Poet Ewa Chrusciel Reads to a Packed House

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.

Ewa Chrusciel. Image by Bożena Boba Dyga

Ewa Chrusciel. Image by Bożena Boba Dyga.

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.

Professor Norton Looks back and ahead — with Passion!

Professor Norton stands on the back porch

Last year students selected Professor Ann Norton as the Fr. Gerald McCarthy Teacher of the Year. Ten minutes in her classroom would tell you why and listening to her sing on the stage tells you that teaching literature and writing is but one of her talents. Take in her inspiring words at the beginning of this new semester:

Think of words you love and learn their Latin (or Greek, or Middle English, or Old French) roots: they will teach you much, as Malcolm X learned in prison when he read the dictionary cover to cover. “Integrity” comes from integer:whole, untouched, unhurt, undamaged, complete, or entire. Less obviously, “gentle” comes from gentilis, of a gens, of one's family, or from gent-, gens, nation, which is akin to Latin gignere, to beget. Interesting: the quality of “having or showing a kind and quiet nature,” “the opposite of harsh or violent,” connects to kinship, to conception itself.

Last winter I learned that “passion” comes from the Latin pati, to suffer, and the Anglo-French passio, suffering, being acted upon. As a singer and lover of country music—and before you groan and smirk, readers, know that I mean good country music, classic and alt country and Americana, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and Dwight Yoakam and Gillian Welch and Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt—I should not have been surprised. And no professor at a Catholic college should be taken aback at the connection between passion and suffering. Still, I was. When I think of passion, I think of the pleasure of loving something intensely, whether it’s a person or a place or a song or an art work or an extra-dark chocolate truffle. So do my students, apparently. When I mentioned to my former Honors Conversatio seminar that passion’s roots are in suffering, they looked at me in horror.

This year in the English department we witnessed the mix of passion and suffering up close when Professor Lupo’s three-year-old son Henry was diagnosed with an infant sarcoma that necessitated immediate, extreme treatments. We all know the passion of parental love, either as children or parents; we all shrink from the thought of children suffering pain and facing mortality too soon. Having taught at St. A’s for twenty years now, however, I know how our community handles life’s inevitable tragedies. We rally round; we give time, money, food, professional assistance, whatever will lessen pressure and express our love. Professor Gleason suggested a benefit concert starring Anselmian musicians and their friends, and it took flight: Professor Magnuson offered to produce it, students and staff volunteered to run a bake sale and handle the donations, and people from outside and inside our community came and listened and gave. At this point, more than $11,000 has been raised for Henry. (Shameless self-promotion: you can find my band, The Joshua Incident, on Facebook, and there are several videos from the concert on YouTube)

Seniors, too, know the blend of love and suffering that comes with the end of their four years here. Every April and May, as the warmth and green return, I have heard it in the halls and in my office and classrooms, and now I see it on Facebook: amazement that they are done with the stress of papers and exams and homework, grief that they have left their beloved college behind and become alumni. It’s hard on professors, too, as we tell our seniors at the champagne reception on the last day of classes. They leave; we remain. It’s bittersweet for us all. I feel the urge to quote Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” which my Romantic literature class will read with me in a few weeks.

Feel the gladness of the May!

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now forever taken from my sight,

Thought nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, or glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And what “remains behind,” of course, is Saint Anselm College, our English department, and new and returning students as we begin a new academic year in the summer’s waning warmth and light, all the more precious for our knowledge of what’s to come. We welcome a new Communication professor, Dr. Carmen McClish; we appreciate anew Dr. Ed Gleason in his last year of teaching (but not his last year playing saxophone on campus, because I for one will now allow him to retire that); and we begin our new curriculum in earnest, with the whole freshman class participating in Conversatio and the entire student body taking four courses for four credits each. Wordsworth speaks of our faith, our search for the “philosophic mind” that acknowledges and celebrates all connotations of passion. May your search be fruitful in this fresh fall semester and beyond.

I began with Wordsworth and I will let W.H. Auden—whom we began to read today in Postmodern British Literature—conclude for me (not something I would allow in a student paper, but there are advantages to seniority).

O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress;

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.


O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbor

With your crooked heart.

The English Department Welcomes the Class of 2018!

English Department Class of 2018 members

On Saturday, August 30 the English Department faculty welcomed its new English and Communication majors to campus and they took time during Orientation to gather for a picture on Bradley House’s Back Porch. A great day to be a Hawk!  An even greater day to be a Hawk in  the best department on campus (well, the best looking at least).