Detail from map of the Mediterranean sea, c.1600. Source.
by Jessica Sequeira
Poems of the Mare Nostrum, Costa Nostra,
Hesterglock / Prote(s)xt, 180 pp.
Stowaway: A Levantine Adventure,
Seren, 72 pp.
Two books about solitary poets travelling the Mediterranean and writing poems came my way within a relatively short period of time; it made sense to treat them within the same space.
The Mediterranean serves as the conceptual metaphor at the heart of Arturo Desimone’s book of poems. The political ambiguities about belonging suggested by the contested area of land and sea—who’s in control and who’s left out of the equation—are close to the heart of this roaming Arubian-Argentine writer, whose true home is perhaps the Internet.
As Desimone explains in his introduction, ‘Costa Nostra refers to beaches, and the Pan-European defence of coastlines and borders: a machinery which only intensified in recent years.’ He takes inspiration from ancient Greece, from ‘its heroes and beasts (all of whom seem to have enjoyed significantly more freedom to wander, especially in the light of today’s more clearly defined barriers).’
The poems are spiky, associative, ironic and rude; they seek to provoke. Desimone’s aesthetic preference is for the messy and brittle against the polite and ordered, as reflected in the book’s style and layout, a ’90s font scattered with capital letters and typos, and featuring a dozen or so handmade drawings.
The breathless pseudomodernist poems burst with glosses of news soundbites as well as linguistic factoids of the sort that a tireless tourist might pick up. The effect is that of a supercomputer with an overstimulated Power Distribution Unit, its servers processing an unwieldy voltage that threatens apocalyptic shutdown.
The allure entices: to run,
not hobble—run, like a diagram’s young gun
lightning-ray, graph-line of progress
or of backwardness, off a cliff;
like the cliff were the chart;
and the man:
an index indicator on fire,
shown in a room of smug
and divided executives—
who accuse one another of showing desire
This is the way the poet digs it. Puns, double entendres, sizzling displays of intelligence are everywhere, exhausting, deliberately hectic. Desimone doesn’t settle on one theme but constantly takes flight in hurtling enjambment towards the next topic, the next country, the next ancient language. It seems to be his way of living, a preference for departure over dwelling. (If I am reading somewhat autobiographically it’s because he invites the reader to do so, and makes it clear in several interviews that for him poetry and life are one entity.)
There’s no doubt that these poems are mentally invigorating, with jokes layered on jokes and a brand of angry yet linguistically playful satire that has its appeal. The poems I liked best, though—‘Welfare Rat’, ‘Poem Against Switzerland’ and ‘Demands’—stop to draw breath for a moment and reflect on the poet himself, his uncertainty as an Arubian-Argentine abroad and his embrace of the precariousness and intensity of a life within the external pressures of a well-disciplined, bureaucratic clockwork boredom Elsewhere he feels compelled to satirise how the world sees Arubians (a scene in which an Arubian tourist alarms the cops with his gestures, a spiel on how ‘our passports were formerly made out of cocaine’, etc) but here he at last grows a smidgen more earnest.
Poems of the Mare Nostrum, Costa Nostra often reads as a compendium of stereotypes and power struggles, locating the subtle places in language where the ‘bien-pensants with bon mots’ who are in control humiliate the underdog through violence, propaganda, misrepresentation and doublespeak. See the poem cycle for Marine Le Pen, ‘Reading Time Magazine Between Patmos and Aruba’ and ‘Political Corrective-Directive of Ivy League Inc. vs Music’ for example. Desimone romanticises the outsider, the bohemian, the vagabond, the illegal immigrant, the druggie, the hooker, the non-westerner, the wandering Jew and the shipwrecked refugee. He paints himself as one more madman outside the system, unafraid to speak truth, living out a kind of carpe diem of sex, clutter, wine and riddles. Somewhere near the halfway point we reach this premature, vertiginous summing-up:
it’s a wall-eat-wall world
Ethiopian crucifixes weigh
a ton, yet contain
a whirl-eat-whirl optic dance,
And life’s a
The colourful line drawings, which don’t relate directly to the poems, take the imagination off on an oneiric and unexpected tangent, and soften some of the militant costumbrism. It may just be my taste, but I wish there had been a few slower verses with the stillness and contemplative voice of ‘Old and young woman looking at each other through time and Bulgarian snow winter’. For as Desimone says somewhere, but does not take further:
I by far prefer Greece:
Onira Gleekee they say before sending
you to bed, ‘Sugar on your dreams’
when Greeks want to be kind, they say that,
as if speaking to a little goat,
little lamb cradled—
Now based in Argentina, it will be interesting to see what Desimone makes of this other part of his origin. His publisher Hesterglock has done well to take a risk on this work that’s sometimes starlit water and sometimes a fusion reactor, but that always makes language its protagonist.
‘We are all Levantines now,’ the poet Richard Gwyn quotes the Oxford-trained English historian Philip Mansel at the beginning of his book, setting the tone for an exploration of his self in the Mediterranean. A Welshman, once a vagabond with travels from Argentina to Greece, an alcoholic and a hepatitis sufferer (all chronicled in his semi-autobiographical novel A Vagabond’s Breakfast), currently a Cardiff writing professor, translator of Latin American poetry, blog writer under the name of ‘Ricardo Blanco’ and resident for half the year in a Spanish village, Gwyn is drawn to transitional experiences, the places where frontiers and boundary lines blur and things turn into their contradiction.
At this point in the metaliterary game, perhaps it feels too glib to suggest that the local is universal and that travel erases the man who looks to be thus erased—but that doesn’t mean that it’s not true. Gwyn’s work features a constellation of literary referents, one of whom is the druid Lawrence Durrell, who wished to dissolve into a thick refined lyricism and an erotic mysticism that is highly aware of itself, within a kind of erudite self-knowing. There is great beauty in Durrell’s mission, as well as great terror in the nothingness and silence it might have to confront. What epiphany, what lost thing is there to retrieve?
Elegant and edgy, Gwyn gives a picturesque description of his travels as he rubs elbows with mercenaries, drunkards, custodians of Golems and men of unclear allegiances—all versions of himself?—while seeking to travel above all into his own interior and into his poetry.
Gwyn’s true interest shines through in his descriptions of the act of writing; his only real allegiance is towards literature, but literature can be a traitor. ‘How is it / that we reach that state in which / the thing remembered merges with its remembering, / the act of writing with the object of that need / to tell and tell?’
This is a book that comments on its own drive, well aware that it is the desire to make a register of the self—even more so than the desire to probe this self. Often Gwyn even seems willing to destroy his identity in favour of literature, refracting his realities and claiming that ‘every narrative contains its opposite’. Here another main referent enters the picture:
you appreciate once again Calvino’s notion that the city reveals only a possible version of itself, one of many. Later, seated by a canal, staring at the floating world on the side of an illuminated building, you come to another understanding: that what is being described in all these false turnings, darkened doorways, dead ends, abrupt descents into water, falsely proclaimed destinations, humorous asides and triple bluffs, is simply a map of yourself, or of anyone you care to name.
Gwyn’s world of mirrors is seductive, even if it is one in which we undergo the illusion that politics is a mirage, nationalisms are a thing of the past, and females and children play a minor part as either influences or interlocutors. But I acknowledge the liberty to choose one’s quotes and lodestars, an important freedom in a book prepared to create and annihilate the self in the blinding light of an erasure of beginnings: ‘In Paros on a shithouse wall I found more evidence, this time / attributed to Lorca: I come from the countryside and refuse / to believe that man is the most important thing alive.’
Systemic lines are traced between animal, mineral and stowaway, between salty olives and maritime routes and thoughts sailing through the poet’s mind. Gwyn writes with clarity in sedate sentences on the verge of prose, which are complete, rigorous and philosophically inclined: ‘We edge into new territories, in which boundaries are differently conceived and yet still intact.’ There may be blankness at the centre of his search, but it’s the kind of blankness in which the readerly ego finds it quite pleasant to disintegrate for a stretch.
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French. Her most recent book, A Furious Oyster, was published in 2018 by Dostoyevsky Wannabe.