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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ewa Chrusciel, Contraband of Hoopoe

Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn 2014) has an architectonic feel that I associate with baroque music. Repeating figures, hoopoes are found in Africa, Asia and Europe. They are found in Leviticus 11:13–19 where their detestable taste is decried. They are found in Sufi literature and throughout this book, where a hoopoe nestled in the chest is the poet’s immigrant heart. “The hoopoe is the dybbuk messenger chattering under my bra” (13). A sausage is also held close to her heart, “transcontinental dowry,” emblematic of Poland (14). Threads of Hoopoes from biblical sources (Solomon and Sheba) to fables invented for nonce effect synthesize an intriguing unity of construction. Appearances of unity and deep coherences are often found in different registers, humorous postmodern campiness often at odds with deep coherences addressed to the human condition, not here. Contraband of Hoopoe works in both registers. The proposition, “What illness springs from a lost place?” (“Prayer Before Flight” 44) is answer by means of litanies, catalog responses, intoning the names of immigrants to Ellis Island. An example, “Ann Anderson from Denmark takes a sheet used only during / deliveries. Her sheet a shroud of the womb. It springs birth. It is her / legacy” (47). The unique long line with multiple caesuras and the emphases constructed in this manner, is compelling. Smuggling is used as a theme related to immigration. “Smuggling has to do with metonymies” (35). Hence the power of lists and documentary fragments. “Irene gets permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto as / a plumber. She smuggles babies in her tool box, and carries larger children in her sack out of the Warsaw Ghetto” (56). Repetition too is prayerful, “The large Blue Dress took Matisse endless versions, / repeated rubbings out of / the areas of paint, etching / sinuous lines—“ (“Prayer” 54). Lyrical moments amid the long-line recitatives, aspects of Chrusciel’s composition by ear. Most human to me in Contraband of Hoopoe is the solitude that gives form to distinctly immigrant emotions, “The hoopoe is a solitary bird yet has enormous filial devotion” (80). I feel a religious hush, amidst witticisms, “Is our soul involved in the hoopoe dispatch? / What kind of diplomacy is required to smuggle the self into Infinity?” (80). It turns out that there is nothing easy or of a nonce nature about identification with the hoopoe. The hoopoe is the dislocated soul of a dead ancestor.
Donald Wellman

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