Seamed like sedimentary rock, the poems of Ewa Chrusciel’s debut collection intercalate private moments of quotidian beauty with a host of public concerns: natural science, linguistics, religion, politics, and poetics. These autobiographical prose poems—which are punctuated by repetition and quotation—inevitably recall Lyn Hejinian’s seminal My Life. Although Chrusciel does not reproduce Hejinian’s procedural constraints, her poems similarly float on the stream of consciousness, jumping within the same poem from a remark that “the size of my radiance is volcanic lavish” to the explanation that the “Hebrew word makom means both God and Place.” Place is crucial to these poems: Chrusciel complicates the project of a Languaged autobiography by thinking bilingually. Polish was her first language, and these poems interrogate the complexities of living and writing in another tongue. “I count everything in Polish,” the speaker declares, asserting that some basic aspects of one’s linguistic identity are set in stone. Such Petrine fundamentals cannot be changed by a mere shift in location: “Your last sentence will always be in your native lung.” Tonal shifts are amply in evidence here, as Chrusciel leaps from the piquant (“The first manifestation of being a poet was when my jeans got stuck in the chain of a bicycle”) to the theoretical (“The threat of atopia calls forth a veritable ontomania”). Sometimes bordering on the sentimental, this work is both more and less challenging than that of its model. While Chrusicel’s work may lack Hejinian’s consistent syntactical control, her project questions cultural identity in a new and perhaps necessarily raw fashion. Her poems are charged by descriptions of a childhood in Communist Poland, as well as by her insistence on what is lost and what is gained in the exchange of national identities. The word “strata,” she notes, “signifies in my native language ‘a loss.'” The auto-antonym of the book’s title (layering, loss) suggests that paradox is inescapable and necessary: “I find myself being nasty and hated,” she writes, and then, immediately self-corrects, “I find myself being a visionary.” Such contradictory assertions recur throughout the book, layered amongst Chrusciel’s lyric incantations. In the final, anaphoric poem, she addresses the unfixed nature of words: “They rap on our door with churned up grains, tides, whispers. They come as drafts of juniper. They spread on the floor as a cross. They are relics of grief and light.” The juxtaposition of “grief and light” is perhaps the best description of this bittersweet debut, in which “every meeting [is] a crescendo of absence.”

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