The Émigrée by Carol Rumens

The very title of ‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens 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 Émigrée by Carol Rumens

 

Summary of The Émigrée

‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens best pictures childhood idealization, and teaches a lot to readers about the miserable situation of the refugees.

‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens is a poem about a child who emigrated to a new city. The child’s feelings and realization after coming into a new culture and linguistic environment, form the basis of the poem. Moreover, the “sunlight” clear memory of her native place, presents how much she adored her old city. Apart from that, there is a constant conflict in her heart regarding the new city. She can’t speak the language properly. However, the past seems to hold her back and resist her from getting into the new journey. At last, she strongly claims her cultural identity as if the shadow behind her in the daylight, is nothing but her old identity. Along with that, the sunlight reminds her of the value of her culture that is going to be washed away in near future.

You can read the full poem The Émigrée here.

 

Structure of The Émigrée

‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens consists of three stanzas. The first two stanzas have eight lines each. Whereas, the last stanza has nine lines in it. There isn’t any specific rhyme scheme in the poem. Rumens mostly uses slant rhymes in the poem. As an example, in the first stanza, “clear” somehow rhymes with “November”. Apart from that, the poet uses both the iambic meter and trochaic meter in the poem. However, the first person speaker present in the poem describes her feelings after immigrating to a new country. So, it’s a lyric poem. Moreover, being a modern poem, it’s also an example of a free verse poem without having any set rhyming pattern.

 

Literary Devices in The Émigrée

‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens begins with a simile and the speaker compares something left by a child to leave one’s country through this literary device. Thereafter, the poet uses a metaphor in “sunlight-clear”. This metaphor is present throughout the poem. By “sunlight” the poet refers to the clarity of the memories revolving around her country. Apart from that, there is another metaphor in “filled paperweight”. It refers to the poet’s happy memories. In the line, “it may be sick with tyrants”, the poet uses a personification and invests her country with the idea of being sick with tyranny. The second stanza begins with a personal metaphor in “graceful slopes”. The third line contains a simile in “close like waves”.

Apart from that, the poet makes use of enjambment in most of the cases. The lines of the poem get connected through this literary device. The poet also uses alliteration in the poem. As an example, in “but my city comes to me”, there is a repetition of the “m” sound. Moreover, there is irony in the line, “They accuse me of being dark in their free city”. This line also contains a paradox. The last line of the poem contains an epigram. Here, the shadow is a reference to the cultural identity of the speaker.

 

Themes in The Émigrée

‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens presents several themes such as immigration, memory, motherland, love, cultural identity, and separation. From the title of the poem, it’s clear that the poet is going to talk about immigration or migrating from one’s country to a different country for settling there. The speaker of the poem is a child from whose perspective the poet shows the concept of immigration to the readers. The poet doesn’t talk about geographical immigration, rather she talks about how a mind immigrates to a different country. Apart from that, the speaker glorifies her memories revolving around her old city in this poem. The memory, according to the speaker, is like the sunlight. Still clear in her memory.

Moreover, the theme of cultural identity is another important aspect of the poem. The child speaker shows her preliminary cultural shock after landing in a different region. The new city is like a new chapter of her book. The letters are foreign. Even the way of reading is. She struggles as much as her vocabulary does. Last but not least there is a pain of separation in her mind. It seems as if the speaker is separated from her mother.

 

Analysis of The Émigrée

Stanza One

There once was a country… I left it as a child

but my memory of it is sunlight-clear

(…)

but I am branded by an impression of sunlight.

From the very first line of the first stanza of ‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens, the child is shown looking at 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 are 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 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 Two

The white streets of that city, the graceful slopes

glow even clearer as time rolls its tanks

(…)

but I can’t get it off my tongue. It tastes of sunlight.

The second stanza of ‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens 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 over 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 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 Three

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 under 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 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 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.

 

Context of The Émigrée

‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens depicts a child’s mental pangs after leaving her country. It seems that the poet talks about one of the Middle East countries. Due to the political situation and raging war in those regions, many people native to the Middle Eastern countries left their homeland for a better future in a new country. The speaker of the poem belongs to one of the immigrant families. The poet doesn’t describe what the family is going through due to immigration. Rather the focus is mainly on the girl who is still in her innocent years musing on her separation. Her childish thoughts lit by the sun presents a glorifying image of her city. Apart from that, her mental suffering amidst the new customs and rules of a new city is no doubt, a significant aspect of the poem.

 

Similar Poetry

Like, ‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens, here is a list of a few poems that similarly describe the condition of immigrants in a new country and their struggle to secure a better future.

  • Immigration by Ali Alizadeh – Here, in this poem, the poet talks about the positives, negatives, and the emotional and mental toll that immigration takes.
  • Brooklyn Heights by John Wain – In this poem, the poet presents the themes of immigration, life, and poverty.
  • We Refugees by Benjamin Zephaniah – In this poem, Benjamin Zephaniah talks about those who were forced to leave their country.
  • At The Border, 1979 by Choman Hardi – In this autobiographical poem, the poet details the immigration from Iran back into her home in Kurdistan.

You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Childhood here.

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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.

    1
    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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