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Currents: a poet talks to herself

Ewa Chrusciel won the 2009 Emergency Press International Book Contest for Strata, her first book published in English. Prior to Strata, she released two books in Poland — Furkot and Sopilki. Chrusciel's poems and translations have appeared in many books, anthologies and magazines in Poland, England, Italy, and the United States, including The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, and Aufgabe, Jubilat, Spoon River Review. She is an assistant professor of Humanities at Colby-Sawyer College.

To read poems and reviews of Strata visit Two Poems by Ewa Chrusciel.

To learn more about her writing and teaching visit her web site at

Strata is available at the Colby-Sawyer Bookstore and Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London, N.H., and on, accessible by clicking on the book cover above.

Poet and Professor Ewa Chrusciel on Strata, Her First Poetry Collection in English

Why do you write in your non-native language?

Experience determines the choice of the language. To change your language you must change your life. I changed my life by packing and flying to U.S.A. It is in English that I encountered a woodcock; therefore it will soar in English.

Writing in English is the work of smuggling metaphors from one language into another. It is a work of bilingualism and mistranslation, so it is a constant mental shifting and shuffling between the two languages, between these two different conceptualizations of the world. Writing in two languages creates bewilderment for us and for our readers. It changes us. It transports us to new places. This miraculous transport, this bilocation, is a theological meaning of translation. In theology translation implies the act of miraculous displacement just like in Nicolas Poussin's 1630s painting: “The Translation of St Rita of Cascia.” St. Rita was miraculously transported into a place where she desired to be.

And writing poems is a way of being in two places at once? Sounds hectic.

The Catholic Church describes the miracle of bilocation, which has been experienced by mystics, ecstatics, saints, monks, holy persons and magical adepts, as the appearance of an individual in two places simultaneously. Writing comes from a longing for the presence of another place, for bilocation. My desire for linguistic bilocation is related to my bilingualism, which means inhabiting two cognitive places at once. Bilingualism is for those who are unable to let it go, who nest in two places at once. For those who dwell in impossibility. Poems bilocate to express what is ineffable. To give tribute to Mystery; to the insufficiency of any language. Bilocation saves us from idolatry.

Do you intend to create the third language?

Great question! Rather, a third, 'emergent space,' a conceptual blend that arises from the oscillation between closural and a-closural tendencies in the text itself, as well as in the relation of this text to a reader's construct of the text. Strata tries to inhabit this third space, in which closure and non-closure constantly flash into each other. It is a hybrid text incorporating letters and poems; it investigates issues of identity, mediation, protest, Central European politics, and the Sublime.

And that third language is also an attempt at bilocation?

Yes, out of two shifting positions, the third space emerges. It is woven out of bewilderment. Like Fanny Howe, who wrote “I am a victim of constantly shifting positions, with every one of these positions stunned by bewilderment.” The third language, again, recognizes the insufficiency of native or second language; the human desire and inability to express the ineffable.

Just to give you more of the idea, in Musical Variations on Jewish Thought, Revault D'Allonnes writes: [W]hat is intolerable to Jewish thought is the idea that a being can die before fulfilling his destiny; the dybbuk is the spirit of one who has died “prematurely,” and takes possession of a living person in order to try, as it were, to conclude his role, to round out his existence. It is not a ghost seeking vengeance or asserting its rights. It is a person making himself complete, fulfilling himself, wiping out the error or horror of early death. A phantom is hostile, ill-disposed, frightening. The dybbuk is good, it returns in order to do good; if the community wants to get rid of it ... that is because it disturbs the social order. But, in doing so, it carries out the divine order. In this sense, which is the sense of truth, the dybbuk is an object of love. Love which is a scandal and disgrace to partisans of order but certainty and happiness to those on the side of justice…”

So, my poems, as one of the critics Tony Brinkley suggested, are dybbuks. For example, my opening and closing poem “Na no la,” is a haunted poem. It is inhabited by the lines and images that emerge and expand throughout my book. They perch on a log and pound. They form a drumming station. They become a ruffed grouse. Pounding its wings until the forest hears; until the logs spark into lumen. By embracing both mourning and abundance, this poem also alludes to the title of my book Strata,which signifies “loss” in Polish and “accretion” in English. Strata investigates the issues of bilingualism; the ceaseless border crossing, smuggling of metaphors; inhabiting two places at once.

So, yes, poems inhabit us, jump out of us like tigers, or dybbuks. To quote Revault D'Allonnes' : “Oh, good dybbuk, resting in my innermost depths, give me the courage to become you.”

Why so many animals, birds, letters to animals in your poems?

I see Beauty in animals. I see Mystery in animals. And, as Flannery O'Connor says, Beauty will save the world. I think Beauty has teeth and it terrifies. Poetry is a tribute to such Beauty. That wildness comes from the fact that poems are tigers that jump out of us. That wildness is my response to Mystery.

Do we write poems or do poems write us?

Oh, we went back to dybbuks, perhaps? Isn't the same question with memory? Do we write memory or does memory write us? We only “build balconies in the void,” to quote Rosmarie Waldrop from her newest book: “Driven to Abstraction.”

If we think we already know what to write, we never encounter the subject of a poem that should “write us.” Likewise, if we already know what we are reading, we never learn anything about literature. Without the sense of surprise, bewilderment and discovery, there is no literature; there is no learning. The opening up of a subject is what Jorie Graham calls the “poem's occasion,” when we let ourselves meander and encounter the subject which changes us.

Writing is an event because—through language—it leads to an encounter with a sense of other/Other which points beyond the limitations of language. Writing jeopardizes the self by enforcing a renunciation of our layers of ego in a transformation into “the radical self in its uninhibited freedom,” in Thomas Merton's words. Poems storm the walls of Mystery, to paraphrase Jorie Graham from her essay: “Notes on Silence.” That's why the syntax twists and bends. The urge for meaning coexists dialectically with the resistance against completion. Nothing is ever complete in poetry.

The self-interview above, for which Ewa Chrusciel asked, and answered, the questions about her work that she has always wished she would be asked, is currently under publication by Nervous Breakdown and will be published on May 28, 2011.

To read poems and reviews of Strata visit Two Poems.