IN 1989,WHILE on a visit to Poland, I was introduced to Piotr (Peter) Skrzynecki, the famous cabaret and artistic director who lived in the city of Krakow. I had heard of him and knew that his reputation was legendary. That we shared the same name made it all the more intriguing when a meeting was suggested by the government bureaucrats who were responsible for organising my itinerary. We shared meals, drank, discussed literature and art, went on a walking tour of the city and he took me to his cabaret/theatre, Piwnica Pod Baranami, located beneath Krakow Square. In all, our time together over two days was unique. Very special. When it came time for me to leave, the old man became emotional. To my surprise, he started to cry. "Don't go back to Australia, stay here. You're one of us. You belong here."
I explained that I was now an Australian, that I had emigrated to Australia more than 40 years ago and belonged there; that my parents were still alive; that I had a wife and three children.
He composed himself and said, "I can't do anything about the parents and children – but I can find you a wife. In fact, I'll find you two."
IT IS 2003, and I have returned from Germany, from the Poesiefestival in Berlin where I participated in readings and translation workshops. I agreed to join the project because it was an opportunity to promote poetry and to return to the land where I was born in 1945, shortly before the Second World War ended.
The workshops were conducted at various places in the city and mine was at Treptow – some 20 minutes' drive from the hotel where I was staying. I also did a reading there on the night before returning to Australia.
I had proverbially "fallen in love" with Treptow the very first time I was taken there. On the eastern side of the city and so close to it, the area had a semi-rural, Old World appearance that appealed to me enormously – especially the cobblestone streets, the gabled houses, the linden trees and the park where the Russians have built a monument to honour the Russian soldiers who died in Berlin during the Second World War.
In the discussion that followed the poetry reading, I was asked by one of the locals what I thought of Treptow. I said that I liked it so much I could easily live here. Another member in the audience replied, "Stay here. We can find you a house."
I had earlier told the audience the story of Piotr Skrzynecki in Poland. Upon hearing my reply about living in Treptow, Eileen, my translator replied, "Two wives in Krakow and a house in Treptow. What more could a poet ask for?"
I MENTION THESE two incidents as a way of introducing the notions of ambivalence and paradox that I sometimes feel about my identity and the career path that was laid down in April 1945 when I was born in northwestern Germany, in Westphalia, more specifically in the area known as Das Sauerland, in the village of Ihmert. My mother, being a single mother, was on her own with me and three years later married Feliks Skrzynecki who had been in forced labour for five years. We emigrated to Australia in 1949 from the Displaced Persons' camp in Lebenstedt.
There was never any deliberate attempt to write poetry of the immigrant experience, the kind of poetry that I am probably best known for in Australia, poetry that has been labelled the poetry of migration, exile, loss, displacement, assimilation. In fact, my first two books of poetry (published in 1970 and 1972) dealt almost entirely with the Australian landscape and its wildlife, the people on the land and the experience of being a traveller who was also a teacher in remote areas of the north-west and the North Coast of New South Wales.
But in 1975, with the publication of Immigrant Chronicle (UQP), something new had occurred – something that was almost outside of myself and I had no conscious awareness of the kind of poetry I had written between 1972 and 1975.
I had been thinking a lot about my parents, their backgrounds and what the Second World War meant to them, how it had changed their lives – what the decision to emigrate to Australia might have meant to them and why this choice of country over Canada and South America. I had studied modern history at high school but now began to take a deeper, more personal interest in the years 1939-45 and what had happened in Europe.
As a child I had listened to my parents' conversations and to those of their generation – to other Balts and Slavs who had emigrated to Australia after the war. The best times for these kinds of interactions were when families socialised on Sundays after church, when they gathered at one home or another. Repeatedly the word zal would come up – a Polish word meaning sorrow or grief, but having a depth to it that no English equivalent could capture, certainly not in three letters. It carried connotations that were psychological and spiritual as well as physical and mental. These adults spoke of their homelands, the families left behind, what the future held for their children, the hopes and expectations of joy. They cursed the Nazis and the Communists and expressed their gratitude that they had been given a second chance at life – like Lazarus who had been raised from the dead. They were hardworking people and led lives of integrity. My parents also kept in touch with their families in Poland and the Ukraine through letters and parcels sent from Australia.
One of the best examples of the patriotism that these exiles held for their homelands, even after five decades in Australia, occurred at my father's funeral in Rookwood Cemetery on June 30, 1994.
In 1989, when I travelled to Poland, I visited the graves of my father's parents in the cemetery in Raciborow, the village where he'd been born. I returned with a handful of soil that I knew one day I would sprinkle on his coffin. It was thick, heavy soil, almost black, and was kept in a sealed plastic bag. We never spoke about its purpose. Occasionally, however, I would take out the bag and see black grains turning into grey dust.
On the day of the funeral, when the coffin was lowered and the priest announced that Polska ziema – "Polish soil" would be sprinkled, you should have seen the rush towards that plastic bag – and by men, mostly, as if their own lives depended on being able to touch the contents of that bag. They were asked to step back so that I and my family could sprinkle the soil first, and then they followed; but even after the bag was empty many still dipped their fingers into it – as if the air itself were sacred.
By 1975, I had married and had two children. I was now a parent and was learning from experience what sacrifice and responsibility were about. Having finished training at Sydney Teachers' College, I was working full-time and studying at university part-time. The world had changed for me, as it had earlier changed for my parents, and there was no turning back. But, most importantly, I was still writing poetry – as I had been doing since my student-teacher days and I was getting it published in poetry magazines, national literary journals and newspapers.
Some of the poems that emerged from these years were poems such as Crossing the Read Sea, Feliks Skrzynecki, Post Card, 10 Mary Street and Migrant Hostel – poems that dealt with the issues of identity, immigration, exile and displacement. I was writing one or two, sometimes three poems a day. Some of these would be collected in Immigrant Chronicle, others would be published in later volumes. I was also writing nature poems, poems about wildlife and landscapes, poems about human relationships and poems about my children, fatherhood, about my family. I realise now, in hindsight, the most important thing was that I kept writing.
THE PARADOX OF where I belong or who I am, and the ambivalent feelings associated with it, is a recurring notion, one that has not disappeared off the radar, so to speak, after 50 years of living in Australia. Even after this trip to Berlin, the poems that I have written deal with European heritage and the inescapable fact that I was born in Germany. Nothing will ever change that. How much, for example, do I feel I have discovered about myself by returning to my birth land, by breathing its air, listening to its people, hearing its birds singing in a park or smelling the aching sweet scent of the linden trees?
Of course, I am an Australian citizen and there is a piece of paper, a citizenship certificate, to prove that, as well as a passport. I feel an affinity to Australia like to no other country and would not live anywhere else. And yet, and yet, at the strangest times, a feeling stirs in the bones, in the blood, and memories of Europe emerge, memories that exist irrespective of time or where I am at the moment, and I know that I was born somewhere else and that place will always exist for me as a source of inspiration.