Unfolding the map
A month at Camac Centre d’Art, Marnay-sur-Seine
I’m writing away quietly on a balcony over the Seine. It’s been a very warm day; from the poplar forest across the river, the breeze has been brushing us all afternoon with fluffy parachutes of pollen, revealing the spider webs on the railings, whitening the house, blanketing the entire village in summer snowflakes. Amid the collateral damage of nature’s light-hearted pillow fight, some of these parachutes have landed briefly on my papers, before falling to the ground and continuing through the open doors into the living room. This is certainly a fertile place. Here at the Camac centre, an ancient priory restored into a cultural residence, even Frida the black cat seems to be a reincarnated artist. The sun will soon be setting into the Seine, and she has just leaped onto the balcony wall and sat down as if to observe the phantasmagoric reds running riot over the horizon. We’re only an hour away from Paris, just over the border between Île de France and the Champagne region, yet here in the village of Marnay, within an hour a strepitous nocturnal concert will begin, of crickets, frogs, young birds and other river fauna, whose music would make one believe we were in a tropical rainforest a little further south.
My one-month writers’ residency is coming to an end, and it’s been more than fruitful. I’ve managed to strike a balance between concentration in solitude, and collaboration and lively discussion with other artists both here at the centre and in Paris. I’ve made some good friends too. We’re nine resident artists in total; my housemates hail from Argentina, Canada, Korea, Mexico and the US (in some cases, to be more precise, from a combination of two or three of these countries, late 20th-century children, like myself, of Goethe’s Weltverkehr or ‘world traffic’). Each to our own projects during the day, our only set routine is to gather around the table for dinner each evening at 7. Caroline Youngblood, a painter from Louisiana and a fantastic cook, takes care of the menu during the week, whilst we take turns to offer our own specialities at the weekends. The Maltese stuffed artichokes for 14 people I prepared two weeks ago went down deliciously, though my favourite was the rabbit in paprika sauce served by Gaylord Brewer, a playwright and poet from Tennessee. The visits to nearby towns and villages up and down the river (Nogent, Pont, Provins) will also be memorable, but not as much as this tiny hamlet of Marnay, so happily distant from the contemporary fragmentation of time. Here by the river, time simply flows.
The Atlas project
My apprenticeship to the maps
of the world must not end.
The frontier is a knife’s edge.
The border is my land.
Karen Connelly, The Border Surrounds Us
I came here to work on my Atlas project, an organic poem progressively growing and evolving into a book-length composition, in the form of a ‘poetic atlas’ which lends itself well to multimedia performance and representation. Inspired by historical and contemporary maps -from antique globes to satellite photography-, the Atlas explores the relationships between the shapes of continental masses and islands and their fauna and flora, their individual and overlapping cultures, and more specifically, the ancient and recent history of the peoples of each place. With a childhood fascination for maps (partly stemming from the road trips across Europe with my father, myself as navigator with the atlas wide open on my lap), yet at the same time with the critical eye of the (hopefully) maturer traveller and observer, the descriptions of the lands attempt to plumb the telluric spirit of communities across the world seen as a plural and unitary jigsaw, whilst devoting particular attention to the history of the victims, and to the victims of history. Without aspiring to be metaphysical or erudite, the Atlas poem seeks to describe the coastlines and islands as the pieces of a mystical puzzle, “the smell of rain and wood“, composed of soil and stone, water and air, skin and bone – and ultimately, the raw material of poetry itself, language and image.
A highly ambitious project, to say the least, but with each new map I come across, the childhood excitement is rekindled, new shapes come forth, and with them new metaphors linked to the history and/or contemporary situation of the peoples living on each particular slice of land. The Atlas is essentially one poem made up of many, and may take several years to ‘complete’, depending on how much I eventually decide to ‘unfold’ or ‘enfold’ the map. Some early fragments of the Atlas have already been published, both in the original Maltese (in the second section of my latest book Bejn / Between, Ed. Skarta 2011) and in translation (in French, translated by myself and Carlos Laforêt, in the anthology Ce qu’île dit, October 2010, and in English on Transcript Review and other literary websites), or have jumped off the page into other media, from a classroom wall in the village of Jandpur (Himachal Pradesh, India), to a video poem (voiced in Maltese by Mark Vella) and, most recently, a joint exhibition with visual artist Marco Scerri (Weathered, Jean Monnet Building, Luxembourg, November 2012).
Erba’ blatiet / Four rocks (a poetic ‘map’ of the Maltese islands)
voiced by Mark Vella
(click on ‘CC’ button for English subtitles)
From map to map, from one projection to another, or simply by turning a map away from its traditional north-up orientation, to study the outlines of the lands is, as Emily Dickinson put it, to “dwell in possibility”. Although each map is no doubt a frozen -always imprecise, always selective- representation of a chosen reality fixed at a particular point in time, there is something timeless about the activity of reading and interpreting maps. Cartography began long before man devised the first writing system; today as ever, in the age of 3-D, multi-level computer mapping, children large and small barely tire of searching for tiny new details in a sea of complexity, identifying, by a psychological process known as pareidolia, a series of patterns and shapes that immediately invite interpretation, and thus quickly find themselves animated with meaning, personality, and even emotion. Just as many like to read the changing contours of clouds (a game I often give in to myself), I find solace, animation and imaginative freedom in the varying shapes offered by maps.
During my residency at Camac, I spent long afternoons and nights arranging and scanning through scores of pages of notes I had scribbled across atlases and notebooks, on and off, since late 2008. Although tiring on the eyes, at times unable to decipher my own scrawlings from past moments snatched between one utilitarian responsibility and another, it was a highly challenging and exciting process to watch poems splitting and merging, simplifying and expanding, the cartographical jigsaw pieces slowly but surely taking shape. Whenever my own voice would become too prominent in my head or on the page, I would return to research, reading highly engrossing books such as Ken Jennings’ Maphead, Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps, or losing myself in an issue of Carto, New Internationalist or National Geographic. Then, on returning to revising and writing, I would find myself working more on the poetics of the Atlas than on the poetry, more on structure than on content, and this was a process much needed, for which the oxygen and uninterrupted tranquillity of Camac were ideal.
The possibilities of the Atlas may indeed be infinite, yet the writing process brings up many questions, and many risks. Firstly and perhaps foremostly, how much detail should the poem go into, how much should it ‘unfold’ the map? With 180,497 islands scattered across the seas (!), limits do need to be set; as Umberto Eco calmly exclaims in a postface to his novel Il nome della rosa, “Occorre crearsi delle costrizioni, per poter inventare liberamente” – one must draw constraints in order to be able to invent freely. This was relatively easy years ago when I was writing in sonnet form, but with the modulating rhythms of the Atlas poems, not only do I need to set a maximum level for ‘zooming in’ whilst striving to maintain a balance between the continents, but I may eventually reach a moment where I will need to think twice before ceding to the temptation of expanding a cartographic metaphor or allegory more than necessary. In the stanza on Malta, the island is described as a lost fish dressing the very net it swims in; I could also expand this, by contrast, to picture Malta as a whale, linking with the biblical story of Jonah, who much like Maltese society today (with its north-south cultural schizophrenia) took comfort in the whale’s belly in order to escape his destined mission, wallowing in self-denial and keeping himself from becoming what he already was. To add a new stanza in this direction may or may not create structural imbalance, yet more possibilities ensue from the image of the whale: a solitary whale’s song going unheard in the water; the idea of a mammal with lungs disguised as a large fish, holding its breath for long intervals, full of airs until the urge to return to the surface reveals its true identity with a splash; Valletta and Marsa as the spout from which many Maltese emigrated to North Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia; the quarries to the south of the island as self-inflicted wounds into the whale’s blubber; the rotten teeth of the Marsaxlokk to Birżebbuġa area in the south-east, where the urban north-east chooses to stash away its dirty laundry, heavy-fuel power station and waste recycling plant. Where to stop? Perhaps I will simply let the extended metaphors and allegory guide the writing, accepting that the Atlas‘ deformation in geographical proportions may not be an altogether negative development, as the maps become increasingly personalised, and somehow excitingly asymmetrical.
There are of course multiple ways of seeing the world – over 7 billion of them -, and neutrality is neither a quality to be sought, nor even a practical possibility. Another highly important question regards which maps are to be trusted, which projections should be drawn from or avoided. Locally conformal and direction-true Mercator, still omnipresent in schools and TV news bulletins, despite the distortion in scale, showing Greenland of a comparable size to Africa when it is in fact fourteen times smaller? Equal-area yet conformally-distorted Peters, with its aesthetically unfortunate ‘squeezing’ of the lands? Equidistant Azimuthal, ideal for the polar regions but much less beyond them? The Winkel Tripel, a compromise between conformal and equal-area, as currently used by the National Geographic Society? As all good cartographers know only too well, due to simple reasons of geometry and cultural variance, there can be no definitive map or atlas of the world, but a diverging collection of possible perceptions and representations. Likewise, the Atlas poem cannot set out to express any single univocal truth, but rather an interrelated portrayal of different symbolic, emotive and solidary points of view. For the sake of geographical ecphrasis, I give priority to conformal projections (that is, those that respect the true shape and minimise distortion), but as a coastal profile may appear clearly in one map and less in another according to both projection and precision, the maps I use are chosen carefully according to the scale and level of detail of the particular poem or stanza. The chosen maps would ideally appear as illustrations accompanying each section; for this, closer to the (as yet distant) publishing stage, collaboration with a map-loving visual artist will be essential.
As all (printed) atlases necessarily need to have a starting point following the initial world map, another significant structural question needed to be answered – which continent or part of the earth to begin from? Should the itinerary move north-south or south-north, clockwise or anti-clockwise? The Atlas poem should be both rooted and routed; in keeping with the basic theme and technique of pareidolia, after much deliberation, I solved this problem by tracing a familiar shape linking the continents, taking Malta (and more specifically, the cliffs outside my village of Qrendi) as both start and end point. I prefer not to reveal this shape for now, as it also provides an underlying narrative element and ‘cornice‘ or frame for the entire project, sketching itself progressively along the poem.
A few paragraphs above, I spoke of ‘unfolding’ and ‘enfolding’ the map in terms of how far to zoom in, how much cartographic detail to interpret, which parts of the world atlas to magnify more than others, whilst remaining careful not to merely ‘skim over’ others. This is a question of deciding upon spatial ‘scale’, but there is another, more important mode of ‘unfolding’ and ‘enfolding’ in the writing of the Atlas poems, regarding what we could call spatial ‘depth’: the geographical ecphrasis itself, that is, the very process of description and interpretation, followed by its ‘translation’ into verse via conceit (métaphore filée or extended metaphor) and allegory, with close attention to rhythm and sound as an integral part of the meaning. This idea of the ‘fold’ as a stepping-stone in the exercise of interpretation, central to the thought of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, has been developed further by Laura Marks in her book Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (MIT, 2010). Marks describes the process of ‘unfolding’ as follows:
“Enfolding-unfolding aesthetics explains how images reach us by unfolding from the infinite, or what Bergson called the universe of all images, which I call the infinite. We cannot perceive the infinite as such. It is a vast field of virtuality, what Deleuze and Guattari called the plane of immanence. But now and then, certain aspects of the infinite unfold and become actual as images.
I suggest that between the infinite and image exists another plane, namely information, which sometimes codifies the infinite before an image arises from it. On the three-ply model I propose, information unfolds from the infinite, and image unfolds from information. In the relationship I propose, image is an interface to information, and information is an interface to the infinite. The interface may make a user aware to some degree or other of the relationship between the code and the world, or it may completely obscure it.
Finally, image and information come into the world and roll back into the infinite in a ceaseless flow of unfolding and enfolding.” (highlight my own)
Marks’ proposal of a two-way flow between the infinite and information, and between information and image, makes a lot of sense for graphic art, and of course, the ‘image’ plane could easily be replaced with ‘text’ or ‘writing’. In the case of the Atlas poems, the process of ‘unfolding’ is more complex, not only for having four planes as opposed to three (keeping ‘image’ and adding its corresponding ecphrasis or ‘text’), but because the fourth element in the chain, ‘text’, feeds at once from and into ‘image’, and from and into ‘information’; in addition, ‘image’ in turn is also linked to the ‘infinite’. This in fact gives us two bi-directional loops linked in a figure of eight:
This may look and sound rather theoretical, and we could easily re-poeticize the ‘unfolding’ process by giving the figure of eight a light push and letting it fall into an infinity sign. The factual and symbolic interpretation of maps, and the translation of such interpretation into verse, could indeed go on forever, but I find it more comforting, and respectful both to the ‘infinite’ and to the project itself, to keep the top-down structure with the ‘text’ plane at the bottom. Additionally, the number eight appears as a frequent symbol across the Atlas poem, indirectly related to the narrative ‘frame’ I spoke of above.
To illustrate this process of poetic ‘unfolding’, we could take two stanzas on Antarctica as an example. From the ‘infinite’, that is, all possible maps of Antarctica, or in practice, the half-a-dozen or so maps I have chosen to trust and work on, I extract visible shapes from different viewpoints – a mushroom, a curled-up lizard, a mammoth climbing the tongue of a boot -, and link them to information illustrated by the map and to background geographical and historical knowledge: thus, the mushroom comes to represent a continent carrying a heavy load of ice (and if this mushroom were to be consumed by climate change, it could prove to be poisonous for the humans that provoked its melting); the curled-up, cold-blooded lizard, its tail whipped by the ferocious southern winds, could end up cracking the whip of its own tail upon the waves when it gets too warm, causing huge billows to surge into the coasts of other continents; last but not least, the mammoth climbing the tongue of the same boot that buried it to extinction under the ice (due to a combination of the last glacial retreat and hunting by early humans, according to Wikipedia), could be a harbinger of an expected new climatological era. These links between the shapes (image) and their symbolism (information) are likely to have been made in the opposite direction, for it is often the background knowledge that brings forth the shape – at the time of writing these two stanzas, it is difficult to remember which came first. Image and information inevitably feed into each other, giving new perspectives to the maps they were extracted from, and at the same time, feeding the text that ‘translates’ these new perspectives into verse.
This is in fact one of the central, ‘activist’ purposes of the Atlas project – to help restore to human geography the status it appears to have lost within society, and in doing so, to offer new perspectives that reveal the interconnectedness of the lands and their peoples, the profound and lasting damage inflicted by resource-greedy colonialism, and the absurdity of nation-state borders. In parts of the so-called West, and especially in monoculturally-inclined nation states, schools tend to teach and imprint a very skewed view of the world. From my own experience in schools in Malta and particularly in England, I remember that during geography classes, we would be shown various maps of western Europe and the United States, but little information about the other sides of those continents, and even less for the east and south of the world. This form of ‘selective mapping’ offers extremely limited perspectives to pupils (our future generations), at the service of a culture which rewards and excludes as it pleases. Years later, when the roles were reversed and I went from student to teacher in Madrid, I could not fail to notice, in a certain text book, the distorted proportions of Central and South America –although Brazil somehow looked smaller than usual–, whilst the Philippines appeared to have a landmass comparable to that of India. In a British geography text book, the Indian subcontinent appears significantly larger, even if more information is provided of its natural resources (minerals, natural gas, diamonds…) than of its demographies, languages and cultures.
What I believe is essentially missing from such school atlases is not only a more ‘global’ perspective and appreciation, but the new (or not-so-new) ‘planetary consciousness’ which, slowly but surely, has been taking shape since the publication of the “Blue Marble” photograph, captured by the astronauts on board the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7th, 1972. This iconic image, which turned 40 this year, was the first to show the planet as a near-perfect circle, a living breathing organism suspended in space. In what came to be termed the “overview effect”, this photograph brought with it a more tangible comprehension and appreciation of the earth’s beauty, finiteness (including the discomfort of the ‘edge’, beyond which the inhospitable void extends toward infinity), and a sudden overwhelming sense of the interconnectedness of everything that lies within the finite, ever-changing sphere.
To a certain extent, this ‘planetary consciousness’ continues to deepen in the hands of ‘globalisation’, but I use this term shyly and with reservation, for I understand it more as a euphemism of neo-colonialism (by which the larger economies take possession of basic and ‘exotic’ elements from the countries they exploit and keep at bay), and less as a process of true cultural interpenetration. In this sense, perhaps the German term Weltverkehr (‘world traffic’, mentioned above, used by Goethe in reference to the dialogues of World Literature) would be more appropriate to denote cultural ‘globalisation’ in a more neutral yet plural light, devoid of the connotations of injustice that the g-word began to pick up soon after its inception, when it became something more top-heavy than a simple integration of regions.
Today, at the age of thirty-four, my childhood fascination with maps continues to deepen, and I find myself reading atlases as if they were novels or epic poems. The first impulse to explore the possibilities of the Atlas project does indeed come from this pastime of ludic discovery, but it also branches from a desire to give poetic, accessible expression to the planetary consciousness I learned in part from reading Whitman (Song of Myself, Salut au Monde), Neruda (Las alturas de Macchu Picchu, Odas elementales) and Tagore (Gitanjali). This planetary consciouness is perhaps not as widespread as we might believe: many of us happen to live more ‘on’ the world than ‘in’ the world, in the sense that we are incapable of feeling and showing the same degree of respect for the planet taken as a common abode as we may feel and show for our native or adopted landscapes.
Consequently, what I believe is needed is not only a greater spread of geographical and ethnological knowledge (ethos via pathos), but a profound psychological shift. Psychology also plays a part in the ‘unfolding’ process of the Atlas project, by exploring the application of ‘Rorschach’ symbolism on various levels, such that the description of the shape of a landmass can braid together a variety of subjective responses, including: aesthetic appreciation (the beauty of form, colour and proportion), political and social unease (the abuse of human rights, the destruction of the environment), mystical materialism (the relationship of man to vegetation and the four elements), and eroticism (the expression of telluric love). The two stanzas below, on South America, combine the four levels just listed: the profile of the continent could be compared to the form of a coatí on tiptoes, whose pointed nose (which would correspond to north-eastern Brazil) sniffs for the Amazonian fruit; likewise, with a different gaze, the South American continent could be seen as the long face of a “young great-grandfather” who took his final breath with a sneeze –in reference to the influenza and common cold brought by the European colonisers–, and whose “sweet and fertile cry” would correspond to the Amazon river, which flows down from “the spring of the soul” (the Andes). Meanwhile, the continent could also be identified with the head of a melancholic woman, with curly hair (the Caribbean coast), consoled by the poet and/or reader as she whispers from her “silver lips” (the River Plate) a subtle lament for the relatives that disappeared during the Latin American dictatorships.
Another form of ‘unfolding’ at work here, or in this case ‘enfolding’, regards temporal as opposed to spatial scale, that is, ‘folding’ intervening centuries into each other to make the ancient and the modern simultaneous. To unfold the map is thus to unfold humanity: image and shape feed into the text, which in turn re-creates the image in the eye of the reader, opening the mind to new perceptions, new perspectives, new ways of understanding the map and what it represents. The web of extended metaphors attempts to engender and engage with a sharper contemporary awareness, and beyond that awareness, emotion; we know that what lies at the heart of prejudice and racism are ignorance and fear, and I am convinced that, in the inevitable struggle against such narrow-mindedness, greater knowledge leads to greater respect, and respect in turn leads to empathy.
This leads us to the important question of ‘judgment’ in the interpretations of the maps and their translation into verse. As I admitted at the outset, the Atlas poems cannot possibly be neutral, and I can declare without unease that the descriptions will take sides with those communities whose human rights have been abused, and will not be sparing with the abusers, often in the form of nation-states (imagined communities, as expounded by Benedict Anderson and others) overflowing with symbolism and significance. That said, the allegory needs to be clear yet subtle, in a non-didactic tone, without spoon-feeding, allowing the reader room for interpretation, comparison and contrast, and thus the sense and thrill of discovery. Of course, nothing should be portrayed as black-and-white, and it is essential for the poem to reach far beyond a portrayal of the world split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ communities – in readings of old and contemporary history, we often find that injustices can be a complicated combination of external pressures, violent or opportunistic reactions to them, and even some form of self-infliction. Think of India, shaped liked the udder of a sacred cow, “milked by colonial and corporate dacoits” – the exploitation of the land for its minerals, which has led to the rapid erosion of the Aravali hills in Rajasthan, and to the carving-out of a bauxite mine that has destroyed the sacred mountain of the indigenous Dongria Kondh tribe in Orissa, is inflicted by enterprises as much ‘local’ as they are ‘multinational’. Or think of the Gaza Strip, the shape of an Israeli arm and fist (notice the knuckles pressing upon the destroyed airport and the cargo border checkpoints), or of a meatknife held by a hand to the north-east, yet also of a rocket pointing in the same direction; alternatively, the Gaza Strip could be the shape of a spade for digging tunnels to the Egyptian side of Rafah, or even of a metaphorical net used by Hamas to collect taxes imposed upon the tunnel economy. The Gaza Strip is also shaped like the rudder of a boat, and thus becomes a symbol of hope, ready to sail beyond the six-mile horizon enforced by the Israeli navy.
“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep” – Salman Rushdie
One may (understandably) feel provoked to ask: who is this poet to stoop over the world map, playing god, judging nations and peoples left, right and centre? This is an easy accusation, and the narrator will certainly be neither omniscient nor infallible, yet the accusation could just as easily be reversed: do nation-state governments not ‘play god’ themselves, occupying the lands of other peoples, tracing borders, and institutionally filtering the people who can and cannot cross them? The Atlas poems may end up making more enemies than friends, even if the focus is on the injustices suffered by everyday people, their struggles and aspirations, but also their positive contributions to humanity and to world history (Africa, for example, the cradle of humanity, is shaped like a human skull in profile, or like the bosom and womb of a prehistoric mother; the main Japanese islands are reminiscent of a logogram elegantly engraved upon the ocean; North America rises from Mexico and the Caribbean like a huge sailboat bringing people to new lands, and on into the future). The search for ‘judgmental balance’ in the Atlas project will perhaps be of greater importance than the pursuit of balance in structure and geographical scale, but it should be remembered that all nations are inferior to each other, insofar as they are built on ethnic divisions or even on seemingly ‘divine’ choices of race. Be that as it may, as far as possible reactions to the poem are concerned, I am more preoccupied with another question – that of the apparent ‘inevitability’ or ‘pre-written destiny’ suggested by the exercise of interpreting geographical shapes in relation to the history and contemporary situation of their inhabitants. Are the predicaments of India, Gaza and other above-mentioned regions inexorably determined by their shapes, and could those same shapes be symbols of future developments? Topology, climate, vegetation, access to water and so on obviously play a fundamental part in the evolution of a civilisation, but I hope that the reader will not take the Rorschach interpretations as a statement of the inevitable, nor indeed of a mathematical truth; quite to the contrary, the reader should feel invited to rebel against them, against all that is suggested by the metaphors and allegories (and their corresponding rhythms and alliterations), by concluding that the realities described need not be as they are, and can in fact be actively challenged and changed. The Atlas poem will not propose any particular solutions, other than unexplicity suggesting the desire for a new, different world map, built not on nation-state capitalism and the heirarchy etched by its borders, but on social justice, equality, freedom of movement, and the planetary consciousness described above.
In the paragraphs above I have spoken of identifying shapes defined by the strokes and contours of coastlines, but what of internal land borders, and landlocked countries, particularly if the Atlas poems are to challenge the static notion of nation state? This was a problem which, at first, had my mind going around in circles, finding it difficult to accept that the poetic jigsaw will have to be as much natural –as if to ‘re-piece’ the supercontinent of Pangaea– as artificial –taking the nation state as a unit of measure, and thus ‘respecting’ its capricious land borders–. Some kind of literary ‘proviso’ will have to be made early on in the poem, indicating the arbitrary and changing nature of borders, whilst the cartographic descriptions themselves could in fact exploit and challenge the seemingly mythological significance that country shapes tend to take on in the imagination of a nation’s citizens. The French ‘hexagon’, for example, an apparently accidental geometrical feature frequently used as a patriotic symbol (appearing, in one of the images above, as a hexagon made up of hexagons…), not only has six edges, but also six sharp corners, piercing the peripheries of the country much in the way that French nationalism has pushed its regional or ‘border’ languages to an inferior status since the invention of the nation state (including, clockwise from the south-west, Basque, Breton, Picard, Alsacien, Occitan and Catalan). Luxembourg, shaped like an innocent cradle-chair with nothing much to worry about as the crescent moon rises over the woods, from the west takes on the shape of a snowshoe, stepping along silently amid the trees, but that same snowshoe has booted Kosovar refugee children out of the country seven years after welcoming them, as occurred in November 2009, despite the fact that the children had learnt perfect Luxembourgish in school and had grown to express themselves naturally in this language. Other sections of the Atlas poem focus on border anecdotes, curiosities, and unjust absurdities, such as that of the Cooch Behar enclave complex straddling Bangladesh and India, where “residents of enclaves need a visa to cross the other country’s territory towards the ‘mainland’, but since there aren’t any consulates in the enclaves, they should go to one in the ‘mainland’ – which they can’t because they don’t have a visa. Illegal border crossings are frequent, but dangerous – a number of transgressors have been shot by border guards” (Strange Maps, 110). ‘Border hotspots’ around the world, where humanity pits itself against humanity, as if the imaginary line separating two countries were a trench or the wall used by a firing squad, are highly likely to be zoomed into by certain parts of the Atlas poem.
The ecphrases of land maps will form the backbone and main content of the Atlas, but there are also poems describing the ‘shapes’ of other geographical features, such as bodies of water (rivers, lakes, seas and oceans – see my introduction to Marco Scerri’s photographic project Distant Land for a description of the Mediterranean Sea as seen from different cardinal directions). For the sake of variety in style, rhythm and perspective -for myself as writer as much as for the reader-, other types of poem will be interspersed among these cartographic descriptions, in two ‘series’ that will form an essential part of the narrative thread, whilst offering more space for personal emotion and expression. Given that around 50% of human beings now live in urban areas, I felt it necessary to include poetic ‘maps’ of cities – not descriptions of their extremely fluid shapes nor of their street grids, but in the form of annotated, alternative ‘city walks’, written with a good dose of humour, nostalgia, cynicism and wonder. One of the main concerns of these ‘city walks’ will be to illustrate the metropolis as an at once sublime and down-to-earth expression of human creativity and evolution, not necessarily in its main tourist-trap monuments, whilst capturing small fragments of diversity and Weltverkehr which may find their connections in other cities. These poetic itineraries weave together directions, street signs, graffiti, words in different languages seen or heard in the street, dialogues, smells and tastes, inner or outer reflections… The phenomenon of borders will also feature in some of these poems, as in the case of Berlin, where the Oranienplatz refugee camp in Kreuzberg is but a stone’s throw away from where the wall used to be. In order to give the Atlas a sense of quest, as much for the reader as for the narrator, each ‘city walk’ in the series traces a letter on the map, and if the reader places all the letters together at the end of the poem, they will reveal a secret haiku in Maltese.
Meanwhile, the second ‘series’ of interstitial poems will be a collection of anecdotes, many of them personal and autobiographical, related to maps and our experiences with them. The first of these stories involves an eight-year-old boy at the back of a class at the Qrendi primary school in Malta, a geography text book and mini school atlas, and a Radiosonde weather balloon that used to be launched from an old military runway at the outskirts of the village, and would usually be visible from the neolithic temples and the cliffs. In many of the later anecdote poems, the travelling boy will reappear, progressively older, thus threading a particular form of Bildungsdichtung, that is, a ‘coming-of-age’ story in the form of a poem, focusing on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist, and his evolving perception and understanding of the world. I’ll reveal no more for now.
Discussion and collaboration with other artists at Camac
Scribbling, writing and reflecting amid a maze of maps and atlases took up most of my time at the Camac residency, but there were also moments for socialising (I begin to wonder whether or not to avoid the word ‘networking’, which has come to remind me of the office), chatting away with fellow artists, sharing our works and preoccupations, or simply relaxing around a game of cards. Even the time set aside for play seems to have inspired some of us – a few months after the residency, hip-hop poet Melissa Czarnik and composer Eric Mire brought out a single called Rummy (!). The other artists included Joomi Chung, based at the University of Ohio, who works with animation and conceptual maps, and led me on the path towards the ideas of Gilles Deleuze on un/enfoldment and the rhizomatic structure of reality, and to Umberto Eco’s idea of surface as an encyclopedic network of heterogenous events and concepts;
Timothy L. Marsh, a writer of travelogue in both prose and poetry, though not necessarily in separate books – I am tempted to explore the possibility of mixing the two modes, in a similar (but non-didactic) fashion to Dante’s Vita Nuova, or better still, to Ruth Padel’s book The Mara Crossing, an impressive poetic study of the phenomenon of migration; Emilio Jiménez, a Mexican 3-D artist with whom I discussed that millenary Aristotelian and Horatian question of ethos vs. pathos (concluding that these can be more complementary than contrary, hence our perceived need for more ethos via pathos in contemporary art); Canadian visual artist and illustrator Karen Hibbard, who was working on a piece of animation focusing on garbage and plastic flotsam;
Argentinian and New York painter and sculptor Celeste Carballo, who worked on beautiful wall drawings of wild animals; Caroline Youngblood, mentioned at the beginning of this report, whose charcoal studies of old black-and-white photographs are truly impressive; and poet and playwright Gaylord Brewer, also mentioned above, whom I thank for introducing me to the poetry of William Stafford, in particular the river poem Ask Me, which indirectly inspired one of my own river poems written just before leaving Marnay (see below). (Incidentally, Gaylord Brewer is a friend of poet Moira Egan, whom I met when she was a writer-in-residence at St James Cavalier in Malta in 2006, and with whom I gave my first ever public poetry reading.)
Finally, I should also thank Iranian-Canadian video artist Reza Savafi, who I met on the day before leaving Camac, and who told me more of Laura Marks’ theory of enfoldment, and of other visual artists that explore the theme of borders and of border crossings in particular. Among them, I learnt of the work of Adel Abdessemet, notably Salam Europe, a thick ring or tyre of barbed wire, which if rolled out into a single horizontal line would be the exact length of the crossing from Tangiers (Morocco) to Tarifa (Spain).
In the last week of each Camac residency period, the centre organises an Ateliers Ouverts or ‘open-doors’ event, inviting the local public to witness the projects developed by the current resident artists. For the occasion, Haitian author Jean Durosier Desrivières, who at the time was based in Paris, joined me for a warm and well-attended reading in the Camac bar. After reading a couple of his own poems (including Le poème sent le cafard, a definition of poetry as a macabre physical act, which I have translated into Maltese as Il-poeżija fiha riħa ta’ wirdien), Desrivières recited Elizabeth Grech‘s wonderful French rendering of Rifuġju, one of my recent Maltese love poems. Jean is also a man of the theatre (he had just launched two short plays, Magdala and Marques déposées, at the Paris Festival de l’Oh), and a much better reader than myself; after his sensual recital of Refuge, I joked that I was lucky my fiancée was not present in the audience, for he may have enamoured her… In the second part of the reading, we performed extracts of the Passport poem in tandem, in English (adapted by Albert Gatt and myself) and in French (adapted by Elizabeth Grech). The response was fantastic; I’ve read this poem in public many times now, and often fear that I will end up reciting it robotically, but the friendly local and international atmosphere, and Jean’s histrionic voicing of the French version, renewed my energy and enthusiasm on stage. This was the third time Jean joined me in reciting the Passeport, after brief readings at the poetry festival of St-Martin-d’Hères (Grenoble) and the Librairie Orphie in Paris (which, sadly, closed down soon after, along with so many other independent bookshops in France), and it was certainly the most enjoyable.
The Migration Map
On the last day of the residency, when my housemates had all left and the new artists began to arrive, I worked on my first experiment with an artistic installation, linking the Atlas and Passport projects. Emilio Jiménez had constructed an asymettrical ‘spider-web’, made of ropes and tape stretching between the round walls of the Camac tower; in the final week of our stay, we had planned to use this as a network of “migrants’ tightropes”, from which we would hang drawings, photographs, small toys, poems (by Immanuel Mifsud and Mahmoud Darwish, and Jack Hirschman’s Path, which I have been carrying in my wallet ever since discovering it in a Shakespeare & Company newspaper in June 2010, and has consoled me many times), books (including Karen Connelly’s intriguing poetry collection The Border Surrounds Us, which I happily found on a Camac bookshelf), ‘real’ and ‘poetic’ passports, old and new maps, and other elements linked to the ideas of migration, travel, and human rights. Unfortunately, as I was busy in Paris and Emilio had to leave early, I ended up installing this Migration Map myself, but I thoroughly enjoyed the process, despite the acrobatics and the sweltering 30ºC heat; with so many works by other artists and writers hanging from the tightropes, it remains an essentially collaborative project. Many other ‘ingredients’ were things I came across in the streets of Paris, such as metro travel tickets, leaflets, postcards, a bookmark advertising an Erasmus party, a sticker-book of national flags for children… Other items came from a brocante, a second-hand trinket shop we had come across in the nearby hamlet of Louan: a mini globe keychain, trolls and other figurines to represent travellers balancing on the strings, a plastic duck in a wicker basket to give the idea of imprisoned flotsam, a naked doll hung by the neck in reference to the trafficking of women, dice and playing cards to symbolise the luck needed for the journey to be safe… The ‘map’ also included cuttings from a recent Playmobil magazine, featuring European explorers in search of treasures in Africa, with the assistance of cheerful black jeep drivers and manual workers; this magazine even came with a small game, a mould of sand in the shape of Africa, concealing blue ‘diamonds’ that children are instructed to ‘dig’ for with a small spade… Finally, the hanging elements also included drawings by some of the other artists at Camac, among them a hot air balloon by Joomi Chung, blurred sea waves by Karen Hibbard, and a skull, an eagle and two serpents biting each other’s tail, taken from different series of works by Celeste Carballo (Ritual, The Myth of the West, Natural History). Twenty minutes after completing the installation, having taken some photographs and a video recording, I had to very quickly uninstall it to make room for the next artist, Neema Lal, whom I thank for briefly lending me her ‘real’ Indian passport, complete with a Schengen visa. The photos and video could be used to accompany a recording of the Passport poem, something I haven’t yet got round to. In the meantime, there are now plans for a similar Migration Map to be installed in a cultural centre in the region of Le Marche, Italy, as a collaborative project among activists and trainers from migrants’ rights and youth NGOs. If all goes well, this should take place some time in mid-2013, in conjunction with a public recital of the Passport.
Back to simplicity: Frida the cat
Thankfully, it was not all atlases and passports at the Camac residency. These two projects stem from my interest in the relationship between poetry and other types of physical publication, and from a desire to make poetry more attractive and accessible, partly in an attempt to reach beyond the usual readers of verse (it is often said that there are more writers of poetry than readers…). Sitting on the balcony over the Seine also put me in the mood to scribble looser, more reflective poems, and it felt liberating to return to the ‘simplicity’ of personal expression in this way, free from the profound and pressing need to link my writing to broader, more structured projects. Watching the river flow by, crease by crease, fold upon fold, as Frida the cat leaped onto the balcony wall as if to watch the sun disappear into the river at dusk, and an old dog stopped on the river bank to stare in turn at Frida, my thoughts moved away from travel in space toward travel in time. I later wrote the poem below, translated into English by Alex Vella Gera. (You can read the original Maltese poem here.) Frida was not only friendly company for myself and my housemates, she also seemed to be watching over us, even at night when the ancient priory took on a more spooky atmosphere, as if to protect us from our nightmares. Across the wall next to my bed, a previous resident writer had recorded summaries of his dreams in pencil, and some of them were pretty shocking. I had my fair share of intense nightmares too, particularly in the first week, but I have no memory of them now. I miss the desk at the window over the river, the balcony, the company of my housemates, Frida’s mix of attention and nonchalance, the nocturnal concerts of the river fauna, the tranquillity of the hamlet of Marnay. I highly recommend a residency at Camac to other writers, and to artists of whatever discipline. Part of the place travels with me, without leaving the place itself. Even as my writing continues to plumb the themes of geography and migration, the memories of my time in Marnay give new, positive meaning to an old expression: you can take the man out of the village, but you cannot take the village out of the man.
Frida the old cat observing the sun set on the Seine (Camac, Marnay-sur-Seine, France) Frida, an old cat coal black, leaps light-footed onto the balcony wall, walks calmly to the edge, and lays down coolly to observe the sun set unhurriedly on the Seine. I must say, I have never seen a cat observe the sun set. And it strikes me, what if this cat were a reincarnated painter, who chose this place for a reason, so on rainless evenings she may scan the phantasmagoric reds of the sun running riot on the river's horizon? True or not, her name fits. Beneath the balcony, along the river bank, an old dog appears, lazy steps, ash gray, then stops short and stares intently, silently, at Frida the cat observing the sun set unhurriedly on the Seine. I must say, I have never seen a dog with such a human face, with such silent curiosity. With that head of curly fur and those bags under his eyes, he brings to mind some baroque philosopher who has returned to this place for a reason, having not concluded his studies on the curvature of time. I find him charming. Sitting on the balcony, with the first white hairs breaking through on my chin, I remain staring at the old dog watching Frida the cat observing the sun set unhurriedly on the Seine. Who knows if maybe the sun can see me staring at the dog watching Frida the cat observing the sun set unhurriedly on the Seine? As we are, here, four silent dots as if in accordance in a figure of eight, a cosmic chain, an hourglass, a water clock? I'd hardly begun to contemplate this geometric enigma and the slightest hint of a fleeting eternity when the sun hid behind a tree and drowned and spluttered out, reds and all in the current of the Seine. Frida the old cat jumps off the wall and hurries to the kitchen. Beneath us, the old dog looks away as if having seen nothing and resumes his lone walk along the river bank. Alone in the gathering darkness, I remove my glasses, take in a long deep breath, and without knowing why, I stare on at the Seine dragging along crease by crease onward into the night. translated from the Maltese by Alex Vella Gera
My writers’ residency at the Camac Centre d’Art was supported by the Fondation Ténot and the Malta Arts Fund.