Along with the poem that shall not be named, ‘The Emigrée’ tends to be pretty unpopular with English teachers I speak to about the Power & Conflict poems. On first reading, I can see why. In a sense, I agree that it’s annoyingly “contextless”. By this I mean that it is neither autobiographical, nor does it appear to be based on a specific conflict or place. Without a clear link to social and historical context, or autobiographical detail, teachers often feel adrift when it comes to providing pupils with the requisite knowledge to address the context criteria of the mark scheme. Others argue that the extended personification is a bit clumsy and, like our speaker, appears a but muddled towards the end. They’re probably right. But, nonetheless, I like the poem. Increasingly so each time I teach it.
Here’s my interpretation and what I like to focus on:
Fantasy and childhood
The poem begins with a cliché. Every student and his or her dog know that, post-primary school, you can’t begin a story with ‘There once was a country…’. It’s been used too many times before. Yet the ubiquitous nature of this opening is deliberate. In electing to use this subverted cliché, Rumens is alluding to key tropes of the fairy tale genre, such as the innocence and naivety of childhood; the otherworldliness of strange and distant lands; the loss of clarity and reason when characters are placed under magic spells; the spectre of evil and the malign influence of the adult world. The ellipsis at the end of the phrase is instructive; the use of aposeopesis reflecting the speaker’s unwillingness to continue (perhaps as a result of the traumatic memories) or inability to fill in further detail (due to the unreliability of the child’s recollections). The hackneyed beginning does seem to diverge from the most popular openings though. Normally, a once upon a time scenario identifies the character(s) first before identifying the location. For Rumens, the ‘country’ and then later the ‘city’ are foregrounded, making this land the main “character” of the poem, which is reinforced and amplified by the frequent use of personification.
Light and darkness
Sunlight acts as a clear motif throughout the poem, with four references, including the final words of each stanza. ‘Sunlight’ has obvious connotations of optimism and positivity: just like the city, it’s a life-giving and life-sustaining force that ensures a sense of warmth and comfort. ‘Sunlight’ is also associated with openness, as in Louis D. Brandeis’ famous maxim that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. Approaching the theme of light and darkness through this well-known quotation, I think, really allows pupils to evaluate the speaker’s relationship with her place of birth. On first appearance ‘my memory of it is sunlight-clear’ is a bold statement of confidence in the speaker’s ability to recall the true nature of the city. The compound adjective ‘Sunlight-clear’ implies a perfect perspective that sees the real city beneath the opaque veil of tyranny. The ‘sunlight’ disinfects the darkness that shrouds the city in the ‘worst news’ that the speaker encounters, presumably in morbid media images or through anecdotes of fellow exiles. But on a deeper level, all it not quite what it seems. The speaker admits that she ‘never saw it in… November’, which gives us an impression that the speaker is perhaps offering an idealised, rose-tinted description of the place, one that crucially may never have existed, even in the good old days. ‘The Emigrée’ is certainly a nostalgic poem. The etymology of ‘nostalgia’ leads us back to the Greek for ‘homesickness’. In this case, it is possible to argue that the speaker’s yearning for the past and for her place of birth has maybe affected her ability to depict the city as anything other than a utopia. Rumen’s choice of ‘November’ is interesting. Is this an allusion to Ishmael’s explanation of his seafaring wanderlust –‘whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul’ – in Moby Dick? If so, it would certainly fit the speaker’s (in this case impossible) desire to journey back to a place of fulfillment, particularly one that offers a contrast to the metaphorical drizzle of the exiled land. The choice of ‘November’ piques the reader’s interest. Why not those bleakest winter candidates, January and February? Just like Melville, I think Rumens recognises the crepuscular quality of November: the fading light, the steady descent into darkness. She hasn’t seen the place in the grip of despotism. The worst was yet to come. But ironically, the idealised images of summer that linger in her mind lack the authenticity of the approaching metaphorical winter.
Indeed, the speaker seems to acknowledge the ultimately damaging power of the ‘sunlight’ associated with her long lost love. The speaker is ‘branded’ by it; not only does this dynamic verb hint at a permanent tattoo of remembrance, it also hints at the sharp pain that this mark of identity brings. Finally, Rumens’ use of synaesthesia illustrates the inner conflict of the persona. Initially ‘It tastes of sunlight’ appears to offer an hyperbolised celebration of the city and its dramatic hold on the speaker. The city permeates her senses to such an extent that the speaker feels they are able to feel its character on their tongue. But the mixed up senses also highlight the speaker’s confusion and inability to identify the “genuine” nature of the place. Time and distance have created a barrier to reality.
The power of objects
The lack of a ‘passport’ signals a clear loss of identity. The speaker feels stateless, trapped and unable to travel to the one place they crave to be. Earlier the speaker refers to the memories as a ‘paperweight’, which is an intriguing symbol. Yes, there’s an element of transparency yet it is perhaps decorated in a way that prevents crystal clear perception. The idea of a burden also emerges; the speaker feels the heaviness of these memories as well as the beauty. It might just be me, but this object reminds me of 1984, where Orwell uses it as a symbol of Winston’s (failed) efforts to find out more and better connect with the past.
I also like the simile ‘the frontiers rise between us, close like waves’. ‘Waves’ are natural and eternal, just like the speaker’s recollections. Yet while waves have a calming predictability about them, they also carry a sense of danger. They can be unpredictable in their sudden bursts of unexpected power, which can overwhelm.
Rumens presumably decides not to highlight the location of the homeland to touch on ideas of universality. Yes, the poem appears to be located in the Middle East, but I think it’s a mistake to go heavy on providing pupils with facts about say Syrian refugees and then trying to make it stick. A potentially more rewarding approach, I feel, is to see this as a poem principally about memory and then locate it within the literary heritage for contextual insight. When teaching it, I like to write ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ on the board, then return to it later in the lesson after going through the poem. I tend to find that pupils then find it easier to consider this poem as a poem about the power of the past and the impact of joyful and traumatic memories on displaced individuals.
Thanks for reading,