Peter Skrzynecki and Belonging

Peter Skrzynecki (pronounced sher-neski) is a popular poet living in Sydney’s suburb of Eastwood.   He was born in war torn Germany on April 6, 1945, 24 days before Germany surrendered to the Allies. His step-father was a displaced Polish migrant in Germany while his mother was born in the Ukraine.  They lived in Germany for four years after Peter was born and then began a two year migration process that ended in Australia.  Here they spent time in a migrant hostel near Orange before settling in South west Sydney.  Skrzynecki’s poetry is written after the event so it relies on memory and distance to get its objectivity and detachment. The poetry is a mixture of nostalgia and realism, sometimes focused on happy times while also revealing the pain of rejection. 

Australia has an ambivalent attitude to migrants.  Arriving as boat people in 1788, we soon began to fear other invasions especially “the yellow hordes” (drawn here by the Gold Rush) from neighbouring Asian states resulting in the White Australia Policy in force until Whitlam removed it in 1973.  Following the attacks on our soil during WWII by Japan, Australia realised the need for better defences and a “Populate or Perish” mentality developed so from 1945 to 1954 we actively encouraged displaced refugees from Europe to settle here to help rebuild and strengthen our defences.

After 1954 we developed a more humane and welcoming attitude to migrants and Australia developed into a rich vibrant multi-cultural nation.  Most Australians recognise the significant contribution made to a diverse, pluralistic and burgeoning society by a wide range of migrants from all over the world.

The early nineties fomented irrational concerns about asylum seekers coming by boat raising alarm bells and creating emotive hysteria about “Border Protection” playing on fear and appealing to the worst in us all.  So we began to build mandatory detention centres to “send them a strong message”.  From 2001 onwards unscrupulous politicians (demagogues), shamefully but shamelessly, pandered to a deep and ugly xenophobia running through the psyche of the nation by calling them “illegals” despite the fact that only about 5% of asylum seekers arrive by boat with the majority flying in on Jumbos.

John Howard exploited the asylum seeker issue brilliantly as a form of a bait-and-switch – he took a tough line on asylum seekers, while massively cranking up permanent and temporary immigration, as the economy demanded. He convinced One Nation voters he was one of them, while doing the very thing that they were most aggrieved about, in the interests of good economic policy. It was one of Howard’s political masterstrokes.

**Bernard Keane – Crikey March 24, 2011.

If Peter Skrzynecki and the WWII refugees thought the nineteen fifty Migrant hostels, hostile, how excluded do recent arrivals feel about being detained behind high security razor wire?

Many of his poems focus on family and the poems that observe people, primarily, stand out in this book, rather than specific accounts of the immigrant experience, although this theme is rarely absent from his work. Skrzynecki’s poetry has a delicate rhythm, which suits (or emerges from) his frequently plain diction, which often takes the form of naming things, usually in a garden or a landscape.

J.S. Harry remarked of Skrzynecki’s 2000 collection Time’s Revenge that it could be seen as “a long examining of how the passage of time is what pays the piper and becomes gradually the caller of a tune.” It becomes apparent after reading this volume that nearly all of Skrzynecki’s work is mediated by an overwhelming preoccupation with memory: even from the beginning of his career, what has been lost, what has contributed to make him who he is and which cannot be recovered, is a powerful theme driving his work.

*Perhaps this is why his poems about family and people are generally stronger than his other poems, because they nearly always conjure up the pathos of observing people through the prism of time. Even as well worn a trope as fishing receives a delicate reworking in his distinctive voice. *¹

We look at four of his poems:  Felix Skrzynecki,  St Patrick’s College,  10 Mary Street, and Migrant Hostel.

¹Excerpts from:  David Musgrave, reviewer
September 10, 2007  SMH

    10 Mary Street # There is a certain warmth and intimacy about this poem about a house in Regent’s Park that the Skrzynecki family lived in despite being surrounded by factories. After years of wandering the world as displaced refugees, the chance to set down roots would have been irresistible so the poem conveys a sense of ownership and pride in the security it provides as the two references to “keys” and “well oiled lock” make obvious.

    Migrant hostel # Parkes, 1949-51 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. Nationalities sought 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

    Feliks Skrzynecki # Skrzynecki And Belonging # Belonging is central to how we define ourselves: our belonging to or connections with people, places and groups enables one to develop a distinct identity characterised by affiliation, acceptance and association. Skrzynecki (pronounced sher-neski), straddles a dichotomy; that of identification and disconnection. On the one hand, the father represents an alienation experienced by an older migrant, while the son experiences the gradual integration into a new society.

    St. PATRICK’S COLLEGE # Skrzynecki again reflectively attempts to distil past experience to make sense of the present. Using subtle language but ironic imagery, Skrzynecki paints a rather bleak portrait of his school life. Motivated by false social climbing (status conscious) values, his mother has made sacrifices in order for him to get ahead – ‘What was best’. At the end of the poem he questions whether it was “for the best” due to the darkness he endured.