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Love, sorrow and belief

Louis Briffa: Bil-Boqxiex: Poeżiji
The author, 2018 ISBN 978-99957-1-206-8 272pp. Hbk.

Though I have to admit to little or no familiarity with the poetry written for many years by Louis Briffa, he is a writer who has been praised by important literary figures like Peter Serracino Inglott, Oliver Friggieri and Achille Mizzi. The present volume includes critical essays by Charles Briffa and Tarcisju Zarb which, though occasionally critical, make it clear both of them are impressed by his work.

As I was and remain unfamiliar with his previous collection Bil-varloppa (2006), it is this new volume that has made me realise how much I have been missing. I am unsurprised that Oliver Friggieri in a short note carried in the book has described him as “one of the best voices of his generation” (Briffa was born in 1971), but I should add that like Oliver himself, Briffa writes verse that is elegant and “built on metrical canons” while keeping “a measured distance from his themes and from his reader/listener”, to quote Oliver.

Briffa’s poetry is notable for his often meticulous use of language and the beguiling rhythms of his carefully written verse. If a poem or a stanza remains obscure, sometimes even after a re-reading, it is often because the author appears to be more interested in creating a general mood than in expressing precise ideas. Charles Briffa points out Briffa’s fondness for sometimes very unfamiliar words and allusions to classical names or literary characters, and  it may be true that this practice may sometimes feel like showing off, but perhaps one should not complain if a Maltese writer is trying to keep the use of unfamiliar words alive, and uses literary allusions to distance himself somewhat from that he is saying.

One of Briffa’s most revelatory and also most accessible poems is Taqbila li tqarribni lejn il-ġenn.  Dedicated to Oliver Friggieri for whom he clearly has great admiration, it is written in quatrains of a traditional nature: alternating verses of seven and six syllables, with the second and fourth verses rhyming. In it he proudly declares his discovery that he is a poet by nature, a poet for whom the use of language is of the very essence.

Writing verse for him is an obsession that summons him all the time, whether he’s walking, working hard or in heated discussions. His determination to write verse that is highly polished is indicated by the book’s title, boqxiex, meaning ‘money’ to the man in the street, which also means a spoke shave, an instrument used by wood-workers to achieve precision.

Bil-boqxiex is perhaps the volume of Maltese verse ever published in which the erotic is most predominant. The sexual partner appears in a couple of poems as a swan whose white neck can rest on the poet’s shoulder. The sensuality is here implied, but in a poem like F’Għajnejk Maħbuba is-Seħer tal-Iljieli it is unrestrained and overwhelming in its exultant tone. The closing stanza of this longish poem sees his imagination go perhaps too far: his love is now his Grail, his Sangreal, his Aurora Borealis. It is in some ways a remarkable love poem but not a perfect one. In Bħall-Lotus f’wiċċ l-Għadira, his “beautiful Sibyl” redeems him “from myself and from plumbing the depths of the suicides’ gorge”.

Most touching are the poems in the Tempesta section in which he mourns and looks aghast at a love he has lost, perhaps forever.  Ritorn għalija hemm, J’accuse, Dal-Ħsieb li xpakkali l-Aorta express a sorrow as great as the joy of his love poems. Saddest of all for me is Salini (Saltpans) where his observation of an old man who realises he can no longer keep up with his work in the saltpans he owns leads the author to comment that his life has now dried up like the salt in the pans, and he himself is like the old man hobbling weakly on the rocks.

Counterbalancing his poems of joy and sorrow in love is a section of poems with the general title ‘Mysteries of suffering’. In them Briffa seems to be seeking painfully for his belief. In Minn dejjem emmint fil-Mirakli he prays for his blindness to be cured by Christ’s anointing his eyes and so making him see as the blind man in the Gospel is made to see. He still has to find the spring where he can now wash his eyes, as Christ had prescribed, and prays that when this happens his eyes will be opened to the nature of love.

In this section he dedicates to Ġorġ Borg, a  poet I have long admired who is also deeply religious, a series of haikus about the Passion of Christ, some of which are very successful such as that about Judas Iscariot or the one about the legendary Veronica. Many readers will like another poem, Mater Dolorosa, in which Mary is perceived by the poet through her statue famously carried in procession on the Friday before Good Friday.

This is a rich volume, containing many more poems, most of them worthy of being not just read but also savoured. The book is very clearly printed and handsomely bound. It is surely one of the best-produced volumes of Maltese verse I have ever come across.

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