How is the theme of belonging portrayed throughout the poem "Postcard" by Peter Skrzynecki?
The main theme here is an elusive one to catch and a difficult one to understand. This is partly because it is unexpected and partly because it contradicts tradition. Thus it cannot be expressed in classic terms, such as, for example, "Patience," "Love and Hate" or "Art and the Artist." This theme seems to be an original one, never given voice to before. It may be that this theme was never true before, thus never expressed. Yet there is a relationship to the idea of belonging.
The elusive main theme may be expressed as: The past is a withered dry leaf that has nothing to do with me or with how I live.
The unstated subtext is Hitler's assault against Warsaw in World War II that killed, imprisoned and exiled so many people who belonged to Warsaw, the symbol for all of Poland. The postcard shows reconstructed Warsaw where belonging is again possible; where bullet holes are no longer visible (though still visible in the ruined stone cottages lining the roads into Warsaw); where high-rises replace razed buildings. A visual subtext underlies the discourse of the postcard picture: "See me: Warsaw?" is attended by (or undermined by the attending binary), "You do not now see that: destruction."
In previous eras, the generations after carnage, assaults, exiles and death were taught to belong to the past, to carry on the memory, seek a return, seek vengeance if possible, even if only the vengeance of belonging, of reclaiming what was once home. The poetic speaker in "Postcard," who may be taken to be identical with the author in this case (though it is by no means true that the poetic speaker is always or even often identical to the author), has an antithetical attitude: he holds exactly the opposite idea from the traditional one of belonging. The speaker, or poetic persona, wants nothing to do with belonging to cherished old Warsaw and "Beloved Ukraine" to which his parents once belonged.
Yet, Warsaw, personified in the last stanza, seems to hold to traditional ideas and is calling the speaker back--as other generations have always gone back--to the "red gables / And a cloudless sky. / On the river’s bank ..." to which he should belong. The speaker refuses to answer--continues to resist--the lone tree by the river's edge that calls him to return and to belong:
On the river’s bank
A lone tree
“We will meet
Before you die.”
The speaker continues to say what is now recognizable as the thematic statement: The past is a withered dry leaf that has nothing to do with me or with how I live. The speaker rejects belonging to Warsaw, to the past, or to the traditions that follow destruction and exile.
Skrzynecki was born in Germany in 1945 just before the end of World War II. His family emigrated to Australia in 1949. Looking at a postcard of Warsaw, the speaker (presumably Skrzynecki) contemplates his connections to Warsaw's cultural history, particularly in reference to World War II.
In the first stanza, the town is described with vitality: red buses in motion, high-rise apartments, and "The sky's the brightest shade." This is the pre-war Warsaw.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes Warsaw being bombed. The speaker addresses the town as "you."
- You survived
In the minds
Of a dying generation
Half a world away.
Following the bombing and the destruction of World War II, many people emigrated. The speaker is referring to those people who died or escaped, and this includes his own family "half a world away" in Australia. Warsaw survives in the generation of the speaker's parents. So, he (speaker) feels an indirect, and therefore somewhat distant, sense of belonging to Warsaw since it is mediated by his parents.
He goes on to repeat this idea, noting that he can only know Warsaw (and other places such as the Ukraine) through his mother and father. The speaker acknowledges this distance saying that the most he can do is stare at the picture and feel despair for the destruction during the war.
In the last stanza, the speaker supposes that despite this distance, he will connect with Warsaw ("the old country") and its people in some way:
On the river's bank
"We will meet
Before you die."
In the end, he feels a sense of distance but inevitable belonging. Although separated from Warsaw by geography and a generation, the speaker feels a deep, yet undiscovered sense of belonging because he escaped the destruction of such places. Therefore, he has a sense of brotherhood (through his parents) as well as an aversion (because of the tragic events during the war.) Note that he begins the poem saying he is "haunted" by the picture. As one who left the war-torn city when he was a child, his sense of belonging is a duality. He wants to belong but is separated by geography and the haunting memory of "people massacred / Or exiled." He speaks to the picture as "you," thus personifying the picture and the town it represents with phrases such as "And all rivers have / An obstinate glare." But he is actually addressing the city and the lost voices of its people:
Of red gables
And a cloudless sky.
At this point, his sense of belonging emerges from the feeling of being haunted by the postcard and the memories it may evoke when he shows it to his parents.