"Seven Postcards From a Former Soviet Republic" won the 1998 Erika Mumford Award from the New England Poetry Club. The club was founded by Robert Frost. The selecting judge was the poet Fred Marchant, who has written extensively about his experiences during the Vietnam War.

by John Michael Flynn (Moldova 1993–95)
John Michael Flynn's book of poetry Moments Between Cities was published by Edwin Mellen Poetry Press in 1997. (Buy this book) 1. Little Withered Men

In wood blazers, medals pinned to lapels
they expire over chess or dominoes all day long
on the amphitheatre benches of a park in Balti.

They gather in Chisinau, too at Pushkin Park
around the statue of Stefan cel Mare
to bicker politics, rumors of cheaper bread
and the price of freedom per hour.

2. Sheep

We are approaching Orhei.
Sasha slows the Zhiguli and pulls over.
Parked on a steep hill
we roll backwards up the hill’s incline
and Sasha explains this is a geo-physical marvel
only certain Moldovans know about.
“Right here on the main road!” he exclaims, in Russian.
Sasha can’t contain his excitement.
He wants to know how Americans get rich
on such natural phenomena.
There has to be a formula.

Sasha’s friend, Yuri, replies in Romanian, “It’s because people are sheep.
Sheep sheep sheep. They’ll buy anything.”

He keeps repeating the word over and over,
“Sheep sheep sheep.”

Sasha, pouting, gets back on the highway
and we head south, silently, to Chisinau.

3. Sundown In Cucuruzeni

The sillouhette of one man alone on a road.
Three cows strung out ahead of him,
their heads bobbing, blue in the dying light.

Corn stalks in piles shaped like thimbles
lined up to form seams cross emptied black fields.
A line of poplars fading into the horizon.

4. The Hungry are Seldom Polite

The hungry are seldom polite
nor the desperate, the tired, or the fearfully anxious.
If you want a space in line anywhere
don’t wait, don’t hesitate, don’t expect courtesy.

Perhaps a child will get the last seat left.
Perhaps it will go to a crippled old woman.
Perhaps a rude drunk will take it
and swear at anyone who cares to scold him.

The hungry are seldom shy. They push and shove
and kick to get what they need. They beg
to get a chance. They show off what little they have .
They learn to pay in blood for their desires.

5. Three Men, One Bottle

One fellow says the success of the USSR was entirely artificial
especially if such a great enterprise could collapse in 5 years
without a major war or famine.
Another says that under the regime of the Soviets
there existed something like justice and order
and the possibility of a fair trial if you had a complaint.
Not always a quick trial, but usually some action was taken.
A third man asks, “What has been established to replace the old system?”
The three drink together, sharing the same glass.
They sigh. It’s colder inside than outside
and many neighbors and friends are going hungry.
Each day it seems to get worse.
It’s hard work, perhaps foolishness, to be optimistic.
“This is our life, ” they say, in near perfect unison.

6. What To Count On When There’s Nothing To Believe In

The smell of the cognac factory each morning
The evening smell from opened municipal sewer lines
at least one man staggering home drunk
rabid dogs in packs
A black Volga with curtains parked in front of city hall,
large women sitting on burlap sacks full of potatoes
and eating raw onions with lard and 100-gram shots of moonshine.

The yards between block buildings full of chickens shrieking.
Goats grazing wherever there are weeds.
A derrick over an unfinished block building.
Pedestrians spiting out sunflower seeds at the bus stop.
Someone shouting, “I don’t know a fucking thing, anymore!”
Someone shouting back, “That’s normal. Nobody does!”
The slow shotgun fire of a paddle being whacked against a carpet.
Roosters crowing at dawn.
Allah Pugachova from a music kiosk at the central market.
A half-dozen krewtoy, like gangster rappers in pastel sweatsuits
in gold chains and expensive sneakers
hanging around the broken fountain in front of the Casa de Cultura.

Two-day weddings every September.
School cancelled on account of the harvest.
An invitation to feast, to dance, to drink a little wine.
Seldom a regret for having accepted the invite.

7. Preparing Compote

Along the steep rutted dirt road in front of her house
Olga, an oak tree of a woman, in slippers and loose pastel dress
squats pensively over a fire.
Her son, Genya, her husband Ephem, and her daughter, Sveta
have left to harvest cherries from her father’s orchard.
The cherries from her own orchard have already been picked.
She is stewing them to make enough compote to last through winter.

Smoke rises, smudging her face, stinging her eyes,
her small fire built between stacked adobe bricks
which hold a rectangular tin box off the ground.
The box heats slowly, getting only the tips of low flames
that Olga pokes diligently with a crooked stick.
Inside the box 3 inches of boiling water.
Another full bucket close by, because of quick evaporation
and a need to keep the level constant in the box.
When water runs out, Olga will walk to a well
and greet chickens in the road
and say hello to any villagers she may come across.

Twelve wide-mouthed canning jars whiten inside the box,
each one full of a bubbling crimson liquid
that gives the dust a tart cherry aroma
coiling through the woodsmoke,
a succulent and tactile presence
in the stillness of a summer morning.
Olga, lonely old baba, stick in hand, stares intently
the day’s early heat already glazing the folds in her skin
and her face grimly attuned to the steady rate of evaporation
as she thinks crimson syrup, the red Soviet past
meeting her husband in Sevastopol when he was a moryak in the Navy,
the height of crackling flames, glasnost,
the Soviet Union burning up
perhaps her tired old father can own a cow again.

Coarse sun-ruddied wrinkles in her face
are deepened and aged by the sparkles
sewed into her bright orange bandanna.
She will work here alone all day, until darkness comes.
She will hum old songs.
She will chase away noisy chickens.
She will burn her hands, eyes smarting from the smoke
as she removes perfectly heated jars
and replaces them with new ones.
Her knees and her back will scream for relief.
Dust will harden and blister her lips.
She’ll remember the dust come New Year’s Eve
when the village children visit and she can quench her thirst
with the fresh tang of cherry compote.

She’ll tell you she sacrifices nothing.
This is the only way she knows how to live.
Understand? It’s the way things are changing
that she fears most.

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