The very title of The Émigrée suggests that this poem is going to talk about the pitiable conditions of the emigrants and refugees, though the speaker in the poem is a female emigrant who is termed as émigrée in the poem. According to webster-dictionary, the meaning of ‘Émigrée’ relates to someone who leaves one country to settle in another, and its synonyms are emigrant, emigre, migrant, migrator, out-goer. However, unlike many other emigrants poems, this poem describes the pitiable condition of a female child who is compelled to leave her childhood home and shift to another land, due to wars in the Middle East.
The poem, The Émigrée, best pictures the childhood idealization, and teaches a lot to its readers about the miserable situation of the refugees.
The Émigrée Analysis
There once was a country… I left it as a child
but my memory of it is sunlight-clear
It may be at war, it may be sick with tyrants,
but I am branded by an impression of sunlight.
From the very first line of the first stanza of The Émigrée, which can be read in full here, the child is shown looking her home city through rose-tinted glasses, which imply that she can only remember the best aspects of living there. Looking through the glasses, she remembers that once there used to be a country, where she had spent her childhood and my memories about that country and homeland is as clear as the sunlight. When the poet says “my memory of it is sunlight-clear,” the speaker (female child) is shown comparing her childhood memories with the sunlight, which means the imagery of happiness and warmth. Right after this line, the poet says, “the worst news I receive of it cannot break / my original view, the bright, filled paperweight,” she means that it doesn’t matter what news she receives about the awful situation in her city, there is a paperweight with her to firmly hold those memories.
In the last two lines of this stanza, we learn why she had to leave her city, when the speaker says, “It may be at war, it may be sick with tyrants, / but I am branded by an impression of sunlight,” By this, she may mean that her country might have either been going through a war, or is being subjected to the tyranny of the tyrants, but whatever may be, the ‘sunlight’ in her mind cannot be deleted by any means. Her mind and soul both exist in that country and city, and so her memory is hued by nostalgia. Her memory of her city and country is like the old memories of an old girlfriend or boyfriend who never wants to forget the good times they spent with each other in the past.
The white streets of that city, the graceful slopes
glow even clearer as time rolls its tanks
It may by now be a lie, banned by the state
but I can’t get it off my tongue. It tastes of sunlight.
The second stanza of The Émigrée talks about the time threatening her and she makes use of the language of yearning for something that the state has banned. In the very first line of this stanza, she is shown remembering the white streets of that city where she had spent childhood. She remembers the graceful slopes that have become clearer with the passage of time. In this stanza, the poet gives the sensory description of the narrator’s childhood memories. The ‘waves’ is the representation of nature that cannot be stopped, and everyone has to accept that it will certainly happen. This could also be linked to the idea of war. The line ‘and the frontiers rise between us’, may mean rebellion against the government/state who are standing between us ‘close like waves.’ Through the following lines, ‘That child’s vocabulary I carried here like a hollow doll, opens and spills a grammar,’ the narrator is trying to describe recalling ‘that child’s vocabulary’ and compares it to a ‘grammar’ that spills out like the stuffing inside a doll. The narrator is soon going to recall every word of this language –‘every coloured molecule of it’. The simile “That child’s vocabulary…., opens and spills a grammar, indicates that the narrator actually feels empty.
When the speaker says, “It may by now be a lie, banned by the state / but I can’t get it off my tongue. It tastes of sunlight” (Rumens), she may mean to say something positive about her homeland. In these lines, the narrator has again used the sunlight as a taste, which could be interpreted to mean anything that tastes pleasant. Though the poet could also have used some sort of candy, he preferred to use sunlight thinking it can work on different levels and is a recurring theme all through the work.
I have no passport, there’s no way back at all
but my city comes to me in its own white plane.
My city hides behind me. They mutter death,
and my shadow falls as evidence of sunlight.
The third stanza of the poem, The Émigrée by Carol Rumens, starts with a melancholy and simple remark when the narrator says that there is no passport to allow a ‘way back’ in the city that she had left behind in her childhood. However, the speaker says that she is still visited by her city by virtue of the love and devotion she has toward it. She talks about her relationship with the city. The first line of this stanza sounds hopeless – but… in the second line the hopelessness of the narrator is gone when she says, “but my city comes to me in its own white plane,’ whereby she may mean that though she doesn’t have passport to ‘way back’ to her city, it remains with her through love and devotion that she has for it. By ‘in its own white plane, she personifies the city with her own memories. The key image in this stanza is best represented by ‘I comb its hair and love its shining eyes’, which means that the poet is personifying the city as someone who is very close to her; it could either be a child or a lover and the word ‘shining’ brings back the ‘theme of light’ that leads the poem. Through these lines, she tries to suggest that she spends a lot of time improving and adoring the appearance of this city, and she is emotionally attached to it which means that remembering the place has now become a kind of homesick compulsion and daily routine.
The ‘city of walls’ is brought to readers’ attention at the end of the poem and looks threatening and menacing. Death, darkness, and shadows depicted in the last four lines of the poem though show the pessimistic approach of the narrator, through the final word, ‘sunlight’, she is shown as an optimistic person who sees ‘sunlight’ as evidence and protection in front of the death. In these five closing lines, she is again showed personifying her city that takes her dancing through the city of walls. The reference of walls here may suggest the walls of a refugee camp that surround her and accuse her of being hidden in her new city. Further, she doesn’t feel as protective in this city as she felt in her original city. She said her city hides behind her, lives within her mind, and she always tries to defend her old or original city memory from those who want to taint it. For this new city, she is neither going to make any change in her original city’s customs, language nor will she adopt the new customs of her new city.