Malta Today (27.12.15) has published my review of Daniel Massa’s extraordinary collection of poems, Barefoot in the Saltpans (Allied Publications 2015). This review, with its 800 word limit, is of course just a taster. If you want a five course meal you will savour for a very long time, read the book. Slowly.
Dive Again with Me
A review of DANIEL MASSA’s collection of poems, Barefoot in the Saltpans (Allied Publications, 2015). Photography by Pier M. Massa; 134 pages
There is no such thing as ‘capturing the essence’ when it comes to writing about 50 years of sumptuous poetry distilled in 59 visually dense and rhythmically sensuous compositions. This is Daniel Massa’s first complete, and I suppose definitive collection of poems in English. Some are mostly free English versions of his poems written in Maltese but many others were written originally in English. Apart from his penchant for versioning rather than translating, this is one of the reasons why this book of 134 pages, containing more poems than those in his Maltese collection Xibkatuliss (1989), is not a bilingual edition. Barefoot in the Saltpans definitively establishes Daniel Massa, one of the richest, deepest voices of Maltese-language Modernist poetry, as an English-language poet in his own right.
This carefully constructed book of strong emotions, with its rather unassuming and inconspicuous name, comes with an intriguing, almost provocative subtitle: ‘Poetry Mediterranean’. The poet clearly wants us to engage with this apparent ellipsis. He doesn’t want to associate his poetry with the Mediterranean. These are not poems about, from or even of the Mediterranean. Daniel Massa wants to identify them with the Mediterranean, as if his poetry and the Mediterranean were one and the same thing. Placing the two nouns next to one other, or inverting the position of the adjective, is his way of replacing the sequence of linearity with identification.
This book takes the reader into Massa’s alternative “republic” of the Mediterranean sea and coast. Unlike much of Maltese literature, which stands in awe of the sea and observes it strictly from a distance, Daniel Massa’s poetry is often written from within the sea. Jim Crace describes it in his foreword as “wind-blown, salty, sun-kissed and unambiguously Mediterranean.” The rhythms are seductive and the free unpredictable internal rhymes always semantically significant. Massa revisits his key images in various poems and slowly builds an unmistakable and irresistible visual tempo.
In an essay about ‘The Mediterranean and Poetry’, the Lebanese poet and essayist Salah Stétié suggests that “there has always been a kind of pact” between the Mediterranean and poetry. “Perhaps because the sea, and precisely that sea, sufficiently engaging and familiar to the man of the dawn of time to dare to venture upon it, was the first to open up the space of travel to human reverie.” Stétié describes poetry itself as ‘journeying’ and ‘return’. ‘Perhaps because through the risks journeying entails, and the inevitable disillusionment, that sea also opens up, like a ship’s wake forming, the nostalgic space of a return.’
There is much journeying and return in Daniel Massa’s poetic world. There is much exploration of both the present and the beginning, ‘ages ago’, as he slips into ‘the depths off Delimara’, sliding ‘head first’ as from his ‘mother’s womb / gliding over blue-green algae’ (‘Delimara Bay’).
if in some alarm I should run out of oxygen
I think I could almost stay
I will not go
for these rocks and this seine
and these algae know
that I’ve been here before.
The ‘translation’ of ‘Delimara’ (‘Delimara Bay’), one of Maltese literature’s best-loved poems because of the captivating, ritual-like flow of its rhythm and imagery, is a good example of Massa’s ‘versioning’. Some critics and poets, like Christopher Whyte, have argued convincingly ‘Against Self-Translation’ (in Translation and Literature) which is ‘a much more widespread phenomenon than one might think’. Translations are ‘inevitably’, in Whyte’s words, ‘interpretations which reproduce only one of the many resonances of the text’, and the intervention of the author-translator (wrongly) lends more ‘authority’ or ‘authenticity’ to their interpretation. In the process, the self-translating poet stands in the way of other close readings and interpretations. The kind of versioning Daniel Massa carries out when he rewrites his Maltese poems avoids the problem that Whyte talks about. Because Massa’s English versions of his poems in Maltese are, in some ways, something new altogether.
These poems are written for a different, generally non-Maltese audience. And above all, they are written into a new literature. ‘The distinctive triumph’ of Daniel Massa, writes Jim Crace, ‘is that unfailingly throughout this current collection of a lifetime’s work he demonstrates his exceptional skill at writing in English with the intimacy of a native speaker but without stifling the cadence and percussion of his home language.’
But there is another, perhaps more fundamental difference, between the now almost iconic poems of Xibkatuliss published 26 years ago and the poems in Barefoot in the Saltpans. Not only is the Daniel Massa of this more recent book different, but so is Malta. The context in which he is publishing these poems is not the same as that in which he published his poems in Maltese in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. He is looking back on his work and on his life, but he doesn’t sanitize or even patronize the past in order to make it conform with his present. This is a less overtly political collection of poems, but then the Malta he is writing in today is less polarized, less politicized than it was until the end of the 1980s, a healthy process of ‘secularization’ that a fellow writer, Alfred Sant, had a lot to do with.
Literary Allusion and Historical References
This is a collection of stories rich in both literary allusion and references to historical figures and events, from Dom Mintoff and his inimitable rhetoric (‘First Mate’s Lament’), to Jack Smedley, the English Dockyard instructor who was fatally attacked by a great white shark in July 1956 (‘Waiting for the Great White Breach’). It is a collection that is both ‘Wild and Gentle,’ as the title of one of the poems from 2007 suggests, both classic and modern.
This is a journey deep into the layers of language. ‘Now dare,’ as in ‘Midnight Swim’, to ‘dive again with me.’
Adrian Grima is a poet and lecturer in Maltese literature at the University of Malta