Essay: Peter Skrzyneckion Immigrant Chronicle

Immigrant Chronicle, four decades on

It was the early 1970s and a mainstream publisher had rejected a poetry manuscript that I sent to them; about the same time University of Queensland Press was starting its second Paperback Poets series (the coloured covers) and I submitted the collection to them. To my delight, it was accepted. Roger McDonald was publisher and Tom Shapcott was poetry editor. The original title was dropped. Roger and Tom did the final selection. Roger and I came up with the title. He said the word ‘immigrant’ should be in the title. Having studied and enjoyed King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, I have always liked the classic reverberations of the word ‘chronicle’ and suggested we use it.  I flew up to Brisbane for a meeting and it all came together naturally, without any angst. Since 1975 Immigrant Chronicle has never been out of print and, to date, has gone into twenty-four reprints.

Over the next twenty years several other poetry books of mine were published by various publishers, and I was hoping to get a Selected Poems out by this stage. When Madonna Duffy became publisher at University of Queensland Press in 2005 I approached her and asked if a Selected Poems was possible. She replied, yes, and in 2007  Old/New World , a New & Selected Poems was brought out; it was received favourably by most reviewers, and is now a set text on the VCE in Victoria. In retrospect, the rejection of a small book of poetry led to the birth of a big book that included my best work and a new collection, all from nearly forty years.

The success of Immigrant Chronicle was due mostly to it being studied on the HSC English syllabus in New South Wales for eighteen years. The topic areas that Immigrant Chronicle was studied in were Changing Self, Journeys and Belonging. Seven poems were always selected. As the Area of Study changed, some poems were dropped, others added.

One poem, however, was a constant, always included; that was ‘Feliks Skrzynecki’, a poem about my father. Written in 1971 it was first published in Makar (Vol 8, No.3, Dec. 1972), a literary magazine from Queensland edited by Martin Duwell, under the title ‘Pan Skrzynecki’. In Polish, literally, it means ‘Mr Skrzynecki’. To an outsider, someone not familiar with the Polish language this might sound pretentious, but it is a formal greeting, a mark of respect to a man, irrespective of his social status. When choosing it for inclusion in Immigrant Chronicle  I decided that, here, in Australia, it would be too difficult having to explain it to readers so I dropped the ‘Mr’ and gave him his Christian name spelt in Polish.

What was not so well known in 1975 was that he was my adopting father. My mother was alone with me at the end of World War II. She was caught up in Germany when the war broke out. Originally, from Ukraine, she and Feliks met in a Displaced Persons camp in Lebenstedt and married. You could not have asked for a better father. The poem is not merely a narrative of his life but a tribute to him, a salute, for taking care of my mother and myself when no one else would. I read it at his funeral and said how proud I was to have his name.

‘Feliks Skrzynecki’

My gentle father
kept pace only with the Joneses
of his own mind’s making –
loved his garden like an only child,
spent years walking its perimeter
from sunrise to sleep.
Alert, brisk and silent,
he swept its paths
ten times around the world.

Hands darkened
from cement, fingers with cracks
like the sods he broke,
I often wondered how he existed
on five or six hours’ sleep each night –
why his arms didn’t fall off
from the soil he turned
and tobacco he rolled.

His Polish friends
always shook hands too violently,
I thought…Feliks Skrzynecki,
that formal address
I never got used to.
Talking, they reminisced
about farms where paddocks flowered
with corn and wheat,
horses they bred, pigs
they were skilled in slaughter.
Five years of forced labour in Germany
did not dull the softness of his blue eyes.

I never once heard him complain of work, the weather
Or pain. When twice
They dug cancer out of his foot,
His comment was: “but I’m alive”.

Growing older, I
remember words he taught me,
remnants of a language
I inherited unknowingly –
the curse that damned
a crew-cut, grey-haired clerk
who asked me in dancing-bear grunts:
“Did your father ever attempt to learn English?”

On the back steps of his house,
bordered by golden cypress,
lawns – geraniums younger
than both parents,
my father sits out the evening
with his dog, smoking,
watching stars and street lights come on,
happy as I have never been.

At thirteen,
stumbling over tenses in Caesar’s Gallic War,
I forgot my first Polish word.
He repeated it so I never forgot.
After that, like a dumb prophet,
watched me pegging my tents,
further and further south of Hadrian’s Wall.

After coming to Australia in 1949 and living in the migrant camp in Parkes for two years, we arrived in Sydney and lived at 10 Mary Street, Regents Park. My father worked for the Water Board as a ‘pick-and-shovel’ man while my mother cleaned people’s houses in Strathfield. I was educated at the local convent school and then at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield. These early experiences – journeys, arrivals, departures – would later find their way into my poems.

Central to our lives was the garden at 10 Mary Street where flowers were grown in the front and vegetables and fruit in the back. Chooks were kept in a yard that my father built. My mother’s passion was for growing  flowers, especially roses, whose presences decorated the front yard like nothing else. In summer they gave out scents that were overwhelming, the sunlight reflecting off them so brightly it would hurt my eyes if I bent down too closely to smell them. Bees buzzed giddily, intoxicated by their perfumes:

My mother grew roses
whose names
belonged to a different era –
Apollo, Montezuma, Mr Lincoln,
whose petals and whorls
gave off such reflections
you’d shield your eyes
in mid-summer
as you walked through
the front garden.   (from ‘Roses’)

My mother left school in Ukraine at the end of primary school. No secondary education, no college, no university. Yet she was nobody’s fool. Life was her teacher. She was the wisest person that I have known. She had a list of ‘sayings’ that never ended. There was one for every occasion. Did she make them up on the spot? They seemed to capture a moment, a situation or provide a panacea when needed in an emergency. Often they were witty, humorous, ambiguous; but never dull or obvious.  I wrote a poem about her called ‘Kornelia Woloszczuk’ and published it in Immigrant Chronicle; when it was set in the Changing Self Area of Study it was one of the seven selected.

I described her life in terms of the seasons, of nature, in elemental imagery, using birds and fish as symbols, grass, leaves, flowers, dreams, God. Creation, itself, to which her life was linked and, by blood, so was mine to hers. The poem concludes with one of her sayings, the one about being an only child, ‘Having one child/is like having/ one eye in your head.’ I took it for granted and never questioned her about what it meant. Decades later, when she was no longer alive, I figured out what it meant, and why she used to say it to me. If I have only one eye and I lose the sight in it, my world becomes a world of darkness. If I lose you, my world becomes a world of darkness. Meaning: you are the light of my life.

Immigrant Chronicle recorded the story of an immigrant family coming to Australia, overcoming  exile, dispossession, discrimination. The family never knew what lay in store for them in the future, yet each continued to be part of a triangle, as it were, supporting the others.  It would be fair to say that my mother never stopped being herself – and certainly never pretended to be someone she was not:

My mother never studied
history or mythology,
never debated what
immortality might mean.
Her home was her castle
and she was content
to work among roses to the end –
remaining, in her own realm,
a woman who was neither
servant nor queen.  (from ‘Roses’)

While my parents worked hard to pay off our home I attended school and learnt about words. Mathematics and Science were a struggle; but English, languages and history were not. In English classes I learnt about sentences, how to write compositions; even when I didn’t have the experience of something to write about I was encouraged to use my imagination. My parents had come to Australia in the hope of starting a new life; they undertook a journey born out of World War II. They did find a new homeland. My poetry was the contribution to that journey. Poems like ‘Crossing the  Red Sea’, ‘Post Card’, ‘Migrant Hostel’, ‘10 Mary Street’ and ‘Feliks Skrzynecki’ would make up the nucleus of Immigrant Chronicle. These were not premeditated poems about the experience of migration; they grew out of a subconscious desire to express the feelings and thoughts that were building up over the years about our new lives.

Australia was our Golden Fleece, the reward that lay at the end of a perilous time in the history of the world, a journey that promised everything but guaranteed nothing.

My parents never lost their original selves, they never stopped living by those essential qualities which made them good human beings. They believed in the rewards of honest work and valued it. They never became rich in a material sense, even though they worked hard. I believe my mother could have been a successful businesswoman given different circumstances. There was an entrepreneurial sense about her and she often spoke to my father about using money they had saved to buy land. He, on the other hand, who had lost everything in the war and had been a prisoner of the Nazis for five years, cautioned her about taking such risks. Nonetheless, they remained survivors, guided by integrity in everything they did, small as it was, no matter what it was. I had a vivid dream, once, a dream that did not fade, a dream that encapsulated their lives and represented everything they achieved and what these essential qualities were by which they lived.

‘Seeing My Parents’

Both of them stand
on a corner, waiting for traffic
to clear before they cross the street,
heads bent towards each other,
speaking softly in gestures –  like
unfinished sentences – only they understand.
It’s always the same, no matter what the weather.

I see them everyday ahead of me,
whether I want to or not –
in suburbs they never visited
and gardens not of their making,
having lived in a world changing so quickly
it hardly seems they were here before.
They never look back, never see me.

The lines on their faces
are as fresh as when I last saw them alive.
I know they’re speaking of
domestic chores, what has to be cooked –
what needs doing in the garden.
Two old people looking up, peering into nowhere.
A nod of the head, and they prepare to move on.

I try to catch up, reach out
and touch them – thank them
for everything they did for me
while we lived together as a family.
As I get closer they hold onto
each other’s arm, step cautiously from the curb,
out of yesterday and into tomorrow.

In 1975 Immigrant Chronicle was 82 pages long,  by 2007 it had grown into  Old/New World and was 350 pages. The story of three lives. Two adults. One child. For me, the child, now having lived three score years and ten, the wonder of existence never ceases. What if University of Queensland press had not taken a risk and accepted my manuscript? What if Madonna Duffy had not kept her word and given me that New & Selected Poems? What if, what if?

I quickly stop wondering. Go and read, listen to music, write.  Or go outside and play with the dogs and grandchildren. Sit in the garden, look at the sky, watch the changing colours on leaves, feel the morning sun on my face. If it rains, I like to stand at a window and watch the water flow. A sunshower might follow. A rainbow will be revealed.