The Emigree – Carol Rumens
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.
As with any poem, ask yourself two questions at the beginning of the poem. What does the title itself suggest the poem might be about? And then ask what does the surname of the poet suggest or infer? Sometimes, when we are dealing with poems from other cultures than the typically white British poets, these questions can be very helpful and indeed, title theory is a thing, so ask these questions of all of them.
You might not be able to answer much from the word “Ozymandias,” but you certainly can from “The Emigree,” because an emigree is a person who has ‘emigrated’ from one country to another. Now, with that in mind, what does your mind think when you see that? A man or woman, or even a family, fleeing a war torn conflict? Well, you would be right to think that.
Then, of course, the name “Rumens” does sound European at a guess and after a short read online, I was able to come up with information saying that the poet was born in Forest Hill, London. Ah, you think. That did not work out well did it? So much for surnames! But, her surname now, because she married, is not the same as when she was born. Google it and see.
Her husband is the man with the name that could have been shortened down and seeing as how the poet has translated texts from Russian into English for a living, we get the impression one of the Russian speaking countries is where this is based as a poem.
All that from a title and a surname? It can happen.
The poem though, when I read it today, reminds me of one country in the news every day at the moment; Ukraine! It is a war torn country and it is a beautiful one to boot. But it could be any country in the world. I have seen the pictures of what places like Kiev and Mariupol looked like before Russian artillery flattened them and killed innocent civilians. So when this poet writes, “there once was a country” that she left “as a child,” I am immediately reminded of Ukraine and their children.
But did the poet mean it to happen like that? Is this autobiographical or biographical? (Google if not sure of definition of each) I ask as she then says “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.” Rumens was born and bred in London, so this is not about her. Rather, it is about someone else, maybe even someone fictional and even though the character in the poem sees the city in her memory as being “sunlight-clear,” she cannot see it that way now.
She says that “the worst news I receive of it cannot break my original view,” which she no doubt has in her house here in this country, possibly even, as I do of Prague, after my holiday there, in a “bright, filled paperweight” hidden behind glass as an ornament. To her, the city she is referring to is a beautiful place and always will be, as the citizens of Mariupol will attest to their beautiful place in the world. The reality may be somewhat different however, because like the poet, who can see that “it may be at war” and that “it may be sick with tyrants,” those who flee such situations as this are in a situation where their very lives may depend on being safe rather than being home.
In her mind, there is “an impression of sunlight” whenever she can see this city in her head. There are “the white streets of that city, the graceful slopes” that “glow even clearer as time rolls its tanks” against the city and change takes place once again. In terms of power and conflict, it is right there for you; the desire to not be here but at home where she belongs versus the need to keep her and her family safe somewhere else.
The use of the simile in the line where she writes “the frontiers rise between us, close like waves” is a particularly vivid description of the raw emotion that this person is feeling because she can visualize her homeland, but not actually physically see it due to her exile. To me, that must be terrifying to have to endure, because she arrived when she was a lot younger, carrying with her “a child’s vocabulary” that she carried here “like a hollow doll” as it opens up and “spills a grammar” to her into her life.
She is saying that when she arrived she only had a smattering of English skills and she reminds me of a boy I once taught called Andi Q*****, who was from Kosovo, and came to this country from there to escape persecution from the Serbian armies. He was eleven when he arrived in my Form Group at the school where I worked, with next to no English (hello, goodbye and something lasting two words which is quite naughty) but by the end of the academic year, he was very fluent in English and went on to be a paramedic, I hope, which is what he wanted to be.
He came to this country just like the person in this poem. He had a certain picture of his homeland in his head, I am sure, just like this person does and it did not take him long to “have every coloured molecule” of the English language mastered. This is what is going on here in this poem, as she settles into life in the United Kingdom.
But then the conflict comes as she thinks the whole thing might be by now, “a lie, banned by the state,” even though her knowledge of home is still there with her. Clearly, she has no passport, so she has no identity in one sense, but for a person to be in such a position as this means that their country has crumpled to a certain extent that it simply does not exist any longer. She has fallen, like the character of Viktor Novorski in the movie called The Terminal, through the cracks of that society into nothingness.
There is “no way back” to where she was from for her, so where she is at is where she is at; permanently. But the memory of that oldDplace rests in her heart and her mind as she remembers. In her memories, “the city comes to [her] in its own white plane,” like an existence memory that flits into the mind for a short time and then you think what was I doing now?
She finishes, with a flourish, by saying, “my city takes me dancing through the city of walls,” which sounds confusing for most, but basically means that in her memory, or imagination, the city will never leave her even though she left it.
The next line, for me, is interesting, because it changes direction into thinking in terms of others, as the lady in the poem thinks that “they accuse me of absence, they circle me.” Does the “they” refer to people, or to those city walls she has just been mentioning? There is no right answer here for this is poetry and each reader comes at a poem based on their experience, so what is your take on this poem? That is what you will write in the exam after all, in your analysis.
She continues by saying “they accuse me of being dark in their free city,” which basically means they, whoever ‘they’ are, believe that her thoughts are dark, or her faith is dark, in the city. If I am right in thinking that Rumens is a Jewish name, from the Russian ending, like Rumenovski, then it comes as no surprise to me that there is a fear for this place as she remembers it. Death and the muttering therof, is an example of how her city hides behind her. In doing so, there is a strong request that as her “shadow falls as evidence of sunlight,” she too, will sense a closing of play for the day and as she has some ulterior motives, you should see her as someone who is safe to be around, if not a little dark in areas.
That then, is the poem, so where is the conflict and where is the raw power. Your task is simple; locate any references to power and then to conflict in the poem. Your challenge has been set.