Evidence of Belonging: Strata by Ewa Chrusciel
In Polish, strata means “loss”; in English it means “accretion.” In the hands of a Polish poet writing in English, this single word becomes an enigma that opens itself up to the exploration of language and culture, and in so being is an apt title for her first book of English poetry published in the U.S. Not only does Chrusciel write and publish in both English and Polish, she has also taught and received graduate degrees in both countries. The consequent linguistic stratification that has taken place in her mind as manifested in her writing is the lens through which her poems are written, and indeed this transparency becomes a fascinating subject of the poems in its own right.
Chrusciel makes her writing process transparent to the reader, which is fitting, and perhaps even necessary, for a book that deconstructs the boundaries of language. She only presents the process, though, and is careful not to impose any explanation or analysis on it. In the poem titled (and I quote the title’s form exactly),
to change your language you must
change your life
Chrusciel asks “What’s the evidence of belonging?” when she says “I am at home and I write in English” (p. 39). She is in her native land, but not writing in her native language: how then to prove she still belongs there? She conveys the flip side of this puzzling experience over the course of other poems: documenting her experience of writing the poem “I lose home every time I send it” in the course of the poem itself, she writes “I count these sentences in Polish. Lexicons trespass; cross-code breakdowns” (p. 4). She cannot compartmentalize her Polish and English vocabularies, so when “the black milk of the mother tongue” (p. 40) spills over the poems she writes in her adopted tongue, the transparency of her writing displays it. Indeed, we see this spill happen over and over again in other poems, the milk always tinged with the taste of displacement, for example: “What illness springs from the lost place? Places are extensions of people. I count everything in Polish” (p. 5) and “She is a confused sunflower. I counted again in Polish” (p. 7).
She is in her native land, but not writing in her native language: how then to prove she still belongs there?
Straddling two languages may make the speaker feel like a “confused sunflower,” but her native-level command of the English language allows her full range of word choice and play. This quirky combination of confusion and assurance can be seen in her play on the phrase “native tongue,” which threads throughout the book. Her poem, “what s [sic] the evidence of belonging,” opens with an italicized Polish phrase, “Kraina na bosaka,” then the statement “Your first sentence will always be in your native lung” (p.3). Read it too fast, and any English speaker will read “native tongue.” Similarly, in the last sentence of the poem “time hanged itself / on a tree branch,” she states, “Your last sentence will always be in your native lung” (p. 8). The replacement of “lung” for “tongue” connotes the idea that language is breathed in and out of the body, and in doing so sustains us; it is not just about what sounds sit at the tip of the tongue.
The Polish phrase Kraina na bosaka is italicized in both poems mentioned above, in keeping with correct English grammar: words in languages other than English are italicized. However, Chrusciel breaks this rule in other poems, such as “water has memory”:
… In the hidden corridors of your
— p. 13
Polish and English blend into a single language here (which itself delightfully eschews the rules of capitalization and grammar) into which italicized French phrases are inserted. This italicization sets the French apart from the unitalicized Polish/English language in which the poem is written. In so doing, this single poem effectively shuffles Polish and English together like two decks of cards, creating a linguistic layering effect. This layering of Polish strata and English strata embodies the feel of the collection as a whole.
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