Siobhan Hodge reviews Word Migrants by Hazel Smith

Hazel Smith. Word Migrants. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2016. ISBN 978 19253360 3 0

 

Siobhan Hodge

 

There is nothing predictable about Hazel Smith’s most recent collection, Word Migrants. Presented in five sections, Smith’s poems are a traversal of different states of mind and expression, with a strong link with world issues including social and political oppression, as well as various forms of exploitation, especially of women.

Structurally there is much to take in. Several poems have been constructed outs of remixed copy-and-paste fragments, taken from a range of websites, to reflect on issues of gender. The decision to remain childless and taboos about menstruation are highlighted in this fashion. In addition, Smith engages in a variety of wordplays throughout the collection. There are recurring lines scattered about the poems. Fragmentary free verse pieces appear alongside longer prosody, as well as more experimental, literal “cut and paste” sections. Central to this diverse representation is Word Migrants’ overarching focus on exploring and challenging borders between meanings.

Smith teases out this idea of destroying rigid structural formality in the later stanzas of “Choice”, splitting syllables down into ambiguous sounds rather than words in the final stanza. “Choice” directly and playfully shuns the process of pigeonholing a poet or work as one particular item; the poem’s speaker anticipates rejection from her audience should she present poems at a reading in a perceived “wrong order”. The conclusion here is that poetry must be dynamic, as to impinge upon it in the name of a particular audience manifests not only counterproductive self-doubt, but also censorship. Word Migrants is about expanding meaning, rather than confining it.

The role of the internet as a medium and melting pot of similar issues recurs subtly throughout Word Migrants. Poems such as “Feisty and Childless (an internet cut and paste)” are not only treatises on a woman’s right to use her fertility as she wishes, but also pastiches of online articles, forums, and academic publications. “The Bleeding Obvious (an internet cut and paste)” similarly takes up this challenge, breaking down general, persistent public squeamishness about menstruation by cutting and pasting the reflections of others on the topic. In both poems, Smith engages in a form of performative reclamation and echoing, creating almost a choral effect in seeking out and recycling these voices. The “I” in “Feisty and Childless (an internet cut and paste)” is multiple, and the importance of clearer, freer discourse on the topic of women’s biology amplified by this broader, more communal voice. Some of the most sinister and wrenching poems deal directly with women’s experiences. “The Women of Calama” and “Ubasuteyama” are striking examples here, examining the legacy of oppression and loss, linked with death and lack of comprehension.

At the same time, Smith explores the potential for misinformation and misunderstanding. Several poems deal with the surreal and the ambiguous, enacting a conflation of information and misinterpretation. The playful tones and lyrical flirtations of “The Wrong Tom Jenks” at the beginning of the next section, “Mismatch”, are quickly tempered by the more serious “Underbelly” and “Mix-Ups”. Fonts change and speakers are swapped, and the reader increasingly grapples to anchor meanings to intense situations. “Underbelly” is particularly resonant with the collection’s title:

as insistent as an algorithm

it pursues a strident pulse

has no arms but holds you in position tightly

 

shakes you up

but doesn’t shrug its shoulders

rarely listens though its ears twitch

exhales stale breath as if it were a fragrance

 

 

Made from syllables but not words. A not-language, a non-land.

 

The first time she performed it, she was overtaken by what she

had raised up, the accent she had adopted. Her eyes started to

dilate; the distance between the sounds and her collapsed.

 

The moment had found a migrant inside her and was pushing it

out. And a stranger outside was coming to meet her.

Finnish, Lithuanian, Welsh

but also the cut and pasting of passports.

 

She performed the language often, she inhabited it as home

but it never had the same effect on her again.

 

the child only a child myself 1960 clinging to her mother she’ll

be better off with parents who can look after her the couple much

older they had to be a Jewish couple only a child myself don’t

remember what they looked like didn’t realise the child only a child

myself they talked her in a single mother without money she’ll be

better off my aunt looking for her name in the wedding lists it’s

a terrible thing to take a child away from her mother my mother

wails the child only a child myself clinging to her mother’s dress

realised didn’t realise crying

 

 

 

Minutes after the train crash, he shed his clothes, wallets and

mobile phone. He walked away, shutting down thought or

expectation.

 

Hours after the train crash, the wish to reassign, the promise of

the not-yet-mapped.

 

Days after, a recycled ghost, he returns with buttered lies.

The life he has abandoned, his new adoptive home. (43-44)

The diversity of form and voice in this poem supports Smith’s careful engagement with historical atrocities, human impacts, and resulting states of transition and transformation. The delicacy of the human experiences here force language to bend and change. This sensitivity and adaptability is one of the strongest features of Word Migrants, especially in the gripping series of dementia poems.

Rigorously critical and deft in its delivery, Word Migrants is as compelling as it is shaking. There is a dynamism in form that beautifully matches content here, slipping between voices with sympathy and precision. Smith takes on some of the most serious historical and current world events and issues, as well as heartbreaking human conditions, with a critical and compelling tone that is as intriguing as it is diverse.

 

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. She has had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Cordite, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

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