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.
This is a subdued poem in tribute to his father, a common labourer, whose dignity, integrity and resolute principles leave a lasting impression on his son. Feliks does not dance to the dominant tune as evidenced by the modified cliché “kept pace only with the Joneses/Of his own mind’s making-“ He is a man who lives by his own standards, a non-conformist, not influenced by those around him. Despite his outwardly toughness, Peter claims him as “My gentle father” and “the softness of his blue eyes”, indicating his dual nature; tough and uncompromising at work, soft and gentle inner nature at home. His persistence is indicated by the diligent husbandry of his garden compared to his only child who ravages the garden (yet there is no indication of any resentment from the father or jealousy from an only son). The exaggeration of “walked years” sweeping it “ten times around the world” denotes a hint of humour. Feliks has an organic sense of belonging associated with the soil or the land, very little with the rest of the Australian people. This is illustrated by an authoritarian bureaucrat “A crew-cut, grey-haired/…/Who asked me in dancing-bear grunts:/Did your father ever attempt to learn English?”
While certainly a song of praise (ode) to his father, the poem is a realistic, warts and all portrayal “hands hardened with cement, fingers with cracks”. His stoicism developed during his war years allows him to cope with the stresses of growing older; work, inclement weather and cancer, all countered with “but I’m alive”. The disconnection between father and son comes from the latter’s inability to retain his Polish heritage fully. He cannot relate to the Polish friends, with their violent handshakes, their formal address, their reminiscing about farming in Poland, he even begins to forget some Polish words, much to his father’s dismay. At the same time the persona – here the poet, admits that his father may be “Happy as I have never been.”
The poet and the father are resigned that the son will integrate and assimilate with the Australian culture and traditions. The father, like a “*dumb prophet” * (taciturn wise man) allows the son to put down his roots – “pegging my tents/Further and further south of Hadrian’s Wall”. Note that tents are not permanent structures and Hadrian’s wall becomes a rich complex symbol of defence mechanisms, traditions and European ways.
Through this poem we get to know about as much about the son as the father. The relationship appears to be a wholesome one of mutual respect and friendship. The affiliation with family is a prominent motif running through much of Skrzynecki’s poetry and it is there the fractured identity problems originate. While embracing his new country, he yearns to cling to his parents values. He is not Robinson Crusoe.
It is through informal language and resonating images that Peter Skrzynecki manages to create a realistic but favourable portrait of his father.
Excerpts from a review of THE SPARROW GARDEN,
It emerges in the first few pages of THE SPARROW GARDEN, that Feliks is not Peter’s biological father, yet this is treated as a fact much like any other, significant of course, but not to be given undue weight. The point is that Feliks accepts his role, and takes it on with such commitment that the absence of a genetic link becomes, for both father and son, an irrelevance. It is not so much inheritance and lineage that are important, but the power of the family to create, from the materials at hand, an enduring framework for living.¹
¹ Staying Alive in Mary Street by Richard Johnstone AUSTRALIAN BOOK REVIEW MAY 2004