Immanuel Mifsud, Adrian Grima et al. Riħ min-Nofsinhar. Malta. Edizzjoni Skarta. 2008. 60 pages. €6. isbn 978-99932-652-5-2
A review for World Literature Today by Antoine Cassar
Slowly but very surely, contemporary Maltese verse is garnering an ever-greater presence on the international scene, in a process running parallel to the broadening of Maltese poetic expression in terms of spirit and thematic scope. Whereas the Movement for the Promotion of Literature of the 60s and 70s, responsible for the generous import of literary currents from the European continent, was closely linked to political independence and the need to clamour away from a subjugated past and its Romantic escapism, as far as subject matter and tone are concerned, this second épanouissement of Maltese poetry is not such a joyous one, and necessarily so. The shift from insularity to the acute awareness of forming part of a worldwide jigsaw where the laws of cause and effect stretch far beyond political and geographical borders, particularly in view of the escalating changes suffered by the global environment and the peoples that inhabit it, in turn bridges Maltese writing with the growing supranational continent of ‘green’ or eco-literature.
Riħ min-Nofsinhar (Wind from the South) is an essential book of poetry on climate change by Immanuel Mifsud and Adrian Grima, two well-travelled, socially conscious authors who have fully understood Jonathan Bate’s reassertion that literature essentially works upon consciousness and leads to unpredictable long-term practical consequences (The Song of the Earth, 2002). Following in the steps of publications such as Earth Shattering (Bloodaxe) and Feeling the Pressure (an encouraging book published by the British Council, combining poetry on climate change with scientific essay), the poems of Riħ min-Nofsinhar are interspersed with prose contributions from a wide range of Maltese professionals and social actors, including farmers, free trade activists, educators and politicians. First launched during last June’s WorldFest, the local impact of the publication can be gauged by the two editions printed within the space of five months, as well as by favourable reviews from prominent members of civil society, and a speech in the national Parliament by an opposition spokesman quoting a Mifsud poem in its entirety.
Beyond the urgency of the message, a major reason for the success of this book lies in the poetry’s balance between planetary and local expression, which are necessary to equal degrees: planetary, for the poets lend their voice to peoples indelibly afflicted by the transformations of their habitats in a complex global web of cause and effect; local, for as Laird Christensen explains in his article Writing Home in a Global Age (WLT July-Aug 2008), “the feedback loops that once tied us to our habitats have stretched so thin we can longer see them”, and thus the need to reverse the dangers of placelessness and to refocus on the particularity of place. Indeed, central to the poetry and concept of Riħ min-Nofsinhar is the reclaiming of the idea that we live not in an economy with nature as a mere backdrop, but within an ecosystem of which we form a living, consequent part.
The opening poem, Mifsud’s Ballad of Kiribati, chants the predicament of an entire population threatened with the imminent prospect of becoming environmental refugees due to the rise of the ocean. With unveiled references to the selfish consumerism of ‘developed’ nations, the poem tells the factual story of the voluntary displacement from nature in oil-burning economies in the north of the world leading to the involuntary displacement of peoples from their habitat in the south. This episode is merely a prelude to the coming diaspora of island populations from the ocean to the continent: since the publication of this ballad, the Maldives have announced their wish to purchase land in India for the same reason, and parts of the Maltese archipelago itself are already succumbing to the advance of the waters.
The planetary meets the local in a series of short compositions by Mifsud entitled The Poems of the Sahara, in which a family of Maltese farmers laments the desert sand brought increasingly more often with the subtle, frightening noise of the southern wind, whilst the smell of cultivated fruit and vegetables in the fields is being replaced by that of the lotion worn by the farmers due to the fury of the sun. In another poem with a local setting, Adrian Grima speaks of The Ice-cream Man transferring his business from the abandoned beach to the front of a school, in plain language by no means devoid of a lyrical rhythm.
In Siem Recalls the Trees of Afabet and Todo Relación, Grima lends his voice to communities respectively enduring the desertification of northern Eritrea and the newly extreme rainfalls and droughts of the central Andes. In his particular style of gentle audacity, Grima employs the interesting narrative strategy of ‘complicity’, whereby fresh, direct observation of events and phenomena on the part of the poet is replaced by the intimate exchange of intuition and experience with a member of the community in focus. It is a fair, solidary, almost subversive compromise for an expression which risks exposing an inauthenticity that no lyricism can hide.
To a large extent, in most of the poems in this book, the authors appear to have consciously sacrificed aesthetic and metaphor in favour of a clearer, more direct message, in contrast to the more dense, probing poetry usually composed by the two of them, and perhaps rightly so, in view of the urgency with which this poetry needs to be communicated. Neville Bezzina of Friends of the Earth Malta has pointed out the sing-along quality of Mifsud’s poems as a sign that the effects of climate change are “a song we must all sing together”; meanwhile, Grima’s freer, journalistic diction in a number of his poems can easily be seen as bordering the naïve if not read in the correct key. That said, one particular poem by Mifsud deserves to be quoted in its entirety (together with an approximate translation that can only partly reproduce the effect of the original), a true stroke of genius whose very choice of title sets the ink running:
OLA OLA OLA
Ma tridx għerf, ma tridx wisq skola
sabiex tkejjel l-ultra-vjola,
sabiex tisma’ t-tfal bis-sogħla
jew biex tħoss il-baħar jogħla.
[It doesn’t take wisdom, it doesn’t take schooling
to measure the ultra-violet rays,
to hear the children whooping
nor to feel the rise of the waves.]
The highly suggestive title OLA OLA OLA serves a threefold purpose: (1) literally, in Italian or Spanish, the title translates to “wave wave wave”; (2) the utterance, reminiscent of the Spanish hola, could be heard as a cry for help, a call to see if anybody is listening; (3) above all, the title is a reference to the rhyme scheme of the original poem in Maltese, with each of the four lines ending in the sound -ola (the Maltese digraph għ is generally silent and denotes a lengthening of the preceding vowel).
In conclusion, Riħ min-Nofsinhar is a huge step forward in a process which, at least in Malta, began only very recently: as well as advancing collaboration between committed literature and the civil society it necessarily communicates with, Maltese poetry joins the global trend of becoming a voice for the planetary conscience and consciousness which ever-more urgently needs to be fostered across the four continental masses and the seven seas of our ailing Earth. Despite the overwhelming difficulty of avoiding a sense of cynical despondency or lack of hope in humanity’s will to halt and reverse the ravaging damage of climate change, Grima and Mifsud consolidate their faith in the power of poetry in a seminal volume which carries contemporary Maltese verse at once beyond and closer to home.