“I Am Going Holy or Bust”: A Review of Alina Stefanescu’s Dor

Alina Stefanescu’s poetry masterpiece takes its title from the Aromanian verb designating the action of hurting or aching. In Romanian, dor is a noun “defined as a state of longing or yearning.” Throughout the collection, both designations manifest in poems of loss, grief, and cultural and political uncertainty. Distinctly ringing through Stefanescu’s collection is a clear voice, willing to question not only the self, but also America, where fear outshines reason, and an oppressive system’s tentacles twist and distort, making the freedom America so loudly celebrates an illusion for those who find themselves outside America’s definition of “citizen.”

No poem in the collection embodies Dor’s message more than “The Communist at Catholic School: A ‘Multiple Choice’ Test.” An honest speaker acknowledges, “I was always whatever They said / because I was not born here & therefore / I was an unreliable narrator.” The speaker depicts an America where anti-Slavic and anti-Eastern European stereotypes threaten everyday interactions, “The heritage of boiled cabbage clung like extended family / to my clothing, the scent of elders & kids crammed in kitchens, / talking their way around glass canning jars.” At the poem’s core, however, rests the fear and hysteria these stereotypes create as the speaker realizes “I must have been awkward for loyal teachers, students, school staff / keeping the national-insecurity secret that I was.” The poem’s structure fluctuates between brief statements and multiple-choice answers, but it eventually deviates into couplets, triplets, and single lines which depict the speaker’s own personal journey of “a single girl who wasn’t & isn’t.”

Dor is also a step into memory, and Stefanescu’s experimentation with form and line length reinforce the idea that memories often convey a different truth. “I: Say: Thread,” with lines composed of one to six words and its experimentation with spacing, takes readers deeper into the immigrant experience. The speaker recalls a dress worn by “The only grandmother I ever met.” The fallibility of memory fuses with the incapability of English to properly express emotion and connection: “I say family when / I mean mirroring.” The simple phrases and careful wordings culminate, creating a meditative reading experience reminding readers that no language can capture the depth of devotion.

“Deep Fake,” a poem exposing the Trump Administration’s calamitous ramifications for future generations, cycles reader through a “planet where sadness is a crime against positivity” and “humanity stays medicated and never sober.” What Stefanescu’s writing highlights is the absurdity of societal expectations in the face of “mid-planetary-rape,” and how previous generations’ failures to ensure a better future for younger generations is why Gen Z and beyond will “never believe us.” Fused into the poem to reinforce the unrealistic, unempathetic state of Trump’s America are images of “the ballpark when a toddler shoots Mee-Maw in Wal-Mart” and “a teacher sexts her anus to a teen quarterback whose brother is dying / of cancer.” The poem’s speaker highlights America’s worst, but leaves hope that the “peak fake” will come.

With the boldness and experimentation of Pattie McCarthy’s Wifthing and an individualistic voice all its own, Dor challenges not only the conventions of language and form, but also those of American understanding. Its political reflections will melt and reshape readers’ understanding of freedom and liberty, and its depictions of the immigrant experience have never been more relevant. Its poems will haunt readers–in the best way possible–long after they have finished reading. 

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her reviews, poems, and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, and she frequently reviews books for Colorado Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Southern Review of Books, and Sage Cigarettes. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming Black Spring Group in 2022. She teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College.