Book review: Quantum of Solace

In appreciation of John Buttiġieġ’s latest book of poetry, Jifridna Biss is-Skiet

Grief instinctively makes me reach out for a book of poetry to help me stay my pain. The rythmical verses of a clevely crafted poem somehow reaches my very depths of feeling, and helps me breath again as I mull serenely in that space between melody and meaning which only poetry can offer. The loss of a loved one this week propelled me to my book nook for some reprieve, and my eyes fell on Only Silence Separates Us , which is English for the title of the poetry book in Maltese Jifridna Biss is-Skiet by John Buttigieg.

John Buttiġieġ strikes me as a searching poet, an ethical poet with a romantic twist, and it is his respect for word and structure, as well as profoundness of thought that draws me to his work. He writes at a depth, expressing his reflective search for the meaning of life and the sense of the beyond. Themes spring from his personal human journey as a man, a husband, a father, a son. Each of his words is thoroughly weighed, pruned and polished before it is placed where it can strike best, as the rythm of his verses sound a melody as unique as his song. And in this his latest anthology of poems he does not disappoint.

Among my favourite of his poems are those that resonate Malta’s romantic poetry of yore, woven by our very own stalwarts of romanticism Dun Karm Psaila, Rużar Briffa, Karmenu Vassallo, and on a lesser scale the likes of Anton Buttiġieġ, Ġorġ Pisani and others. These are John’s quatrains made up of eight-syllable lines, or alternating lines of eight and seven-syllable verses with a constant stress pattern, the rhyming word falling at the end of the second and fourth line, resounding the Maltese ballads of our forefathers. Such are for example Noti Ħfief, Il-Qorriegħa, Mhux Illejla, Sinjal, Ħniena, and Mhux li kont. The poet’s eleven-syllable lined verses equally echo the familiar rythm of the classic Maltese poem, increasing the effect by the sheer lengthening of the lines. Such are Biżżejjed Kliem li Jgħaddi, L-Afrika, Ħabbejtu ż-Żejjed dan ir-Raħal Ċkejken, and Il-Barrani, culminating in the beautiful Tistaqsinix, where the poet moves away from the quatrain to create his own form and pattern, while capturing the excitement of the subject by replicating the tempo of a pulsating heart. In the Maltese literary context I find these poems classic.

Their is a seriousnes, almost solemnity in the way John handles his deepest thoughts and emotions, uncovering between his verses values that command our equal attention: time-tested ethical standards such as humility, duty, respect, honour, charity, community, and love. Happily for us, it is in these intensely reflective poems that John wades away from the traditional structure and plunges freely into newer forms of poetry that give us no less pleasure. The minute you finish reading the poem, you want to read it again, trying to capture as much of its meaning as possible and more, much much more. In Kisknijiet, Siġill, Għadu Kmieni (both poems with a similar name), Tlabthom l-Ilma, Fl-Opposti, Dlam Ċappa, Żommli Jdejja and Dbabar Koħol among others, John experiments more modern forms of poetic expression, effortlessly approaching the mystique of the contemporary poet Gioele Galea. These are well crafted poems richly laden with the poet’s deepest thoughts, nurtured through his own life experience, spiritual reflexion, prayer and far-reaching vision, as his themes well up one after the other from the depths of his thought and emotions anchored in his own personal life experiences: nature, family, friendship, intimacy, suffering, life, death, and more.

I like John’s traditional inspired poems for the sweet echoes they resonate of early romantic poetry in Malta, resuscitating that simplicity that then honed the human heart, and in the process staying the present with the stability of the past. In this respect, Il-Barrani, where John pays tribute to Rużar Briffa made me smile. But I also like his second genre of poetry for the freedom with which he strays from his traditional metric forms and experiments with the new, as he responds to the call of his creative heart from where issue his principled reflections. As such he reminds me of a Poldark of sorts standing in a steady wind at the edge of a cliff, his eyes riveted on the horizon trying to fathom the vision of the far beyond, his feet firmly rooted to the ground. Sublimising his personal experience through his verses, John’s poetry takes the shape of an extension of life itself. With candid and humble sincerity he outpours all that flows from within him giving us the best of his best, and in this regard Only Silence can Separate Us is a veritable tribute to his gentle but steady morphing into the mature Maltese poet that one day he will most certainly become.

I had started my reading in search of that comfort I usually find in reading good poetry, and Only Silence Separates Us pleasantly surprised me with its qualitative degree of poetic soothing qualities. Indeed my reading had rendered me more than I had expected. In more respects than one, it was a veritable quantum of solace.

By Rita C. Grima M.A. (Melit.), B.A. (Hons.)

Arts Council Malta.

This article is supported by Arts Council Malta.