A review of Word Migrants by Hazel Smith

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Word Migrants
By Hazel Smith
ISBN: 9781925336030, PB 120pp March 2016

Hazel Smith’s Word Migrants is a poetry collection that is utterly relevant right now. Smith brings her cross-media poetic aesthetics to such topics as racism, the plight of refugees, diaspora, stereotypes, climate change, grief, aging and death, semiotics and literary theory all in a way that weaves and intersects seamlessly. Though there’s a neat circularity in the book – starting and ending with disappearances, Word Migrants is organised into five sections, each with a slightly different focus. The first, “The Forgiveness Website”, focuses on the nostalgia and sense of loss that comes with displacement. This chapter explores refugees and migration, but also the motion from past to present, and of all that we lose in our identities as we try to find ways to live and forgive in the face of oppression. There is actually a website called The Forgiveness Project, which contains stories from victims and perpetrators with the aim of encouraging forgiveness, and I suspect that the website is a referent here (“enduring is about forgetting”). This section contains stories from survivors of the Holocaust, of forced migration, and terror, but there is an open play between the language that makes up the poem’s reality:

Fences are relocating themselves, and the moon comes to rest on my computer laptop. You cling to a suggestion you know you will eventually evict. I can’t write like that anymore she said. Bake another kind of cake, richer and smoother. (“Slowly Time is Moving Fences”)

As the title suggests, the second section, “The Poetics of Discomfort” takes the stories a step further and highlights sophistry, and the way words can be twisted into determinations of guilt and innocence. The reader is forced into a position of complicity in this section, and the revisionist dystopia is Orwellian at times. The poems remain self-conscious even as they lambast politicians, religious leaders, social media, and the general cacophony of assumptions, stereotypes and fear:

I’m not committed, he said
to what poetry can incite
only to saving defenceless words
from detonation

Somewhere someone is scribbling
a book about genocide
that is a geneology of waking (“Blow-Up”)

Throughout the section rhetoric is turned back onto itself and as a result, preconceptions become unhinged. There is much that is dark here, and it is unsettling how this linguistic play is almost glib at times, taking found texts or speeches and twisting them, subverting meaning and playing with repetition, alliteration, and assonance. This section explores such topics as menstruation, disability, voluntary childlessness, and the torture of asylum seekers on Manus Island:

Desperate people circumscribe

description think that
they’d be better off on boats
not knowing that the worst is
what we offer (“Asylum”)

The “Mismatch” section is a bit lighter and more playful. The poems involve a series of mix-ups, montages, mistaken identities, transformations and a variety of styles, co-mingling in a way that might be chaotic in a lesser poet’s hands. Smith manages it all perfectly though, uniting the work with the ongoing thematic thread of migrations – often semantic in this section – as words move across the page, disintegrate and recombine elsewhere, while still touching on big issues like global warming: “the nagging purr of morphing whales, the porpoise of extinction” (“The Cud”), violence, repression, and the impact that takes place when dissonant voices come together and fail (or sometimes succeed) in their connection. Language often breaks down, and it’s at that point that a kind of naked, wordless meaning is born, almost as music:

conversation with a stranger
chamber music of enquiry
she disrobes
no prologue and no code

gushes talk till words attire her (“Afterimage”)

In “The Shivers from Analogy” the poetry becomes even more meta-poetic, but also takes on a prosaic quality with a surreal, dreamlike reality. The landscapes are empty or open, nameless rooms, spaces and people that are both familiar and strange, as if inverted. There is also found poetry in this section, playing with the space across the page. Some examples of this include “Art for Whose Sake?”, which puts media snippets about sex workers (another “taboo”) into a collage form, or “What You’re Doing, If You Know” which discombobulates its own words and then slowly comes back, via other languages, to itself. The result of these experiments pushes the meaning beyond the semantic and into a new almost sub-linguistic space which is more sonic and emotive than conceptual. It’s not like a dry “got it” of the sort that sometimes happens with the conceptual poetry, but rather a sense of knowing and feeling or what is referred to here as a “shiver”:

  Joy flaming envy programs rage morphs as relief
puns wrung from numbers, once upon a changeling
a system, the shivers from analogy, that strange embrace (“Feelings and Algorithms”)

The final section, “Erasures”, comes back to the trajectory of loss or disappearance the book opened with. The poems in this section explore the aging and loss of a parent from various angles of grief.  It begins with visits to a dying mum, the final moments, the aftermath, and the ongoing sense of guilt, all of which are tremendously moving:

imagine the cold at night
picture the pitch black
of abandoning your mother (“Ubasuteyama”)

This section conflates the political and the personal. Though there are allegories here, the scenes are personal. There is always an abandoning. Death always involves difficult decisions. Word Migrants is a beautiful, complex and important work of poetry that doesn’t shirk the difficult.  Instead it forces the reader to see life (our beauty and our transgressions) from many different perspectives. Though the reading isn’t always easy, the traumatic, the fractured or the taboo is given voice here and transforms itself through the poetic medium into a deep-seated understanding.