In the title of Ewa Chrusciel’s new book of poetry is the word “contraband,” objects or ideas that are forbidden but desired. Hunks of cheese and obscure meats. Silk dresses, fine vases, a book, an ideology. To smuggle: the transportation of one thing to another space, particles that move but don’t disappear. Contraband of Hoopoe and the debris of smuggling. A litany of objects. The stuff and ideas people carry as they cross borders, oceans, land, and desert. As they leave behind what those objects signify about their known culture. The contraband of war. The contraband of myth.
Ewa Chrusciel, a Polish-American writer, wrote this book in English, borrowing from preexisting poetry, immigration law, religious symbology, myths, and stories of the Holocaust, set to music by the language of the poet. She writes in a strange tongue and uses the language of others, creating a new space, a composite of debris. “Experience determines the choice of the language,” she writes in “The Nervous Breakdown.” “To change your language, you must change your life. I changed my life by packing and flying to USA. It is in English that I encountered a woodcock, therefore it will soar in English.” Her language flaps between spaces, just as the hoopoe, as ideology does where objects cannot be hidden.
A litany, a list of images, what people have lost, what is confiscated, put in a subspace, detained in the invisible border of the mind. “Litany of Confiscation,” one of my favorite poems, is derived from the book Contraband by Taryn Simon, she notes in the back, who “photographed over 1,000 items detained or seized from passengers and express mail entering the US from abroad.” It is in this way that Chrusciel appropriates images and experiences, strips them of context, and makes them strange, reduces their cultural context. There, the reader (who might be seduced by the “truth” of these items) exchanges with the writing by creating one’s own narrative to what has been augmented by the poet’s music:
Animal Heads of Unknown Origin—defend us
Beanie Babies—feed us
Bird’s Nest—root us
Bird Corpse—spare us
Butterflies of Prohibition—flutter grace on us
Candy Made from Animals—sweeten smuggled beasts in us
Cashier Checks—brings us prosperity
Chicken Feet—don’t leap before you hatch
Chicken Miscellaneous—sustain us
Cock Fertility Tablets—sex us up
Cow Urine—cure us
Cuban Cigars—envelop us in invisibility …
An object’s inherent value is what culture places on it, and what is smuggled, what is deemed contraband, exists in the negative space of what customs deems sanitary, safe, absent of odor, inoffensive. Strip contraband objects from their cultural contexts, their owners, homes, reasons, and they become strange. They tell fictions, carry with them the weight of wonder, intrigue. Think again of this collection of strangers’ possessions: what separate narrative can you create from the debris?
One of my favorite qualities of Ewa’s work is also highlighted in the above excerpt—that she writes expertly about cocks and shit and digestive tracts, uses religious imagery like the Virgin Mary swallowing “a sausage a sausage a sausage” without becoming purely, lowly vulgar. The phallus devoid of shock value. The phallus made elegant, with writing inherently demure. Grief and memory set beside the frigid documentation and/or recollection of the past. The speaker a figure in silk talking about shit. The reader hypnotized by her holographic alteration between demure and robust:
The first time we went to Bulgaria with our parents it was 1978. There was no toilet paper in Polish shops. What is humanity without a decent roll of toilet paper? Every time I saw the toilet paper, I would roll it secretly. I wanted to bring some luxury home. In Western countries there was paper, but no truth to write on it. We knew the truth but had no paper. No paper to wipe off the system. We carried it like a turf on our asses. What is the culture that cannot regenerate itself by healthy digestion? This is where we beheld the system. Not enough toilet paper to relieve our attitude. There is no good literature without good toilet paper.
Yes, let the reader question that object of basic need rendered absent by government. By war and crisis. Let her remember her probable privilege, ride grief’s crest. Let the reader touch that grief, access it, put it to her face, become infected by its poison. “Smuggling will not seal the broken vases. It will make your grief one hundredfold, and carry it into other grief,” Chrusciel writes. Then she tells the story of a woman who was tortured and sentenced to death for smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. It puts one’s malaise or melancholy into perspective.
Because events that happened during the Holocaust are often hard to fathom and are also historical (i.e., based on “what really happened”), we press our warm faces to whatever medium is used to tell the story. But it’s easy to forget, as one rises bitterly from one’s soft bed before the sun gleams upon the gray-blue buildings, as one plays Candy Crush on the bus, to work, from work, that there are countries that are still feeling the repercussions of the war (i.e., Poland, especially in terms of literature and storytelling). Poland’s inhabitants didn’t have full range to tell their stories until the 1980s, as writers were silenced by law and the pressure to rebuild civilization after a giant steaming shit was taken on their country. As Chrusciel writes, “No paper to wipe off the system. We carried it like a turf on our asses.” The story of Poland, of the individual, and the writer’s craft. The Polish writer finally has space to stretch her legs, and Americans should think of this fact as we read Contraband of Hoopoe.
There are many recurring images one could discuss when writing about Chrusciel’s book. The mulberry and the mustard seed, the dybbuk. Horror vacui. Aristophanes, Aristotle, the Lascaux Man, and, of course, the hoopoe. I understand the bird as metaphor. The hoopoe everywhere in culture. In Ancient Egypt, a sacred symbol. Known for being thieves and also harbingers of war. Sometimes a symbol of virtue, sometimes of power, they are incredibly gaudy birds. Which is why, above the hoopoe, I most love the image of deer, more subtle than the bird: “The candle of his tail back into dark,” this candle Other chases through composite midnight.
Contraband of Hoopoe, by Ewa Chrusciel. Richmond, California: Omnidawn Publishing, October 2014. 96 pages. $17.95, paper.
Ally Harris lives and writes in Portland, Oregon, where she is a Poetry Editor of Heavy Feather Review and one of the curators for an upcoming reading series called “submission.” She has two chapbooks of poetry, one called Her Twin Was After Me (Slim Princess Holdings, 2014), and another called Floor Baby (dancing girl press, 2011). You can find her recent writing in FANZINE, TYPO, and Poetry Foundation’s blog.