“Refugees”by Louis MacNeice

 

With prune-dark eyes, thick lips, jostling each other
These, disinterred from Europe, throng the deck
To watch their hope heave up in steel and concrete
Powerful but delicate as a swan’s neck,

Thinking, each of them, the worst is over
And we do not want any more to be prominent or rich,
Only to be ourselves, to be unmolested
And make ends meet–an ideal surely which

Here if anywhere is feasible. Their glances
Like wavering antennae feel
Around the sliding limber towers of Wall Street
And count the numbered docks and gingerly steal

Into the hinterland of their own future
Behind this excessive annunciation of towers,
Tracking their future selves through a continent of strangeness.
The liner moves to the magnet; the quay flowers

With faces of people’s friends. But these are mostly
Friendless and all they look to meet
Is a secretary who holds his levée among ledgers,
Tells them to take a chair and wait…

And meanwhile the city will go on, regardless
Of any new arrival, trains like prayers
Radiating from stations haughty as cathedrals,
Tableaux of spring in milliners’ windows, great affairs

Being endorsed on a vulcanite table, lines of washing
Feebly garish among grimy brick and dour
Iron fire-escapes; barrows of cement are rumbling
Up airy planks; a florist adds a flower

To a bouquet that is bound for somebody’s beloved
Or for someone ill; in a sombre board-room great
Problems wait to be solved or shelved. The city
Goes on but you, you will probably find, must wait

Till something or other turns up. Something-or-Other
Becomes an unexpected angel from the sky;
But do not trust the sky, that blue that looks so candid
Is non-committal, frigid as a harlot’s eye.

Gangways – the handclasp of the land. The resurrected,
The brisk or resigned Lazaruses, who want
Another chance, go trooping ashore. But chances
Are dubious. Fate is stingy, recalcitrant.

And officialdom greets them blankly as they fumble
Their foreign-looking baggage; they still feel
The movement of the ship while through their imagination
The known and the unheard-of constellations wheel.

Image result for Hester Street

This poem appeared just about a year after MacNeice visited America where he met Auden and Isherwood amongst other prominent figures during a short lecture tour. It appeared at a time of extreme danger for Britain:- Dunkirk was a recent event and The Blitz too was starting. I am of the opinion that Auden and Isherwood need little justification for having left the country. They had worked bravely on “Journey to War” in Manchuria and Isherwood’s novels gave a clear insight into the rise of the Nazis and the persecution of leftists, Jewish people and so on. That is by the way, since although this poem could be considered in some ways slight, it has interesting parallels with the comparable plight of refugees today. Given Trump, entering America has become extremely difficult in the past year. In addition, it gives an insight into the New York seascape and skyline which I seem to remember has been written about movingly by two Jewish exiles, Rose Ausländer (Januar in New York) and I think, Mischa Kalako.

The poem itself is obviously of it’s time and the first line is rather brutal on facial characteristics. There are some interesting words like ‘milliner’ and ‘vulcanite’ that have dropped out of common parlance rather. I particularly like-‘Into the hinterland of their own future’ which suggests the confusion of trying to find in a new environment some reference to the land left behind. It also contains, I think, perhaps unconsciously, reference to  MacNeice’s hinterland as an Irish born poet as well as much effective and ambivalent use of religious imagery. His father became a bishop of the Anglican Church of Ireland.

Image result for Jewish Refugee Paintings

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