Please welcome this guest post from our colleague, Professor Jennifer Thorn. Prof. Thorn works in the area of transatlantic eighteenth century studies, with special interest in race, reproduction, and time.
On October 16, Ewa Chrusciel read in the new gathering room in Dana to a rapt audience of about 85 people, from her first English-language book of poems, Strata (2011), and her new book, Contraband of Hoopoe. It was wonderful to be in that room, crowded not only with English majors and faculty but with students and faculty from other departments. Chrusciel read wonderfully well. My own pleasure in the reading had several facets: it was a delight to hear the voice I’d imagined as I read the poems—dense, multi-layered, wry, enigmatic on the page—meld with the voice of the poet herself, to see her move as she spoke, to hear emphases and inflections I’d missed. It was a delight to be in the presence of her creativity and accomplishment, to be reminded of the force of such gifts—their relation to the ordinary lives of non-poets, and their transformative force.
It was a pleasure also to muse on similarities and differences among Chrusciel’s mode and vision and those of the few Polish writers I know. Chrusciel’s Gertrude-Stein-like abstraction commingled with vividly rendered memory to inspire in me both a sense of loss and of ongoing opportunity, of instability that was paradoxically both difficult and joyous. Even as I felt a skepticism like Ewa Lipska’s in the worlds offered to us as we listened, I felt a readiness to embrace the details of days—a lampshade, an angle of sun, a beloved kind of sausage—that struck me as less pessimistic that Lipska’s poems have sometimes seemed (powerful though they are). I have been an admirer of Wislawa Szymborska since she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Listening to Ewa Chrusciel read, slowly, clearly, evocatively—I remembered one part of the praise offered to Szymborska by the judges at the Nobel ceremony, their praise of her poems’ “ironic precision.” I hear this valuable, light incision in Chrusciel’s poems, too, with a playful spirit that seems to me sometimes deceptively light, as in her evocation of a mother who would “pretend to be dying when I did not want to eat ham” in the poem “what’s the evidence of belonging” in Strata. Thinking of Szymborska also heightened my appreciation of the distance Chrusciel has travelled from, and with, lyricism in her gorgeous prose poems. Szymborska asserts something like the randomness of life in her poem “Dreams”–“if anything fits // it’s accidental // … at times even a clear-cut meaning // may slip through” dreams. The repetition that Chruschiel builds into her prose poems–as in the repetition of the phrase “I eat a lot of ginger and play with the emerald children …”—through five poems in Strata—seemed to me dream-like and “fitting” in a not dissimilar way. Above all, I loved the sense of the fusion of places, moments, and people that many of the poems gave, as in the prose poem “we lose home every time we send it,” in which places are to be grieved in the way that people are grieved (a concept and phrase that echoes like a drumbeat through several other poems in Strata). I left the room and drove home, my eyes, ears, heart, and spirit, awakened and glad.
The way that Chrusciel conveyed the pain and unwanted opportunity of exile or relocation was both very much her own—as in the phrase “Your first sentence will always be in your native lung,” repeated through the prose-poems in Strata—and made me see anew Eva Hoffman’s memoir Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, with its vivid evocation of the consciousness of the four-year-old who would leave Krakow and live not-quite-at-home thereafter for many years. Hoffman’s invocation of the consciousness of a child is vivid: “I only know I’m in my room, which to me is an everywhere, and that the patterns on the ceiling are enough to fill me with a feeling of sufficiency, because … well, just because I’m conscious, because the world exists and it flows so gently into my head … I whisper to myself I’m in Cracow, Cracow, which to me is both home and the universe” (Hoffman 5). The evening and day after the reading, students who had been to the reading had a lot to say about it, and the poems of childhood memory seemed to be those that especially moved them. Some, like Ashley Kosikowski (Nursing ’18), spoke of the way their enjoyment of the poems was sharpened by their families’ Polish backgrounds. Ashley appreciated the poet’s “between-poems” remarks about Pope John Paul II, and her memories of her family’s discussions of Pope John Paul II deepened her appreciation of the lines “wings to cross” and “cross to wings” in one poem, lines that made her “picture my great grandmother (Babcia) saying her rosaries and praying with her Pope John Paul II prayer card.” Jen Pietrowski (Nursing ’18), whose family is also of Polish descent, liked the humor and the courage in one poem’s description of the poet as a young girl whose jeans have gotten caught in the gears of her bike. Even as Jen smiled at the predicament, she saw a life lesson in the child’s decision to leave her pants with her bike and run home: “in order to fix one's present situation, sometimes we must leave something special to us behind.” Sean O’Brien (Biology ’18) was “very intrigued” by Ewa Chrusciel’s remark that she had not chosen to be a poet but been chosen by poetry and wondered if her wry comment that “being a poet in Poland is basically a curse” reflects the Communist regime in place when she was a child, or its effects on the older generations around her then. Emily McAvoy (English ’18) admired this exchange, too, for the way it “made me think about how everybody has a certain calling in life, and how some people resist theirs for something that may pay better or be easier.”
Many students especially enjoyed the poem in Contraband of Hoopoe that elliptically tells the tale of Chrusciel’s efforts to smuggle Polish sausages through Customs when she came to America. Marissa Feijoo (English ’16) appreciated Chrusciel’s humor in this poem, and Zach Camenker (English ’16) appreciated the “intensity” of the way smuggling a sausage into a new home country carried a meditation on “smuggling her way into the country.” Nicole Francischelli (Nursing ’18) especially enjoyed the surprising moment in the poem in which the speaker faces a Customs guard who is holding up her illegal sausage and defiantly continues to affirm that she has “no meat” to declare: Nicole valued the way that poem showed “the something that was meat differently, like the glass half full or empty or tom-ay-to vs tom-ah-to.”
What great good luck to have experienced this reading, after having admired the poems on the page, and what great good luck to be part of a community here where exchanges after a poetry reading of this kind—can happen.