A densely populated individuality

Bernard Micallef reviews Xi Drabi Mqar Persuna, the latest poetry collection by Simone Galea.

When lyric address involves an unspecified listener and an allusive setting, then all is set for a poetry accomplishing more than a thinly veiled autobiography.

Simone Galea’s collection of poems Xi Drabi Mqar Persuna (a neat 64-page publication by Klabb Kotba Maltin, including two short commentaries by Maria Grech Ganado and Immanuel Mifsud) constantly poses the question: who is speaking to whom on what occasion?

While the clear outlines of the occasion fade, however, the emotive exchange between the lyric ‘I’ and the listening ‘You’ comes into prominent focus. In Galea’s lyricism, it is the emotional intensity between speaker and listener that spills over into its surroundings, recovering the significance of commonplace things by first investing them with the sensuality of two people in close communion.

Consider, for instance, the female speaker comparing her love to raindrops that hinder her lover’s driving, so that they are mechanically removed by wipers, only to be caught in his hand when the persistent downpour compels him to pull over and slide down the window (‘Imħabbti’). Or the equally allusive setting in which the female speaker laments her musical notes fading unheeded in the streets of her lover’s festive village (‘Il-Mara tal-Vistu’).

Such poetry makes the highly evocative surroundings as articulate as the poetic persona itself. It is also a poetry that conveys a sense of rejection delicately entwined with the prevailing bond suggested by the intimate exchange.

The result is a free-floating tenderness that must ultimately drop all claims to single authorship. In the poem ‘Bewsa’, for instance, the female speaker describes her poems coming to life only as they fall upon her lover’s lips, which in turn germinate them in the black recesses of her heart.

Such a physically shared genesis of poetic utterance (from female to male lips, then to female heart) undermines the singleness of voice traditionally associated with lyric address. Poetic composition is here the outcome of a constant relocation of words between mutually responsive beings. Similarly, the gloomy heart wherein poems must ultimately sprout mingles the heart’s dejection with the intimate sensuality realised between speaker and listener, avoiding the simplistic reduction of lyric mood to a single sentiment.

Such composite origins of lyricism prevent Galea’s readers from identifying exclusively with either speaker, listener, or eavesdropping bystander. Instead, her readers are made to stand within that in-between space where subjects meet and interpenetrate, where things lose their conventional boundaries to merge into new configurations of meaning, where opposing sentiments blend into a refined sensibility.

This, of course, is the intersubjective space so dearly loved by feminist (and postcolonial) authors, ever bent upon dissolving culturally imposed distinctions between subjects, and ever careful not to distinguish genders according to stereotyped feelings.

Both sections of Galea’s book display this preference for the hybrid over the clearly demarcated. In the first section (‘Xi Drabi Mqar Persuna’), the speaking ‘I’ constantly merges with its sexual, cultural, or ethnic other: its lover, student, child, refugee, even a non-existent brother. In the second section (‘Xi Drabi Mqar Poeta’), Galea’s poetic voice is similarly interwoven with that of well-known male poets from earlier generations: Rużar Briffa, Marjanu Vella, Victor Fenech, Achille Mizzi, and Ġorġ Borg. Here, too, her lyric self evokes, confronts, and ultimately assimilates older poetic voices, only to rework their established themes into new insights, their familiar lyrics into an open-ended discourse.  

Nonetheless, if Galea’s poetic self is porous (soaking up voices, texts, surroundings, and identities with equal ease) it is certainly not vacuous. If anything, her constant empathy with otherness only adds substance to her poetic persona, whose being grows with each and every relationship. Likewise, her half-fulfilled half-frustrated bond with the other allows her lyric intimacy to subsist as a constant growth of emotional nuances.

Galea’s indeterminate communion with a listening ‘You’ is nowhere better exemplified then in the poem ‘Imħabbtek bħall-Mewġ’, in which solitude itself becomes integral to an affirmed relationship of love. The poem’s mantric refrain ‘your love’s like waves’ gradually unfolds into several contrasting effects: like waves, the listener’s love comes unexpectedly, dashing the overwhelmed speaker against rocks; or it comes like gentle ripples that lull her into a false sense of security, only to leave her behind as these ripples move on to reach the shore by themselves.

The unexpected, overwhelming, or lulling undulations of love are further qualified when the figurative waves turn into breakers that, for all their overpowering surge, end up as a caressing choppiness (“ċafċifa melliesa”) dwindling into nothingness. These conflictual aspects illustrate how a key poetic image may unfold into unreconciled suggestions, despite its insistence on a fundamental bond with the other. Little wonder, then, that the listener’s waves of love should ultimately be portrayed as ungovernable, causing the speaker’s body to bob forlornly in their uncaring currents.

Galea’s lyricism is a poetry of the image as an expanding nexus of associations, of the subject as an open discourse, of lyric address as the subtle play of fulfilled and frustrated love. All of which explains why her poetry will never pamper its readers into received perceptions of intimacy, or fixed structures of identity. Rather, it will gently nudge them towards the growing awareness that things and people around us inevitably permeate, in order to increase, our “own” being – as we do theirs.

Whether speaking of a morning sickness that will give birth to a thousand versions of a long-forgotten You (‘Twelid’), or whether treating her listener as an angel-like visitor whose annunciation predicts her future fragmentation into multiple selves (‘Inizjazzjoni’), Galea’s lyricism originates from the vulnerabilities and anxieties of living with others. A lyricism, then, that makes individuality a very densely populated region.

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