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Stowaway

Richard Gwyn
ISBN-13: 
9781781724583
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 31, 2018
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Richard Gwyn offers us a rich mix of history and memory in his new poetry collection, Stowaway: A Levantine Adventure. The author says:

This collection, held together by a loosely knitted 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 (shades of  The Thousand and One Nights), as well as certain historical phenomena, such as Cavafy’s Alexandria, the Greek diaspora, the geography of the Aegean islands, the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22) the disaster of Smyrna 1922, The deportation by the Germans in WW2 of the Jews from Thessalonika (called throughout by its Greek name, Saloníki); the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Lebanon war (1981-2), the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the invasion of Iraq, the Syrian civil war and the rise of Islamic State or Da'ish. At the same time, the reader is conscious of the fact that this collection is being composed retrospectively, and subject to all the frailties of memory. Around half of the 46 poems are in prose poem form, the others in a more lyrical, traditional format. Five of the poems form a sequence, scattered throughout the first half of the book, and refer to the ‘Stowaway’ central to the narrative of the collection, although the protagonist of the Stowaway (and the book) continues on his journeys, settles down in Smyrna (Izmir) and witnesses many of the catastrophes of the region over the 20th and early 21st centuries mentioned above. The reader will come to an understanding that the stowaway’s story transcends linear time, and the character himself is of a semi-mythological status. The stowaway poems are intermixed with first person poems: sometimes it seems the speaker there is the stowaway, sometimes more a retrospective narrator (or meta-narrator). In this way his story and the telling of it merge.

Gwyn is the laureate of ‘Reckless Travel’ – one of the poems in this richly imagined new collection. Winner of the Wales Book of the Year for his memoir, Vagabond’s Breakfast, Gwyn is also noted for his inventive prose-poems, lyrical fiction and artful translations.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Sophie Baggott, Wales Arts Review

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

 

For a book written by a Welshman, published by a Welsh press, supported by the Welsh Books Council and reviewed in Wales Arts Review, it is remarkably reticent about Wales – with, I think, only a single mention of “Gwalia” to nod to its native land.  

That is by no means a criticism; in fact, I saw it as entirely in tune with the ideas I took away from Stowaway. This poetry collection by Richard Gwyn conjures up a dreamlike realm in which borders are traversable, identity is hazy – or even false, and origins are entirely besides the point. It’s not even the destination that is of concern, for the most part, but rather the journey itself. Characters rarely figure out who they are, or where they are, or why they are.

Gwyn stokes all this incertitude with superb poise, blending myth, history, comedy, and seemingly his own experiences of exploring the Levantine for a decade. Metaphors for mysteries also recur; we stumble upon no end of puzzles, conundrums, labyrinths. In one poem, ‘Map of Venice’, Gwyn employs the second person to hurl the reader into the middle of Venice’s twisting alleys and traps. He ends,

what is being described in all these false turnings, darkened doorways, dead ends, abrupt descents to water, falsely proclaimed destinations, humorous asides and triple, bluffs, is simply a map of yourself, or of anyone you care to name.

The above lines, to me, read almost as a purpose statement for the entire collection itself. In another poem, a character sniggers at “such self-parody”. The characters seem constantly to laugh at themselves across the collection, which is thick in layers of outward bluff and internal soul-seeking. In the poem ‘Workers’ Hostel’, Gwyn writes: “I try to remember who I am in this account”.

The central enigma? To decipher, as far as we can, who we actually are. At another point, the poet goes as far as to mock overuse of the descriptor “labyrinthine”; he himself employs this image (through the noun) at least three times. As perhaps always evoked by references to labyrinths, there is a great deal of classical myth in these pages (though not explicitly bringing up Theseus and the Minotaur, respectively explorer and resident of the world’s most original labyrinth). This is to be expected, given that the routes are following the footsteps of the ancients through the eastern Mediterranean. 

Occasionally we come crashing back down to the present-day earth through Gwyn’s fragile allusions – never exacting – to refugee crises, conflict, persecution, natural disaster. Within the generally light tone, we’re in for a cold awakening each time reality seeps in. It’s almost as if the poet seeks to remind us that unlearning empathy, as has arguably happened in Europe in the 21st century, is a dangerous route on which to set out. In ‘The Cats of Aghia Sophia’, the poet is convinced of empires’ inevitable collapse: “Custodians of Byzantium, | their purpose is as lost as all that gold, | as certain as the collapse of Empires”. Of course, he is backed in this assertion by the fact that he’s surrounded by the ruins of ancient empires in this part of the world.

Though the poetry ducks and dives from one place to another, there are a few constants: cats and cigarettes, misery and migration all feature strongly throughout. The more serious moments are softened a little by the eccentric details and clever wordplay. Early on, the poet’s voice feels a little professorial, but more and more it is imbued with empathy and moves away from the philosophical to the practical.The third-person male pronoun comes up more than any other, and it’s quite a male gaze (particularly in ‘Museum of Innocence’), but I very much warmed to this collection the further into it I became embroiled. The vocabulary became less erudite, losing its earlier wielding of words such as “hypnopompic” or “metempsychosis”. Even with my Classics degree – distant as it now is – I couldn’t quite keep up, but this eases. On the whole, it’s a compassionate collection, weaving in diverse stories of itinerant figures so that the ending note comes as less of a surprise.

Ultimately, this collection is a timely reminder that good fortune doesn’t always last a lifetime. Though the poetic voice hails from a place of privilege – like many of us, with a passport that permits travel far and wide – Stowaway closes with a glimpse of those who travel nowadays out of dire necessity. The last poem, ‘On Lesbos (November, 2017)’, is heartbreaking. The character washes up on a Greek island, this time to see individuals sleeping besides deflated dinghies. He is taken back to all the anguish he has seen before: suffering in Smyrna and Beirut, the deportations of Saloníki Jews, the massacres of Shabala and Srebenica. By now, he has moved beyond indifference to empathy. He sees a woman he knew in Syria, who looks at him “with the air of one for whom | no harbour signals home.”

This is a poetry collection which, more than any other I’ve read recently, I implore you to take the time to read and digest.

Review by Poetry Book Society

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Cities and memories intermingle in the Levantine adventures of this seasoned traveller. Turkey, Venice and Beirut blur and “every city collapses into Byzantium”. Gwyn conjures exotic escapism but urges us to question: “I could speak to you of / the spice markets of Antioch, / but don’t you weary of all this second-hand exoticism?” These Calvino-esque tales take on a new poignancy in the age of migration, culminating with the poet’s humbling visit to Lesbos at the height of the recent refugee crises.

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