An Analysis of the Poem "Immigrant" by Fleur Adcock
Fleur Adcock and Immigrant
Immigrant is a short poem that focuses briefly on the observations of the speaker who is on a bridge looking at the birds in London's St James's Park, one of eight royal parks in the capital city.
The opening few words could be pulled straight out of someone's diary and the whole first line is a reference point, a measurement in time. The speaker is looking back, reminding herself of undisputed straight facts.
This is an autobiographical poem because Fleur Adcock did move to London in early 1963 from New Zealand, where she was born. However, although born in New Zealand, she spent most of her childhood in Britain, so has a dual identity, which makes for potential confusion.
Attempting to fit in and 'become' British, she wears typically British clothes - from Marks and Spencer's, the classic high street chain - but cannot yet speak in a proper British accent. She feels awkward, just like the pelicans, the foreign birds, on the lake.
As she herself explains:
'Immigrant' looks back from some years afterwards to the time when I first arrived in London from New Zealand feeling very foreign, in fact very colonial with my New Zealand accent which I hastened to get rid of, and my Marks & Spencers clothes - I was trying to pass as a genuine Londoner like so many others. I would walk around St James's Park sometimes at lunchtime and I would see the swans who were actual English birds on the lake, and the pelicans who were immigrants like me and I tended to identify with the pelicans.'
First published in 1979 in her book The Inner Harbour, Immigrant neatly sums up through use of metaphor how a person new to an alien culture might feel. On the outside a person might look like a native, dressing in the right clothes and so on, but inside they still might feel ambivalent and uncertain about their identity.
November ’63: eight months in London.
I pause on the low bridge to watch the pelicans;
they float swanlike, arching their white necks
over only slightly ruffled bundles of wings,
burying awkward beaks in the lake’s water.
I clench cold fists in my Marks and Spencer’s jacket
and secretly test my accent once again:
St Jame’s Park; St Jame’s Park; St Jame’s Park.
Analysis of Immigrant
Immigrant is a poem that emerges from the mind of the speaker as they stand on a bridge in a London park observing the birds on a lake.
The first person perspective gives the poem an intimate tone, the quiet thoughts emerging as the native and foreign birds go about their business on the water.
Is the speaker talking to herself? Yes and no. There is a definite attempt to sum up life so far in the capital - the month is stated, as is the length of time spent. You can imagine the speaker giving out a big sigh...so many months adapting to a new culture and still that ambivalent feeling.
She's focusing on the pelicans, non-native birds, who are swanlike on the water but awkward when it comes to putting their large beaks into the water. This aptly resonates with the speaker's own awkwardness as an immigrant.
- The unusual fourth line reinforces the strangeness felt. Those two syllable words next to one another are trochees (first syllable stressed, second not...DUMda) so the tendency is for falling and not rising except at the very end...of wings...which is iambic.
The speaker clenches cold fists which could signify a case of plain warming up hands but could also hint at a deep frustration. After all, she's dressed in a smart Marks and Spencer's jacket, traditional British, but she's not quite mastered the British accent yet.
This is interesting because there is a colonial tie here stretching back to the days of empire, when Britain ruled half the world and stamped their authority on countries like New Zealand.
Many New Zealanders who come over to visit and live in Britain are acutely aware of their accents. Some perceive the New Zealand accent to be somehow 'wrong', they stigmatise it because it sounds too countrified and not up to the standard 'Queen's' English.
Of course, those who think the New Zealand accent wrong or weird or bad or whatever are totally misguided. It's a form of snobbishness that is antiquated and out of date, a hang-up from the days of empire.
Unfortunately, as the poem suggests, even some New Zealanders thought their accent poor and sought to alter it over time to a more acceptable native British accent. If they were living in Britain a British accent might have given them a better chance of finding work, of being accepted into society.
It's understandable that someone like Fleur Adcock would become confused over their true identity. Being born in a foreign land, then moving away to a different country when a child is bound to create a sense of dislocation.
Immigrant approaches the issue with sensitivity and subtle use of the local landscape. It contrasts strongly with other poems on the same subject, such as Immigrants In Our Own land by Jimmy Baca or Mexicans Begin Jogging by Gary Soto.
Poetical Devices in the Immigrant Poem
Immigrant is a short, free verse poem of two stanzas, 5 lines and 3 lines respectively. There is no set rhyme scheme and the metre (meter in American English) varies from line to line.
When words are close to one another in lines and start with the same consonants they are said to alliterate. This brings different sounds for the reader, and alters texture. For example:
over only...burying awkward beaks...clench cold.
When the vowel sounds are the same in close words assonance occurs, which again like alliteration adds interest and enhances sound. So:
months/London...swanlike/white...over only...ruffled bundles...awkward/water.
Caesura are breaks or pauses along a line often caused by punctuation. The first line has a caesura, as does the third line. And the final line has two.
If a line carries on into the next without punctuation it is said to be enjambed, allowing the meaning to continue with hardly a pause. Look for this in lines 3 and 6.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey