from the editor's desk

Hazel Smith: Word Migrants

A Review of Hazel Smith’s ‘Word Migrants’

Smith, Hazel. Word Migrants. Annandale: Giramondo Poets, 2016. RRP: $24.00, 120 pp. ISBN: 978 19253360 3 0

Dr Adelle Sefton-Rowston


Hazel Smith is both a musician and a poet. She has published several books of poetry and her most recent Word Migrants (2016) continues to experiment with the semiotic exchange between music and texts and the rhythmic formation of words. Indeed Word Migrants can be described as the ‘chord progression’ of poetry – a string of themes played out as rhythmic succession of words – felt deeply, not just understood. The string of themes synchronously includes humanitarian issues of climate change, environmental degradation, oppressive regimes, the disappearance of dissidents and people seeking asylum. All these themes should concern the burgeoning genre of climate change literature and deserves poetical consideration.

Smith is open about her use of conceptual poetry (the cutting and pasting of quotes and phrases from the internet to create poetic ‘mix-ups’) which inform the intimate human voices of her prose. Yet her form does not detract from the seriousness of her thematic content. On the contrary, conceptual poetry allows the reader a more holistic understanding of people who are displaced, marginalised and vulnerable because it is these ‘mix-ups’ that speak from a global perspective the internet implies. Like atonal music, the poems feel as if they were written or performed anywhere, for anyone, advocating human solidarity over identity. Smith writes for the world.

The world is currently experiencing unsustainable numbers of people seeking asylum. The numbers are far greater than even those recorded in World War II (UNHCR, 2014). Smith’s ‘poetics of discomfort’ thus orients us towards a necessary reflection of continued and perpetuating human migration (through words):

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 genealogy of waking (‘Blow-up’ p.25)

In a world that is awakening to the immediate threats of climate change, there is a lot that humans should be worried about. Homelands are becoming environmentally detonated, and with that, there are threats of cultural extinction: environmental genocide. As more and more people seek asylum (not only from the violence of war) but from homelands devastated from famine, disease, flooding, and the desertification of land, these displaced people (environmental refugees) are at a greater risk of being socially marginalised in places that resist Others. How serious is this resistance to people seeking asylum? Can we compare people who are oppressed by their own country’s regimes, to that of governments (such as Australia) that lack appropriate models of care to accommodate people seeking asylum? Is cultural genocide incited by oppressive regimes, the same as environmental genocide and its aftermath for environmental refugees?

In the two opening poems of the text ‘The Disappeared’ and ‘Experimentalism’, Smith juxtaposes historical memory of the holocaust with contemporary concerns of displaced people, lost. In the first poem she writes:

Once you dissolved, the disappeared kept gathering.
They came from all over the world. They stacked up in
The doorway and the driveway, and hummed fragments
of your compositions. (‘The disappeared’ p.4)

In the second poem we are introduced to Eva Mozes, a holocaust victim who decided to forgive the Nazis despite her and her twin sister’s enduring medical experiments at Auschwitz and never seeing their parents again.

and delay becomes a vanishing act
as we apologise for stealing other people’s children
some saw their mothers again, others didn’t

When I came home from school each day
I always needed to embrace my mother
Immediately, that moment, without waiting
Even Miriam and Eva
(at the front of the line, holding hands)
Could cleave to each other (‘Experimentalism’ p.6-7)

Adorno once said that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. Smith bravely insists poetry can provide a holistic, global and humanitarian understanding of people seeking asylum. Children of Auschwitz, like the children of Manus Island, should be embraced: without waiting and without delay that vanishing allows.

Climate change literature is perhaps, as Smith writes, ‘a book about genocide’. The response to environmental refugees can be one of collective denial and hopelessness or it can be a conscious directive towards a politics of hope and global citizenship. A response to climate change thus requires exactly what Smith’s work proposes: a ‘poetics of the swerve,’ that directs us towards one another in an ‘Unsettling transfiguration of once-familiar terrain’ (‘Tilt’ p.97).


Work cited:

Smith, Hazel. Word Migrants. Annandale: Giramondo Poets, 2016.

“World at War UNHCR Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2014”. The UN Refugee Agency, http://www.unhcr.org/556725e69.html. Accessed 31 August 2017.

Adelle is an academic at Charles Darwin University and winner of the 2017 NT Literary Awards Essay Prize. She lives on Larrakia Country.

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