TEXT review

‘Other points of view’: Hazel Smith’s Word Migrants

review by Jessica Wilkinson


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Hazel Smith
Word Migrants
Giramondo, Artarmon NSW 2016
ISBN 9781925336030
Pb 120pp AUD24.00


The cover of Hazel Smith’s Word Migrants shows an image of Sieglinde Karl-Spence’s wearable artwork, ‘Veil of Mourning’ (1989), draped over a dummy bust. The head and face are almost completely obscured by driftwood ‘hair’, with a little bit of nose poking through. I’m a strong believer in the power of a good cover – that when an artwork has been selected, it ought to respond to or suggest something to come from within the book itself. While the title of the artwork refers to mourning, this image also suggests a woman hidden, or hiding. It is difficult to view the artwork’s gathering of driftwood, in a contemporary climate, without thinking of ecological matters. There is also something playful in the way this ‘veil’ has been constructed.

There are strong connections between the cover image and Smith’s poems, with the above themes and ideas appearing throughout the book as the poet addresses loss, violence, current political issues (including climate change and sexism), and also experiments with language and form. The titles of the five sections – ‘The Forgiveness Website’, ‘The Poetics of Discomfort’, ‘Mismatch’, ‘The Shivers from Analogy’, and ‘Erasures’ – give us the immediate impression that this will be a melancholy collection, although on progressing through the book we discover that this is far from the dominant mood.

To begin with, the opening poem ‘The Disappeared’ is a prose poem mourning the loss of someone close, a loss that leads the narrator to observe disappearance everywhere:

Once you dissolved, the disappeared kept gathering. They came from all over the world. They stacked up in the doorway and the driveway, and hummed fragments of your compositions.

It put an end to grieving. For the first time I understood the low tones you bequeathed me. (4)

The dedication of the book to the author’s deceased mother may reveal the ‘you’ who has ‘disappeared’ in the opening poem, although this is not clear nor clarified by the final line. Indeed, many of the poems are evasive or cryptic in this same way, avoiding the specifics of a memoir account; the result is, I believe, that these works are more intimate, whilst they also open up the poems for readers to identify with their familiar circumstances.

Smith’s mother was a violinist, as was her sister, and her husband is also a musician (details gleaned from the dedication). Music has evidently played a large part in Smith’s life and experience, and the ‘low tones’ inherited from this poem’s addressee suggest music’s ability to move the listener and to channel grief. In a later poem, Smith writes ‘that’s music for you, so much more than sensory delight’ (‘Slowly Time Is Moving Fences’ 15).

Music and sound reappear in the poem ‘Soundtracks’, which begins:

Music is about memory, but enduring is about forgetting.

They’d cut off your hair but you could summon up the tresses, tap them into a poem.

At first the boots felt like a threat, a reminder of surveillance. They came too close, the wall a spineless membrane. But then you started to need, even desire, them. Punctuation of the night, grammar of dismantled senses.

[…] (8)

The poem continues to unfold in a surreal manner, as if it is recounting a dream, or a film, almost denying the reader any sure footing – a characteristic that may broadly define the complete collection, as I will note below.

Smith does not stay close to the self, but extends her field of vision beyond personal experiences to critique and reflect on political, social and cultural issues and events both current and past, with poems that refer to the Holocaust, asylum seekers, war, environmental threats, political correctness, violence and abuse, and the treatment of women’s bodies. Frequently we are confronted with a voice that attempts to navigate the complex terrains of both lived experience and the academic, theoretical discourse that surrounds social issues; Smith does not confound us with convoluted meditations, but instead allows us to see a mind still working through concepts – figuring out where it might rest its argument – within the space of the poem. Further, the conversational and everyday language used by the poet throughout the book provides an uncanny trap of simplicity, before luring us deeper to consider complex and difficult issues. Poems such as ‘Verdict’, for example, offer a narrator who recalls past experiences in public – ‘there was the man who touched her up in the queue, the man who stood outside her room waiting for her, the man who took her outside and threatened to kiss her, the man who put his hand down the back of her blouse…’(19) – and reconsiders the parameters of sexual harassment, concluding with the lines: ‘she had not been abused / Or had she?’ (20).

There are poems in Word Migrants that I expect might resonate with women readers. ‘The Bleeding Obvious’, for example, is an internet cut-and-paste prose poem that provides interesting cross-cultural facts about perceptions and myths relating to menstruation, whilst also demystifying the menstrual cycle. Other poems confront voluntary childlessness: ‘Feisty and Childless’ samples comments from newspaper articles, internet forums and academic discourses on childlessness as a way for the author to, perhaps, channel her own sentiments. This is a topic that Smith returns to in several poems including ‘The Club’, where opening lines tell us ‘the woman who didn’t have / what other people have / was looked upon / with fear with pity and with envy’ (80).

One of my favourite poems is ‘The Poetics of Discomfort’, perhaps because I identify with the awkwardness of the poem’s speaker, who is trying to navigate politically-correct culture and public behaviours around difference and disability. Similar feelings are explored in the prose poem ‘Choice’, where the poem’s female subject debates what poems to perform at a poetry reading. While many of the poems, like these ones, do not appear to take themselves too seriously, the poet provokes a sense of discomfort that unsettles in its familiarity. Indeed, many of the poems in Word Migrants exhibit a sense of unease, anxiety and hesitation, when it comes to dealing with the world and particularly with its complex human inhabitants. There is a sense that this anxiety has increased dramatically in a society where ‘editors, teachers, tweeters, bloggers / we are all interventionists now’ (‘Blow-up’ 25) – that is, when we are both bombarded with and have ready access to information (including the wrong information!) it can be difficult not only to get one’s bearings, but also to know what is appropriate to talk about. There are lines that seem to address this: ‘Chronically, we sort words into piles, stitch up the scattered mess of the senses’ (‘Mix-ups’ 45); ‘she pulls books at random off the shelves / and from a witch’s brew of / cut-ups, misfits, annexations / conjures up a wicked quilt’ (‘The Educator’ 58).

While exploring these issues and concerns seems to be one driving force behind the unfolding collection, Smith seems equally preoccupied with experimenting with different poetic forms. More conventionally, free verse poems appear amongst prose poems, visual poems, poems that read like a series of monochords, language experiments, and the above-mentioned ‘cut and paste’ poems. Further, Smith explores multiple perspectives, voices and emotional registers, from the personal to the abstract; from the deeply moving to the humorous. Where many poetry collections showcase a dominant mood or style, there is a sense that Smith wants to irritate our expectations, to consider the spaces between vast differences in form, language and politics. Word Migrants has us traversing across those spaces, noting how our perspectives can change or ‘migrate’ when confronted with radical difference. As Smith notes, ‘disagreement is the driver for seeing other points of view’ (‘Disagreement’ 29).



Jessica L Wilkinson’s first poetic work, marionette: a biography of miss marion davieswas published by Vagabond (Sydney) in 2012 and shortlisted for the 2014 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her second book, Suite for Percy Grainger: a biography was published by Vagabond in late 2014. In 2014 she won the Peter Porter Poetry Prize and a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship. Jessica is the founding editor of Australian quarterly print journal, Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry. She has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing through the University of Melbourne and is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at RMIT University, Melbourne.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste