by Liz McGehee
“We are…the ruthless blood of ancestors” (19).
Imbued with the aching linage of immigrants, Ewa Chrusciel’s contraband of hoopoe is as astonishing as it is honest. Chrusciel’s bright plumage of language builds an ever-displaced nest for her readers in what manifests as pastoral of the relocated other.
Contraband, present in the title, meaning the smuggling or illegal import or export of goods, is more applicable to persons than “goods” or physical objects. The smuggling of souls, traditions, and ways of being are ever-present in Chrusciel’s second book of English language poems:
“Smuggling is translation…It is—for those who are unable to let go—nesting in two places at once…Both translation and smuggling come from longing for presence. From a loss. They speak of insufficiency of one life, one language.” (55).
The emblematic bird melees with clipped wings against her cultural erasure. Neither blending nor allowed to be. Moments of directness juxtapose with symbolic animal imagery, tethering the treatment of immigrants in the west to that of something less than human and to a clear system, which enforces such practices. The ugliness glossed over in American history becomes fully exposed in the radiance of Chrusciel’s prose.
“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” (13).
Chrusciel said in an interview with Colby Sawyer College that, “Writing in English is the work of smuggling metaphors from one language into another. It is a work of mistranslation. I am a smuggler because I do not like to renounce anything. I want to keep both of the languages and both of the worlds.”
The poems enact this division with the juxtaposition between the direct and indirect, the rapid transitions between animal poems and immigrant poems that take two contrasting approaches on the same subject. “Smuggling” never disappears for long in the text. The narrator deliberates [about] metaphorically “smuggling” her mother’s heirlooms back into the United States. She knows that keeping or bringing things from her homeland is punishable by law, and implicates any form of dissent from Americanization and cultural assimilation an act of treason charged by these new surroundings. The relocated are suspect merely by existing, trapped as other in a strange land.
countries there was paper, but no truth to write on it. We knew the
truth, but had no paper. No paper to wipe off the system. We carried
it like a turf on our asses. What is this culture that cannot regenerate
itself by healthy digestion? This is where we beheld the system” (16).
Here, we see traces of the implemented literary tests after the Immigration Act of 1917 meant to exclude immigrants on their ability to convert to the conquerors language. This poem enacts the disability of such people to perform in foreign tongue as well as the squelching of diversity encountered at western borders.
The author’s direct confrontation with human experience, a range of animals, trees, and prayers follow us from poem to poem, embodying dislocation in this tyrannical landscape. Chrusciel invokes the great flood myth of Noah’s Ark, a myth existing across nearly every culture in one form or another but only recognized in the west via the bible.
Early in Chrusciel’s text Noah appears as smuggler:
“Noah smuggled a blue-footed booby in his resin boat. But how was
infinity smuggled in the blue feet of the booby? It crouched in his
webbed feet and chanted madrigals. Booby, you strut your blue feet in
the air and point the human species to the sky. No smuggler can get
hold of your blueness. You are the incarnation of the sky…” (30).
Noah is simultaneously savior and oppressor. In the poem, he takes it upon himself to save the booby, which has no desire for rescue, forcing it into the post-flood world now dictated by Noah and God. He embodies the insidious western, Christian colonization virusing its way across humanity. Noah’s prayers later develop into fins, allowing him mobility through this new domain where the animals become fixed.
No hierarchy of the soul exists but we witness a crafted system of inequality implemented by individuals with disproportionate power. Life dwells not only within animals, but trees, and other parts of nature in the text, ascribing to pre-colonized religions. Chrusciel creates a totem pole, always honoring the ancestors, always championing equity, and revealing a naturalized system.
“There is no life for them in the old Continent, these pigeons called
rats. They have acquired the wrong reputation. They coo their litanies.
They sing to the faces of their landlords. They congregate on balconies
To interfere with Sunday hymns. The pigeons are better worshipers,
There is something akin to the oral tradition of the American slaves running through the book. Perhaps to remind us the law once protected that slavery, and likewise, immigration laws continue to subjugate the other, the non-conformist, and the diverse, stifling languages and deviant voices. Chrusciel reminds us that we are still being internally colonized.
The hoopoe, which hails from Africa, is referenced in the Quran (verse 27:20) and Chrusciel quotes this verse on the very last page, “How is it that I see not the hoopoe, or is he among the absent?” The reply in the Quran (not mentioned in the text) states:
“But the hoopoe tarried not far: he compassed (territory) which thou has not compassed …” Quran 27:22.
We can interpret this in contraband of hoopoe as the internal, the soul, a territory that can never be subdued, though many will try. Despite the overwhelming assault of limitation, Chrusciel leaves us with this hope of inward mobility.
“The most fantastical truths can be smuggled only through the windy labyrinths of our body’s cavity” (19).
That is that, when the body cannot travel, it is the soul that must fly.
contraband of hoopoe can be found on Omnidawn’s website.
Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.