught up in the intoxicating
swirl of language, may ask: Are we reading this meditation on diaspora
as the author's desire to document a kind of psychological ancestry or
as a way back to the sources of literary self-invention?
Perhaps the book's elusive intentions are less compelling than the
poet's own answer to the cautioning scholar:
I'd like to write
my name in snow;
I'd like to fly ...
into the blank page.
Like Keats' epitaph--"Here lies one whose name was writ in
water"--Woloch seems to be telling us how the essence of poetry is its
own disappearance into silence, how improbable this mystery has always
been for the bourgeois mind, the government of convention, how removed
is the gypsy soul from the armed borders and maps, from the sad republic