Lessons in Smuggling: Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe
Review by Christina Cook
Ewa Chrusciel’s second collection of poems in English (she has also written two in Polish) is a beckoning into borderlands populated by smugglers, saviors, saints, apparitions, and a playful array of avian life. By the end of the book, the accretion of crossings into foreign lands is revealed to be not just the milieu of a dispossessed and fringe few, but the very engine of cultural and social advancement.
Despite this, the status of immigrants is traditionally a nebulous one, rife with less-than- warm welcomes upon reaching national borders. The poem “Ellis IX” establishes this with a chronological list of slur-ridden limitations on U.S. immigrants almost back to the birth of the country, when, ironically, being an American was still somewhat synonymous with being an immigrant:
1794 – Massachusetts law called for the return of paupers to their original towns or “to any other place beyond the sea where he belongs”
1875 – immigration legislation bars convicts, prostitutes and coolies
1882 – Chinese immigration is curtailed. Lunatics and idiots sent back
1885 – paupers, polygamists, the insane – excluded
Where “Ellis IX” begins its chronically of immigrant mistrust and mistreatment in the years after the Revolutionary War, “Ellis XI,” presents instances of it in post-9/11 America:
2011 Alabama immigration law requires that a foreigner carries a passport and a work permit. Mercedes-Benz executive from Germany arrested in Tuscaloosa, Alabama under the new immigration law for having only his German ID on him.
Juxtaposed with the unadorned language which Chrusciel uses to catalogue facts and events is the highly imaginative language she uses to convey the immigrant experience of these events, as in the untitled poem on page 19:
We are hordes of tartar cheeks, the ruthless blood of ancestors. . . . We gather into our bosom your wives and daughters. We store oranges and plums in our cheeks. We are contagious. We carry yellow secrets. We smell of vast steppes. We plant the courtyards of Kublai Khan.
Fear of “the other” and of the real or imagined spread of contagion on the part of that “other” is of course ongoing, its latest manifestation being alarm raised by Ebola’s reaching American shores and headlines such as “Undocumented immigrants bringing diseases across borders” in recent Texas newspapers.
But if intercontinental migration of people leads to the potential transmission of disease, so too does it lead to the transmission of important medical knowledge and the enlightenment of high culture. In “Ellis II,” we learn that:
Alfred Sabin, a pauper from Bialystok carries a live virus, the vaccine that eliminated polio from the United States. Khalil Gibran, an Arab, carries the viruses of poetry within him and The Prophet. Isaac Asimov carries measles with him, as well as Pebbles in the Sky and The Naked Sun.
The poem goes on to list other foreign-born illuminati, including Igor Sikorsky, Pola Negri, and Frank Capra, among others, each of whom deeply enriched the cultural heritage of U.S..
Chrusciel, an immigrant herself, challenges stereotypes throughout the book, revealing immigration to be at the core of social and cultural advancement. And at the core of that, like the smallest Russian nesting doll, are the things that are transmitted, or “smuggled,” ranging from weighty intangibles such as “the most fantastical truths [that] can be smuggled only through the windy labyrinths of our body’s cavities” (“Ellis II”) to tangible objects treated lightly, such as the untitled poem on page 14, about smuggling Polish sausage past a U.S. customs agent: “Foreign gods hover over us. If God lets my sausage in, I will eat it like a saint wreathed in incense, circle a table with Gregorian chants.” When caught, her defense is nothing short of extravagantly fast-paced, playful rhetoric:
“Sealed Sausage is not a meat!” “Sealed sausage is a sealed sausage!” I say, as the guardian angels of my sealed sausage swarm under the investigation light. . . . My hypnotic alliteration throws him back into the waters of his childhood where eels jiggle Scottish dances. Oh, sweet detained sausage. Saint of arrests, pray for us. May my new species have mercy on us. Escape at the borders. Oh, oven bird, whose migratory song is a sausage a sausage a sausage. Dear sausage of martyrs. Sealed patriarch. Let the Virgin Liberty swallow it.
References to smuggling abound in the book, and many are similar to the above reference in sounding light but being laden with meaning. The opening poem is just such a one, relating how the speaker feels when entering the new country: “Can you feel the apparition? The hoopoe’s wings beat under my blouse. The sound udud udud udud is tearing from my nipples: Pagan pole dancing, my breasts have Tourette’s syndrome.” The risks Chrusciel takes here with language and imagery mimics the risks immigrants take when they embark on their life-changing, sometimes life-threatening, journeys, with their hopes for the future and their reasons for leaving laid bare.
Other references to smuggling depart from playful rhetoric altogether and dovetail with the other linguistically unadorned poems, out of respect for the somber stories they tell. The most powerful of these comes in the untitled poem on page 56:
Irena Sendler gets permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto as a plumber. She smuggles babies in her toolbox and carries larger children in her sack out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Her dog knows when to bark to muffle the sounds of crying children when Nazi soldiers are near. . . . Sendler eventually gets caught & tortured. I use here an ampersand to remember her wrenched body. In a sealed mouth. In an hourglass. She is a holy icon.
Life that is smuggled out of death is without question, the most sacrosanct contraband of all, but other seemingly impossible smuggling operations take place across numerous types of boundaries in these poems. National and religious boundaries are crossed, boundaries between species, between the sacred and profane, joy and unrelenting grief. The complex question of how these impossible crossings become possible is answered in a simple parable.
“Do you see a mulberry tree in a mustard seed?” is a question asked numerous times throughout the book, particularly in poems where impossible boundaries are crossed. This biblical reference to Jesus telling his disciples, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” becomes something of a mantra or prayer by the end of the book, asserting that one must have faith to do the impossible, whether smuggling sausage into the U.S. or children out of Nazi work camps.
But faith in what, in this unpredictable, unjust world? Not faith in one’s country, in words, in life, or even one’s god. Rather, faith in the very act of smuggling, and its promise of human connection that knows no bounds.
About the author:
Ewa Chrusciel has two books in Polish: Furkot and Sopitki and two in English, Contraband of Hoopoe and Strata, which won the 2009 International Book Contest and was published by Emergency Press in 2011. Her poems have been featured in Jubilat, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Lana Turner, Spoon River Review, and Aufgabe, among others. She has translated Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and I.B. Singer, as well as a number of contemporary American poets, into Polish. She is an associate professor at Colby-Sawyer College.
About the reviewer:
Christina Cook is the author of Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press, 2012), which won the New England Poetry Club's Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Dos Passos Review, and was anthologized in Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place. Also an essayist, book critic, and translator, Christina works as a writer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Communications.