These poems are from the Cambridge IGCSE poetry anthology. If you’re not taking IGCSE, you can use them to help with the unseen poetry, or how to write about, or compare, poems in general.

First, find the poems, then an essay comparing them both. The essay is 885 words long.

Where I Come From
Elizabeth Brewster

People are made of places. They carry with them
hints of jungles or mountains, a tropic grace
or the cool eyes of sea-gazers. Atmosphere of cities
how different drops from them, like the smell of smog
or the almost-not-smell of tulips in the spring,

nature tidily plotted in little squares
with a fountain in the centre; museum smell,
art also tidily plotted with a guidebook;
or the smell of work, glue factories maybe,
chromium-plated offices; smell of subways
crowded at rush hours.

                                          Where I come from,

people carry woods in their minds, acres of pine woods;
blueberry patches in the burned-out bush;
wooden farmhouses, old, in need of paint,
with yards where hens and chickens circle about,
clucking aimlessly; battered schoolhouses
behind which violets grow. Spring and winter
are the mind’s chief seasons: ice and the breaking of ice.
A door in the mind blows open, and there blows
a frosty wind from fields of snow.

Essay Question:
How do the poets create a sense of place and deal with the theme of identity?

Both poets deal with the theme of place and identity, including ideas of displacement – being a stranger in a strange land. In ‘A Different History’, Bhatt deals with nostalgia for her homeland, colonialism, and the discomfort of control by an ‘oppressor’ with an alien language. In Brewster’s poem, the biggest opposition is between the ‘atmosphere of cities’ and the ‘woods’ where she grew up.

This paragraph deals with STRUCTURE
Both poems are irregular, though Bhatt uses much shorter lines. This short, sharp structure lets her list the details of life in India, customs, religion and taboo. She uses unusual indentation to emphasise certain ideas, like ‘India’, ‘with your foot’, ‘hard on a table’ and ‘across a room’. This creates an energy of stopping and starting as if she’s trying to remember, or as if there’s a certain care and precision in the way things are done in India. This feels as if the indented phrase qualifies the first, as if she’s thinking about it – her memory of India is at a distance.

More about Structure…

‘A Different History’ is divided into sections that deal with free India and Colonial India. Within the section on free India, is the list of ‘sin’. This suggests a restrictive, negative view as it’s quite a long list, and it seems alien to us that to ‘shove’, ‘slam’ or ‘toss’ a book could be so strongly negative. To us, it seems small, so the violence of the poet’s insistence is shocking and brings out how different her culture is. The next section flows more freely with more gentle language, suggesting that there are two sides, and that respect, moving ‘gently’ is a part of Indian culture too. She talks reverently of the god ‘Sarasvati’ and how to avoid ‘disturbing’ and ‘offending’ her.

LANGUAGE ANALYSIS (also shows the tone or poet’s viewpoint – and how she’s building up the theme)
Elizabeth Brewster gives a far less political view of place and identity, using rich, sensual language to describe cities. She says ‘people are made of places’, emphasising the theme we also find in ‘A Different History’, that we all have a unique history that derives from our place of origin. Brewster contrasts ‘hints of jungles and mountains, a tropic grace’ with ‘cold eyes of sea-gazers’; everyone has something different. She sees the plurality of identities. The exotic imagery is balanced against imagery of the city that holds all these people: ‘almost not smell of tulips’ suggests a very faint hint of nature overwhelmed by the ‘smog’, that it is ‘tidily in little squares’ as if it’s small, contained. Her view of the city zooms out to include ‘museums’ ‘galleries’ ‘offices’ and crowded ‘subways’, and the galleries are also ‘tidily plotted’. The sounds here are neat, diminutive, almost cute. This is a largely friendly urban landscape.

There’s a bit about structure, point of view, tone and also language and imagery in this paragraph…
Brewster’s omniscient third person, fairly distanced viewpoint gives us a gentle overview uncoloured by the fierce emotion that we feel in Bhatt’s poem. However, the second stanza feels more personal. It uses the first person ‘Where I come from’, showing Brewster’s personal identity more clearly. She paints a picture of the woods where she comes from in lists ‘acres of pine woods’, ‘wooden farmhouses’. She isn’t overly romantic, but more matter of fact. She shows wear and tear. ‘burned out’, ‘aimlessly’ and ‘battered’ all suggest that this place is run down. ‘breaking of ice’ suggests cold, fracture. The picture she paints of her homeland is dramatic but not perfect. In the final stanza, there is a shift in the metaphor – ‘a door in the mind blows open’ and sensual language about cold – a seemingly unpleasant sensation – for her, is nostalgic. It brings her straight back home. Overall, Brewster’s evocation of place focuses very much on surfaces – on the physical world and the landscape. In contrast, Bhatt deals with the larger issues of religion, language and politics.

For Bhatt, politics is inseparable from place and self; the conflict, though hated, is an essential part of her identity. Language is given extreme, physical power in the semantic field of violence and war: the ‘oppressor’s’ power is in their ‘tongue’ which is responsible for ‘murder’. Control is more than physical; it’s mental, in every word the Indian speaks in English. Bhatt’s tone is bitter: of ‘torture’, using metaphors to show that colonialism scars not just the body but the ‘soul’ is ‘cropped’ with a ‘scythe’ – an implement of agriculture here used as a weapon against the conquered people. The distortion and torture develops into a situation where ‘unborn grandchildren’ ‘grow to love that strange language’. The juxtaposition of love with torture is shocking, and shows how, over time, a people can assimilate anything into their identity and make it their own, as Bhatt’s use of (American) English in this poem shows. The use of the rhetorical questions shows anger, challenging authority. But in the last question there is no question mark. It’s as if she accepts it as fact and no longer needs to question – either through acceptance, or resignation. The tight, short lines flow as if to show the tight chopping and control of colonialism.

In both poems, identity is inseparable from place of origin. For Brewster, the mood is nostalgic, sensual but not romantic. She sees the plurality of identities from a gentle distance. For Bhatt, delving into the politics of her identity produces violent language; the language of the oppressor that ‘crops’ ‘souls’, but evolves into children who absorb and own it, even ‘love’ it.