Poet on a High Swing

Book review by Louis J. Scerri | HENRY HOLLAND: L-Artist tat-Trapiż, The author, Malta 1996, iv + 32 pp.  

HERE IS an attractive masculinity in most of the 30 poems that constitute Henry Holland’s first published foray into Maltese poetry. With a past as a student and a present as a teacher of English literature, Holland seems to have taken positively to the technique used by the Metaphysical Poets and also by many modern poets. As such he represents one of the growing number of young poets who are turning their backs on Italian poetry, in preference to modern and contemporary English and American writers.

The sudden, brusque opening lines, the unusual imagery, the ‘violent’ language, the cerebral content, all make Holland’s poetry a very intriguing experiment that frequently captures the reader’s attention and involves him in what the poet is trying to say. This is definitely not the type of poetry that capitalises on cheap emotions and presents them in sugary language.

The poem which gives the anthology its title amply demonstrates the poet’s predicament – not unlike the Icarus he refers to – as he risks the unknown with every poem “imdendel bejn il-biża’ u x-xewqa li jaqbeż / u għal darba jtir!” The poet feels cut off from everything: “Hawn fuq hawn il-kwiet; / l-orkestra mitfija, / ix-xibka mitwija, / iċ-ċirku miet.” Before he finds the answers to the questions that bedevil his mind and soar upwards, the reluctant scared poet must overcome his fear of flying!

In Infern he is conscious that “Meta tasal, / u se tasal / is-sabta inevitabbli” he will discover that “Wara kollox / kollox hu xejn, / hu waħx.” Still, he feels he must continue his “mixja għamja ineżorabbli” but this time “bla dmugħ”.

For Holland there is a terrifying unknown, for which he often uses images of darkness (not the soothing darkness of the night that brings rest),and silence, so frightening to one who has to communicate. The darkness of the tunnel that dominates Corrida, perhaps not unintentionally the first poem of the anthology, is a typical image as the cyclists pedal madly into the darkness as the poem ends abruptly.

In Insomnja, with its apt rubric from Macbeth, the southerly, muggy wind prevents the poet from sleeping off his tiredness as “il-ġilda garża tinkolla mal-liżar” forcing him to try to come to terms with his-existence. In the frightening calmness, interrupted desultorily by the church clock, even the rain (so often a purifying image), is so revoltingly warm that “lanqas id-dubbien ma tar”.

Even the traditional escapes provided by love and good company are far from satisfying. In Ċiċri the male-female relationship has a guileless feel that reduces it all to the nature of a game by children who may or may not know the full meaning of what they are playing at.

In Gotika the pain of an unrealized love creates imaginary bats in “kamarti kripta, kiesha, kiesha silġ!” while in the openly-acknowkdged Larkinish Il-Milied ta’ l-æażeb, the lonely bachelor tosses and turns in bed watching “il-konsenturi ta’ mal-ħajt” and even aaborts any desire to mouth the question “Żbaljat?”

It is in literature that Holland may find the justification of his attitude to the fair sex. In Il-Lezzjoni tal-Letteratura, again with its open acknowledgement to Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, the reluctant girl is reminded of the eventual victory of the worms of the grave.

If love does not provide any escape, even a life spent in company with friends does not seem any lasting solace. In Dolce Vita, the convivial meal (“Żaqq se tixpakka, bil-panċiera / ċinturin diskretament maħlulin”) satiates the sitters who still can find nothing more meaningful (if Time had not done them in) than to “Nirreġettaw ko11ox u nerġgħu nibdew”.

Even the age-old patriotism so milked for effect by older Maltese poets is given a modern ironic bent in Déjà Vu, while the division that politics brings out is terribly brought out in Jum ir-Rebħa, with the victors on the prowl. In Każ Mentali the poet’s persona turns on the entire local set-up “Ħaqq il-Gvern / Ħaqq l-oppożizzjoni! ħaqq il-psewdo-Intellettwali jippontifikaw fuq il-mezzi tal-komunikazzjoni!”

The last seven poems have a spiritual feel brought about by the poet’s personal experiences. Perhaps brought face to face with the ultimate reality of death, he discovers an inner dimension that ironically fortifies his spirit when he feels at his weakest as, for example, in Infern, already quoted.

Still, this predicament in no way softens the poet’s attitude or language. The opening of Kantiku (Lil David)“Xbajt u ddejjaqt / Iffirmajt u tlaqt ‘il barra” echoes that marvellous opening of George Herbert’s The Collar: “I struck the board and cried, ‘No more, I will abroad’!”

Words of condolence are rendered banal by the unfeeling contrast of the language register: “Noħlom jgħiduli, ‘Ġie anġlu sabiħ u sabbarna, ‘Int orrajt?'” Even joining in the funeral chants at church only makes the serried voices turn on him and scream “Ġuda! Viljakk! Ġakbin!”

The rubric from Donne (“And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die”) which introduces the final poem of the anthology, Kankru, may give the impression of an eventual triumphant victory. Still, it is that terrifying emptiness that ultimately keeps echoing in the mind (“Sakemm bħal kollox; niżbroffa: Koħħ!”).

Very neatly printed with ail attractive cover of a bas relief of the poet by fellow Floriana-born engraver Noel Galea Bason, Holland’s first anthology is definitely a collection that deserves to be noted as it prefigures a poet who articulates the feelings of the young generation.

Louis J. Scerri | The Sunday Times, June 22, 1997


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