Peter Skrzynecki, Immigrant Chronicle (UQP 1975, 2002)
This book boasts back-cover blurbs from an extraordinary bunch of Big Names: Kenneth Slessor, Randolph Stow, Rosemary Dobson. But it’s probably the least famous of the blurbers who nails the reason it has stayed in print for 35 years when, say, David Malouf’s or Les Murray’s first volumes are long out of print and fetching vast sums on e-Bay: Stephen Magee announces that ‘Immigrant Chronicles can fairly be claimed to be the best poetical treatment of the immigrant experience, in Australia, since the nineteenth century’. Ah, poetical treatment of a significant historical subject – perfect for study in high school. And indeed, the book has been set in the Higher School Certificate. This is how Peter Skrzynecki, acknowledging reality, welcomes visitors to his web site:
On this site you will find information about my life which may help you understand some of my poems – especially those set down for study on the New South Wales HSC syllabus.
None of this should have anything to do with my reading the book, but the copy I bought bears the scars of having been ‘studied’, and they exerted a disproportionate influence on me:
This unhappy student’s search for metaphors succeeds in making the writing look awfully prosaic: for jus one example, if there’s a metaphor in ‘the war / Now four years dead’, it’s been dead a good bit longer than the war has. Yet the poem ‘Crossing the Red Sea’ (of which the above is the first of four pages) is a moving attempt to imagine the post-war emigrant experience.
The book isn’t a verse novel. There are poems about pelicans, a snake, Michael Dransfield, a death mask and so on. But it does encompass a narrative arc that justifies the Chronicle in the title. Apart from ‘Crossing the Red Sea’, there’s the much anthologised ‘Migrant Hostel: Parkes 1949–51‘ (if you click on the link, try to avoid the class notes at the end), and perhaps a dozen more, including some raw and melodramatic poems that seem to be about Skrzynecki’s mother’s experience of the ‘mental health’ system (though he explains on his web site that they are not to be taken as factual in every detail) and a number about becoming a father. A good part of the interest is documentary – that is, the poems are interesting because they inform us about ‘the immigrant experience’, or more accurately an immigrant experience.
Skrzynecki’s novel Boys of Summer was launched at Gleebooks last week – it deals with growing up Polish in Sydney suburbs in the 1950s. So he is still mining the same rich vein. But whereas now, according to the Gleebooks description, there’s a nostalgic flavour to the work, Immigrant Chronicle was written by the 20-something Skrzynecki, and there’s a pervasive, complex sense of the past’s insistent presence, memorably caught in the last lines of the final poem, ‘Post Card’ (which is also representative of what to me seems a peculiar flatness of the poetry). The speaker is looking at a ‘post card sent by a friend’ from Warsaw, his father’s lost home:
At the photograph
And refuse to answer
Of red gables
And a cloudless sky.
On the river’s bank
A lone tree
‘We will meet
Before you die.’