Analysis of the Poem "The Emigree" by Carol Rumens
Carol Rumens and The Emigree
The Emigree is a poem about a person who was forced to leave their home country and journey to foreign shores to be safe. The first person speaker looks back with affection at the land they once called home but which is now possibly run by a tyrant or caught up in war.
This poem focuses on the mind and memory of the speaker who had to flee danger as a child. In their imagination their former city is still lit with sunlight - a motif for optimism and happiness - yet dangers persist in the form of the anonymous oppressor, 'they', who threaten and censor.
Carol Rumens, academic and poet, is well known for her poetry on such subjects as gender, class, foreign culture and a sense of place. She often likes to go far away into alternative interiors in her poems but then has a need to return home, her plain language a trustworthy guide.
The Emigree works as a poem because the speaker sounds authentic. As Carol Rumens herself explains:
'I do try to keep close to my spoken diction.....I have to be able to say the poems aloud and feel them naturally in my mouth.'
First published in the book Thinking of Skins 1993, The Emigree remains fresh and relevant because with each new global conflict we see on t.v. and social media the effect of displacement on the faces of children.
What we don't see so obviously is the hidden hurt in their minds despite the smiles and resilience.
There once was a country… I left it as a child
but my memory of it is sunlight-clear
for it seems I never saw it in that November
which, I am told, comes to the mildest city.
The worst news I receive of it cannot break
my original view, the bright, filled paperweight.
It may be at war, it may be sick with tyrants,
but I am branded by an impression of sunlight.
The white streets of that city, the graceful slopes
glow even clearer as time rolls its tanks
and the frontiers rise between us, close like waves.
That child’s vocabulary I carried here
like a hollow doll, opens and spills a grammar.
Soon I shall have every coloured molecule of it.
It may by now be a lie, banned by the state
but I can’t get it off my tongue. It tastes of sunlight.
I have no passport, there’s no way back at all
but my city comes to me in its own white plane.
It lies down in front of me, docile as paper;
I comb its hair and love its shining eyes.
My city takes me dancing through the city
of walls. They accuse me of absence, they circle me.
They accuse me of being dark in their free city.
My city hides behind me. They mutter death,
and my shadow falls as evidence of sunlight.
Basic Analysis of The Emigree
The Émigrée begins with a cliche which is straight out of a fairy tale - There once was a country...but there the parallel ends and the reality kicks in as the first person speaker states quite directly that she left that fairy tale behind. For good.
But what kind of reality have we here? The second line informs the reader that this is a memory, and memories are always prone to distortion and often with that comes deception.
She's looking back to a time in November (the speaker we presume is a female because of the feminine form of the title émigrée) but has to be told that something November brought - the cold, the war, the strife, the change - irrevocably altered her city.
Note the use of that tiny word 'it' meaning the country. She doesn't give her country a name, perhaps because it is just too painful to repeat. Seven times that tiny word appears in the first stanza.
She says that no matter the negative news coming from her country she will always view it as a place of sunlight. She is 'branded' which implies that the memory is scarred into her skin. Although branded may have painful associations, here it seems a positive. Sunlight is tattoed onto her. Nothing will ever change.
The metaphor of a 'filled paperweight' is a little odd but suggests something solid and stable, which holds things together.
In the first part of the second stanza she consolidates her positive view of the city she had to flee. The language so far reflects this rose-tinted memory: sunlight-clear, sunlight, graceful, glow ...she's looking back with affection despite the mention of tanks and frontiers.
Midway through the stanza there is a more sober reflection. Now an adult she can see that when a child her vocabulary, her knowledge of life, didn't contain anything - it was like a hollow doll - quite a powerful simile - and that now she's in a position to understand better just what it was she went through.
But she still doesn't know if it's the truth, or a truth that will be accepted in her old country. This could be a longing for a past reality that never really existed. Yet she can't erase the memories...they have a positive flavour.
Her identity has been lost but the memories are still there, almost tangible. Her country becomes like a creature, a pet, a child?
The personification of the city is a comfort it seems. She dances with those memories but there is a dark side, something hidden and a necessary part of the life she led in her former city. The collective third person - they - are these the walls or are they dangerous people from her past?
Without the sun - a motif for all things clear and positive - there can be no shadow, the personal emotional side of life. They're mutually inclusive.
What Is The Context of The Emigree?
The context of The Emigree is displacement, that is, forced upheaval of local people and the need to flee a home country. Although there are no specific names in the poem, no country, no city, this works to the poem's advantage because the mind of the speaker is a universal substitute.
The poet has consciously chosen not to give a name of a country or city so that the reader is free to think of one of their choosing. There is unfortunately conflict happening at all times somewhere in the world - it seems never to stop - so to give a specific name would perhaps detract from the universality of the emigree's mind.
Perhaps the speaker is reluctant to name specific places and lands because of regret, or pain, or sorrow.
The poem focuses on the memories the speaker has of their former home city and country. These memories are mostly positive, hence the sunlight motif which represents hope, happiness and clarity.
Childhood memories are often the strongest and deepest yet can also deceive. The speaker, as an adult, confesses that no matter what news comes out of that country now, they will always keep a positive impression of it - sunlit and clear.
So whilst the poem is a rather intimate and personal account of a past existence, the context is much larger, much broader - it is that of human conflict and human aggression, which forces people out of their homes and country, but can never erase the memories.
Literary Devices in The Emigree
There are several devices used:
Used in narratives as omission of words or phrases or events, usually written as three dots...where the reader has to fill in the missing words. The first line contains an ellipsis.
When one subject is implied to be the other. In this example from the first stanza the paperweight is metaphorically the original view of the news:
The worst news I receive of it cannot break
my original view, the bright, filled paperweight.
When an object or thing is given human characteristics - figurative language. In the final stanza there are several examples:
my city comes to me
my city takes me dancing
my city hides behind me.
When one thing is compared to another, as with:
close like waves
like a hollow doll
docile as paper
When characters, ideas or things are described which appeal to more than one sense:
It tastes of sunlight.
Analysis of The Emigree - Structure
The Emigree has three similar stanzas, blocks of text with lines that are uniform and roughly the same length.
Each stanza is separate, they don't flow into one another which reflects three different perspectives:
- i) the speaker gives an overall positive viewpoint of her life as a child in the country she had to leave. This is fixed and will not change.
- ii) the speaker outlines the basic dilemma she still faces - whether to trust her memory which may have become tainted by conflict and subsequent lies and strife.
- iii) the speaker shares concerns about her identity and her past.
Analysis - Summary and Meaning of Poem The Emigree
The Emigree is a free verse poem in three stanzas totalling 25 lines. It does not have a set rhyme scheme or a consistent regular metre.
The speaker's tone is conversational, unemotional and in the end positive; they might be relaying information to a friend or family member or interested person. Or perhaps they're filling in a journal or diary or wanting to start a story.
- Basically, the speaker describes the city they left behind as a child in positive terms, referring to the fact that they are 'branded by an impression of sunlight.' - and that this original affirming view will prevail no matter the news they hear to the contrary.
Childhood memory of a fixed, clear sunlit world, perhaps idealised, takes precedence over the negative. Time hasn't darkened or diminished the memory, despite the hardships endured and the current state of their former homeland.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey