I had gotten the feeling it was a now or never moment. On the eve of a new national lockdown in the United Kingdom I caught the last scheduled flight between Edinburgh & Malta. At twenty past six in the morning! This meant getting up at 3 AM & making my way from Leith Links to Edinburgh Airport, all the time following the results of the intriguing Presidential election in America. By the time the plane took off I was already becoming resigned to four more years in Flumpland.
Four more years! Four more years!
All optimism disappears
I’d rather vote for Britney Spears
Its four more years in Flumpland!
An hour’s sunrise later I found myself looking out of the small window at the south-snaking rivers of the continent, over which hung ribbons of mist & dew. Two hours more passed atop the white rolls heaven, before breaking out into open skies a few minutes shy of Sicily. What a perfectly timed moment it was as I spotted below me the three islands of Favignana, Levanzo & Marettimo – formally known as L’Isola D’Aegadi. It was in 2007, on an extended visit to the furthest out to sea of the three, Maretimmo, that the Maltiad drew its first breaths. The background was a Mediterranean wintering in the style of the Romantic poets, accompanied by my lovepartner at the time, a farmer’s daughter from Dumfries called Glenda. I had persuaded her to give up her house in Edinburgh, which we had shared for two years, & have an adventure far away from the cold of a Caledonian winter.
After spending two & a half months in Sicily, mainly on Marettimo, we then decided to explore Malta til the spring. We arrived in this glorious jewel of an archipelago one late January morning from the port of Marzemi. There then followed two months of residence between Malta & her sister island, Gozo, the poetical product of which are Calypso’s Cave, the Maltese Falcons the last four of sieges to be found in the Maltiad. The other siege, that of Gozo in 1551, has just been composed on my second winter’s visit to the island, in late 2020, as were the vast majority of the sonnets.
In 2007 I had kept a group-email type Blog, in which my Maltese experiences were poured into & stored for posterity. I give the following as an example;
The Maltese sure know how to party & I have now got one hell of a hangover. Lent starts in a couple of days, & the Maltese have been raving since last Friday – AND ARE STILL GOING! They have a mad carnival on Gozo – carne vale means without meat – & for the next forty days that’s what they are supposed to do. There is a town on Gozo called Nadur & basically half the Maltese population turn up (200,000), rent the pads that are normally filled up in summer & unleash their libidos in all directions. There’s a constant procession of dj-floats & costumes from about 8pm to 6am – EACH NIGHT! Got dressed up as a blood-soaked serial killer on Saturday, but unfortunately I got drunk & subsequently lost he group – no wonder I didn’t get too many responses when I asked for directions. I did manage to find Glenda & our party in the end – a mixture of Maltese, Serbians & Glenda’s mate, Festa – & have just woken up from a two-day sleep. I’m trying to get my head back together again as I had set off writing the Maltiad – a number of poems for Malta which I’m trying to squeeze in before leaving.
I am beginning to tire of the sonnet form a little now. A year of intense composition in one form has seen me grow deep roots into rosy-bedded sonnet-lore, but at the same time, as familiarity breeds contempt, I feel ready to try new modes of poetic composition. One of my first new efforts is set in Calypso’s Cave, near where we are staying. In the Odyssey, the hero gets enchanted by a sea nymph called Calypso & forced to be his sex-slave for seven years. It seem’d a suitable place to share the seven-century-old customs of Valentine’s day, & we made a midnight picnic there, lighting the lovely pad with candles & knocking back the wine, perch’d high over the moonlit magic of Ramla Bay. As we snogged to the sounds of the sea, this was surely going to be my most romantic Valentine’s night ever.
Fast forward t0 2020, by the time I landed in Malta that early November morning, the urban votes were beginning to pour in across America for Joe Biden, rendering obsolete my hastily dashed off high altitude quatrain. What was not obsolete, however, was my affection for, & devotion to, the art of poetry. Back in Malta after fourteen years, I was a different poet to the thirty-year old who left here in April 2007. I would this time be utilising the National Libraries of Malta & Gozo – two fine institutions curated by three very friendly, noble & eager-to-help gentlemen. In Gozo, a Knights Hospitaler called Chris Galea, & in Valletta – Louis Cini & Donald Briffa. Asking the latter was he Scottish, he replied no, his mother was going to call him Adolf but was dissuaded by certain nuns, & a substitute name was quickly given! Both libraries were cereberally conducive to academic endeavour, & there was something wonderfully traditional about being in the Valetta version especially. This was the old library of the Grandmasters, which you could at one time access directly from the palace. Entering it for the first time is a moving experience – wall to wall with old books stretching into the cathedral heights of its ceiling, & of course wooden catalogue boxes & the dewey decimal, system accompained by reams of beaurocratic forms filled out in triplicate!
The product of my two working winters in the archepelago is The Maltiad: Sonnets & Sieges. It is, of course, divided into two sections. The sonnets are divided into geographical regions & constitute a walkable – or driveable – circuit for any future tourist to these islands who enjoys reading a poem where it was set. Their subjects are a combination of meandering happenstance, for as Wordsworth himself wrote – in the very year that Napoleon invaded Malta-; ‘it is the honourable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which canm interest the human mind.’
There is also a grand sequanza – that is to say a family of 14 sonnets – in which I have collated a number of the famous Maltese proverbs. The form I have chosen is definitely not maltese, being the kural form of the classical Tamil poets such as the Thirukural of Thiruvalluvar. However when dealing with aphroisms, I have found the form to fit so readily perfect again & again. In essence it is simply a couplet of four words on the first line & three on the second.
Sellers have single eyes
Buyers one hundred
Most of the sonnets, including the proverbs, may also be found in my Silver Rose odyssey, an epic poem’s worth of sonnets, 1400 strong. They fit into the schema betwen my trips to Sicily & Greece. Posessing pretensions of epos, I have also composed an Iliadic piece entitled Axis & Allies in which two of the Maltese sieges are incorporated – those of 1565 & 1941-42. The 20-line form utilised by these sequences I have personally designed & named the ‘tryptych,’ & is used in all 900 stanzas of Axis & Allies. Of the remaining poems, Calypso’s Cave is, admittedly, not much of siege – but recognizing poor Odysseus was kinda besieged, I allowed it into the mix – Sonnets & Sieges just sounds so good.
Since the last time I was in Malta & Gozo I had also become something of a historical detective, attempting solutions to famous mysteries such as the true identity of King Arthur. I’ve called the discipline CHISPOLOGY, after the principle of Chinese Whispers, or the ‘Arab Phone’ to the French. Never one to miss a chispological challenge, I have come up with at the very least plausible answers to two of the great Maltese antiquarian questions – what is the etymology of Malta & where is Calypso’s Cave. I have touched on the answers in two of my sonnets, but feel a little more depth may be supplied at this point
The name Malta is said to derive from the Latin Melite, whose origin scholars have placed in two camps – either from th Phoenician mlṭ, meaning “refuge,” or from Ancient Greek melítos, meaning “honey.” Let us instead acknowledge that according to Greek myth, Heracles mated with a nymph called Melite.
Melite bare to Heracles in the land of the Phaeacians. For he came to the abode of Nausithous and to Macris, the nurse of Dionysus, to cleanse himself from the deadly murder of his children; here he loved and overcame the water nymph Melite, the daughter of the river Aegaeus, and she bare mighty Hyllus.
Hyperia was the island home of the Phaecean people before their resettlement on Scheria. One of the oldest historians to write about Malta, De Soldanis, states that Malta was ‘Iperia’ & the Phaeceans were the ‘Faeci.’ The key passage is;
Soon after the trouble with Ilium the Phoenicians took the island of Iperia or Malta after they had expelled from there the Faeci
The reason for their exodus from Hyperia under King Nauthilous was pressure from the neighbouring Cyclops. All this is given in the Odyssey, from the lips of the Phaeceans themselves.
Athena went to the land and city of the Phaeacians. These dwelt of old in spacious Hypereia hard by the Cyclopes, men overweening in pride who plundered them continually and were mightier than they. From thence Nausithous, the godlike, had removed them, and led and settled them in Scheria far from men that live by toil.
According to another very old writer, Thucydides, among the “earliest inhabitants” were the Cyclopes. Joining all the dots basically makes shape rather like Malta, & suggests this particulary Melite was named after the lovepartner of Heracles – remember their was once a huuuuuge temple to Heracles in the south of Malta, surrounded by a 3 mile wall.
My other chispological discovery is also connected to the Odyssey – that of Calypso’s Cave. Indeed, the close proximity of the Phaecean & Calypso elements in the text suggest some kind of common origin. The most enduring location of the island cave where Odysseus spent seven years as what amounts to a sex-slave to a goddess, is on Gozo, at Ramla Bay, but of course there has been many other contenders. In 1790, Richard Colt Hoare wrote;
The identity of the habitation, assigned by poets to the nymph Calypso, has occasioned much discussion & variety of opinion. Some place it at Malta, some at Gozo, & others elsewhere. At all events, we may now seek in vain, either at Malta or Gozo, for those verdant groves of alders, poplars, & the odoriferous cypress; for those meadows, clothed in the livery of eternal spring; for those limpid & murmuring streams, with which Homer adorns the abode of Calypso
My own contribution to the debate is that yes, theGozitans wer right to preserve a folk memory of Calypso on their island, but no, it wasn’t at Ramla where she kept Odysseus as a sex-xlavwe for seven years. Instead, the extremely ancient temple of Ggiantija at Xeghra is the original Calypso’s Cave, & a factochispp took place over time which moved it a couple of miles to the coastal cave at Ramla. However, there is no evidence of some kind of religious sex thingy going on there, but there is a lot of evidence for that kind of thing happening at Ggigantijia, such as fertility goddess statuettes & a temple shaped like ovaries. The egg-like rooms could even have been used in some kind of orgiastic ceremony – but that’s pure speculation on my part.
The longest piece in the collection concerns the Siege of Gozo, 1551, which also has a place in the Conchordia Folio. This is my collection of musical plays in which the dramatic elements are often given a Shakespearean linguistical twist. In this particular conchord I have formalised the speech patterns into cantos of five equal ten-lined speeches of iambic pentameter, like the Odes of John Keats. Its form has its origing in the chaunt royale of the trouadours. Between these dramatic scenes I have placed traditional dances & composed settl’d lyrics for the normally extemporized Maltese singing art of ghana. I have supplied no melodies or music, but having stuck rigidly to the metrical rules – quatrains of 8-7-8-7 syllables, with a rhyme scheme of ABCB – I am sure most of the traditional ghama melodies may be attached to my words. At all times I had G.A. Vassallo’s dictum ringing in my ears, whic states, ‘any poem, written in Maltese, that did not employ the octosyllabic verse is, at least in its form, spurious… & will never become popular.’ I was also inspired in my work with the ghana by another Maltese author & linguist, Guze Aqulina, who stated; ‘some quatrains contain fine images that, handled by a skilled writer, could be woven into verse that was better expressed & more varied in texture.‘
For the Maltese I hope that reading through these poems will grant just a portion of the pleasure I had in writing them. Malta & Gozo might be small islands, but they have continental-sized depths & have dipped their sisterly toes into every sub-stratum of history since the dawn of Human consciousness. They are also exceedingly fortuitous in possessing scenes of unrivalled natural beauty, & are peopled by sentinel beings of warmth, kindess & gentle jocundity. To any accusation that I am not Maltese I would reply that I take my art as seriously as the early medieval Icelandic skalds, who touted their literary wares at all the courts of Europe. Whether my work will ever be extolled like theirs, I leave to taste & time, but hope to be remembered at least as an English poet who revelled in the near-perfect conditions that one needs to write poetry, in which Malta, & Gozo especially, possess in abundance.