The Émigrée by Carol Rumens

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 by Carol Rumens

The Émigrée Analysis

Stanza 1

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.

Stanza 2

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.

Stanza 3

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.

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  • Avatar Shayaan Hamid says:

    Could you also interpret the poem as some sort of metal illness which the individual has?
    This is because in the poem it States “i can’t get it off my tongue.” “My shadow falls as evidence of sunlight” which may suggest some type of cure. I have seen other peoples interpretations which all exhibit a political image.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Nice. I really like this interpretation! Actually makes a lot of sense having read the poem through.

  • Avatar Percy Poems says:

    Hey great analysis! I hadn’t heard of this poem before, thanks for bringing it to my attention and hopefully a lot of other people’s too.

    One thing I would say though is that the poem is on the GCSE syllabus so you should make sure you are true to the poem in case you damage someone’s GCSEs and ruin their lives forever. So what I mean is, you’ve brought a lot of yourself and your own very particular worldview to the poem, which is good, interpretation, but at the same time that worldshape has put a pair of blinkers over around your eyes. This has led to dimming your understanding so that you miss things that are quite clear in the poem. Does that make sense? Like you’re “correcting” the poem politically rather than interpreting it literarily. That did strike me.

    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.

    OK, well you’ve got the person speaking in the poem giving off quite mixed signals already and we can be pretty safe here in our assumption that the accurate descriptions of her country are the references to “November”, the turbulent autumn month when leaves discolour and fall of the trees, and when nature starts preparing for the harsh winter to come. Other negative words include “war”, “sick”, “worst”, etc.

    But our narrator, although she knows that deep down, she wants her country to be fine so she can go back there safely without being murdered probably, so she blocks out the bad stuff (not very successfully) and prefers to remember the warm “sunlight”. Although there are so many negative words and comparisons, “sunlight” appears twice in this verse alone. Also notice how that word sunlight the second time is compromised by the cruel verb of branding, which is farmers identify cattle in some places, they sear (burn) it onto the animals thick hide. Why would this person say that? The possible reasons I would mention are (a) to inject another note of discomfort and pain into the poem (b) perhaps she is branded in a sense, perhaps she has darker skin and she has come to a country in Europe where people are mostly white. She might feel very self conscious as it’s her first experience of that, feeling like a minority, which is what minority means anyway if you think about it. Like if our government went mad(and wherever you live I guarantee it will go a bit mad right now, like the poem says about the mildest city, the temperate ones who think it will never happen to them, it already has happened once and it easily could again)

    We’re starting to understand the strange torn feeling she is feeling between her birthplace and her current location, between her “home” and where her family took her as a baby to keep her safe, which could easily be a refugee camp or detention centre in a neighbouring country, we haven’t been told.

    The last thing I would draw attention to in verse 1 is how she admits her emotional anguish and true heartache both explicitly and in the underlying logic. She has said she doesn’t remember her place of birth but then she also holds onto a vague recollection of it in her mind.

    Don’t worry about this, the poet is merely capturing with great skill what others don’t. The émigré’s logic is wrong because she has taken her gossamer memory of hometown happiness and woven a kind of spell of protection around it. This shield spell she compares to one of those big, heavy blob of glass paperweights. That’s a really good image because probably loads of people still remember those paperweights that had a kind of still life in it, some flowers or something, trapped inside the thick impenetrable glassy carapace.

    In just those few words the poet has captured something almost too poignant for words to fully convey. We’re intrigued by this girl or woman who is attempting to escape her identity but, like a shadow or a mirror reflection, it’s always there.

    Now you can imagine with razor-sharp clarity how this situation could be very difficult for people and you’re bound to put yourself into her shoes and start to think about all those people on the news every day and wonder why does this always happen, who makes it continue all the time.

    Sorry, that’s been a bit long. I didn’t even get onto the verse 2! But I was trying to show you that you can use the excellent skils of empathy, sympathy and observation you have to extract so much more information.

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