The Bookshelf: Poet Ewa Chrusciel on Language and Immigration

Feb 17, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features New Hampshire author Ewa Chrusciel. Chrusciel is an associate professor at Colby-Sawyer College, and has published books in both English and Polish. Her most recent book Contraband of Hoopoe is a collection of poems that look at many ways of smuggling as well as the history of American immigration over the last century or so. Ewa Chrusciel spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. Scroll down to read her top five reading recommendations and the transcript of her conversation.

This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Ewa Chrusciel's Top Five Reading Recommendations

1.   Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. "The story of a recluse who works in Prague as a paper crusher during the Communist Regime and uses his job to save banned books."

2.   Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. "A book about indomitable human desire in face of propaganda, and the brevity of life."

3.   The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim. "Short stories about war in Iraq from an Iraqi perspective – realistic, violent and fantastical."

4.   And I Am Afraid of My Dreams by Wanda Półtawska. "The first-person account of a woman who was in a concentration camp with a death sentence and survived. A testament to resilience and heroism."

5.   An Interrupted Life Letters From Westerbork by Etty Hillesum. "Letters from the Holocaust by a young Jewish woman who manages to live with inner beauty and radiance within the brutal reality of the camp."

 There’s a poem early in this book about sausage at an airport. Could you read that one for us? 

Sure, and that’s actually an important poem because it initiated the whole series. So after that poem I got interested in the poetics of smuggling, and also smuggling as a metaphor for language because words are migrants, too. So yeah, shall I?

Yes, please.

I buy a sausage at the airport before I leave Poland. Kiełbaska, kiełbasa, kabanos, kabanosik. This, my transcontinental dowry. The sacrificial baby of my tongue. 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. Folkberg variations. The baggage carousel spurts my luggage out. With an air of conspiracy, I transfer this sausage from my carry-on into checked luggage. I look around. I pray for my sausage while I move toward customs. The Angelus trickles. The Angelus salivate. St. George is about to put his spear through a sizzling dragon. My luggage goes through a "sausage scan." Can an old sausage be born young again? The officer pulls me aside. The officer holds my sausage to the light. His babushka trophy. "It’s a sealed sausage." I declare with pride. I’ve brought a new species. "But you declared: no meats," the officer says. "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. The officer blinks when I repeat with determination: "A sealed sausage is a sealed sausage." He looks blinded. My hypnotic alliteration throws him back into the waters of his childhood where eels jiggle Scottish dances. Oh, sweet detained sausage. Saint of arrest, pray for us. May my new species have mercy on us. Escape at the boarders. 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.

So the poem about the sausage is one of many about smuggling from different angles and viewpoints. Can you tell us what made you so interested in this?

I have to say, literally being caught with a sausage in my hands. I found it dramatic, hilarious, touching, and so that poem actually initiated the whole series. But then I started to wonder what the first immigrants to Ellis Island – people who crossed to Ellis Island – what did they carry with them? So I went to Ellis Island and tracked down the historical objects. And the things they carried are not always very pragmatic.

For example, a woman from Sweden who brought the sheet that was only used for birth because she wanted to share it with her new doctor. There were live goats and pickles, but also teddy bears. So it’s really a very touching exhibition with the subjects.  I also went to Tenement House [Tenement Museum] and wrote down the things immigrants had with them.

And then I thought about smuggling as a metaphor because if you look at the etymological root of the word “metaphor,” it means “to carry across.” So metaphor also carries things from one domain to the other, it crosses the borders, and that’s what language does. Words are really migrants. They cross-pollinate, they levitate, they bi-locate, they shift all the time. So I think we are all in a sense migrants. We are all in a sense exiles, as Edward Said says in his beautiful essay on exile. So it’s interesting also that translation has the same root, “to carry across." So in a sense we are translating ourselves.

It’s close to me because I am Polish and I tend to write in both languages. I have three books in Polish and will have a third book in English next fall. So I feel that migration all the time somehow in my body and in my mind, in my thinking because constantly I shuffle and shift my positions and I smuggle one image from one domain from one country into another.

And you wrote these poems a few years ago, and you wrote in a series of poems “The Ellis Poems” here, about sort of the history of immigration the way people from all sorts of different places have come to America. You write about, for example, the contributions of a few people. You write for example, “Frank Capra carries The Strong Man, Ladies of LeisureYou Can’t Take It With You.” And, “Albert Sabin, a pauper… carries a live virus, a vaccine that eliminated polio from the United States. Khalil Gibran, an Arab, carries the viruses of poetry with him… Isaac Asimov carries the measles with him…” and of course he wrote, what, 180 science fiction novels? So you’re really pointing out the contributions immigrants have made as well as these laws that were passed years and years ago to keep certain people out.

I think it’s funny that history repeats itself, and that as soon as we get legalized we tend to distance ourselves from those people who are not legalized yet. But they have something to tell us.

I think language is very important in telling the story and giving them the voice because while in a sense I don’t want to be very political in my books, I believe that poetry transcends or should transcend politics because poetry really doesn’t provide answers. It poses questions.

But I’m very interested in particular stories. Also in my new book Of Annunciations [Omnidawn] to be out in November, I’m just touched by individuals and I’m hoping my book also will tip-toe between the ideologies and various political camps that would like to use writers’ work somehow for their own purpose.

But I think what is so beautiful about poetry is that we seek empathy with the other, and that’s what language does. The language itself is a recovery that unites us with ourselves and with the other, therefore if we don’t have imagination we are unable to put ourselves in the shoes of those orphans and strangers. The Hebrew Bible actually puts them together: a stranger is an orphan and a widow, right? And basically the other, right? Then without that kind of imagination of course there would be September Elevenths and walls. I think the work of a poet, of any writer, is to seek that empathy through language.