Malta’s forgotten poet
A society that never accepted him and a mind that was too genial to remain sane. Iggy Fenech sits down with author Paul P. Borg to discuss his biography of poet Carmel Attard.
Carmel Attard’s life was almost more beautifully tragic – more poetic, even, than his poetry. He was a man whose insightful, sagacious and revolutionary thoughts veiled a child-like and innocent character that simply wanted to fit in.
But Karmenu, as his best friend and author of his biography, Paul P. Borg, used to call him, was also a haunted man; deeply troubled by what society had in store for him. His poetry remains a blunt knife that cuts deep into the heart and soul of those brave enough to read it.
Often a patient at Mount Carmel Hospital, Karmenu faced years of agony; perturbed not only by the circumstances that life had presented him, but by his thoughts. Existential as the poet was, his mind raced to places we can only dream of.
He questioned life and society, the meaning of life and God, beauty and ugliness, religion and nurture, kinship, friendship, and just why he couldn’t seem to make it in a society he was meant to be a part of.
He was a man who perplexed people, who made audiences cringe at themselves, and, ironically, who saw the beauty of God in everything and everyone, but who was not afraid to take a step back and deconstruct their meaning and reasons for existing. And, all this, is something Borg P. Borg knows all too well.
Friends since childhood, it is hard to truly understand Borg and Karmenu’s relationship.
It was built on a foundation of more than just shared memories, but, rather, shared insights into a world only they really envisaged – and Borg’s biography of Karmenu, titled …maqful fil-ħabs ta’ ġbini… Il-Poeta tat-Tbatija Carmel Attard is an appreciation of this realm.
“Karmenu was a poet who had an insatiable eagerness for freedom. He wanted to be free from judgement, free from his thoughts, free to love the way he wanted to love, and, sometimes, even free from his life,” Borg tells me as I sit on the same sofa in the same living room Karmenu had visited countless times before me.
“Some may think that his poetry and his writings – which even include a suicide note – are philosophical; and they may be, but he always saw life from one particular lens: the one which set him free.
“This was also reverberated in the way he saw life and the way he talked about various things,” says Borg.
“I remember we used to go for long walks and talk about God, the environment, friendship, love – and while people comment about appearances, we peered into their souls; and we saw things that they may have not even known themselves.”
Unfortunately, society never sought to peer into and understand Karmenu’s mind. Many labelled him a lunatic and he often felt like an outcast in a community he constantly tried to win and change through his writing.
“Both Karmenu and I believed that the mark of a true writer was his acting as a conscience to society,” says Borg.
“The way he was treated by most of those around him and, in particular, the way they seemingly never wanted to understand and empathise with him and other people who were suffering was incredibly vexing to him.
“Once, while he was at Mount Carmel, we wrote numerous letters to the archbishop of the time, Gonzi, then prime minister Dom Mintoff and many ministers, explaining the state of affairs inside the hospital.
“And, in the poetry and doodles he created, one can see just how pained he was at not being able to help himself and others like him.
“Yet, I would be lying if I said that that is all his writing is about,” says Borg. “It was a vehicle he used to reach the deepest depths and the highest highs and it truly did lead him to a catharsis.”
In its darkness, Karmenu’s poetry offered him the chance to find love, commit suicide, resurrect himself and be the man he always wanted to be. “In fact, I often say that Carmel Attard is the Van Gogh of Maltese literature,” says Borg.
In this 768-page biography, Borg seeks to remind the world that a genius with a heart of gold once walked among us. That Karmenu’s darkest days – and there were plenty of them – helped him create a wealth of poems, writings and doodles that act as a mirror to each of us: the bullied and the bullies.
“When you see a dog being beaten, you automatically want to help him out,” says Borg. “And Carmel was often that dog. He went through hell physically and he went through hell mentally. “We must remember here that Carmel passed away 20 years ago,” he says.
“People didn’t always accept anyone who didn’t conform and treatments for psychological disorders weren’t as advanced or as ethical as they are nowadays. He was subjected to electrotherapy and put in straitjackets; he was ridiculed by people in band clubs and called names. He had a tough life, but I’d like to think that my wife and I made his life a little bit better.”
One of the most striking parts of this biography is the introduction, a touching story how once, while Borg, his wife Mary and their son Ruben were walking Carmel to a doctor’s appointment, Ruben looked up at the November sky and asked his mother why the moon was following them. This prompted Carmel to walk into the middle of the road and start singing the Ave Maria – “the most beautiful Ave Maria I’ve ever heard”, Borg recalls.
I’d like to believe that at that moment, Karmenu was happy – mostly because of the friendship and the moments he shared with Borg and his family. And I also like to believe that at that moment, Karmenu was free.