‘The Emigrée’ is a 20th century poem by the English poet Carol Rumens. Carol Rumens is an English poet. She was born in London in 1944 and has produced many collections of poetry and prose. As well as poetry, Rumens writes novels, writes and produces plays and lectures at various universities. She works in translation as well and is currently Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Bangor, Wales. She participates in international poetry festivals and has received many awards for her poetry. She currently chooses the poem of the week in The Guardian. Rumens lived for a number of years in Belfast and has travelled widely in Russia and Eastern Europe. She finds foreign cultures to be a great inspiration for her work.
Carol Rumens wrote ‘The Emigrée’ for her collection of poems, Thinking of Skins. It was published in 1993 during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Certain images in the poem seem to relate to this particular area of the world.
When asking herself whether she is a poet, Rumens has said: ‘I would rather describe myself simply as someone who loves language, and who tries to make various things with it – poems, chiefly, but also essays, plays, translation, occasional fiction and journalistic odds and ends.’
An emigrée is a woman who has chosen or been forced to leave her home country and to live somewhere else. Some people emigrate for financial reasons, for better living conditions or to be near family. Other people are forced out of their own countries and must find somewhere else to live. Emigrée is the feminine form of émigré. In this poem title, Rumens has chosen to specify the sex of her narrator for the reader. This is a uniquely feminine response to the place the woman has come from.
The poem uses no regular rhyme or rhythm. It is in three 8 line stanzas but none of these has a rhyme scheme attached. Rather, the lines flow from one to the next, particularly in the first two stanzas. This seems to reflect the fluid nature of her memories and the freedom of memory over real experience. The final stanza contains more stops, use of caesura and end stops. These seem to emphasise the prison of her experience now: she has no passport and cannot return to her homeland. The new city seems to create walls around her.
Ideas and Language
The poem relates the experience of a woman who has left her homeland. She is remembering the place as it was when she was a child, full of sunlight and beauty. There is an indication that the country and her city are now in trouble; that a ‘tyrant’ or enemy government has taken over. She still thinks of the place with nostalgia however, for the narrator it will always be a place of enchantment. The reader is left to puzzle out whether they believe the country and city to be real.
In Carol Rumens poem, we see the narrator looking back over time spent in another land. This is somewhere she hasn’t seen since she was a child. She opens the poem with the phrase: ‘there once was a country’, giving the place the air of a fairy tale location. From the beginning the reader is led to expect the unusual, the magical of this land. The magical quality of the place is further explored in the poet’s continued reference to ‘sunlight’. The country and city of her youth are bright, colourful and never wintery. She mentions the failings of her memory as she states that she does not remember seeing it in ‘that November’ that comes to all cities.
Her reminiscences of the city are wrapped in the language of toys and childhood. She remembers her view of the city as ‘the bright, filled paperweight’ and her child language is one she ‘carried here like a hollow doll’. Her memory of the place is coloured by the fact that she hasn’t seen it since she was a child. Even though ‘time rolls its tanks’, and she has heard that the city is drastically changed, the narrator continues to remember the city as she saw it last, in her childhood.
The narrator seems to be set apart from her city, prevented from returning by some government coup, some ‘tyrant’. Since there is no way for her to return to the real city, the narrator sees the city come to her ‘in its own white plane’. Her yearning for the city of her youth makes it appear to her. The city is personified so that it appears like a friend or lover to the narrator. It ‘lies down’ in images reminiscent of a pet dog. Later, the city takes her ‘dancing’ through the ‘city of walls’ as though these two cities are separate entities. The second city mentioned may be her new home, although this is ambiguous. This is where the narrator meets the ‘they’ of the poem, an ominous group who threaten her and her remembered city. These accusations and threats pick up the language of the rest of the poem, in which words relating to conflict are mentioned. The final stanza breaks from the more free flowing lines of the other two stanzas and uses a number of end stops. These seem to reflect the ‘city of walls’ she mentions.
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