Music is about memory, but enduring is about forgettingbook cover

Poetry review by Angela Gardner


Word Migrants

Hazel Smith
Giramondo Publishing Company, Artarmon, Australia, 2016
ISBN 9781925336030
126pp, $AU24.00


Both words and people move about the globe, and words can be a metaphor for human migration, after all English is full of loan words. But so contentious are the human migrants who are currently on the move around the world that even the language used to describe them is a battle-zone: the neutral term ‘migrant’, the precise UN defined ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ or the politically charged ‘boat-person’. Even before the uncertainties caused by Brexit, before Trump’s travel ban, before Australia set up the Manus and Nauru internment camps, Hazel Smith’s family knew about the realities of human movement. Her Jewish grandparents, on her mother’s side, migrated from Lithuania to the UK. People move, some are forced to flee from their homes.  

The collection is arranged in five sections: The Forgiveness Website, The Poetics of Discomfort, Mismatch, The Shivers from Analogy, and Erasures. From the first poem ‘The Disappeared’ we are straight into ideas of being and awareness, of premonition and foreboding, stolen lives, and the dilemma of action or inaction in the face of wrongs. But at a more personal scale this is also a poem about her mother, the internationally renowned violin teacher, Eta Cohen.

It is obvious that you can go from idyll to quicksand through inaction but the poet has been advising

            Not to play certain notes, not to sonify
            your dissidence
                                   The Disappeared p3

A sonified dissidence is of course a dissonance, a term for a lack of harmony, musical or otherwise. The poet writes “Once you dissolved, the disappeared kept gathering./ They came from all over the world. They stacked up in/ the doorway and the driveway, and hummed fragments/of your compositions.” Their arrival returned the poet from her personal grief to a wider public awareness that includes the Jewish legacy of the Holocaust. The final lines “resonant beyond deafness” indicate a level of determined activism, for later in the book Smith writes of “teaching/ that whiteness is a form of /deafness” (The Educator, p57). To be white (privileged, powerful) in this world leads to an inability to hear others. Hazel Smith is determined that she will hear ‘the low notes’ (the full spectrum of experiences bequeathed by her mother) and have the courage to respond.

In this section, Forgiveness, there is also the extraordinary story of Eva Mozes Kor a survivor of Josef Mengele’s horrific Nazi experiments. It shows the twin haunted by her past but willing to reach out aware of the wealth and value of being alive. Sitting down to write this review I had just returned from Europe where I visited the Jewish Holocaust memorial, in Berlin, in the same week that Trump introduced his Muslim travel ban. Injustice (and inaction) has a porous boundary, as Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came’, abounding in many guises at that time, showed. Smith’s poem, carried in my pocket, reminded me also of “the real-time/ grievances of Palestinians” as well as “the stealing of other people’s children”, which includes the Stolen Generations as well as the children like Eva and Miriam taken by the Nazi’s (Experimentalism, p8). I stood in front of the quote from Primo Levi at the memorial “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say”.  The past is non-transferrable, responsibility must be acknowledged before the results of actions can be forgiven.

Another poem in this section on forgiveness, The Great Egret, shows the artificiality of imposed boundaries. The poem was inspired by a film The Suspended Step of the Stork by Theodoros Angelopoulous. A physical barrier, a river, separates a wedding party so that bride and groom perform a ritual, each with their symbols, a veil and a flag, that attempt a meeting in the flux of the river.  The egret is the surprising progeny that “flies off into the blue/ across rivers, across deserts, across grassland” (The Great Egret, p13) across all the barriers and their separations.

            the great egret is not a stork
            but it is a witness
                                                  The Great Egret p13

In the next section, The Poetics of Discomfort, Smith looks at actions, responsibility and consequences; where to draw the line in everyday sexism (Verdict), between empowering or patronising a disabled student, the unforeseen results of 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe where

            the right to intervene doesn’t understand its own agendas
                                                            Blow-up p24

The poems in the third section, Mismatch, operate in a more personal microcosm of mistaken identities, conversations with a stranger and the reassembly of reality from dreams and memory. They point at not belonging or being misunderstood. The prose poem ‘Student-Teacher Relations’ tells us that self-confession is not the object:

An American student, shrill and sure, upbraided me
about my teaching, ‘you should ask them to keep a
journal, you know’, exactly what I didn’t want to do lest
it lead them into the temptation of confessionalism,…
                                                Student-Teacher Relations p.55

The poet at an age when death of parents is coinciding with a worldwide refugee crisis that hasn’t been seen since the Second World War, with disappearances, and a rise in torture. Mourning, I read recently, is an aspect of desire. The desire to keep and to hold. The desire to understand and come to terms with the loss. Hazel Smith’s Word Migrants ranges over the geographies of human rights and responsibilities in a world of loss, abuse, misunderstanding, discrimination and disability in a way that is acutely relevant. Hazel Smith has by looking at the personal and the public has given the reader entry points to understand and come to terms with what is happening in the world. Here is a very readable collection that creates poetry of serious personal, social and political engagement.

Of all the sections, The Shivers from Analogy, seems to work least although individual poems stand out. The strangeness of ‘The Chairs’, with its reoccurring dreamlike performance and muddling of sound and space:

            You neither encourage them nor turn away. They
            Keep coming but less often. There are more silences
            between the chairs, the frangipani blossoms seem a
            little less fresh.
                                                The Chairs p79

There is also a return to childlessness as a subject in ‘The Club’ building on two internet cut and paste poems earlier in the collection on constructions of the Feminine. There is also ‘The Clinch’ a meditation on pain and the meanings of touch that hints back to earlier poems on torture, and Feelings and Algorithms using the classic fairy tale phrase ‘once upon’ building up from feelings located in the oldest part of the brain to algorithms that push and pull emotions on social media.

The final section Erasures sees a return to the Disappeared of Chile and Argentina that opened the collection. ‘The Women of Calma’ have no graves for their sons and husbands murdered in political pogroms. They must remember them and their ‘white headscarves embroidered/ cover their heads with/ the names of the murdered”

Hazel Smith’s Word Migrants from Giramondo Publishing is wide-raging. How then to say what this, complex and timely book is about? The title evokes language and states of dispossession, the cover image, a wearable sculpture Veil of Mourning by Sieglinde Karl-Spence, a different kind of loss, while the dedication hints at music as well as memory. It is about all this and more, it is also about forgiveness.

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