Rakkmu, writing poetry to tell stories
Karsten Xuereb - 20/03/2006
Pitching politics in poetry
It is not difficult to realize why many who think they know his poetry and the author himself are primarily influenced by this socially committed side. Adrian readily admits that he is irritated by people who shy away from taking a clear position on political issues, be they the unsustainable development of Maltese landscapes, such as the fixation with golf courses by the local political class, or rule by intimidation such as is the case with the Israelis in Palestine.
These are views he makes clear both in person and in articles he regularly publishes both in the local and foreign media and websites such as www.babelmed.net, the website about culture in the Mediterranean for which he acts as the local correspondent.
However, Adrian feels that many readers who think they know his poetry associate his work too heavily, and sometimes exclusively, with politically-charged work. He feels this is unfair because such a narrow reading limits and ignores dimensions of his writing that go beyond politics and ideology.
‘Good poetry should not be a political tract’ Adrian tells me. ‘It’s not meant to convince readers, or to try to get them to embrace a particular version of the truth. Rather, it should offer a range of emotions and interpretations of the truth it finds in those emotions.’ He says that while art can take sides, ‘sometimes it is beautiful and meaningful in itself, like the dancing referred to “Ramallaħ”; sometimes art reflects a joie de vivre. While art can be seen as a means of ‘creative resistance’, Adrian believes that ‘it’s not always only a matter of doing something to resist another’s aggression. The motivation behind artistic creation is far richer and more complex than that.’
Such an attitude is reflected in the way Adrian understands literature and art. Poetry is not really about ideology, it’s about how language is used: But then again Adrian admits he wouldn’t appreciate a racist poem. ‘Ideology won’t make a good poem, but poetry is full of ideology. The whole process of writing and reading poetry and other forms of art is creative, interesting and critical,’ says Adrian, laying emphasis on the importance of it having to be ‘honest in order to lead to good debate and exchange of ideas.’ He refers to the reaction of Gush Shalom, the Israeli left-wing peace activist group, to Spielberg’s Munich, which it criticizes for its ‘debatable ideology’, and its praise for Global Globe winner Paradise Now for its good artistic achievement in taking on the Palestinian question, as interesting examples of such an exercise (http://zope.gush-shalom.org).
Art and values in Malta
With regard to local cultural expression, Adrian does not shy away from expressing his sense of alienation from most of what goes on since a lot of what is done tends to reinforce the social, cultural and educational status quo. For example, In “Dakinhar Li Stqarr” Adrian writes that in the arena of shallow relaxation, the stage is packed and the audience is satisfied and does not want any alternatives (Imma fl-arena tas-serħan bla moħħ,/ il-palk mimli daqs berqa,/l-udjenza kuntenta daqs qabel./Dil-platea ma tridx alternattiva).
In the ironic “Malta Ħanina” (sweet, gentle or pious Malta), the Island is strikingly described as a pimple that has never healed (‘ponta li ma fieqet qatt’). Nevertheless, Adrian is not one to moan, and readily highlights the recent portrayal of gay perspectives and multicultural experiences as one positive sign of change. He is a firm believer and practitioner of engaging with other cultures and cultural expressions, and praises initiatives like the British Council’s ongoing collaboration with gay performers and musicians like Renzo Spiteri who seek challenging partnerships outside the conventional comfort zone. Clearly, when events perpetuate clichés, results can be very superficial. Adrian identifies the national education system in Malta as a major obstacle to overcome the parochial and patriarchal points of view which, together with a persistent colonial residue, stop the Maltese from embracing ‘sensitivities of difference’, and many times, make the Maltese act against them.
In a 2002 study of ritual, memory and the public sphere in Malta, the social anthropologist Jon P. Mitchell describes the Maltese as ‘ambivalent Europeans’ who have an awkward relationship with their history and identity’ because of ‘a habitual self-essentializing tendency in Maltese public debate.’ One element that suffers greatly from this trend is the conception the Maltese have of their own values, a conception which Adrian targets in the satirical section “Il-Kriżi tal-Valuri” (the crisis of values). In “Essenzjalment” (essentially) Adrian writes that although the Maltese think of themselves as essentially European and distinguished from those who are not, their geography, language and ways betray more ambiguous sides to their identity (‘Malta hija essenzjalment Ewropea u l-Maltin huma essenzjalment Ewropej./ Il-Mediterran huwa banju bl-ilma/ u naħseb naf essenzjalment minn fejn ġej./ Il-kliem li nitkellem huwa essenzjalment Malti/ u tista’ tgħid illi dejjem joħroġli minn ħalqi,/ u avolja mhux kollu essenzjalment Ewropew,/ meta nkun barra minn Malta/ kulħadd jgħidli xi ħlew / għax forsi mhux dejjem jinstema’/ appuntu Ewropew./ Qed naħseb li forsi miniex Malti tassew./ U int ukoll, naħseb aħjar tiċċekkja sew.’)
Mitchell says that the fact that the Maltese are prone to essentialize their identity ‘can lead to a kind of self-Orientalism or Mediterraneanism that presents their own difference as inferiority’, which Adrian picks on once again in “B’Idejna”. Here the Maltese population is portrayed as waiting in vain for authoritative approval to assert itself as a nation (‘Inħossni qisni spalliera/ li waħedha baqgħet tistenna li titgħatta;/ fidil f’salib it-toroq jitħabat ma’ stering ta’ karozza/ li ma tridx tistartja;/ poplu qed jistenna wara l-bieb ta’ uffiċjal pubbliku/ biex isir nazzjon,/ mingħajr ma jemmen fil-kredenzjali tiegħu stess,/ jew fl-utilità.’).
Joe Grixti, senior lecturer and coordinator of the media studies programme at Massey University in New Zealand, has researched the sense of alienation that young people in Malta have developed towards this national feeling, and in reflecting on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (a seminal study for Adrian himself), he reflects on how ‘shared commonality within a nation is usually paralleled by a strong sense of cultural and linguistic discontinuity with respect to outsider-nations’ and quotes Kennedy and Danks to say that all identity construction ‘requires the summoning of difference, the relativization of the self against the “other” imagined as separate, outside – and perhaps also as marginal, inferior and dangerous’.
Such observations are expressed less theoretically but very poignantly in poems like “Arblu Majjistru” (flag-pole or main mast) which puts on a mock nationalistic tone in defence of the Island’s virtues (‘Tilfuni dawn il-barranin li jabbużaw/minn ġensi twajjeb – /
dan nazzjon Latin, Ewropew, Kattoliku Ruman,/mhux landa ta’ l-iskart uman.’); and “Malta Ħanina”, which lies in the following powerful section called “Distanzi” and describes the negative experience of so many refugees during their stay in Malta (‘Erba’ snin ta’ ħniena wara,/ bl-istatus ta’ refuġjati ttimbrat fuq karta umda/ fil-gorboġ li tahom il-poplu ħanin Malti,/ qed jittamaw li jieqaf it-tgħajjir,/ is-swat bil-valuri,/ il-ksenofobija ta’ dawk li qatt ma kibru/ imma dejjem waħħlu fil-kastrazzjoni/ li wettaq il-barrani;/ qed jittamaw li jitilqu ’l barra minn din l-umdità/ infettata bil-marda qerrieda ta’ l-ewwel jien/ u ħarja f’wiċċ min qed ibati kullimkien’).
Adrian is critical of the hypocrisy that plagues Maltese society (and others, for that matter) and says that our play-acting as conscientious makes ‘palliatives’ of our values. Inexorably, the more holy our pretence, the more empty and callous they become.
The shape of poetry
Adrian recognizes a number of limits in his poetry, the existence of which give it a strong identity. The emotions described in Adrian’s poetry are limited to a few particular fields, namely those areas which fire his creative concern about human frustration, suffering and tragedy.
Another limit of Adrian Grima’s poetry is the fact that it does not go beyond the intellectual boundary of the general reader. In its recollection of personal experience Adrian’s poetry does not come across as too cerebral or heavy in its argumentation of history or politics. Its relative straight-forwardness also goes against the general perception of Adrian as an intellectual, which is mostly tied to his lecturing activity, his academic and critical writing and recent radio productions for Campus FM, the University of Malta’s radio station.
The poems in Rakkmu may be seen as a series of photos, taken by Adrian, that rarely focus on the poet himself. In fact, little of Adrian’s poetry is explicitly about himself. However, his ‘filter’ is always evident: the choice of subject matter and the angle from which the subject is treated reveals the thoughts, preoccupations and anxieties related to solitude and loss which are key concerns for Adrian. Contrary to general perceptions others may have of him, Adrian feels he is profoundly apprehensive and negative about life, which he calls ‘an unacceptable absurdity’. Writing can make life more bearable; through literature one can try to come to terms with emotions, especially those related to moments of hardship.
Adrian seems quite clear with regard to what he believes about life, its injustices and death, and strikingly lacks any visible doubt. He says that was probably born with this sense of surety and can remember himself always knowing where he stood. Probably here lies the source of his self-awareness, self-assuredness and the sense of comfort within himself and what he makes his home.
Nevertheless, the nagging feeling of honest puzzlement at life is evident, and has been so since his earlier poetry. For example, in the poignant “Sensiela” (“A Series”) to be found in It-Trumbettier, Adrian’s first, bilingual collection of poems with translations by Peter Serracino Inglott and Adrian himself, which won second prize in the Premio Tivoli Europa Giovani for books of poetry published in Europe in 1999, Adrian writes: ‘Our lives are discreet moments,/ and we are pleased to fill the spaces in between.’ (‘Ħajjitna mumenti,/ u aħna kuntenti bl-ispazji/bejniethom.’), recalling Thomas Hardy’s reflection on the human being not being suited to the ‘long perspective’.
Adrian’s strong sense of surety, clear-headedness and direction may come across as simple and direct in his poems, and yet his poetry is rife with numerous anxieties bred by an acute sensitivity and a realization that “the game is rigged” and life is unacceptably malfunctioning. To put it in Adrian’s own words, he harbours a feeling that ‘it shouldn’t be this way.’
The main things in life that seem to upset and preoccupy him are injustice, poverty, the imbalance of power between the have and have-not, and the exploitation of ignorance by malicious “have” and the degradation of “have-not”.
In a review of La Syrie Autrement, a collection by Khaldoun Zreik, Charif Rifai and Rania Samara, the Babelmed correspondent Nathalie Galesne says this book focuses on the particular plight of the Arab world which can be ‘manipulated because it is confined within ignorance, from which prejudice and stereotypes are forged.’ The ‘double ignorance’ which warps the perspective of Arabs by others, as well as by themselves, ‘reduces the rich and complex Arab world to three words: dictatorship, Islamism and terrorism.’
With regard to the extreme reaction of sections of the Muslim community to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed that have recently appeared in European newspapers, Adrian believes that the issues involved are complex and go well beyond the clichéd clash of cultures played out by supporters of Islamic fundamentalism and others of Western freedom of expression. Adrian blames the West for demonizing the East and Islam and thus precipitating such situations, since the possibility of dialogue is stunted in a relationship dominated by the former. The sense of superiority strutted by the West finds an equally malicious partner in Islamic fundamentalism which is ‘more crafty’ than the supposedly ‘overriding passions’ we’re meant to see on non-Arab TV.
Adrian feels a strong urge, possibly an obligation, to speak out, write or act to address social injustices. However, his poems tell a different story: they focus on the wish to connect to and understand others, give a voice to their stories and shed light on their plight. If the “have-not” do not have a voice, Adrian’s poems may serve as one, through which various real characters in diverse lands may voice their suffering and exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous regimes, even in so-called democracies.
Tellingly, the independent Palestinian researcher Omar Barghouti, comments on the impact Adrian’s sensitive treatment of emotions has, and finds a lot of its power lies in the ‘simple’ yet insightful use of words. Barghouti is particularly struck by what Adrian is able to say about those people who are considered ‘relative humans’ by oppressive forces, and how he says this. He goes on to say that ‘Adrian Grima has mastered the power of intense brevity, of reducing a complex space to a cage, a crutch, a dance, a boat, only to blow it up in the reader's imagination in its full colors, nuances and textures. Adrian extracts hope from the dark abyss of despair, to inspire, to protest ... to rekindle our dreams.’
Adrian’s poetry is not made of surmising on a theme but a reflection on real people and real, mostly anxiety-provoking, situations. No solutions are offered in the process, but rather a strong invitation to share in human experiences and Adrian’s own perspectives and resonance with human plight, from the suffering of refugees to the sense of loss born of the passing of a beautiful day out with his son Samwel.
Creativity in narration
The second time I meet Adrian in his office at the Junior College, our interview faces even more ‘asides’ than the first. Innumerable pauses to discuss politics and personal projects both of us are currently involved in jostled with telephone calls to ask about the volumes of poetry in English recently published by Inizjamed and students asking for contact hours to discuss the Romantic poet Dun Karm.
Nevertheless, we plough through all this and I discover that through words, images and metaphors Adrian narrates his experiences of others’ recalled experiences, and makes them alive and present and urgent by evoking them tangibly, filling the “now” with the absent past. Therefore, the present becomes contaminated, anxious, unsettled, unhappy, a stolen moment echoing and trying to recapture a moment gone, like a snapshot.
Pleasant experiences breed anxieties. Holding on to them, and not letting them go, in spite of knowing they will be lost, is anxiety-provoking in itself. Adrian’s poems communicate a strong sense of the anxiety of being human, and being sensitively so.
Adrian also admits he is aware of a ‘morbid appeal’ that somehow attracts him to tragic experiences which he simply cannot ignore.
Therefore, a poem like “Ramallaħ”, which one can choose to see as the heart of this collection, deals with negative experiences. However, in itself it can be read as a life-loving poem. It can be seen as reflecting something positive in life which Adrian wants to speak about. He states quite simply that he does not want the evil side of humanity to win this game of life, even though he believes that in real life it often does. Characters like Khaled and Noora, two of the dancers with the Palestinian troupe El-Fanoun which Adrian invited to Malta in 2004 and then visited a year later, show the way it should be done: not through rhetoric or fundamentalism, but through ‘creative resistance’. This reminds me of the “Another World is Possible” slogan adopted by so many socially-oriented NGOs worldwide, a vision which Adrian subscribes to.
However, Adrian’s views on the whys and wherefores of poetry do not stop here. In his own way of balancing out arguments and taking positions to solid conclusions, he tells me that while art can take a political stand, ‘certain things are done because they are beautiful and meaningful in themselves, like Noora’s dance, and because they reflect the joy of life. It’s not always only a matter of doing something to resist another’s aggression.’ Despite the constant oppression, in people like Khaled and Noora, art and creativity are not exclusively meant as a form of resistance.
Interestingly, Adrian goes a bit deeper into his way of thinking, albeit simply and sensitively, and just enough to stay outside the oppositional frameworks he himself abhors. Not doing so would entail ‘sliding into the logic of counterpoint’ and ‘using art to participate in the bi-polarity of “us” vs “them”. Creative people go beyond this oppositional logic and do not subject themselves to it. Why should I live in a constructed reality that constantly pits one against the other? This logic is cunningly imposed by those who oppress – take the Israelis in Palestine and the political and religious classes in Malta. Even locally the “min mhux magħna kontra tagħna” (“he who is not for us is against us”) logic is strong.’
Once again in “Ramallaħ”, Adrian’s position-taking is clear, yet the fascination with narration is paramount. The central metaphor of embroidery, which gives the collection its name, is used to express such a “free-standing” position while making use of a highly charged image. Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery has acquired the status of an act of identity- and tradition-affirmation, and more recently it has been used as a strong metaphor for feminist movements in their fight against chauvinist violence. The mother of one of El-Funoun’s choreographers was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while was embroidering on her front porch in Nablus, a creative act which in itself stands outside the logic of resistance. However, the way things unfolded make it easy to interpret the act of embroidery as an assertive act of creativity which defies the oppressor’s violence.
Adrian’s use of this metaphor recalls the revolutionary participation of Madame LaFarge: her knitting the names of those members of the French ruling class to lose their head under the guillotine acts as a reminder that embroidery has long been associated with acts of creative opposition which want to challenge the oppressor and assert the values of freedom and equality.
The importance of engaging in a creative act for its own sake, and doing a good job of it, is of utmost importance to Adrian, who does not only reflect this theme in what he writes about, but more prominently, in how he writes about it. Elements of style, rhythm, rhyme, tone and timbre excite him and he seeks to create a powerful recreation of emotions in every piece he writes, short or long. The stanza from “Ramallaħ” that stands at the entrance to the book and sets the tone for the series of inter-related narratives that are found within is a favourite of his, since its style and form give it a particular identity which is at one with what it says.
Adrian is also fond of a poem like “Ċelel” (cells) which narrates the story of a barbone, a tramp, in Macerata, Italy, in the 1990s where Adrian studied for a while. The man leads his life on the rough amidst phone booths and their love-torn occupants. Adrian describes it as an example of ‘poetry of love, about love, taken from a different angle than what one would expect of a love poem.’
One of my favourites, “Spazji Oħra” (other spaces), also from the beautifully sensitive first section, does something equally unusual in focusing on the silent spaces that Adrian captures in a snapshot of lovers stealing a moment to hold hands. As in much of Adrian’s work, the silences, and the blanks in-between, have their important spaces to fill. In themselves, they act as a medium for the past and for recollections of emotions long gone to resurface and bring along new joys and, most often, renewed sorrows. Maria Aristomedou, of Birkbeck College, University of London, writes that Adrian’s poetry ‘suggests, always gently, that we can never catch up with the past - always fifteen (more) minutes away.’ However, one of Adrian’s strengths lies in his curiosity to explore human experiences and memories and his ability to narrate them through metaphors, images and words evoking tangibility.
The style one encounters in this collection is best described not in terms of one that shuns explicitness or refuses to state the obvious, but rather as one that tries to deal with the difficult task of relaying a feeling or an image from the past. Adrian is fascinated by questions like “How do you handle memory?”, “How do you “tell” memory?”, “How do you narrate a fear, a doubt?” especially in the context of the use of words. Using language to articulate experience is no easy task, and to my question whether he feels that language lets him down, he responds instantly: ‘Always’. In fact, after writing something, Adrian usually becomes quickly aware of its limitations and sees other ways of saying what he has just said.
The complexity of life just cannot be explained away. And this complexity seeps through to Adrian’s choice of how to look at things and the words used to tell a story that lies behind them. For instance, the word “rakkmu”, and especially the cracking sound created by the double “k,” resonates in Adrian because of its sound rather than its semantic meaning. But the overall feeling is difficult to explain, and to make matters more complex, Adrian claims that his relationship with words is always changing. Therefore, something he writes which may look innovative at first might in his eyes soon be overtaken by conventionality.
In an article written after a trip to Marseilles, Adrian describes the town as one a visitor cannot ignore because of its strong identity, and one which one can hate or love, but never be indifferent about. I find this comment reminiscent of Adrian himself and self-reflexive in the way he does not leave much room for incertitude or indecision; an attitude which many times brushes off those who have got to know a bit of him. With regard to his writing, very little is indifferent to those subject matters that he chooses to struggle with, and very little of Adrian’s poetry leaves its readers indifferent, unmoved, and disengaged from the emotions and memories stirred therein.
Rakkmu, with a cover design by Pierre Portelli, is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin. See also www.adriangrima.com