Poem of the week: Before Exile by Louise Mack

Before Exile

Here is my last good-bye,
This side the sea.
Good-bye! good-bye! good-bye!
Love me, remember me.

This is my last good-bye,
This side the sea.
I bless, I pledge, I cling,
Love me, remember me.

This is my last good-bye
To each dear tree,
To every silent plain,
Love me, remember me.

This is my last good-bye,
This side the sea.
O, friends! O, enemies!
Love me, remember me.

You will remain, but I
Must cross the sea.
My heart is faint with love,
O, Land! remember me.

You will not even ask
What claim has she.
She loved us, she has gone …
’Tis all, remember me.

This is what you will say,
My Land across the sea,
She was of us, has gone …
And you’ll remember me.

Here is my last good-bye
This side the sea.
Farewell! and when you can,
Love me, remember me.

The Australian writer Louise Mack (1870-1935) was born to Irish parents in Hobart, the eldest of 13 children. The family ultimately settled in Sydney, and, after home schooling by her mother, Mack was educated at Sydney Girls’ high school. After a brief spell as a governess, she became a regular contributor to the Bulletin, a Sydney-based political and literary journal, and was soon given her own column.

Her energy and versatility were impressive: the activities listed by her biographers include memoirist, journalist, newspaper editor, novelist, poet, public lecturer and war correspondent, the latter post taking her to Belgium during the first world war. Her only poetry collection, Dreams in Flower, was published in a small print run by the Bulletin Newspaper Company in 1901.

Before Exile is the last of the 26 poems in the collection. Its impulse seems largely autobiographical. Mack left Australia shortly after the collection was published, unaccompanied by the husband she’d married in her mid-20s. It wasn’t to be a permanent exile. She would, in fact, return and resettle in Australia in 1916.

The lyrics in Dreams in Flower have a direct, engaging tone, and are fluently crafted. Before Exile is among the most moving. Its ballad-like repetitions, reinforced by the mono-rhyme throughout, sustain the emotional intensity of a plain-speaking valediction. There’s a trace of humour in this performance, too: the “last good-bye” proclaimed in the first verse is by no means the last in the poem; “Here is my my last good-bye” is continuously chanted. The effect is a kind of realism. Sometimes, there’s nothing more complicated to be said. The departing emigrant can only keep calling, and waving, “good-bye”. The word here seems to become an echo, carried by the waves as they stretch from “This side the sea” into the distant new land and the unknown future.

There’s humour, too, perhaps in the demand in the fourth verse that “enemies” as well as friends should love and remember the speaker. Mack holds on to that clinching refrain, “Love me, remember me”, for the first four quatrains. Then, in a significant small change occurs. She picks up the theme initiated in the third verse’s address “To each dear tree, / To every silent plain”. The plea, now addressed to the land itself, is all the more emotionally charged for its impossibility. The land, as landscape, can’t remember the exile or the exile’s love for it. The speaker is really expressing her own inability to forget her birthplace when, in verses six and seven, the Land asks for her remembrance, and utters the assurance “And you’ll remember me”.

Whether or not Mack herself was an exile entirely by her own choice, the imperative to leave is registered in the poem as involuntary: “You will remain, but I / Must cross the sea.” These lines, and the shift from “good-bye” to the more final and formal term “Farewell” in the last verse, add to a resonance that extends beyond personal occasion. “I bless, I pledge, I cling” the poet says, reminding us that emigration, even when not enforced by tragic circumstances, inevitably demands sacrifice.

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