This poem explores the emotional heartbreak of a woman and a generation of Jamaicans having to give up their home and culture as the economic realities after the Second World War force them to migrate to the US and the UK for work.
Tying this great migration with the initial enforced slave migration of their ancestors to the island of Jamaica demonstrates just how devastating this migration is to them.
Gaudy – extravagant and over the top, to the point something is thought to lack taste.
She could not remember anything about the voyage,
Her country of origin, or if someone had paid for the passage:
Of such she had no recollection.
She was sure only that she had travelled;
Without doubt had been made welcome.
For a while she believed she was home,
Rooted and securely settled,
Until it was broken to her
That in fact she was merely in transit
Bound for some other destination,
Committed to continue elsewhere.
This slow realization sharpened,
She formed plans to postpone her departure
Not observing her movement en route to the exit.
When she did, it was piteous how, saddened,
She went appreciably closer towards it.
Eventually facing the inescapable
She began reading travel brochures,
(Gaudy, competitive, plentiful)
Spent time considering the onward journey,
Studied a new language,
Stuffed her bosom with strange currency,
Nevertheless dreading the boarding announcements.
We watch her go through
The gate for ‘Embarking Passengers Only’,
Fearful and unutterably lonely,
Finger our own documents,
Shuffle forward in the queue.
A. L. Hendriks (1922-1992)
Arthur Lemière Hendriks is the first of our two Jamaican poets (see The White House by Claude McKay). His father was Jamaican and his mother was French.
Although he considered Jamaica his home, he spent much of his life as a migrant, moving to Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, England and Bermuda, before finally settling in England in the 1970s.
Migration was somewhat considered to be in the blood in Jamaica. The island was settled heavily through the British slave trade and the majority of the population (92%) can trace their routes back to Africa and being forcibly removed from their ancestral homes from the middle of the seventeeth century. Jamaica was a hugely important British colony because of the vast sugar plantations, which required a huge amount of enforced migration to process.
However, there was also another huge wave of migration in the 1950s when lots of Jamaicans migrated to the US and the UK for economic reasons. With the UK economy struggling after the Second World War, Jamaicans were encouraged to migrate with the promise of jobs and thousands upon thousands did.
I feel this poem connects these two waves of Jamaican migration, as you will see below.
If you are interested in learning a bit more about Jamaican poetry’s heritage, I found this podcast to be quite interesting and entertaining. The Claude McKay poetry reading in the distinctive Jamaican patois tones, about 2 minutes, in is wonderful!
Clearly this poem revolves around migration. Duh! It is quite a sad poem that examines the concepts of home and the realities of life and providing for oneself.
The poem’s protagonist is forced to give up her home in order to pursue economic ends and the great fear of migrants is revealed.
I read this over and over again and listened to the recording linked to above a couple of times until I got my head around this. Understanding the context is absolutely vital here.
The poem focuses on an undefined women who is in the process of leaving Jamaica to travel to a new country for practical reasons. However, she is filled with doubt and fear as she considers Jamaica her home and longs to be able to remain.
The poem opens with a discussion of her origins. The original voyage is not something she remembers because she wasn’t actually on it. This refers to the enforced migration, with British slavers bringing thousands upon thousands of captured Africans to work on sugar plantations. Therefore the poem deals with her heritage and her family arrived, through a process of sort-of migration.
However, despite this horrendous start, being ripped from their ancestral home and being indentured as slaves, she feels that Jamaica welcome her and her family. Jamaica has always been heavily connected with its African heritage and many of the features of Jamaica culture find close origins in Africa. The black slave population thus made the country their own and for the descendants of the slaves Jamaica was their home.
By the third stanza we see that the idea of this being a permanent home for our protagonist is dashed. However, this time it is not enforced migration in the form of slavery taking her from home, but the necessity of presumably economic ends.
She tries to resist the opportunity to move, but she is irresistibly drawn towards her exit. Although she leaves of her own accord, it feels like she is being forced into this decision as she has no other option. She reads about her options (presumably the UK and US) and sees the promise of a better life to be somewhat sour to her mind. Although she prepares herself for this life, she is deeply reluctant and fears losing the feeling of being at home and being part of a family or shared culture.
In the last stanza the picture is broadened and we understand that this difficult reality was a fact of life for many Jamaicans.
Language and techniques
Unusually for me, I’m going to deal with the title last of all. Controversial? Sue me! (Hopefully you’ll see why I think this is a better place to do it).
The poem never explicitly tells us about the nature of the migrations taking place, but we should read into the word ‘voyage’ and the phrase ‘someone had paid the passage’ that this relates to slavery. A voyage links us to the idea of a boat and is usually reserved for journeys that take a long time and are arduous. This journey has not been independently financed, but paid for by slavers who in turn made huge returns on transporting slaves for the plantation owners.
As the slave trade was abolished by the British in 1807, this event can be seen as part of our protagonist’s family history rather than something that has happened to her. Somewhat surprisingly, this heritage is not referred to with anger or bitterness, but with relative indifference. All she says is ‘she could not remember’ and had ‘no recollection’ of her ‘country of origin’. This suggests to me that this history is somewhat distant to her and her life at this point is happy and fulfilled, she doesn’t feel that she has anything about her life to be bitter about.
We get a feeling of the warmth and community of Jamaica as she is emphatic about how much she feels she belongs – ‘Without doubt [she] had been made welcome’. She also refers to it as ‘home’ and somewhere she feels ‘rooted’, which gives us connotations of security, love and belonging. The verb ‘rooted’ is typically used in this metaphorical way to represent the deep ties between a person and the place they live. It also suggests that it will cause some pain (stunting growth or extinguishing life) if she is ripped from this ground.
However, the poem soon approaches the tragic. Notice that the description of her roots is divided from the realisation that she is, in fact, ‘merely in transit’ by only a comma. This same sentence movement away from the places she considers her home is Hendriks’ way of communicating how short a period many Jamaicans had amongst their new culture. Their African heritage may have been thousands of years, but this settled community feeling was ripped apart while still somewhat in its infancy (if you can call a couple of centuries an infancy – I think you can in terms of heritage and history).
Notice the way Hendriks describes her reaction to this realisation. it is ‘broken’ to her, which is a word associated entirely with delivering bad news. She is described as being ‘bound’ and ‘committed’ to this ‘inescapable’ migration, which is clearly meant to link this migration to the initial slave migration of her ancestors. Both words have connotations of imprisonments and demonstrate that she does not have a choice about this.
Why would Hendriks relate this migration to slavery? Well, although Jamaicans did have a choice, the reality is that if there is no work at home, you need to find work to provide for your family. When Hendriks talks about the ‘slow realization sharpened’, he means that the economic reality of her situation became more and more apparent: moving for employment is enforced upon her by the lack of work in Jamaica and the better opportunities abroad. Notice that when she reads the travel brochures the destinations are described as ‘competitive’, which relates to wages, and ‘plentiful’, which relates to the availability of jobs. ‘Gaudy’ means too flash or a tacky image of being stylish, thus she sees the promise of a better life abroad as being false as it cannot compete with her home.
When she does leave, Hendriks conjures powerfully emotive language to convey the misery the situation has brought to her. ‘Piteous’, ‘fearful’ and ‘unutterably lonely’ should all leave the reader in no doubt that this decision is traumatising and deeply painful for her. I find it really powerful that these are used to describe this leg of her migration, but not the ancestral leg of the journey. We know that conditions on slave ships and on plantations were appalling and slaves would be stripped from their spouses, children and all family. However, Hendriks uses them here to highlight just how painful this is to them; being removed from one’s home is the thing that damages the most, not necessarily conditions, illness and beatings (as a slave).
The final stanza is also incredibly powerful. Hendriks moves us from considering the individual plight and misery of an individual (forced from her family, life and happiness) to a queue waiting behind her and ‘shuffl[ing]’ forward to their own economically enforced migration. However, this is especially powerful because it broadens the poem not just from the individual, but also from Jamaica by using the second person ‘we watch’ to make us ponder whether this is our reality as well. How many of us will be forced to make decisions that take us away from home, comfort and culture in order to provide for ourselves and our families? (Just to remind you I now live in Uzbekistan!).
Okay, so I promised you I’d discuss the title now. Here goes:
Who is ‘The Migrant’? Hendriks is deliberately vague about the details because she is not meant to be a specific person, but rather representative of Jamaican feeling as this second major wave of migration. Thus the title is almost used interchangeably with Jamaican because this has become their unfortunate heritage (although admittedly not all Jamaican left, so that’s a bit too broad).
The poem is written in free verse with no semblance of a rhyme scheme or uniformity amongst stanzas. I believe this reflects the nature of her existence as there is no consistency and stability, thus no regularity.
I’ve already mentioned a couple of other points to include: the use of second person in the final stanza; and the pace of transition from the idea of roots and being at home to being forced to move on. However, you could also talk about the pace of the poem.
Notice how quickly each stanza moves. Each stanza, apart from the fifth, contains only one full stop. This means the poem moves at a pace and demonstrates the speed with which this second home in Jamaica also fades into the past.
The fifth stanza differs only slightly. The first two lines are heavily punctuated as we see the struggle she puts up against the inevitably migration and thus the punctuation represents her digging her heels in as she is inched towards moving on.
We begin with joy in our tone. There is no trace of resentment, despite the acknowledgement of the atrocity that brought her family to Jamaica, but instead there is a celebration of the life and culture that the slaves and their descendants have made in Jamaica.
However, the poem quickly turns to despair as this culture is stripped from them as again they are forced, this time by economic factors, to be on the move again.