Migrant Hostel by Peter Skrzynecki explores the acute sense of alienation, displacement, and identity crisis that immigrants feel. The poem is derived from the poet’s experiences while being detained in Australia after his arrival. The poem is written in free verse
Peter Skrzynecki is an Australian poet, novelist and short story writer. Born in Germany, his parents were Polish forced laborours during the Second World War, who migrated to Australia after the war. This immigrant background and its implications feature prominently in Skrzynecki’s poems. His best-known collection of poems, “Immigrant Chronicle”, is exclusively based on the struggles and trauma of the immigrant experience. Some of his other famous works include poems like “Headwaters”, “Easter Sunday” “The Aviary” etc. His poem “Migrant Hostel” was published in his collection, “Immigrant Chronicle” in 1975, and portrays the hardships encountered inside an immigrant hostel. The poem explores the acute sense of alienation, displacement, and identity crisis that immigrants feel. The poem is derived from the poet’s experiences while being detained in Australia after his arrival. The poem is written in free verse
Migrant Hostel | Summary and Analysis
Migrant Hostel | Analysis, Lines 1-7
“No one kept count
of all the comings and goings—
arrivals of newcomers
in busloads from the station,
sudden departures from adjoining blocks
that left us wondering
who would be coming next.”
The opening stanza talks about the arrivals at the hostel in many buses and the people who slowly leave the hostel after their time there. The stanza exemplifies the uncertainty of their life in the hostel while living in a population that is being constantly recycled. The opening line, “No one kept count” suggests the routine nature of this activity, implying that it was difficult to keep track of the people who come and go in the hostel due to the huge number of people who are detained there and their powerlessness in the situation.
The phrase also suggests that the nobody was interested enough in the migrants to keep a record of their comings and goings, as well as their well-being. They also do not know anything about the people who are being brought there who they will have to cohabit with until one of the parties leave the hostel. The dominant tone in these lines is of uncertainty, anxiety and chaos.
Migrant Hostel | Analysis, Lines 15-27
each other out instinctively—
like a homing pigeon
circling to get its bearings;
years and name-places
recognised by accents,
partitioned off at night
by memories of hunger and hate.
For over two years
we loved like birds of passage—
always sensing a change
in the weather:
unaware of the season
whose track we would follow. “
The second and third stanza explains the mentalities and habits of the people who arrive there. Upon arriving, people immediately try to locate others from their own ethnic, religious or national groups in order to achieve some sense of belongingness and connection in a foreign land. The metaphor comparing a pigeon’s nesting or ‘homing’ tendencies to those of migrants reflect that their situation is as precarious and risky as a pigeon’s nest, and any strong wind or predator could put the nest in danger, just like any mishappening could tip the scales against immigrants completely, given that they are already not in their favor to begin with. The last line could suggest how the people are divided into different blocks in the hostel, symbolising the formation of different groups within ethnic groups based on the many conflicts that various regions, religions and tribes might have with each other.
The third stanza also follows suit in comparing immigrants to birds, in this case the birds are migratory. But these birds, according to the poet, neither know the seasons nor the path to take but can only sense the changing weather that prompts them to take flight from one place to another. This comparison brings out the confusion an uncertainty about the future that the people feel, like birds that do not know where to go, and are forced to stay in one place. They too sense the changing seasons without being able to move about or find new lands to settle down.
Migrant Hostel | Analysis, Lines 28-38
“A barrier at the main gate
sealed off the highway
from our doorstep—
as it rose and fell like a finger
pointed in reprimand or shame;
and daily we passed
underneath or alongside it—
needing its sanction
to pass in and out of lives
that had only begun
or were dying.”
The last stanza talks about how the main gate separates the migrants from the general populace and control their lives by limiting their freedom of movement. The gate is a barrier that seals off the immigrants from the people, creating a physical divide that separates and alienates the migrants from the citizens of the country. The gate has so much power over their lives that the poet feels that they need its permission “to pass in and out of lives”, implying how their lives have been confined to the hostels they are forced to stay in, making it a form of imprisonment, their only crime being that of not belonging to the country that they have sought refuge at. The highway symbolises freedom and mobility. The gate perhaps also played a part in unifying the people inside the hostel through restricting their interaction with the outside world. This can be gauged from the words “we loved like birds of passage”, the word used here being ‘we’ signifying unity while the word ‘loved’ also brings in the image of amicable coexistence.
Figures of speech used in the poem:
Simile – “fell like a finger”, “loved like birds of passage”, “like a homing pigeon”
Alliteration – “sought //Each other out”, “hunger and hate. “
Synecdoche – “Nationalities sought each other”