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Dancing on a tight rope
04.08.07 - Riċensjoni ta' Stanley Borg (It-Times)

When William Hazlitt wrote that "poetry relates to whatever gives immediate pleasure or pain in the human mind", he was referring to the classics and to Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser. Yet his pronouncement has kept its leaves green, capturing the poetry written more than a century later, with its hopelessness of such seemingly innocuous preoccupations as Prufrock's "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" in T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and shedding light on the verse written since.

That is what poetry is: Sketches of what surrounds us both from the outside and the inside; a sinewy, rather than muscular form which does not occupy the page like a novel does, but which echoes an eternity of the hidden thoughts and epiphanies that make us human.

Putting this human predicament in words is, as the introduction to Ħbula Stirati argues, a balancing act. The title of this poetry collection refers to the poet treading the delicate balance between pedantic obfuscation and saccharine-sweet, flowery language. Both extremes are ridiculous. Yet when the poet manages to walk the middle line, then that precarious balance is poetry. It is art.

The introduction is a confession that not all the poems in Ħbula Stirati work. At times, the poet tumbles on the hard ground, because in art, there is no safety net. Yet at others, the poet crosses to the other side of the tightrope, steps off and leaves the rope humming gently like a chord in perpetual motion, echoing poetry.

Ħbula Stirati is published by five poets, each with his own distinctive voice. The first section, entitled Brim, feeds off Mario Vella's tensions at being caught between the parochial, peeking-between-the-louvers mentality and the wider world outside, "sellem lill-blata u sebaħ fil-kontinent". Vella's verse is angry, spitting in the face of political correctness. And it is satirically delicious, as when, in L-Assedju ż-żghir, an illegal immigrant is finally accepted by the locals when he is covered in dust while working in a quarry.

In the second section, Il-farfettier, Alex Vella Gera is similarly disillusioned with an island where houses are built too close for comfort. Vella Gera's poems are published without a title, an act which removes any comfort that the reader would find in the clues a heading might give. And the recurring questions hint that Vella Gera treats being and other beings not as a problem, but a mystery which can only be partly investigated through words and the simple pleasures of "ir-ragħwa ċajtiera tal-baħar" and "kaligrafija ta' kwiekeb".

As attest titles such as Addio O Dio, Godscare and Summa Theosophica, Kevin Saliba's poetry, in the section entitled Ħġejjeġ, is at grips with the vertigo of love and life as translated through the philosophical conundrums of dasein, angst, death and the absurd, while rendering homage to Weininger, Nietzsche and Van Gogh. Too indebted to his primary sources, Saliba struggles to give his metaphors the kiss of life. When he does, however, his voice is to be listened to, especially in Is-Silenzju u Jien, where a non-dialogue with silence solicits an esse est percipi moment leading, in turn, to awareness of the self.

Antoine Cassar's multilingual poetry and the plurivocality of his verses, in his section entitled Mużajk, is the result of the endless possibilities that ensue when two or more languages are spun together. Poems like In città are confessional, touching, sensitive and linguistically witty evocations of displacement from and nostalgia for the south of Malta, with its "kċina tan-nanniet" in Lura and "la mer, cette grande lumière" in Azul. Muñeca checa speaks of loss, and love; a love that is based on the recognition of otherness and ultimate subjectivity.

In Illum qabel għada and Ex nihilo nihil fit, Cassar weaves French, Spanish, English, Italian and Maltese into one poem. The resulting verses are not a linguistic Babel. Rather, the poems are a layering of languages that widens the horizons of interpretation; a delicate balance of economy that achieves rhythm, rhyme and a movement towards completion or at least, as Cassar writes, to mark existence, before the eternal silence descends.

Central to Ċali Grima's poetry, in his section entitled Rota Roża, are the strong metaphors resonant of life, from the "il-porvli blu / tal-baħar" in Ix-xemx nieżla to "xfafar tad-demm" in U għaliex kollox perfett? It is the use of language as a cipher that, through a series of moments and childhood nostalgias, tries to explain the world and the act of writing poetry, which Grima aptly captures in the poem Kobba ġenn itwiha f'maktur u itfagħha fil-ġenna, especially in the line "Kewwistlek din il-poeżija għadha taħraq mill-istonku", a line that is an apt footnote to the anthology itself.