Migrant Woman on a Melbourne Tram
Amid the impudence of summer thighs
Long arms and painted toenails
And the voices
She hunches sweltering
Twists in sweating hands
A scrap of paper – address, destination,
Clue to the labyrinth
Where voices not understood
(There was a time
They sent them out of Greece
In black-sailed ships
To feed the minotaur.
Whose is the blind beast now
Laired in Collingwood,
Eating up men?)
Street-names in the glare
Leap ungraspably from sight
Formless collisions of letters
She is forlorn in foreign words and voices,
Remembering a village
Where poverty was white as bone
And the great silences of sea and sky
Parted at dusk for voices coming home
Jennifer Strauss (
The first stanza gives such startling contrast between a black migrant covered up in dress and the summer Oz girls who are a little undressed with their bare arms and painted toenails. And their chattering voices are totally meaningless as she tries to decipher the foreign words written for her on a scrap of paper.
The use of the word ‘impossibly’ throughout the poem … unbelievably or perhaps dreadfully … against black, obscure, dark, departed … stresses the alienation of the migrant woman as she tries to negotiate an alien environment in search of an address. If it is the sixties in Melbourne then a black migrant lady would be an unusual traveller on the tram.
There is an excellent analysis of this poem and other poems by Jennifer Strauss at the end of this text. Here is the explanation of the second stanza from that Site …
Lost in such a labyrinth, Strauss connects the migrant woman’s life with the myths of the Cretan Minotaur in several ways. First there is the monstrous shame of their dark foreignness . Next there is the labyrinthine displacement that they feel. Finally there is the image of sacrifice. To appease Crete, the ancient Athenians sent youths and maidens, “In black-sailed ships” to be fed to the monster housed beneath the Cretan capital Cnossus. In this poem “the blind beast now” is the industrialised new-world city devouring the newly arrived migrants, which is yet again a metaphor for the relentless cannibalistic appetite of capitalism, “Eating up men”.
Another contrast is evident, the economic reason for migrating and the devouring nature of capitalism. Of course the reason for migration may be entirely family related.
The last stanza highlights the difficult of the language and the words displayed as she travels on the tram. And ‘ungraspably’ defines the impossibly of understanding. She becomes forlorn and travels back to her homeland. And having hard poverty defined as white as bone is a nice contrast with the white Australian girls in the first stanza who are perhaps in party mood.
And then she hears the voices of her own language calling her home – hopefully giving some comfort as she struggles on.