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The quiet assimilators



Selected poems


The quiet assimilators

Take almost any street, in any modern city

And we are there. We are the substrata of society

Ever-present, the unseen lining, the padding in the crowd.

We carry our backgrounds

Closer than our wallets, effortlessly

Yet they inform our every step, invisibly.


Because unlike our children, if we have them,

We were not born in this country we call home

But seduced by the vast air, the swaying gums
And the freedoms they implied, we chose to come.
We bought into the Australian Dream, packaging and all,

Shook off the reassuring, cloying familial ties

Jumped through immigration hoops

Applied for visas and lingered in alien passport queues

Later sealing our legitimacy in citizenship status
And all the while, getting used to new ways
Of doing things.


We have assimilated, oh God have we assimilated

Tailoring ourselves to blend in how we dress,
Our turns of speech, its intonation, and countless other ways

Or so we let ourselves believe

(Until a chance remark, 'And where is your accent from?'
Undoes us in a second.)


So we try just that bit harder, and

Encourage our children, if we have them, just that bit more.

The big divide, you see, never was the traditional culprits
Of language or religion (we've heard it all before),
But this: that we take nothing
For granted.


Yet a kernel of obstinance buds and grows inside us

And we feel, unaccountably and frustratingly,
Growing closer to the land we left behind

Acquiring a latent faithfulness to old ways, rituals and rhythms

Which fix themselves, like beacons in our penumbral minds,
The way we left them years, decades perhaps, ago.


And so the circle closes, leaving us

Respectable citizens of the establishment
Outside, but wavering inside

Daring, in our weaker moments, to wonder

If we ever should have come.




A journey of sorts

You didn't see me

But I turned back

And then for years

Every time I passed that place

I'd see your crumpled form

Wheelchaired across the courtyard

Plastic bracelet pale against your wrist,

Resistance in the set of your shoulders.


Did a lifetime spent abroad

Sliced up between three continents

And all the years of travel

(good luck tiki in your inner pocket)

With its attendant rituals

Of collars pressed and briefcases clicking

Inching forwards in countless check-in queues
Nodding acceptance of clunky hotel keys

Patient layers of rewritten drafts

Pencilled scribbles up and down the margin

Handshakes, boardrooms, coffee in plastic cups

Inhaling overblown officialdom

With cigarettes over too-long lunches

In that quiet way of yours — did all this

Stand you in good stead?

For this, too, was a journey of sorts.


The white gash of your hospital gown

The glow of multicolored monitors

Recording your vital functions

While nurses replenished, adjusted and tweaked

The spaghetti curls of drip lines and silver stands

With which my mother and I did hopeless battle

To ease your situation

Prompting a final, wry quip

And a chuckle from a nurse of stone:

Humour in extremis.


And on the last night

They gave you the last rites

And then we settled down

To wait.



Denise O’HaganDenise O'Hagan is an editor by trade. She holds an MA in Bibliography and Textual Criticism and has a background in commercial publishing. She works as an editor with independent authors and is Poetry Editor for Australia and New Zealand for The Blue Nib.

Topic tags: Denise O'Hagan, poetry



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Existing comments

A journey of sorts is so evocative (and timely), Denise. I found it hard to read without tears welling in my eyes.

Pat Walsh | 19 September 2019  

Such a steady gentle timbre, making us think about how the past is always there in our present lives, to find the best in those lives. I sighed in recognition of finding out place in community and family.

Deborah Singerman | 22 September 2019  

Both beautifully true to life poems that recall for me the "expatriate" theme - geographical and spiritual - that features prominently in the poetry and prose of the late Peter Steele SJ. Thank you, Denise O'Hagan.

John RD | 25 September 2019  

Thank you all so much for your kind comments. I deeply appreciate each one!

Denise O'Hagan | 29 September 2019  

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