This collection, held together by a loosely-knit narrative around an unnamed protagonist, a kind of anti-Ulysses, is based on a number of journeys that the central character takes around the eastern Mediterranean; journeys that I myself might have taken. However the speaker in the poems – whether first or third person – seems to transcend historical time-zones and incorporates elements of the mythic, and even the magical, as well as actual historical phenomena, from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 to the rise of Islamic State or Daesh.
‘Among the many types of love poetry – those of the affairs of the heart, or the passions of the intellect, or the poets’ long besottedness with language itself – there has always been a special place for the poetry of place itself, whether about our deep connection with where we believe we come from, or concerning those places to which we may not be native, but which nonetheless we cannot stop ourselves from returning to. We recognise such locations intimately, as though from prior lives, and, whether in person or in the imagination, we continually attempt the primary act of Greek epic: the nostos, or return.
Greek poetry has always been particularly sensitive to this obsessive engagement, and in the works of Seferis and Cavafy we find the themes of place revisited over and over again, whether in terms of the impossibility of departure, or of truly arriving. In Borges and Joyce we see the idea replayed as types of inner exile, or, as in the central theme of Richard Gwyn’s new book, of displaced belonging. Glimpses of autobiography, angles on history, and retellings of myth combine in layers in Stowaway – stratigraphies of the imagination experienced as depths like the waters between islands.
The Levant, as explored by Durrell, Pamuk, Dalrymple, and Leigh Fermor, is revisited in narrative verse and prose poems that echo and reflect all of them and none, suggesting that Gwyn has internalised and completely re-imagined these writers’ very various notions of a sort of Byzantium. A mosaic of first and third person viewpoints build into a metaphysical mapping of the territory and, more appropriately, the heptad of Eastern seascapes, from the Adriatic to the Ionian to the Cretan to the Aegean to the Marmara to the Levantine to the Libyan: a world in a corner of the Mediterranean.
Dionysian drunks, metaphysical Byzantines, rapacious Venetians, and daemonic deckhands crew these poems, and all certainties of chronology and safe haven are gradually washed away in the ceaseless storm of memory, epiphany, and invention that carries the reader like a hapless yet uniquely fortunate stowaway through the dangerous straits of these pages.’ – W.N. Herbert
‘The Stowaway of Richard Gwyn’s title moves through The Levant like a marine equivalent of some drifter on the high plains, seeking both terra firma and escape from it. The poems are full of Gwyn’s characteristic melancholy and grace, and the restless sound of the sea.’ – George Szirtes
22 water-themed poems, with illustrations by the Catalan artist Lluís Peñaranda.
‘A marvellous example of vision during a period that often seems fearful of the mythic power of literature.’ — David Greenslade.
‘Richard Gwyn’s poetry is the product of a transformative imagination. These poems are inventive and resourceful, a delight to read.’ — Planet.
‘A book to read and re-read, like a voyage of discovery.’ – Cambrensis.
‘Amazingly lucid and accessible.’ – New Welsh Review.
‘Astonishing and transformative.” – Poetry Wales.
‘By far one of the most superior English language books to be published in Wales in recent years.’ – Ninnau, U.S.A.
‘He lends each situation an air of mystery and offers later upon layer of speculation, a kind of reverse archaeology, as to what will happen next. Gwyn truly shines in the sensuous details he imparts to each simple act.’ — Kirkus Reviews.
Who put these boxes here? An empty road. Scattered trees, none bearing fruit. A sky full of clouds that will not rain. No signs of human life. And yet these boxes, lined up precisely at the roadside, banked on the sandy soil in neat piles. Cardboard boxes with nothing written on them. No message or mark or company stamp. Plain brown card, with the tops folded over and tucked under. Whoever left them here knew it would not rain. I watch the boxes, as if expecting them to make the first move. I wait to see if anyone will come: if anyone is watching me watch the boxes, ready to leap out and confront me with an angry shout, come up close and face to face to swear at me, abuse me, curse me. I can hear the man, unshaven for a week, smell his sweat, watch the big vein throbbing in his neck. Silence. There is nothing here. Not even birds. So I listen for the sounds that are not here, and begin to hear them: distant shouting, a tractor, a crow’s caw. The more I hear these absent sounds the deeper the silence grows. I approach the first box, loosen the flap. Open it.
Dust is verbal. Billions of particles of god knows what, collecting on every surface, in every corner. Breeding bugs which, under the microscope, become grotesque and terrifying monsters. Dust that accumulates unnoticed and invisible until such time as it is noticed, and then suddenly you hear yourself observe that you had never realised quite how dusty this house was. Dust and cobwebs. Cobwebs undisturbed for months or even years. It all gets too much. You buy a feather duster, one with a telescopic handle. You open it out and wave it along the walls, under high shelves, into the most inaccessible reaches of the hall. Places where duster never dusted. Places where dust has piled thick. You run your finger down a ledge and it returns covered in the filth of 1976. Punk dust. It is now the twenty-first century. You wonder should you lick this dust, would you get a flavour of the past? What of medieval dust, Roman dust, good old Celtic sunset dust. Scoop it up and flog it off in coloured glass. Pagan dust, rhino dust, dinosaur dust. Millenium dust. Dust brushed by the saints. Christ dust. Buddha dust. The dust of our ancestors. Dust: if it weren’t a metaphor for oblivion it could be a happy verb.
Her job is to keep the church clean, arrange the flowers, change the candles. At midday she cooks a meal for the priest. But her main concern is the well-being of the alabaster statues, especially the virgin. Last week, she tells me, they had to lift the statue of the virgin, move her awhile. “You can’t imagine how much she weighed”, she smiles, as though discussing a defiant but beloved child. The wind has stopped. Everything is quiet. I walk with the priest to the village bar. Afterwards, in the square, the children gather round, playing and chatting, as though they have known me all their lives. I am a stranger, who has walked into this tiny place and soon will wander on. The woman in the church, the priest, the sky, the children, the little square with its tree and two swings. A conspiracy of nouns. But the effect is of a flow between one thing and the next, on a journey that has lost all points of reference and offers only the salvation of continuity. Lifting this lifesize model of the virgin provides a challenge to all that is unchanging in a village on a plain. She was so heavy. You can’t imagine.
The soul travels at the speed of a trotting camel. Nowadays, when humans venture any distance, they choose a mode of transport significantly faster. The result? Lost souls, everywhere. Once when I flew from Athens to London, stayed ten days, and then returned, I reckoned that I passed my camel over Serbia, going in the opposite direction.
From the parched membranes of a feigned amnesia we conjure cowled faces against a starlit sky, folds of black silk, tufts of animal fur, dried blood, stale sweat, the cold night air of the desert crossing. The rhythm of this memory is that of a human heartbeat. The images retained by the eye are formed at exactly the right speed, and fade in time for the next one. Food is chewed and digested in the recommended way. Water only is drunk, and preciously conserved. The pernicious attributes of a godless world are simply unimagined. Animal images predominate. The deeper you dig, more beasties come at you. Everything has its animal corollary.