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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 Tim Cooke, New Welsh Review

Friday, March 1, 2019

 

In the poem, ‘Map of Venice’, Richard Gwyn evokes Italo Calvino’s notion that ‘the city reveals only a possible version of itself, one of many.’ Soon after, in the same poem, he draws on a second realisation, that ‘what is being described in all these false turnings, darkened doorways, dead ends… is simply a map of yourself, or of anyone you care to name,’ which feels somewhat akin to another of Calvino’s observations: ‘Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had.’ 

At the heart of Gwyn’s latest collection, Stowaway: A Levantine Adventure, are simultaneous, intertwining explorations of place and self. The locations are fuzzy realms scattered across the eastern Mediterranean, painted here in a vibrant and transcendent style that acknowledges the porousness of history and the capricious nature of place. The self seems an amalgamation of the poet, an anonymous narrator and a fictional anti-Ulysses character pieced together from various far-flung fragments – a stowaway on an epic journey of discovery. 

Before starting the book I had been worried that a work addressing travel and identity, likely to incorporate elements of autobiography – Gwyn spent a decade travelling the region – might stray into overly romantic, self-searching territory. Such fears were quickly alleviated. While it is concerned with how distance and dislocation can force us to confront important existential issues, creating space for new knowledge, there’s nothing trite about it; such themes are shaken up with a thrilling sense of mischief. Rather, it’s a sophisticated, self-mocking disruption of what we think we know – about ourselves, the past and the world around us. 

This defamiliarisation is brought into focus, for instance, in ‘Old Greeks’, where Gwyn’s rogue protagonist, ‘a radical figure’, is ‘waiting for a vessel that will bring him to the edge of something, where the familiar starts to lose its shape.’ His various expeditions, which breach time and span centuries, see him bear witness to the fall of Byzantium, the Greek diaspora, the Greco-Turkish War and the deportation of the Jews from Salonika during World War Two; more recently, there are the conflicts in Lebanon, the Balkans, Iraq and Syria, and the rise of Islamic State. 

With the eastern Mediterranean steeped, as it is, in traditions of myth and magic, and the narrative a twist on classical literature, these events are seen through a lens masterfully skewed by invention. Recalling the Great Fire of Smyrna, in 1922, for example, the poet describes the stowaway slipping through the chaos, ‘past old men and women, past children, past bodies screaming but inert against the human tide,’ and almost slithering into the water, swimming, with supernatural agility, to safety. At another point, our intoxicating guide soothes his budding horns with olive oil.

Conflict – and the misery it gives rise to – is a constant: ‘I want to be friends with everyone, and yet know I must have enemies too, if only to maintain my friendships. What kind of crazy thinking is that?’ There’s a pivotal moment in the collection (not long after a string of short prose pieces about bodies shattered by illness, which perhaps represent the most potent collision of fiction and autobiography) when, in Beirut, the stowaway sees the horrific remains of victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. With ‘all notion of co-habitation blown away’, the scene becomes a premonition of the millennial Levant – that of Daesh. 

It’s at this point that the demonic traveller vows to never again take up arms, in any war, and by the time we’ve hit the final poem, ‘On Lesbos (November 2017)’, he’s almost human, given even to empathy. He sees refugee families strewn across a beach, exhausted by their own perilous time on the sea, fleeing the most desperate warzones. He recognises a Syrian woman from centuries ago, ‘the pall of fatigue around her eyes’ the only sign of the pain she’s now resigned to; it’s stunning work, leaving the reader utterly dismayed at the persistence of suffering, secure only in the knowledge that something, at some point, must change. 

As well as political catastrophe, we encounter natural disaster, an acknowledgement of perhaps the greatest threat of our times. In another short prose piece, the poet describes experiencing the Kalamata earthquake of 1986 from a distant village. A week later, he arrives in the town and walks among NATO tents filled with evacuees, sucking in the ‘black, exasperated air’. He stops and talks to a bartender, who, with his hand trembling, explains: ‘You cannot imagine an earthquake. You have to live it.’ It’s a powerful bridging of the big and the small, something Gwyn does extremely well throughout. 

Given the geography of the poems, I found myself thinking regularly, whilst reading, of Mathias Enard’s work, set largely around the Mediterranean basin. Over the course of nine books, four of which have so far been translated into English, Enard has written on sectarian violence in the Balkans, a trip by Michelangelo to Constantinople, jihadism and the relationship between Europe and the Middle East, among other things. It’s a sprawling project rich with ambition, historical insight and formal experimentation.

These are descriptions fit, too, for Stowaway, which is of course physically slight in comparison, but impressively layered, nonetheless, and packed with puzzles and riddles to pore over and revisit. It’s a collection to slip into your coat pocket and carry with you, out on the move.

 

This review is shared with permission of New Welsh Review. Read the full article on the NWR website.

 

Review by Emily Blewitt, Gwales

Friday, March 1, 2019

Richard Gwyn’s fourth collection of poetry documents the lived, transformative experience of travelling. Stowaway takes us on a journey through time and place, focusing on one expansive region, the Levant. We journey throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia and witness aspects of historical events, including the fall of Byzantium, the Greco-Turkish War, and the emergence of Daesh. Here, several figures appear: a semi-divine Stowaway, a maker of golems, a poet, and a reckless traveller, among others. These shapeshifting ciphers make the collection simultaneously authentic and mythic.

The ‘Stowaway’ sequence is particularly striking in this respect; Gwyn’s take on a semi-divine character familiar from Greek myth (though never fully identifiable) is both strange and irresistible. The Stowaway is supernatural, simultaneously divine and demonic, wise and foolish. He learns from living as a human but his perspective is limited. He fails and falls to earth (and the ocean) like Icarus. His first appearance recalls both Greek mythology and Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid:

'His appearance made of him the sea’s orphan,
naked as he was; his violet eyes,
a garland of seaweed draped around his neck.' (‘Stowaway I’)

The speaker’s authoritative third-person narrative addresses the Stowaway’s newly-experienced, ‘palpable’ shame. ‘[H]e had lost the gift of speech’, we are told. His vulnerability and power are held together in those strange ‘violet eyes’, which also contain the silent suggestion of the ‘viole[n]t’. His crewmates both recognise him and fail to see his true form.

Indeed, Stowaway is increasingly concerned with war and violence. When the melancholy traveller in ‘Taking root’ becomes aware of a ‘terrible conclusion’, we are reminded of his culpability:

'But he knows that on the horizon
hovers a terrible conclusion
to all that he’s contrived to build.' (‘Taking root’)

The Levantine of this poem is a particularly sinister incarnation of the figure. As the previous poem, a dramatic monologue entitled ‘The Spice Markets of Antioch’, reveals, this speaker is monstrous. His building of a life (a family, more than one business empire) in ‘Taking root’ is predicated on theft and murder. Gwyn’s shift to a third-person narrative here allows for both sadness and cynicism as this knowledge of past and subsequent events is realised. This is continued in the following prose poem, which documents the exact moment and place of the ‘terrible conclusion’: ‘On the Quay: Smyrna, 13th September 1922’. Here, Gwyn details atrocities. Meanwhile, our monstrous Levantine becomes the sole survivor through sheer slipperiness.

A Levantine, as ‘Taking root’ reminds us, is ‘a rootless individual who takes root wherever he finds himself’. Such an individual resembles the figure of the travelling poet, in that he involves himself – albeit briefly – in the lives of the people and places he encounters on his journey. The central contradiction of travelling seems to be that the traveller either knows himself and is lost, or knows where he is but not exactly who he is. ‘I try to remember who I am in this account’, the speaker says in ‘Worker’s Hostel’. This creates a curious distancing, particularly when the traveller’s body is afflicted by injury and illness (in ‘Hospital Stay’, for instance). The sick body is a fragile, cumbersome thing. The traveller must survive it. Paradoxically belonging nowhere and everywhere, the traveller in all his incarnations is a self-conscious, ironic and lonely figure.

Overall, Gwyn’s Stowaway is multifaceted and complex, giving us no easy answers for the questions it raises over the ethical and cultural implications of such geographical adventuring. Prefaced by quotations from Cavafy, Brodsky, and Mansel, and peppered with intertextual allusions throughout, this collection is steeped in literary heritage as much as history. This creates both familiarity – all places and people, all journeys, have fundamental similarities – and distance. The figure of the poet, preoccupied as he is with the writing of experience as much as the experiencing of it, is presented as both flawed and as compelling as the other travellers who appear here.

A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

Review by Clark Allison, Stride Magazine

Monday, January 28, 2019

 

This is a book imbued with the character and spirit of travel on the itinerant sea but of an earthy and hazardous kind, slumming it, penniless, ‘the essential aspect/was never paying for a ticket.’ (p9) as the opening poem ‘Reckless Travel’ says. This could have been an autobiographic, experiential tale, though it departs from plain facticity to spin a number of fictive episodes, while the author blurb points out that Gwyn ‘spent a decade travelling on and around the Mediterranean’ which process he has already recounted in a well received memoir ‘The Vagabond’s Breakfast’ (12). Gwyn studied anthropology at the LSE and later took a doctorate in linguistics at Cardiff, where he continues to teach Creative Writing. Gwyn has written three novels, among which his first, The Colour of a Dog Running Away(05), was rated book of the year by The Bookseller, this followed by Deep Hanging Out (07), set in Crete. He has also translated from the Spanish and travelled in Latin America (2011-15), from which came the anthology The Other Tiger (also Seren).

This book of poetry is, as it were, mapped out by a long interspersal poem in 6 parts, ‘Stowaway’, a number of well constructed and expressed prose poems likewise scattered throughout and a selection of locales that are named, from Byzantium (‘He dreamed of Byzantium’ p11) to Susa to Venice, Lesbos, Lebanon and Crete. The poetry of course reads more briskly and evocatively than the careful, vivid and well honed prose. 

The six parts of ‘Stowaway’ no doubt form the kernel or spine of the book. ‘Stowaway I’ sets out how the travelling got started with its evasive rationale. The narrator, with his boat taken from him, ‘stowed away, for love of the sea’ and ‘had no idea where the ship was bound’, though he had dreamt of Byzantium, yet whereof ‘neither excuse nor explanation came to mind.’ (p11) He is found stowing, and the ship’s captain, rather than ejecting him, put him to work, where it is found that ‘he has an aptitude for maritime tasks’ (II p17), a ‘natural’ who can scale the rigging like a monkey. He then finds that he traipses the Levant, ‘from port to port’ (III p21) for a year or so, but ‘begins accumulating/ sorrows’ ‘that accrue from living among men’. 

By ‘Stowaway IV’ he had turned to ‘taunting other members of the crew’ (p25) and is tossed over the side of the ship. In a rather florid or mystical episode the narrator survives drowning through embodying the spirit of a porpoise, then a gull and a rat, shamanistically, and returns himself to the ship where ‘From that point on/ they treated him with caution,/ and rumours began to circulate.’ (p25) At ‘V’ however he jumps ship at Kastelli. In a rather lurid, bruising and surrealistic episode he seems to resist identification with the budding horns and tail of the devil before coming into contact with some dubious twins at a hotel who tie up and abuse him wherein he responds masochistically that ‘He knew/ deliberate self-abasement was/ one of the routes to mystic truth’ (p35). 

The sixth ‘Stowaway’ poem finds him wandering through the pine forests of the Aegean. This again unravels in rather compulsive but surrealist notes. He finds work in melon fields. He then ‘forgets’ his sense of purpose and direction. He insistently climbs a rocky slope intent on throwing himself off its top but ‘a great tiredness overcame him’ (p42) 

         he slept for many days,
   waking weightless,
   without a care, but without a soul.
   He made his way towards the city,
   any city, looking for trouble. (end p42)

This then seems to recapitulate the indifference or unawareness of the direction of the initial stowing as well as the troublesomeness that found him latterly being thrown overboard. Curiously too Gwyn shifts between third person (‘Stowaway’) and first person (frequently, elsewhere) narration.

Gwyn sets out the presentation of his long poem with two short prefatory pieces on ‘Reckless Travel’ and the somewhat proverbial ‘Some Journeys’ (of two quatrains) of which it is said that a journey is either of a ‘fixed trajectory’ or that which ‘you did not complete,/ and which has still not ended.’ (p10) 

There is a dreamlike or somewhat surrealist or allegorical quality to some of the intersecting poems and prose poems,- ‘The days are beginning to fold into one another, a slow-motion wing-beat on repeat.’ he provides in an early poem. (p14) The first person is introduced in a prose poem called ‘The Names’ (p13):

   I meet them in transit, in cheerless bars or dosshouses,
   On canal walkways, in overgrown cemeteries. 

These cemeteries seem to contribute a darker or more shadowy aspect to the narrative. The last poem to use the ‘I’ of address is ‘The Names: Remix’ (p53) which is a tale of violence and betrayal in whose conclusion

   I found my way to the Kapani market
   and vanished there, without a trace. 
      (p54)

This is somewhat preparatory to the final poem ‘On Lesbos’ where the protagonist unexpectedly remembers, but she knows neither how nor why, a woman’s name, Amena.

Elsewhere Gwyn writes of ‘elusive memory that told me I had something to uncover there, to retrieve’ (p18) and equally that 

                                              he has always
   confused the journey with the writing of it,
   whether the two things have finally become one. 
   (p12)

that is whether he is ‘remembering,/ the act of writing with the object of that need/ to tell and tell?’ (p12)

All of which is to suggest that Gwyn has marshalled the threads of his narrative rather well, with these at least three main strands. The 6 part ‘Stowaway’ is a tale in itself. The remaining poems, some three dozen, have a kind of storied trajectory but not an unequivocal one. After that first poem, ‘Reckless Travel’ this is essentially the thematic material of the book, travel that is more or less reckless. In ‘Stowaway’ itself the protagonist must use his wits to survive and recovers only to find himself motivated to set off to sea again among the city ports, ‘where no harbour signals home.’ (p56), the final phrase of the book. 

So that we are infused with this travelogue spirit of journeying, dark, reckless and unpredictable, sometimes sparing and providential, ‘intimacy granted/ by the frail co-ordinates of war’ (p56). As Cavafy’s epigraph to the book sardonically states ‘Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, [this city]/ you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.’ Gwyn’s writing for the most part is very crisp and clear, of persuasive facility in both poetry and prose. The book naturally has a lot of the flavour of travelling at sea, light and rough, and how our protagonist might have fallen into it. No home harbour he concludes but equally ‘You’ll always end up’ ashore ‘in this city’ as Cavafy puts it (‘The City’), lending the tale a kind of closure and grounding through cyclicity. One might say though that the flavour of the book rests more, on balance, with the travel than the writing.
 

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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