The ache of sincerity | Antoine Cassar

Launched with a memorable, emotionally-wrenching performance at Studio Solipsis in Rabat, Antione Cassar’s poetry collection Erbgħin Jum, illustrated by Steven Scicluna, addresses childhood trauma through the motif of walking – an integral part of what helps Cassar to process his emotions, as he tells TEODOR RELJIC

Antoine Cassar reading from his collection Erbghin Jum during its launch performance at Studio Solipsis, Rabat on December 30
Antoine Cassar reading from his collection Erbghin Jum during its launch performance at Studio Solipsis, Rabat on December 30

Walking is one of the most crucial through-lines for this collection. What is it about walking in particular that makes it such a rich resource for your writing?

Each of the ‘daytime’ poems in Erbgħin Jum narrates a walk, real or metaphorical or both, but they are all born of long walks I took in urban and rural Luxembourg, along the cliffs of southern Malta, in the Coole Forest of County Galway, or in the Jura mountains, incidentally the territory of Rousseau. This self-styled promeneur solitaire praised walking for “lending a greater boldness” to his thinking, allowing him to select, combine and shape his reflections into writing “without fear or restraint”. This is one of the major reasons why I began to take walking more seriously and embarked upon writing the book – to cultivate courage and perseverance, to nurture enough strength to face a number of deeply-seated fears head-on and hopefully overcome them.

For years I was convinced that writing about childhood trauma and family turmoil would be banal. I wrote about languages, maps and borders, in the illusory belief that I was ‘rising above’ what I had long attempted to consider as corny and insignificant melodrama. As a third-culture kid uncomfortable within the confines of a single language or nation, there was (and still is) a degree of self-expression in those poems, but at the same time, to a certain extent, I was borrowing the tribulations of others. After a gradual yet protracted slide into depression, one night in the autumn of 2014, I hit rock-bottom. It was time to confront my own monsters, before falling unawares into the cage of genetic determinism and becoming a monster myself.

Erbghin Jum’s illustrator Steven Scicluna painting during the launch party
Erbghin Jum’s illustrator Steven Scicluna painting during the launch party

“Movement is the best cure for melancholia”, wrote Robert Burton in 1621, essentially echoing what Hippocrates had advised two millenia before. Walking is a natural anti-depressant, raising serotonin levels, opening neural pathways. Even if I’m not walking toward any particular destination, walking gives me a feeling of direction, and in that sense, being in motion, grounds me. It helps me to unravel the spirals of rumination, to untie knots of thought, to gain emotional clarity and balance. Discovering new pathways or streets, even close to where I may be living, broadens my personal geography, and helps me to breathe more profoundly.

Having said that, to walk is not necessarily straight-forward. The attitude needs to be right; at first, it can take a lot of concentration to allow the mind to let itself go, to slow down enough to become conscious of its surroundings, to allow a sharpening of the senses and thus to walk with presence, and enjoy the simple, sensual pleasure of openness in movement. After several kilometres, with the body fully oxygenated and the spirits raised, anything and everything becomes possible – a chance encounter, a new way of seeing things, a wild association of ideas, a creative quickening of the mind.

Each walk is a little drama in itself, and several of the walks in the book end in failure by surrendering to paranoia, but by Day 35, there is a rediscovery of pleasure in the pain of a long hike, a quiet yet gratified acceptance of the self and of all its mistakes, and the glee of what Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking calls “knowing the world through the body, and the body through the world”.

Some people, mostly women, have come forward to say they identify personally with some of the stories of domestic violence and psychological abuse

Did you always have a clear idea of what some of the key motifs of this collection would be – walking, the ‘40 Days’ imposition – or did these reveal themselves later on?

After the first short poem, Night 0, scribbled upon waking from a nightmare, somewhere at the bottom of the abyss I found the determination to start climbing out. From the following morning onwards, I walked and wrote every single day for seven months. The only structural plan was to write alternate daytime walking poems and nocturnal poems about insomnia, in the at once disciplined and flexible rhythms of the endekasillabu. I didn’t know where exactly my feet and mind would take me, nor in what order I would eventually encounter past and present ghosts. I had no idea I would be capable of tapping and releasing such ferocious anger, nor of taking personal and family taboo by the horns and giving it artistic form for any potential stranger to read.

I did set the number 40 as a distant finish line early on, as I needed a horizon, and the hope that by then I would reach some sort of redemption, perhaps even the capacity for forgiveness, or at least understanding and acceptance. After Night 34 I had to pause, and it then took me two years to complete the last six poems, on and off, going through three different endings, battling with wishful thinking before settling for the ache of sincerity.

In the scriptures of at least four different religions, the period of ‘40 days’ is not to be taken literally, but denotes a spell of time long enough to harbour and witness a profound transformation, yet with a definite ending, suggesting a full circle. The poems of Erbgħin Jum are more mental and physical than spiritual, but I consider the Bible to be a rich work of literature, and drew upon other symbolisms carried by the number forty related to its roundness: the deluge, the test of temptation, rebirth.

There is a deeply personal, even confessional feel to a lot of the collection. Was it cathartic for you to write, and perform?

Writing was certainly a lifeline, and even translating the failed walks into the music of words helped me immensely. But I think what I most found cathartic was writing about childhood trauma, specifically in Maltese. Until the age of eight, living in England, Maltese used to frighten me – it was the language of violence and intimidation in the home. It wasn’t until I went to live with my grandparents in Qrendi that I began to learn Maltese properly, make it (almost) my own and eventually love it to the point of writing in it, but into my late thirties, I still had to make peace with the Maltese I heard as a child. Peace, not revenge. Paċi kulaċi.

Performing some of the poems at Studio Solipsis was in equal parts liberating and painful. It’s taken me a good month to recover. The music by Adolf Formosa, Alex Vella Gera and Mark Abela was very comforting and allowed me to express myself without emotional hindrance. Halfway through, whilst reciting Night 20, in which I try to encourage my little brother to come out of the wardrobe but instead end up hiding with him after hearing noises downstairs, I felt an acute pain in the gut, but the music goaded me on.

The book is very self-centred, which I’m not proud of, and at times rather pathetic. But I take solace in the fact that some people, mostly women, have come forward to say they identify personally with some of the stories of domestic violence and psychological abuse. I didn’t set out to provide catharsis for anyone but myself, and my nuclear family in places, but if any of the poems help others face their trauma or depression, all the better.

Antoine Cassar reading from his collection Erbghin Jum during its launch performance at Studio Solipsis, Rabat on December 30
Antoine Cassar reading from his collection Erbghin Jum during its launch performance at Studio Solipsis, Rabat on December 30

How did your ideas for the “book as an object” come about, when it comes to this particular volume? There is a very specific look and feel to the printed book. How did you plan for it with your collaborators, and are you happy with the end result?

Though I’ve spoken of individual ‘poems’, I also see the entire book as a single poem, split into days and nights. I wanted it to be printed in the form of a vademecum, not in the sense of a manual or diary, but as a trusty companion, small and light, easy to walk with. The book is of course very personal, but it wouldn’t have seen the light of day without collaboration and friendship. I left Marco Scerri, the designer, and Steven Scicluna, the illustrator, to interpret the poems as they wished. I’m very happy with the end result, elegant and deceptively simple. The typography has a classic but modern feel, and as a detail, I quite like the shape of the ‘a’, that most primal of letters, with a certain wonkiness that fits the general mood well. Scicluna’s eight ‘stations’, printed from woodcuts, illuminate the poem without being too mythological or self-conscious. My favourite is the fourth, the bicephalous bird traversing night and day at once.

 

Erbgħin Jum is published by Ede Books

More in Books

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition

Subscribe