Smuggling the Past: A Review of Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe

contraband of hoopoeContraband of Hoopoe
by Ewa Chrusciel
Omnidawn Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-890650-99-5
$17.95 trade paperback

Reviewed by Miriam O’Neal

In the first line of the first poem of Contraband of Hoopoe, Ewa Chrusciel asks, “Can you feel the apparition?” This is her introduction to the hoopoe; the bird of smugglers, travelers, and immigrants; all those who carry what they must regardless of customs and because of customs.  The hoopoe seems at first, to be the dybbuk, the unsettled spirit of the dead, who cannot pass to the afterlife, who remains with us, attempting to finish some business. That sense, of lives interrupted by life itself, hovers over this collection. As Chrusciel’s poems lead us from modern airports to the immigration halls of Ellis Island, to the tunnels under the Warsaw Ghetto, to the seaside in Bulgaria during the Soviet era, and all the way back to King Solomon’s wooing of the Queen of Sheba, we experience the way the past settles in us as an invisible presence.

Chrusciel is Polish by birth and writes in both Polish and English. The effect of that bilingualism on her English language poems is a unique diction, which provides native English speakers a feeling of having encountered a visitor who has a great deal to tell them and who understands a great deal about them as well. She also uses the metonymies of cultures and/or histories to represent the whole. A poem-list of names is a list of names, but also represents all those who helped smuggle Jews to freedom, a plate of pierogi is the ‘whole of Poland’.

Everywhere, we follow the flight of dreams and witness the simple objects that accompany and materialize both escape to and survival in a new world. A German plumber smuggles Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, takes away their parents’ names, and in doing so, saves them. A Polish woman carries birch branch spoons with her to New York, and in doing so carries the trees of Krakow in her sack. A woman who brings 3 cupping glasses brings her mother’s treatment for infection.  John Winthrop advises his wife to carry eggs preserved in salt, England by the mouthful, to the New World.

In these poems, we also find the pentimento in what is carried, evidence of what has been changed for the sake of transfer, for the sake of arrival in some new place. It is what lies below the surface, invisible but part of. Some of those carriers are immigrants and other human survivors, some are the dead. Some take the form of magical birds who flutter from the mouths of men or speak to other birds, or, as in the very first poem in the book, smuggle themselves through customs, inside the breasts of the speaker.

This is far from the idea of memento, as everything, even memory, is altered for the sake of new life, the way an artist will paint over an earlier study or stroke in pursuit of a new vision or version. Underneath the new, the old remains, like the buttons and rags of the dead of Katyn.

Because Chrusciel uses many fine details in each poem, a reader can dwell on almost any one of these without an extensive knowledge of the recent history of  Europe and the immigration story of the United States. However, those who do have that knowledge will experience the pattern of struggle, exile, and departure that so shaped both Europe and the United States in the 20th Century. Fortunately, along with that weighty examination, Chrusciel also demonstrates a wry sense of humor in many poems, an often difficult move on the part of poets.

For example, in the first few pages of Contraband of Hoopoe, we move from the sexual and avian to the gastronomical to the scatological as “I stir the wings in him,” [her breasts do this and he is the officer at the border] in the first poem, and the speaker demands “let the Virgin Liberty swallow it [a smuggled sausage held up in Customs at Logan airport] in the second poem, and she explains the effects of Soviet era shortages on creativity, “there is no good literature without toilet paper,” in the next poem.

Again and again we experience a sense of the ways that food and simple objects mark us below the surface. In “Before I leave for America,” the speaker tells us,

 Before I leave for America, my dad comes to the airport with a dish of
pierogi. He entices me to eat them. His way of making sure I smuggle
the whole of Poland in my belly. I am pregnant with Polish wheat,
with poppies and goats. To feed others is to say “I love you.” Do not
die. I sustain you. I give you a piece of my earth. The long tread of a
farmer in a field? Furrows and raw wind? The hidden nerves inside
each loaf? How this bread whispers. It rustles and creaks. A walk in
the woods, the kneading and molding of your hands.

There is a following effect in both the order of these poems and in their occasional, apparent disjunction. Are immigrants also smugglers? Is hope a kind of contraband? Is “the past,” as the opening epigraph from A.P. Hartley claims, really “a foreign country”?  Does emigration relate in the same way to immigration for all species? The blue footed booby makes it to the Galapagos and becomes a flightless bird. Jewish children are smuggled out of the ghetto to be raised as Christians. The hoopoe becomes Solomon’s envoy to the Queen of Sheba, and is there to “to urge her with religion.” Everywhere in this collection we find relocation, reinvention, repurposing of the past.

And always, the apparition of the first poem of this collection stays with us. In the last lines of the last poem we learn that “hoopoe is an invisible one” and, unlike the dybbuks of many of these lyrics, this bird, that carries our imaginations and memories like mulberry seeds, only flies forward. We see that “the hoopoe is always in progress. There is no progression without the hoopoe.”



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