Within ‘Farewell to Kurdistan’ Tonks delves into themes of identity, travel, and the future. The tone and mood are both chaotic, ranging from excited to solemn as the speaker departs her old life and starts her journey into a new one.
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Summary of Farewell to Kurdistan
The poem takes the reader through a series of images associated with travel, specifically from a London train platform. The speaker depicts the space as dirty, smelly, and loud. It is somewhere she doesn’t want to be, but at the same time is longing to be so that she may leave her current life behind. She alludes to her past but gives no concrete details about it. The train arrives, the platform goes into chaos, and she departs. The next sections of the poem speak about her excitement at being on the train and her desire to see other people and places.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Farewell to Kurdistan
‘Farewell to Kurdistan’ by Rosemary Tonks is an eleven stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. Some of these stanzas contain three lines, such as stanzas three and five and are known as tercets. But, the majority contain five or six lines (known as quintains and sestets). The first stanza is the longest with eight lines, known as an octet.
Tonks makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Farewell to Kurdistan’. These include alliteration, enjambment, repetition, and caesura. The latter, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text.
A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, the fifth line of the first stanza. It reads: “It’s the great mad-day hour in London…that suddenly goes brown”. Or, another example, line six of the second stanza: “I ought to laugh and cry, instead of gritting my teeth”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, the phrase “brown and black bread” in the first line of the seventh stanza.
Enjambment and Repetition
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines four and five in the second stanza and that between lines three and four of the eighth stanza.
Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. The colours green, yellow, brown and black is repeatedly used throughout the poem. In addition to other things, they allude to darkness, sickness, dirt, and foul air.
Analysis of Farewell to Kurdistan
In the first stanza of ‘Farewell to Kurdistan’ the speaker begins by depicting her new beginning. She’s starting a new life and tries to begin it well by smiling at the people around her. She’s optimistic in these moments as if she’s just eaten well. Her face reads as though she can see nothing but the “good points,” or positives, of those around her.
The poem places the speaker in London in line five of the first stanza. The “great mad-day hour in London” is happening around her. Everything is moving and feels, or is, full of electricity. The next lines are vaguer, but they refer to the desire to move on, to leave, and to shake off anything that is still holding on.
In the second stanza of ‘Farewell to Kurdistan,’ the speaker delves deeper into the detail of the train platforms. She uses alliterative phrases like “dark daylight” to depict the setting and the movements and personalities of the travellers. There is something to see, smell, or hear everywhere. Green, as a descriptor of smell and sight, is used again in this stanza. There is also an emphasis on dirt and density.
The weather, or air, is so dirty that the speaker proclaims, hyperbolically, that she can’t see the newspapers. Even if one could, they have nothing but “abominable, ludicrous” headlines. These sights and sounds evoke an emotional response in the speaker, but she holds back, gritting her teeth at her own feelings and in reaction to the larger environment around her.
Stanzas Three and Four
The third stanza is only three lines long and brings the reader back to the speaker’s movements. She’s leaving and inhaling the “filthy air for the last time”. She’s happy to say goodbye to it. It’s “vile”. In a moment of distraction, noted by the ellipse in line two, the speaker thinks back to her old life. Her words are now directed at a specific listener. This person is only referred to as “you”.
Next, in the fourth stanza of ‘Farewell to Kurdistan,’ the speaker notes the arrival of the train. There is an “uproar” in the station as it pulls in. The sounds are loud, the air is chaotic and the people move. She too takes part in these moments and describes her behaviour. The speaker goes into detail about how the music of the train enters into her body and ignites her “new bourgeois soul”.
Stanzas Five and Six
There is no reason, the speaker decides, to worry about her past. She alludes to the past, whatever kind of relationship she had with the listener, but quickly returns to the present. She notes how there is no one at the station to see her off on her trip. This is something she wishes she could change, but, not so much that the same “agonizing woman” comes to spend time with her. These lines are vague but seem to refer to someone she knows, perhaps a relative of some kind. This person cares for the speaker but she has a difficult time getting in touch with her own emotions so she struggles with being “loved absolutely”.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
The seventh stanza depicts the carriages of the car. The colours brown and black are back in the poem and used to describe the shades of the cars. Despite her bluster and confidence at the beginning of the poem, there is a moment of hesitation here. She is about to cross into a new world as if on Charon’s boat crossing the River Styx. She feels a “moment of cowardice”. But, she resists, and combs on the train.
The eighth stanza is harder to interpret but its’ clear that the speaker is struggling to come to terms with who she is, where she’s been and where she is going. She speaks about her deeds and scars, as well as these last minutes before she leaves the station. The same colours appear, green and yellow.
A barrage of images confronts the reader in these lines. All together they depict London, her place of departure.
Some of her confidence returns in the ninth line, at least that’s what the speaker would like the reader to think. The train wants to move away and she’s ready for it to go. In her seat, she’s steady, prepared to leave, and occupying the space “as though [she] can’t get enough of it”.
Stanza Ten and Eleven
With the train moving she predicts the new path she’s going to travel. These lines are vague, harder to understand but also work as the previous did to paint a larger sensorial picture of her experience. One of the most important moments in the text comes at the end of stanza ten with a reference to xenophiles. A xenophile is someone who is attracted to foreign people or cultures. This is how she sees herself, like someone ready to move away from what’s known into the unknown.
Without considering the hardships she might face, she’s ready to embrace life with only herself to depend on.