Water Is Pills


Poseidon and Amphitrite, Rupert Bunny, 1913

by Greg Bem

The Wine-Dark Sea,
by Mathias Svalina,
Sidebrow Books, 76 p..

When Homer described a body of water as the color of wine, it piqued interest from philosophers, scholars, and poets alike. What did Homer see in the ocean that we do not? Where does the description come from, and what does it say about the writer’s perception of the world? Most importantly, perhaps, is the otherly beauty in the image: there is this sea, and it’s colored like wine, but wine is dark, and why? What makes it dark? Why describe it that way? Many have discussed the concept from various angles. Others have appropriated (or borrowed) the image and reused it in their own creative work, creative process. What is fascinating is when an image so strangely beautiful becomes whole enough to feel comfortable, normal, useful to the writing of another era.

Words are burdens.
Mouths lumber. (4)

The fifth book by American poet Mathias Svalina, The Wine-Dark Sea, confronts this image of strange beauty in its own complex way, and as an object representing a body of poems, it demonstrates mature writing situated in the face of the adamant writer during a time of disorder, disconcert, and disease. The book is a swirling mix of certainty and mirage, a blend of courage and doubt. Svalina here presents lyrical verse promising as many attractions of ideas as there are unique colors composing the poems.

Each poem in the book carries the same title: “The Wine-Dark Sea,” which alludes to series and sequence, but also presents a strong sense of the individual unit. Each poem has its own identity, covers its own territory of emotion and environment. Some poems are abstract, while others are bound to the concrete details of a daily narrative. These poems are hallucinatory notations mimicking the ins and outs of a world emotionally distressed and unbalanced, where some days feel as still as a drop of blood, and others representative of the staggered morphs of the poet’s time and space.

Call it stammering,
call it self,

the writing descending
into its own sea. (24)

There is synchronicity between the poems. A metaphor carrying the book with rhythm and undulation is water. How water takes it shape, its forms, and presents itself—through the sea of the book’s title to the blood within the speaker’s body—provides linkages from poem to poem. The writing thus, over the course of the book, feels like liquid, where ideas and images splash upon others. The result is a book that is mysteriously interwoven from start to middle to finish to middle to start. But just like the presence of water in reality, water in The Wine-Dark Sea is multifaceted, wears many faces, carries the range of emotional extremes.

Ash, an agent.
Fill it with light.

Open the wound
of the sea
for which there are no songs. (37)

As a general and timeless symbol, water in Svalina’s book represents a degree of truth: it is the binding of reality as it is the substance that we must confront if we are to confront anything. But as a personal symbol, there is a representation of personal truth: water is blood, water is pills swallowed in a hospital, water is the life that allows us to live, and water is the conduit for thinking about life. And to think about life means a strong, unequivocal urge to think thoroughly on death.

What I am scared of most
is never transmitted.

If I had will
I’d be dead. (21)

A negative shroud of nihilism both static and disruptive rears its chiseled face across the pages. Svalina’s poems make logical paths that, despite of (and in part due to) their approach to the images of the speaker’s everyday life, come out lucid and temporary. What does it mean to succumb to the world around you? What does it mean to look at that immediate environment and let it overwhelm? To stop fighting and allow an abrupt stop. To quit questioning allow the whole, the totality, to step forward. In many ways this book is an objectivist answer to a world dominated by abstract images. In many other ways, this book is a contemporary expressionism allowing the author to scream in staggered breaths and let out (reveal) a precious humanity, no matter what the cost.

The with
memory upends,
the unchangingness.

Return to ants
swarming legs,
urine on the kitchen floor,

to bent pine,
a trachea-nowhere: (14)

Though lacking an explicit description of the impetus that drove the author to these poems, the first half of the book demonstrates a relationship to a hospital, and a feeling of helplessness and selflessness demanding, cruel, and damning. An imprisonment amidst the dark waves of life’s ocean, much like that of being stranded on an island (a metaphor Svalina uses), is defined early on in the book. Svalina continuously describes that process of understanding and being aware of this limited existence and targeted awareness. Poem after poem, like a tide or a current, is a continuation of the author’s imprisonment, though why it cannot be fully learned and transcended is a point unreached, unfulfilled.

Around halfway through the book, the other forms of humanity make their appearance. These are the friends and family Svalina’s speaker calls out directly. These are the abrupt and startling amidst the rhythmic infinite of that wine-dark sea. Carefully placed in short and direct lines, the poet’s friends rise and form images of intimacy and empathy: of belonging and comfort.

But what makes me weep
about the movie

is seeing Noah weep (42)

These calls to the unique identities of those actual, other people are what stitch together the fabric of this book’s world, its totality. The water underneath continues to grow and create its disturbance, but this book is beyond forcing a complete brutality onto the readers. That expressionism, that unlocking of humanity, finds its gentle core in the emotional relationships of the book’s peripheral characters. And from the beginning of the book through to the end, any and all sense of humanity has exponential value merely based on what it’s up against: the swirling and pounding and relentless vortex of the watery abyss.

Shelley in my
left hand

in the right.

What happens inside
love that’s so hollowing? (56)

Svalina’s The Wine-Dark Sea is as complex as humanity, as complex as the frailty of mortality. For whatever reasons inspired the poems in this book, there is certainty that ample room for hopelessness does exist. How we interpret and work with that hopelessness, as humans in dire straits, as people resolute and fighting, is described through these poems. Inklings towards answers and resolution may be as fluid as the water bearing humanity’s reflection, but these poems of confrontation, obsession, and endurance reveal that a beginning, an outlook, can exist.

About the Author:

Greg Bem is a librarian, technologist, and poet living in Seattle, Washington. Greg grew up in Southern Maine, lived in Rhode Island, lived in Philadelphia, and has most recently lived on two different occasions in Cambodia as an information management specialist and archivist. His gaming platforms of choice are Windows and Android, and his current favorite writers are René Char and Georg Trakl. His adventures can be usually be found described at