Children in Exile

by James Fenton
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

“Children in Exile” is written in forty-nine stanzas of four lines each, an extra line space being inserted in the last stanza. The poem begins with a direct quote from a child in exile, who states one of the keynotes of the poem, that what one is is less important than what one does. Readers then are made aware of the general subject of the poem—that it involves children from Cambodia in exile in a strange country (readers later learn that this is Italy) in roughly the late 1970’s. Though still children, the exiles “have learnt much.” Far from being innocents, they have experienced ordeals that most of the adults who take care of them cannot even begin to imagine. They have escaped from the mass killings perpetrated by the Cambodian regime of Pol Pot, in power from 1975 to 1979, which was preceded by a civil war (in which the United States intervened) in which many were also killed and wounded. The children have physically escaped from their ordeal, but psychologically they are still wounded, and their dreams are troubled.

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The “I” of the poem, a friendly Western adult observer, sees that the children are still in pain from their experiences. He muses on the tragic situation; these children were punished not for their own actions but because they happened to be children of people who were political opponents of the regime or who were otherwise persecuted. The children also, in a way, symbolize the entire Cambodian nation, which was so rent by civil conflict and government-sponsored killings that its own survival seemed in doubt. The children in exile are now free, but they do not realize their own freedom. The fear from their old experiences still troubles them, even in safe, touristy locales such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, where a child becomes afraid even though there are only friends around who want him to have fun. Yet amid the Italian spring the children’s suffering begins to heal, and they evince curiosity about the landscape and people that surround them. Duschko the dog and the doves in the hayloft are part of the harmony of the landscape, which welcomes and accommodates the children.

Surrounded by love instead of fear, the children hurry to catch up on the education they have missed in their native land and to assimilate the culture of the West. One of the children has a twin sister who had escaped to America and has given birth to a baby. The children see America as the promised land; the narrator, on the other hand, deems the United States to be partially guilty of Cambodia’s ruin. Regardless of whether they find the happiness they associate with America in America itself or in Europe, the children will flourish in the future. The narrator wishes them well and wishes them the freedom to dream of whatever future they want. Though the children are in exile from their homeland, they have found freedom and safety at last.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

The most striking aspect of “Children in Exile” is that it is at once a serious political poem and an old-style, melodic ballad. Its stanzas are quatrains (four lines each), of which the second and fourth line rhyme. This form allows tremendous clarity, but it also allows breeziness and wit. Most of all, it connotes the poet’s desire to tell a story. Given the subject of the poem, this is by no means an inevitable choice: The poem could be an elegy for the dead in Cambodia, for example, or a lament for the psychological trauma sustained by the children. However, the ballad form structures the poem as the story of the children’s recovery in exile. It provides a kind of reassurance to readers, shielding them from the horrors of war much as the lush Italian landscape begins to shelter the children in the poem.

Fenton often plays havoc with the reader’s expectations, as with the long digression about Duschko the dog and the doves in the hayloft, which not only provides a lighthearted, almost nonsense element that alleviates the poem’s seriousness but also lulls the reader into accepting the children’s safety and happiness, rather than their suffering, as a given. There is an exuberance about the poem that gives it an air of celebration despite its stern witness to the horrors of the Cambodian killings that have forced the children so far from home.

There is also a mock-epic aspect to the poem, as when Duschko the dog goes “mad” and eats “all those chickens,” mimicking in a far more minor key the killings in Cambodia. The chickens are animals, not people, and in this mini-play a kind of restitution unfolds that is not admitted in the outer world. The dog, first suspicious of the children, comes to share his home with them and to love them. Within the fictive world of the poem, the brutal laws of external reality are softened and inverted.

Fenton’s style is urbane and sophisticated, yet the poem is understandable to an educated reader after reading it once or twice. The poem’s occasional nonsensical tinge may distract those who are looking for a traditional sort of political poem that seeks to rally people to a cause. For instance, the last line, with the children dreaming “Of Jesus, America, maths, Lego, music and dance,” seems curiously anticlimactic; it is not a peroration that will whip a crowd into a frenzy. Its very modesty, the way it looks into the hearts of the children and sees what is there rather than imposing a grandiose adult agenda, is at the heart of the poem’s winning combination of modesty and eloquence.

Children in Exile

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2012

James Fenton began his poetic career as a prodigious youth, publishing his first two chapbooks—Our Western Furniture (1968) and Put Thou Thy Tears into My Bottle (1969)—while he was still a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. As did W. H. Auden, the poet to whom he is most often compared, Fenton published his first book of poems at the age of twenty-three: Terminal Moraine (1972). This book brought him immediate attention and acceptance in British poetry circles, but it was the publication of his The Memory of War: Poems, 1968-1982 (1982) that triggered what his American publishers call “an extraordinary onrush of critical enthusiasm” in Great Britain. Children in Exile: Poems, 1968-1984, his first American collection, contains all of the poems in The Memory of War with the addition of poems published in the chapbook Children in Exile (1983).

The comparison to Auden is an apt one, not only because of their parallel starting points and the high pitch of critical excitement generated by their work, but also because Fenton is, for all his individuality and genuine freshness, a thoroughly Audenesque poet. He shares Auden’s diction, his formal virtuosity, his seriocomic tone, and what Stephen Spender referred to in a review of Fenton’s book as “the manner of Auden’s poetry of psychoanalytic parables mixed with an ominous sense of the neurotic forces moving through contemporary history.” Fenton’s poems are, when they take a political stance, quietly leftist, but he has few illusions and finds himself (to use Auden’s words in “Sonnets from China”) “Chilled by the Present, its gloom and its noise.” Also like Auden, he is an Englishman who went out to view the world (as a journalist in Indochina and then in Germany) and found it a dangerous and often senseless place in which children are forced by war into an exile made bearable only by the absurd dreams by which people, all of mankind, manage to thrive amid the continuing memory and fact of war.

Fenton’s ways of dealing with this world may bring poets other than Auden to mind. His “Letter to John Fuller,” a brilliant and hilarious demolition of A. Alvarez and the cult of poetic suicide, will certainly remind readers of Lord Byron or, among more recent poetry, of George MacBeth’s “Doctor Crippen’s Elimination Kit” and of David R. Slavitt’s “Another Letter to Lord Byron.” Fenton’s nonsense poems will surely bring to mind those of Edward Lear, his Victorian countryman, as well as the American nonsense poems of William Jay Smith, who made similar discoveries in the uses of nonsense in dealing with a dark world, and whose Poems, 1947-1957 (1957) offers many interesting parallels with Children in Exile, both books by poets at the same point in their respective careers. None of these comparisons does more than show readers that James Fenton is a poet whose work is of the great tradition of English and American poetry; the distinctive use he has made of that tradition is what has brought him the acclaim of the critics and of his fellow poets in the United States and in Great Britain.

Fenton was born after the close of World War II and the direct experience of devastation from the air which was the major event in so many twentieth century British lives. The first poem in this collection, “A German Requiem,” is concerned with that war and bombing raids, not on London or Coventry, as one might expect of an older poet, but rather of the British and American aerial attack on Germany. The epigraph from Thomas Hobbes makes it clear that the position of the poet is outside the direct experience, that the poet’s role is to re-create a reality grown dim and imprecise from the memories and reports of others reformed in and by the imagination. The poet’s task is made more difficult, however, by the true horror of the war experience being buried in the necessarily forgotten and the necessarily unspoken.

“Oh, if I were to begin, if I were to begin to tell you,” says the German speaker to the inquiring poet near the end of “A German Requiem,” “The half, the quarter, a mere smattering of what we went through!” The poet realizes that the unspoken truth is “not what he wants to know./ It is what he wants not to know,” and yet the force of the poem lies in the little that is spoken, in Fenton’s selection of precise detail to convey absurd horror. When the bombing was at its peak and the dying occurred at too fast a pace for cemetery burials, the dead were buried in parks, and nameplates unscrewed from doorways were used as grave markers—“Professor Sargnagel was buried with four degrees, two associate memberships/ And instructions to tradesmen to use the back entrance.” The humor of this detail is chilling, as the poem as a whole is chilling, as much from the imagination’s failure to penetrate the silence of the unspoken truth as from the terrible experience itself. A German tells the poet that the time for grief and for guilt is past, but the poet knows that both remain, that the past may grow dim and imprecise, but that memory and imagination are one, and the grief and the guilt do remain.

Like Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, Fenton’s is a humanistic requiem, one that grieves and feels guilt for human failing, with no reference to Adolf Hitler or politics or causes, a winner’s lament for the victims of wars without winners, for a world in which the greatest truths, the truths beyond bearing, are wrapped in silence and the secret smiles of the survivors. The poems in the second section of the book are based on Fenton’s experiences as a journalist in Cambodia. These are also poems of winnerless wars, of the family feud which led to the butchery in Cambodia and children driven into exile where only absurd dreams may comfort them. Only William Eastlake’s novel The Bamboo Bed (1969) rivals Fenton’s “Dead Soldiers” as a literary portrait of the complex madness of Indo-Chinese war. The poem is an account of a luncheon on the battlefield given by His Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey, a drunken feast in the midst of a family war with the dark shadow of Pol Pot, invisibly offstage, waiting to enter and devour the leavings. Again, Fenton’s position is that of the outsider, the one who learns too late, the one who can never really understand. Of Pol Pot, he remembers only “an obscure reputation for virtue,” and he can only express the grim ironies of the situation in the hope that it says enough—and it does.

The title poem of the collection, “Children in Exile,” concerns displaced Cambodian children in Europe, tracked down by Pol Pot’s justice in their dreams, living in a fear that will not leave them alone even in peaceful Pisa at the foot of the Leaning Tower. The children, however, do manage to thrive in an alien world, looking to a future shaped by the violent past but filled with hope. One child dreams that “A friendly gun-toting Jesus/ Has spent the night protecting him from harm.” Another dreams of the United States, of a place to be taken in, reminding Fenton that “it is we, not they, who cannot forgive America.” Finally, realizing that the lives of these children in exile are so much better than the lives they have known in their terrible homeland, he is able to bless them, wish them fulfillment of their hurt dreams, and even to address “My dear American friends.” The absurd dreams of these children for a world in which to live and love and grow old become everyone’s dreams, the dreams of humankind in perpetual exile in what people are and do.

The poems in the remaining two-thirds of the book are marked by the same dark vision of the war poems, but they are the poems of an assembler, an observer of this strange world who passes his days collecting its bits and pieces and assembling them into new and wondrous structures. Fenton has a fine eye for detail and a true poet’s memory for lore. From his gleanings, he creates worlds that are remarkably familiar and yet inescapably strange. His visions of the Chosun of the past (“Chosun”) is really no less mysterious and alien than his view of domestic Staffordshire (“A Staffordshire Murderer”). Both of these fascinating poems deal with a reality which is both present and past, which is composed both of ordinary fact and human perceptions of fact. His Staffordshire is a county peopled by famous English murderers, a county undermined and pitted with deadly sinkholes, and a county which roused George Fox to his great outcry, “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield.” His description of Chosun, gleaned from books and magazines, is wondrously alien, filled with devils, sorcerers, scholars, soldiers, women and men, strangers, and one God, “kindly/ But remote, and therefore of restricted interest.” Both poems are comic explorations of a reality which is clearly and precisely stated, but which is hopelessly confused and confusing. It is a reality, for all its being “bookish” and imaginative, into which the war poems comfortably fit, a world in which sense and the senseless are inextricably involved, in which laughter and tears are somehow the same.

The poems in the sequence called “Exempla” describe that world with a scientific slant, fragments and “found” poems taken from diverse sources (Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, 1830-1833; newspaper headlines, advertisements) and four poems which grow out of these sources. Again the tone is often comic, with the fatalistic humor of someone who has discovered that bloodthirstiness, frustration, and ignorance seem to be everyone’s, and everything’s, lot in life, from insect to human to the stones in a terminal moraine which, in Lyell’s words, “may be compared to an endless file of soldiers, pouring into a breach, and shot down as soon as they advance.”

These poems lead directly to the nonsense poems of the section entitled “The Empire of the Senseless”—poems which, ranging from a send-up of Charles Baudelaire (“The Kingfisher’s Boxing Gloves”) to an appallingly comical explanation of the ways of God to man (“God, A Poem”), are as good nonsense poetry must be, wonderfully baffling and funny and, at the same time, revealing of the senselessness of much that is commonly regarded as sensible and sane. Laughter rattles in the reader’s throat even as some timid voice within cries out, “No more, oh please,/ Oh give us no more songs,/ Oh give us no more Songs That Sound Like These!” (“The Song That Sounds Like This”).

For all his heavy debt to Auden, James Fenton is very much a poet of contemporary times, a time when information and data fill our eyes and ears to overflowing daily, when atrocities in other lands are presented to us at the same level of immediacy as repairs in the local park. Our minds become repositories of human strangeness like the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford: “This boxroom of the forgotten or hardly possible/ Is laid with the snares of privacy and fiction/ And the dangerous third wish” (“Exempla”). Here, in all this clutter and confusion, dreams and nightmares, the truth must be found if it is to be found at all. As Evan S. Connell, Jr., did in his major American long poem, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1963), Fenton has collected the details of our inner and outer lives, our facts and fancies, our beliefs and disbeliefs, and given it significant form, be it sensical or nonsensical. Our dreams, he tells us in these finely crafted poems, may be absurd, our wishes dangerous, but we do know better than to join the cult of suicide or surrender to the silence that contains the horror.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXX, June 15, 1984, p. 1433.

The Georgia Review. XXXVIII, Spring, 1984, p. 166.

Library Journal. CIX, May 1, 1984, p. 902.

The New Republic. CXC, May 14, 1984, p. 31.

New Statesman. CVI, December 16, 1983, p. 39.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, October 25, 1984, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 30, 1984, p. 45.

Poetry. CXLV, November, 1984, p. 111.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, February 10, 1984, p. 192.

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