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Ewa Chrusciel


Voltage Poetry (2014)


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Ewa Chrusciel on Jorie Graham’s “Passenger”
Posted on April 28, 2014


In “Passenger,” a post-9/11 poem from the collection Overlord, Jorie Graham, through various shifts of personal deixis, attempts to bring imagination and empathy together. One might ask immediately, what does empathy have to do with sudden shifts of deixis?  Deixis belongs to orientational features of language, as it grounds the language in specific time and place. Isaac Revzinconsiders deixis an indispensable part of human communication, calling it “the primordial function of gesture.”1 Deixis best exemplifies a bodily-oriented dimension of language. It is precisely through the sudden turns of personal deixis that Graham creates the relationship between the speaker of the poem and the poem’s other character. Through the shift of personal deixis, Graham conveys the process of thinking involved in making a poem, and considers whether such thinking is adequate to the world in which we live.

In her essay, “Some Notes on Silence,” Graham explains that her poems are events, enactments of experience, not just containers for understood experience.2 Through this enactment, we are able to imaginatively transport ourselves into the situations depicted in Graham’s poems. Additionally, Graham claims that it is through just such twists of syntax and other linguistic gestures that a relationship with mystery can be manifested. About the relations between the broken, twisted, and interrupted syntax and mystery, she notes:

It is hard to name these things: but in those poets who confront the unknown, the holy, most head-on, the syntax begins to buckle and bend back and break, and in the poets who go that way, twisted syntax, breaks against smooth sequence or sense, line breaks of queer kinds, white spaces, interruptions, dashes, overpunctuation, delays, clotted rich diction, obscurity, disorder, ellipses, sentence fragments, digressive strategies—every modulation in certainty—are all tools for storming the walls. Whether of hell or paradise is another matter.3

Her poem “Passenger” takes place in a taxi between an American passenger and an immigrant taxi driver. At first, the boundaries between “I” and “you” in “Passenger” seem to be strongly delineated, although the conversational directness, lack of question marks, shortened discourse, and ellipsis minimize the social distance between the speakers. Additionally, the use of present-tense verbs positions the text-world of this poem temporally and creates the sense of immediacy—even if, at times, we have the feeling that the speaker’s voice is in a rush and its interrogating seems to be almost harsh, intruding, and, in some places—such as when the speaker states, “You, you who have come here abandoning what you / should not have abandoned (we both know this)”—superior and condescending.

The encounter with the other takes place via shifts of deixis. The spatial deixis in the poem are distal: “behind,” “over,” “far away,” “on the phone,” and “never,”and they refer to absent and remote places, so that both the speaking voice and the reader have to conceptualize a remote text-world, or perform a projection.4 We are imaginatively transported from a taxi into the text-world of the taxi-driver’s country, his “deserts,” his “mountains,” his “endless blue rivers.” This projection extends throughout the poem and, I suggest, enables empathy; that is to say, our capacity to transfer ourselves imaginatively to the other person’s point of view.

However, when the second person “you” starts indicating different taxi drivers, a world-switch occurs as we are transported into a timeless, continuous—or perpetual—zone. This timeless zone begins after the speaker notes that she “always” asks taxi drivers the kinds of questions recorded at the beginning of the poem, when the speaker notes, “You keep on / changingthere in the front seat driving me to my / destination. The destination changes. But / the movement is the same.” According to role value theory in cognitive linguistics, this moment indicates no longer a specific driver, but rather a role-value of a driver.5 The changing taxi-drivers constitute a value not only for a taxi driver, but also for an immigrant. Yet, if we take into account the fact that this is a post-9/11 taxi driver, we have a new meaning emerging. This compression of role-values could enable a reader to visualize and transfer imaginatively into the shoes of a taxi-driver, though initially it does not; as the speaker states, no matter what, “you are still driving I am still a passenger.”

There is an effort, however, to cross this divide: speaker and other “could change places,” even if “only on this page”. The fundamentally egocentric first-person deixis starts gravitating towards the other. This oscillation between “I-Thou” opens up the world of relatedness in Martin Buber’s understanding. Buber claims that the relationship between I and Thou is primary and these two deixis are inextricable. The I-Thou is openness to the possibility of people. I do not simply look at another, but take my stand. This Thou-orientation embeds relatedness and interaction.6 Edith Stein suggests that the other person puts us in motion, so we actively go out of ourselves to meet the other.7 This imagined effort to switch places—“I will be the one who is / sleeping when I as a passenger arrive at the stand and knock at the front / window, or simply, open the back door”—is an enactment of the gesture articulated earlier in the poem: it is an effort to “lower / the partition.” It expresses the desire to actively encounter the other and decrease the boundary. The partition becomes lowered via language. In this part of the poem the boundaries between personal deixis become diffuse.

However, another world-switch occurs, yet it is not entirely complete. As the text below indicates, though there may be moments of convergence (such as when an “I” counts her/his money again—that “I” could be either driver or passenger), “I” and “you” are not simply or easily merged.  For example, even though the passenger and the driver switch their roles, the switch is not complete; there is no complete loss of the self. Take, for example, the sentence: “I will be sorry to awaken you.” According to McCawley’s famous Brigitte Bardot example—“I dreamed that I was Brigitte Bardot and that I kissed me”8—this sentence should state, “I will be sorry to awaken me.” This example indicates the inconsistency of the world switching. Even when the shift of deixis merges the speaking voice with the other (and, later, with a reader, as well), the merging is never complete—perhaps because of the awareness of the “partition,” or else because the role switching is only possible on the paper?

Emmanuel Levinas claims that the other is “not unknown but unknowable, refractory to all light.”9  Levinas states:

But this precisely indicates that the other is in no way another myself, participating with me in a common existence […] the Other as Other is not only an alter ego: the Other is what I myself am not. The Other is this, not because of the Other’s characters, or physiognomy, or psychology, but because of the Other’s very alterity. The Other is, for example, the weak, the poor, “the widow and the orphan,” whereas I am the rich and the powerful.10

To what extent, then, is it possible to switch the roles with the other? Do we have a mechanism that facilitates mind-reading of another person’s mental processes? Would mirror neurons suffice? Would the contagious fear the poem notes—“I am afraid…Also you are scared…I / also am scared. Am I driving now? It is not clear here”—provide the evidence for mirror neurons and suggest that we understand mental state concepts of the others?

The sudden turns in deixis create the weak gestalt in the poem, where the difference between a driver and a passenger is diffused, but then such diffusion is reinstated and questioned again. However, the ending of the poem goes even further into diffusion, when the poem surprisingly ends with a new “you”—an emergent space that contains a blended deictic pronoun: “So long. Fearlessness of the American. / How you are hated. Everywhere. So long.” This new “you” signifies a passenger, a taxi-driver, a reader, and America. This blurred “you” finally lowers the partition and puts passenger, immigrant, and any reader in the same backseat, with little agency. A partition remains, but who is driving then? (Is it homeland security?)



1 Revzin, Isaac, “From Animal communication to Human Speech, in Pragmatic Aspects of Human Communication, ed. Colin Cherry. Boston: D. Reidel, 1974. 18.

2 —. “Some Notes on Silence,” in By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, ed. Molly McQuade. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2000. 171.

3 Graham, 171.

4 Text world theory is further elaborated in Joanna Gavins’s Text World Theory: An Introduction. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh UP, 2007.

5 Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books, 2002. 98.

6 Buber, Martin, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.

7 Stein, Edith, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. Waltraut Stein.  Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1989.

8 McCawley, James D. Everything that Linguists have Always Wanted to Know about Logic* but were ashamed to ask. Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 1981.

9 Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1987.

10 Ibid, 83.


Ewa Chrusciel has two books in Polish, Furkot and Sopilki, and one book in English, Strata, which won the 2009 Emergency Press International Book Contest and was published by Emergency Press in 2011. Her second book in English Contraband of Hoopoe is forthcoming from Omnidawn Press in September, 2014. Her poems have been featured in Jubilat, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Lana Turner, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Aufgabe, among others. She has translated Jack London, Joseph Conrad, I.B. Singer, as well as Jorie Graham, Lyn Hejinian, and Cole Swensen, into Polish. She is an associate professor at Colby-Sawyer College.

†Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find Jorie Graham’s “Passenger”