The first poem Peter Skrzynecki remembers writing, in 1964, was called ‘The guaranteed clock’, a response to the death of Frank Partridge, who was the youngest Australian to be awarded the Victorian Cross in World War II. Partridge returned to his father’s farm after the war and then became a national celebrity as the self-educated winner of the television show Pick-A-Box. Married late in life with a baby son, Partridge was using his winnings from the quiz show to build a home when he was killed in a car accident on the north coast of New South Wales. Skrzynecki writes, “I could not understand why this should have happened. I don’t have a copy of the poem but the first line was ‘We all see happiness and we all see sorrow/written on the face of a clock.’” While Skrzynecki is more often than not read as an exemplum of the ‘migrant poet’ in Australian poetry, it is his use of poetry to make sense of and accept the impermanence and mystery at the heart of everyday human experience that makes his work as a whole the slow and calming, often confronting, pleasure that it is.
I suppose I started to write poetry to help me make sense of my life, the circumstances that were guiding the direction that my life was taking . . . most of all, poetry gave me a sense of peace from tensions that I never fully understood about my birth (never having known my biological father) and the fact that my parents (Feliks was my adoptive father) chose Australia over Canada and South America to emigrate to after World War II. Poetry also became a way – though not immediately – to discover/praise God and the created world. I have always related to the natural world and it seems to me that my European heritage – both parents being from the land – contributed to this. Later, with marriage, and children, poetry became a way of trying to understand and appreciate relationships, and to give thanks for the life of my family. I don’t have brothers or sisters, so in a subliminal sense, poetry tried to reveal the mysteries of the world to a man who had often been a lonely child. Poetry was, and remains, ultimately a mystery. I don't think I chose it; but it chose me . . . Why ? I don't know.
Born in 1945, of Polish/Ukrainian background, Skrzynecki emigrated to Australia with his family in 1949, arriving on the General Blatchford to be interned in a migrants’ camp in Bathurst for two weeks and then settling at the Parkes Migrant Centre in central-western New South Wales. In 1951, the family moved to Regents Park in Sydney. His mother Kornelia worked as domestic help for families in Strathfield, while his adoptive father Feliks worked as a labourer for the Water Board. After completing high school, Peter studied at the University of Sydney for a year before enrolling at the Sydney Teachers’ College, after which he took his first teaching placement at Jeogla on the New England Tablelands, the landscape of which has returned to through his work as a poet ever since. He then taught in the Colo River and Tweed River districts, before going on to complete a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts and a Master of Letters through the University of New England. Over the 1970s and 1980s he taught in the inner-west and south-west of Sydney, before joining the Milperra College of Advanced Education, now the University of Western Sydney, as a senior lecturer. He retired in 2005 and is now an adjunct associate professor in the School of Humanities and Languages.
A telling point to keep in mind, one that underscores the importance of the Australian landscape and Australian poetry in Skrzynecki’s work, is that the first collection of poetry Skrzynecki bought in 1967 at Pigeon’s Newsagency in Armidale (amazing to think you could buy collections of poetry in newsagencies in Australia in the 1960s!) was Judith Wright’s The Other Half. Much of Skrzynecki’s work calls to mind Wright’s country, not simply as Jeogla itself was the next station along from Wright’s childhood home of Wallamumbi, but as both find through poetry a way to dwell in relation to the land and its history. Skrzynecki’s work also touches on themes common to Wright, not least the separation and communion of self and other, and the examination of mutability and memory (the “self that night undrowns when I’m asleep”). Skrzynecki writes, “Poetry makes us aware of our mortality when confronted with the mortality of others. At the end of ‘Red trees’ when I ask the question about the family that I once lived with in New England, there is a moment’s peace. Asking the question brings that brief respite, but they remain hanging from the branches of the red trees. The further we enter into the mystery of life/death the deeper it takes us into ourselves.”
While the experience of migration is a focal point of Skrzynecki’s work, offering profound insights into the long-term experience of being Australian, it is not the only or the key focus of his work. What becomes overwhelmingly clear reading through poems such as ‘Bushfires at Kunghur’, ‘Flying foxes’, ‘Repairing our shoes’, ‘Billycart days’ and the more recent ‘Red trees’, is how broad-ranging the work is. It draws together the Australian pastoral with issues of memory and impermanence, mourning, family and love and Australian poetry itself, as well as the stories of migration that are interwoven throughout his work or more closely examined in poems such as ‘Migrant Hostel’, ‘Sailing to Australia’ and ‘Mother and son’. Skrzynecki’s work gives clear insight into how it is we might come to belong to, to dwell in rather than simply inhabit, Australia. It is an insight that seems lost on recent Australian governments with their dogwhistle politics and often xenophobic yapping about ‘border protection’, ‘boat people’ and ‘Australian values’. It would not hurt contemporary Australian politicians to spend a minute or two reading some of Skrzynecki’s poems to be reminded of why the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was established.
As is always the case, poetry is political, though in Skrzynecki’s case it is political without hectoring from a soap box or falling into didacticism. In his poetry, experience speak for itself. As much as the Displaced Persons Camp of ‘Migrant Hotel’ is a part of the Australian landscapes past (and present) on and off-shore detention facilities, a poem such as ‘Hunting rabbits’ shows the speaker taking part in that most basic initiation rite of Australian boyhood, “going shooting”. When the young speaker concludes he was quick in “learning to walk and keep up with men/ who strode through strange hills/ as if their migration had still not come to an end”, it is difficult not to feel the resonance with generations of children learning how to live in relation to the land and the sense of an as yet unended migration common to many non-indigenous Australians, from those claiming convict blood to the most recent asylum seekers trying to gain legal entitlements.
Poems such as ‘Bushfires at Kunghur’ can be easily read as part of the Australian pastoral tradition:
The fires burned for weeks on end.
In paddocks where they were put out
logs smouldered for days afterwards.
Farmers talked about how long
before there was rain—this wasn’t the west,
but north, east of the ranges,
away from flocks of nuisance galahs.
Water tanks were down, banana plantations
dying under a haze of smoke—
sunlight piercing weatherboards and tin roofs;
water being pumped from the creek
and river. Cattle, hand-fed in silence.
While the issue of colonisation and territorialisation is always at issue in the pastoral tradition, especially the Australian pastoral in light of the conflict between indigenous and non-indigenous claims on and relations to the land, Skrzynecki’s poetry cannot simply be read in terms of appropriation on the one hand or assimilation on the other. It is the interweaving of Skrzynecki’s stories of migration and pastoral concerns that makes his work a fascinating, sometimes troubling, study in Australian becoming. A poem such as ‘Billycart days’ illustrates the process and the centrality of the Australian landscape on the speaker’s understanding of self and relation to place that has grown from riding “the red dust roads as a kid/ in a billycart built from a fruitbox” (an image common to many Australian families regardless of origin) to the understanding almost a lifetime later of wholeness and belonging: “Fifty years later none of it’s vanished/ because the red dust roads of Parkes/ run like blood in his veins.” In this landscape, the ruins of the migrant camp he first arrived to remain, broken and bleached in the sun, alongside the echo in memory of both the children’s laughter and the landscape presented in the cries of crows and galahs. Skrzynecki shows that rather than being alien and other, the migrant experience in its various forms is central to the evolution of whatever being ‘Australian’ will eventually mean.
In some ways, this use of poetry to find a way to dwell in, to find a place as part of the land’s history, might be seen as a common ground to much of Australian poetry, where many poets, particularly those arriving in the successive waves of colonisation since 1788, and living in a nation that still so often fails Australia’s First Peoples and the nature of the land itself, might share in or recognise some aspect of Skrzynecki's rabbit hunters whose “migration had still not come to an end”. These themes of migration and dwelling are not exceptional in themselves, but are rather a common thread that runs, twists, binds and turns in networks from Barron Field to Ouyang Yu or Martin Harrison. In a reversal of the theme of migration, the preoccupation in Australian poetry with Asia finds expression in Skrzynecki’s work through the exquisite ‘In Basho’s house’, which is a rare example of a poem that invokes the wiley old grandmaster without being smothered by a misplaced exotic.
And perhaps this is precisely why Skrzynecki’s poetry succeeds, and why the pigeonholing of him as first and foremost mildly exotic as a migrant misrepresents him, as much as that misplaced exoticism misrepresents contemporary multicultural Australia. His work is demotic, conversational, open, even quotidian. In its expression and rhythms, the landscapes and experience it sets out, it is familiar and not exotic. According to Skrzynecki, he writes poetry “to express [him]self and continue to try and understand what my life is/was about. It has never been about money or status or importance. Poetry is that harbour, that refuge I can sail into and escape whatever storms come up. But it’s not enough just to escape, you have to come to terms with loss, grief, love, the frailties of human nature to conquer those storms in their own heart of hearts . . . nothing lasts forever, good or bad. Poetry allows you to experience those struggles and epiphanies.” While dealing with these central poetic concerns – love, memory and mourning – Skrzynecki has also written a longitudinal study of Australian becoming that offers a profound insight into the importance of Australian space and landscape, in how it is we come to belong and dwell.
There, Behind the Lids Lyrebird Writers, Sydney, 1970
Headwaters Lyrebird Writers, Sydney, 1972
Immigrant Chronicle University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1975
The Aviary Edwards & Shaw, Sydney, 1978, ISBN 8551 0145
The Polish Immigrant Phoenix Publications, Indooroopilly, 1982
Night Swim Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1989
Easter Sunday Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1993
Time’s Revenge Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 1999
Old/New World: New & Selected Poems University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2007
Red Trees Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2010
The Wild Dogs University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1987
Rock ‘n’ Roll Heroes Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1992
The Beloved Mountain Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1988
The Cry of the Goldfinch Transworld, Sydney, 1996
Boys of Summer Brandl & Schlesinger, Heathcote, 2010
The Sparrow Garden, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2004
Anthologies (as editor)
Joseph’s Coat: An Anthology of Multicultural Writing Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1985
Influence: Australian Voices Transworld, Sydney, 1997
Peter Skrzynecki’s homepage
Peter Skrzynecki, ‘Two wives in Krakow and a house in Treptow’ in Griffith Review #6: Our Global Face
Peter Skrznecki, ‘Nursery Rhymes and Falling Stars’ (memoir) published in Island magazine
David Musgrave reviews Old/New World: New & Selected Poems in The Sydney Morning Herald
Deb Matthews-Zott reviews Old/New World: New & Selected Poems in Cordite
Cathy Peake reviews The Sparrow Garden in The Sydney Morning Herald