The Contraband of Culture:

Polish Women Poets on Migration, Borders, and Language

Karen Kovacik

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In this era of fortified borders and nativist entrenchment on both sides of the Atlantic, marked by a nostalgia for monolingualism and cultural uniformity, literature has the potential to challenge fear and hate. Poetry, with its taut syllables, sounds, and rhythms attuned to nuance, is particularly adept at confronting what Emily Dickinson called “zero at the bone”—terrors large and small. As the editor of a recent anthology of Polish women poets, Scattering the Dark, I became interested in how two writers from the book, Ewa Chrusciel and Wioletta Greg, living permanently in the United States and England respectively, write about immigration and migration in this charged milieu—how they navigate the tensions of living between languages and cultures, and how poetry itself, strange and familiar, can serve as a portable home.

           Unlike Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz who once claimed, “Only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth,” Chrusciel (b. 1974), an English professor at Colby-Sawyer in New Hampshire who has lived in the States since 2001, embraces what she calls the “bewilderment,” the wild enchantment, of writing in her non-native English. Doing so allows her a “miraculous transport,” just like her beloved saints and mystics, to be in two locations at once (“Contraband” 216). She finds writing in English to be freeing, removed from the strictures of Polish syntax, the phonemes and rhythms of her adopted language giving way to poems “explosive and baroque” (219). Her third and most recent book in English, Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn, 2014), is rife with bird imagery—the Eurasian hoopoe, the rukh, partridge, pigeon, hummingbird and parrot—and also of borders and customs officers. The feathered migrants become emblems for all who cross borders without passports and who transport their songs and rituals from one realm to the next.

  In an untitled prose poem, Chrusciel tries to sneak a forbidden sausage past U.S. customs officials. Her narration of the incident is equal parts campy litany, trickster parable, and Freudian joke, with allusions to Robert Frost and Gertrude Stein:


          If God lets my sausage in, I will eat it like a saint wreathed in incense, circle a 

          table with Gregorian chants. Folkberg variations . . . With an air of conspiracy, I 

          transfer this sausage from my carry-on into checked luggage . . . . I pray for my 

          sausage while I move towards customs. . . . 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 . . . . “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 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 arrests, pray for us. May my new species have mercy on us . . . . 

          Oh, oven bird, whose migratory song is a sausage a sausage a sausage . . . . Sealed 

          patriarch. Let the Virgin Liberty swallow it. (14)


Chrusciel calls the curious zone between Polish and English a “third language,” an “emergent space,” which “recognizes the insufficiency of the native or second language, the human desire and inability to express the ineffable” (223). This zone contains puns, loan words, neologisms, and mashups of different dictions and layers of English. The poet Piotr Gwiazda, who also writes in English rather than his native Polish, observes, “The result is a kind of defamiliarization one usually expects in poetic writing, but in a manner that makes the absence of the writer’s native language somehow palpable in the text” (124). Both Gwiazda and Chrusciel have cited the example of Samuel Beckett’s decision to abandon English in favor of French because of “the need to be ill-equipped” (le besoin d’être mal armé), a pun on the surname of poet Mallarmé. As Gwiazda puts it, “Beckett began to write in French for the sake of estrangement, as though to enter into a more unfamiliar, antagonistic, poetic relationship with the medium” (124). So it is in Chrusciel’s importing the Catholic litany and sexual puns into the sterile atmosphere of customs control.

          Chrusciel’s sausage poem gives way to more serious meditations later in the book on the varieties of knowledge and culture that immigrants bring with them. A series of “Ellis” poems, referring to the New York entry point for twelve million immigrants to America from 1892 through 1954, offers catalogues of films, scientific inventions, and modernist novels and art that would not have come into being had immigrants, many Eastern European Jews, not contributed their creative capital.


          Ellis II

          Albert Sabin, a pauper from Białystok carries a live virus, the vaccine that 

          eliminated polio from the United States. Khalil Gibran, an Arab, carries 

          the viruses of poetry with him and The Prophet. Isaac Asimov carries measles with        

          him, as well as Pebbles in the Sky and The Naked Sun. Igor Sikorsky carries 

          helicopters. Pola Negri carries stars. Frank Capra carries The Strong Man, Ladies 

          of Leisure, Lost Horizon, Arsenic and Old Lace, You Can’t Take It with You. Pearl 

          Primus carries dances and leaps. Lilly Daché carries chic chapeaus. Anna 

          Yezierska carries Hungry Hearts, Bread Givers, Salome of the Tenements, and 

          Children of Loneliness. . . . Henry Roth carries Mercy of a Rude Stream and Call 

          It Sleep. Arshile Gorky carries The Artist’s Mother, Nighttime, Nostalgia, 

          Enigma, and Agony. (23)


This poem opens with metaphors of contagion—the word “carrier” with its resonance of transmitting disease—and, of course, nativist rhetoric often brands migration as a “plague.” But Chrusciel twists the medical metaphor, implying the carrier infuses the adopted culture with forms of humor, expertise, and experience that transform it. Yezierska’s and Roth’s books give voice to experiences of working-class immigrants in the unfamiliar American metropolis; Asimov’s fiction describes realms alien yet familiar; Capra’s effervescent comedies sound notes of despair.

          The cultural mixing that Chrusciel extols extends to the many loan words from one language to another. Another of her prose poems begins as an homage to bigos, hunter’s stew, and ends as a linguistic fable that cautions against idolizing what’s native. In fact, Chrusciel’s poem shows that what is assumed to be Polish can actually be the product of centuries of linguistic and cultural blending:


          My grandmother makes bigos for me. It is in a jar, in a bottle that will be washed 

          ashore on the new lands. Bigos carries the smell of Lithuanian woods and hunters. 

          A Lithuanian Grand Duke who become the Polish king Władysław Jagiełło in 

          1385 supposedly served bigos to his hunting-party guests. Bigos of two nations. 

          The transgression of borders. Bigos was for robust, sturdy, men. Bigos is made of 

          cabbage and sauerkraut, mushrooms, wine and meat. “What a bigos” means 

          metaphorically “confusion,” “big mess” or “trouble” in Polish. However, Polish 

          linguists trace the word bigos to a German rather than Lithuanian origin. It derives 

          from the past participle begossen of a German verb meaning “to douse.” The 

          confusion of customs. The liquidation of borders. (41)


Bigos the word and bigos the dish challenge nationalist efforts to depict Poland’s past as monocultural and monolingual, when in fact, only after World War II, when Poland’s borders were shifted west, did the country approach cultural homogeneity. For centuries, Poland was home to Lithuanians, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Byelorussians, Prussians, Swedes, and more. Living abroad, Chrusciel comes to see her own language from the outside much as the French symbolist poet Gérard de Nerval urged: that we travel so much that even our home becomes strange to us (Ali 14). In fact, Chrusciel identifies herself as a “smuggler” who believes in “the confusion of customs” and the “liquidation of borders.” In an essay, she observed, “I do not like to renounce anything. I want to keep both . . . languages and worlds. The price is the ceaseless border crossing, a constant mental shifting and shuffling between” (“Contraband” 220).

          Chrusciel uses a tree metaphor to describe how she came to write in English, even as she continues to produce some of her poetry in Polish: “How did the king of the English woods abduct me? . . . . How did I re-plant oak so it became an aspen tree? Aspen birches, like English words, depend on a disturbance—mainly fire—for regeneration. . . . Anything carved into them heals into black scars, recording the event. Aspen words are frail and solitary, yet they make underground passages” (218). Language as scorch, language as scar, words that do not bluster past their own frailty: these qualities attract Chrusciel to English, its vast lexicon the product of invasion and conquest, but also homage and desire.

          Wioletta Greg (née Grzegorzewska in 1974), who moved from Poland to Essex, UK, in 2006, is alert, like Chrusciel, to the ways that living in another culture makes one’s own language new again. Greg, who writes in Polish, shows that even the most ordinary words in her language take on fresh resonance when transplanted in a different land. An example is her poem “The fox,” translated by Marek Kazmierski, which twice repeats the Polish word for the animal:

                    

                   It jumped out from behind the bins

                   halfway up East Hill Road in Ryde,

                   cut across the street and dived for the copse.

                   —Lis! — I shouted in Polish, loud enough

                   to frighten the Englishwomen walking ahead.

                   —Lis... —I repeated more quietly,

                   suddenly aware of how beautiful

                   the Polish word I uttered was:

                   somewhere between letter, leaf and dream.


Only contact with another language can make our own grammar seem unnatural, our phonemes delirious. Greg’s poem presents interesting challenges in translation. “Lis,” the word for fox, sounds very similar in Polish to the words for letter (“list”) and leaf (“liść),” which appear in the instrumental case as “listem” and “liściem,” and create a little rhyme with the word for dream “snem.” Kazmierski could have chosen to translate “lis” into English—“Fox!—I shouted in Polish”—and then found words that alliterate in the last line (forecastle? faux?). But I appreciate that he retained the soft liquid and sibilant of the Polish and Greg’s trio of nouns in the final line even though the English words don’t sound as similar to “lis.” “Letter, leaf, and dream” speak to the mysterious links between sound and meaning and to how a word, severed from context, can take on a hallucinatory aura.

          In another poem, also translated by Kazmierski, Greg finds correspondences between her reading in Polish and her surroundings in the village of Wootton Bridge on the Isle of Wight:


                    Astronomy lessons in Wootton Bridge

                                       for my son       

                    This forty year old woman, your mother, 

                    reading an article about the formation of the solar system

                    on the terrace of the Sloop Inn, saw phantoms

                    of ancient planets appear within a gillyflower. 

                     

                    A snail traced the Milky Way across a scrap of napkin.

                    That day, near a pond, heron eggs cracked.

                    The sky was so lucid

                    she could have asked it about the gaps

                    you seek to fill through astronomy books,

                    but she preferred to gaze upon the road

                    where a truck, Starway stencilled on its side,

                    sped past, crushing wild apples into the asphalt.


Here it is the English word “Starway,” emblazoned on a prosaic lorry, that acquires mysterious resonance through its serendipitous appearance right when the protagonist is contemplating the solar system and her son’s hunger to fill the void in his life through study of the planets and stars.

            In a third poem, Greg turns to a different void: the solitary pursuit of poetry as an emigré writer abroad. But here she writes not from her own perspective but from that of a persona: a friend who nags the poet to socialize more and to pursue a more engaged art. The poem becomes an ironic, refracted self-portrait:


                    Getting out more

                    You should get more involved, dear,

                    stand up for something from time to time,

                    do something for others, like that German artist

                    who sculpted EU politicians from clay,

                    up to their necks in rising water

                    as they discussed global warming.


                    That, my dear,is Art with a capital A.

                    I, for instance, sign petitions.

                    There's a webpage for that.

                    And you, dear, still on that Isle,

                    what do you get up to in that backwater?

                    You can write your chapbooks all life long, 

                    but why not get busy instead, say, sign up

                    for that Union of Polish Writers Abroad,

                    which gets you out among people.  (tr. Marek Kazmierski)

  

         In an interview with the Polish magazine Wysokie obcasy, Greg called her position as an emigré writer “melancholic and euphoric, schizophrenic and inspiring” (translation mine). Living in England, she says, has made her Polish both “denser and more precise,” and though she writes less poetry, the words seem “truer.” In effect, she is more conscious of having been shaped “by many languages,” even by numerous dialects of Polish. Despite the sense of carrying within her the voices of family members as well as the more elevated language of her studies in Polish philology, Greg at times feels isolated living in Ryde. Still, her evocation of that life is not without metaphor: “I live on an island,” she says, “which will be submerged in a couple hundred years, in an imaginary house, which was never actually built, and I write about people and places that no longer exist.”

          A translator myself and a quite fluent, if never perfect speaker of Polish, I know what it is to live in that frustrating, lively, mysterious place between languages. In this post-referendum reality a few weeks before the American presidential elections, let’s read more poetry. We’re all smugglers of culture, no language is pure, with translation the quixotic passport from one realm to the next.


References

Ali, Kazim. “Introduction.” Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America. Ed. Abayomi Animashaun. 5-14.

Animashaun, Abayomi, ed. Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America. Black Lawrence Press, 2015.

Chrusciel, Ewa. “Contraband of Hoopoe.” Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America. Ed. Abayomi Animashaun. 215-226.

Chrusciel, Ewa. Contraband of Hoopoe. Richmond, Calif.: Omnidawn Publishing, 2014.

Gwiazda, Piotr. “Like a Bear Playing a Flute.” Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America. Ed. Abayomi Animashaun. 122-126.

Kovacik, Karen, ed. Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets. Buffalo, New York: White Pine, 2016.

Sulej, Karolina. “Wioletta Grzegorzewska: Cierpkie owoce.” Wysokie obcasy (8 April 2014). Web. Acc. 30 Sept. 2016.


Karen Kovacik is the author of the poetry collections Metropolis Burning, Beyond the Velvet Curtain, and Nixon and I. Her work as a poet and translator has received numerous honors,including the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum, a fellowship in literary translation from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Fulbright Research Grant to Poland. In 2013, her translation of Agnieszka Kuciak’s Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don’t Exist appeared from White Pine Press, and she’s the editor of the anthology of Polish women poets, Scattering the Dark (White Pine, 2016). She is Professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

Ewa Chrusciel is the author of three poetry collections in Polish and three in English, most recently Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn, 2014). Associate Professor of English at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, she has just completed a new collection, Dybbuk of Angelus, forthcoming from Omnidawn next year. With Miłosz Biedrzycki, she translated a selection of Jorie Graham’s poetry into Polish (Biuro Literackie, 2013).

Wioletta Greg is a writer and poet who lives on the Thames estuary. She has published six collections of poetry, as well as the autobiographical novella Guguły about growing up in communist Poland. Greg's short stories, essays, and poems have been published in Asymptote, The Guardian, Litro Magazine, Poetry Wales, Wasafiri, The White Review, and Free Word Centre. Her poetry collection Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance (Arc Publications, 2014) was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. Her new book Swallowing Mercury is due out from Portobello Books in 2017.

Marek Kazmierski, a writer and translator, lives in Warsaw. He is the founder of Off Press, which recently published an anthology of younger Polish poets called Free Over Blood. His nonfiction won a Penguin Decibel Prize, and his translation of Greg’s Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Prize.