Contraband of Hoopoe by Ewa Chrusciel
Paperback: 88 pages
Publisher: Omnidawn Publishing (2014)
Purchase: @ Amazon
Review by Margaret Stawowy
Although Ewa Chrusciel’s book, Contraband of Hoopoe, has been out for two years, it is more timely than ever considering the xenophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric of the past election season. In this collection of poems, Chrusciel captures the spirit of migrations past and present, regulated or not, often viewed with suspicion by host cultures due to perceived “otherness.” As the granddaughter of a Polish immigrant who grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, I found myself fascinated by Chrusciel, who is from Southern Poland, just like my grandmother’s family, though the elders in my family carried the mark of an earlier migration, one that is also addressed in this book. This is, in part, a story that includes them.
Chrusciel, who teaches at Colby-Sawyer College, chronicles what it is to be an outsider as well as smuggler of contraband, actual and metaphorical, such as sausages--more on this later. Chrusciel obviously has one of those classic European educations (so different from my spotty American education) with wide-ranging knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, and sciences. So what if she didn’t have toilet paper in her childhood and smuggled sheets on a family trip to Bulgaria:
In Western countries, there was paper, but no truth to write on it. We knew the truth, but had no paper.
Intangibles such as “truth” trouble dominant cultures greatly, along with native intelligence, skills, traditions, and history. Chrusciel’s Ellis Island poems that appear continuously throughout the book address the impossibility of extinguishing the characteristics of one’s culture. Immigrants carry not only practical items such as buttons, donkey shoes, and accordions, but also their culture and the invisible burdens of grief and hope.
The hoopoe of the book’s title is a bird with a distinctive crown of plumage, an immigrant that observes no political boundaries but only follows its instincts to migrate across Africa, Europe, and Asia. Birds of all kinds find their way into Chrusciel’s poetry, including pigeons, hummingbirds, and blue-footed boobies, among others. Unlike people, you cannot deport a bird. Chrusciel takes this idea one step further by making birds a symbol of the un-deportable contraband that immigrants carry within them, as expressed in her opening untitled poem:
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. . .
When I cross the border, I start hiccupping. The officer stares at my nipples. I carry wonder inside me. I bring abundance. I stir the wings within him.
The hoopoe is “the dybbuk messenger chattering under my bra,” dangerous and subversive, apt to lead the officer astray, who in all likelihood, has his own hoopoe to contend with. Who knew birds could cause such trouble--but according to Chrusciel, in some languages, “bird” is a word for “penis.”
Immigrants and non-dominant ethnicities are often fetishized for sexual proclivities projected by dominant culture attitudes. Not surprisingly, a thread of eroticism is woven throughout, such as in her comic poem on page 14 regarding the smuggling of that most phallic of foods, sausages. She did not declare sausage as a meat because, as she triumphantly explains to the officer, “Sealed Sausage is not a meat!” “Sealed Sausage is a sealed sausage!” Another food with sexual overtones, the dill pickle, makes an appearance on page 40 in an Ellis Island poem. A dietician of the early 20th Century disparaged the eating of pickles because, among other negative outcomes, they rendered “assimilation, more difficult” in a people already too emotional.
What would they have to say about the plate of pierogi Chrusciel’s father entices her to eat before boarding a plane to America?:
His way of making sure I smuggle the whole of Poland in my belly. I am pregnant with Polish wheat, with poppies and goats.
Smuggling is a major theme in a number of Chrusciel’s poems. People smuggle not only for practical reasons, but also for humanitarian reasons, as in the poem about Irena Sendler, who carried babies out of the Warsaw Ghetto in a toolbox. There are two poems, one consisting of the names of those who smuggled people to safety, and the other, those who were smuggled. Chrusciel quotes Charles Lamb in saying that smugglers are the only honest thieves, always bringing what is needed. On p. 35, she opens a poem with the line: “Smuggling has to do with metonymies.” The immigrant cannot bring her home country with her, so she brings items from her country that are stand-ins for something bigger, for what is being left behind. Immigrants also carry things that they don’t even realize they are carrying: smells, thoughts, the glorious seeds of art and literature.
Reading this book in the aftermath of the election with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-woman talk flying about, it seems that not much has changed over time. The poem, Ellis IX is a timeline from 1794 to 1917 that catalogs suspicion and discrimination against various immigrant groups. The poem on p. 70 begins with an epigram by William Williams, Commissioner of Ellis Island beginning in 1902:
Aliens have no inherent right to land here.
Alien races, and foremost those from the Mediterranean, the Orient, and from Slavic countries, are to be met with suspicion. . .
The ethnicities may have changed, but sadly Williams’ other sentiments are all too familiar.
There are multiple layers to Chrusciel’s perceptive poetry, ranging from tragic to comic, bawdy to spiritual, abstract to concrete, past to present. In Contraband of Hoopoe, Ewa Chrusciel celebrates the humanity of those who leave their home countries to make way to foreign worlds with nothing more than ingenuity, courage, intelligence, and wit.
Ewa Chrusciel has two books in Polish: Furkot and Sopilki and one book in English, Strata, which won the 2009 international book contest and was published with Emergency Press in 2011. Her poems have appeared in many books and magazines in Poland, England, Italy, and the United States, including Jubilat, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Lana Turner, Spoon River Review, Aufgabe. She translated Jack London, Joseph Conrad, I.B. Singer as well as some contemporary American poets into Polish. She is an associate professor of humanities at Colby-Sawyer College.