The Malta Independent 16 May 2022, Monday

How I Write - Antoine Cassar

Malta Independent Sunday, 13 February 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

In the playfully rhythmical poem Lost in translation, James Merrill recounts a childhood episode in which he excitingly puts together a long-awaited jigsaw puzzle. Under the surface of the painting revealed by the puzzle, the poem turns out to be a jigsaw in itself, made up of shapes, colours and sounds in different tongues which together ‘translate’ the nostalgic recollections of the narrator. The joy encountered in the plurality of meaning finds its best expression in Merrill’s confession of having fondly kept a palm-shaped piece of the childhood jigsaw. The piece reminds him of Paul Valéry’s Palme, a strophe of which he would translate into English – through Rilke’s German – years later: “These days which, like yourself, / Seem empty and effaced / Have avid roots that delve / To work deep in the waste.”

As the envoi of Merrill’s own poem concludes, “But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation / And every bit of us is lost in it.” Having changed country and language over half a dozen times during the past decade, I sometimes wonder how many shards of memory and experience have fallen into the gutters of different cities, only to be washed away by the rain of changing seasons; although on occasions, some of those shards have re-appeared – sometimes intact, sometimes in a partial, weather-beaten state – on the shores of other lands, other islands. One of the inevitable consequences of this nomadic restlessness has been the natural switching in language and style in the development of my own poetry, in a perpetual condition of exploration and betweenness.

Even so, a certain attitude has remained constant in my approach to writing. Firstly, however high or low the levels of serotonin in brain or bowel, I have never ceased to believe that even the most apparently dreary, ‘empty and effaced’ days are replete with the possibilities of poetry. To paraphrase Valéry read through Rilke read through Merrill, a hue of blue, the shape of a passing cloud, a phrase overheard, are enough to delve roots into mind and memory, into the soil of sentiment and expression. Of course, to perceive and receive such stimuli requires patience, and a general disposition of openness, which is not always easy to cultivate.

Secondly, despite such infinite possibilities, I cannot say I am one to churn out dozens of pages of verse at a time; I am a very ‘oviparous’ writer, in the sense that I generally brood over a poem for a long, steady period before considering it complete. This was especially true when, having returned to Malta after a thirteen-year absence in 2005, I began to compose a series of ‘mużajk’ sonnets, braiding the five tongues actively competing in my mind into a single rhythm and development of thought. Each poem creation was very much the putting together of a jigsaw: after a time collecting the fragments of raw experience that would come whilst reading, walking, or floating in the pre-dawn frontier between sleep and wakefulness, the writing process would ‘translate’ the individual pieces by settling them into a unitary puzzle, thus rescuing them from the peril of oblivion. Within a few months, what had begun as experiment and exploration soon became experience and, above all, expression, which is of course why pencil is put to paper in the first place.

Later, once the idiom of multiplicity found little more to declare and I happily gave in to the ever-louder voice of the Maltese language, the emancipation of a single tongue allowed my poetry to burst into new themes, styles and rhythms. Yet my attitude to writing has remained quite the same: I can spend weeks pencilling impressions, ideas and images haphazardly across moleskines. Eventually, when the rhythm of the poem becomes too urgent, it’s time to sit down, take a sheet of lineless paper, and let the surge of emotion piece the fragments together, often with new metaphors and musical turns that prop up almost magically as the jigsaw takes shape. Few things in life are more electrifying than watching the words dance on the page as the poem progresses, especially when the developing expression surprises me into an unexpected ending. This happened in my booklet Passaport, and also in my most recent publication, a double elegy in memory of my grandparents, piecing together a jigsaw of childhood memories I did not know I had preserved, and did not know I could have lost. Alas, such is one of the powers of poetry in particular, and of literature in general: the translation from oblivion into a durable reality.

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