Poem for the Beautiful Skull


by Alina Stefanescu

“Even blamed, your memory will live on in the legend of our country.”
A note left on Ceausescu’s grave by a visitor in 1994

If there are keys to a kingdom, I haven’t found them.
My mother’s wild ghost still tingles my veins, her blood
laced with clotting factor.

I am with Eugen Jebeleanu in this beautiful skull,
the killer snuggles close as nest to nestle.

Near the ditch, I watch a hawk hitch a ride on a thermal,
suspended like the sudden vagueness among Romanians
when conversations inch back to the regime

and verbs leave the mouth
wordless as hummed lullabies, melodies with lyrics
no one remembers.

There are terrors no american can tourist
in that Bucharest studio, the artist’s fingers blurred yellow
by Kents, and dusk gilded the room in vintage-porn hues, lighting
a portrait of the artist’s sister, a pianist and mother of five
who died from an illegal abortion.

The artist cried, smoked, and survived
her own illegal events, seven total. She spat when she
spoke, saying:
I don’t believe in any man’s protection.
Women who trust male deities die of unrequited love.

I took the artist’s tattered words into a small yellow chapel
and wrote them on the inside of my arm in black ink.
The text washed off in the shower
but the dictator doesn’t.

The dictator never dies
in the throats of those who served him,
a god’s name becomes a prayer. Few resist.

In Alabama and Romania, the fear I found was a form
of service, a patriot’s formal constraint.

Did I believe in good men with guns
when George Herbert Walker Bush anointed Ceausescu
the good communist shortly after all abortions
became crimes against the Romanian state?

Did I believe in women helping women
when the Queen of England knighted the maniac,
and gifted her treasured hunting rifle to the dictator?

The man did not need a gun
to decimate an entire generation.

The beautiful skull waits for its ghost.

The laws made by men are enough.


About the Author:

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. She serves as Co-Director of PEN Birmingham. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Prize and was published in May 2018. Her writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Virga, Whale Road Review, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes, President of Alabama State Poetry Society, Co-Founder of 100,000 Poets for Change Birmingham, and proud board member of Magic City Poetry Festival. Her poetry collection, Defect/or, was a finalist for 2015 Robert Dana Poetry Award. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize, the 2019 Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, the 2019 Frank McCourt Prize, and the 2019 Streetlight Magazine Poetry Contest, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. More online at or @aliner.