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

I think it was Samuel Johnson, in that highly coloured voice of his, who once declared to the open world that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”. If that was true, there would be many more impoverished poets than there are already, especially in our country.

At another time, Johnson added, “the only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Life, for Johnson, is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That may come very close to Briffa.

If not for the money, what does a poet write for? Or why does he write at all? And who does he address? And what does he mean? What is the poet up to? Briffa’s poems raise all these questions and many more. The questions spring like daffodils or crocuses in a prize lawn, as one struggles with a response to the poems.

A poem, of course, does not mean: it is. You cannot explain poetry, any more than you can explain a beautifully dusty butterfly blazing with colour over a flowery patch. It is equally so in any work of art, though in aesthetics there can be no absolutes, and contraries there can happily share a common life together.

Louis Briffa’s poems do not yield themselves very easily to the reader. Some do, of course, but many require some help from reference to the poet himself, his intellectual background, his experience with words. One searches for influences, inspirations, reasons and possible causations. What is the poet about?

Even the Maltese language has been stretched and inflected beyond easy recognition. The odd romance word often makes an appearance where least expected or even required. Despite the adoption of metric rules, the music does not always play sweet: the poet shuns no grating of the ear. Life is not sweet.

Some poetry you can enjoy without reference to the writer, except as the persona he might assume inside the writing, but this collection can occasionally read like a diary, or mini-memoir, or even testament. Its title, Bil-Boqxiex intends it to be a follow-up of the previous collection called Bil-Varloppa, both referring to types of plane, the sort used by a carpenter to tame the surfaces of planks and wooden pieces, turning out curlicues of grazed wood that fall at your feet perspiring fragrant tree-ness.

The very titles of the book’s divisions justify our interest in the poet’s life. The first section is called Bertrand u Jien (the poet’s son), another is Tempesta, denoting some really shaking experience. The third section is Fjakkolata, which encompasses the importance of women and love in the poet’s life. Another is called Misteri tat-Tbatija.

Petali mill-Italja u minn Spanja will obviously take us abroad to those countries. Qtar mill-Miġra is a reflection about poetry itself, while Difiża tal-Ambjent will shriek at the local harm to the environment but not without singing the praise of falcon or butterfly or Patella Vulgata – Briffa loves scientific names. One expects trouble in Versi tad-Dissidenza; Konfetti heads the last section with a promise of smartness or sweetness that the Ħajku and Tanka can bring us.

How can one not include oneself in one’s poetry? Germaine Greer has a telling remark on the matter. She says: “Poetry may in part be a kind of sexual signal, like plumage and dancing in birds. That’s why men have dominated the field.” Seems extreme, but at least it’s a point of view worth pondering, while reading Briffa.

Briffa’s writing reflects his scientific and technical background. To this he brings a love of words, which he beats into shape like a blacksmith on an anvil of profound zeal for his craft and technique.

The ordinary reader of Briffa’s work would have done with a little glossary at the end of the book, for the Latin names of flora and fauna, and for the difficult Maltese words, often stretched and inflected beyond easy recognition. I am sure somebody will provide this kind of glossary, as the poems reveal vast breadth of reading.

Briffa’s mastery of the language boggles the mind. I don’t think he does it for show. He seems ever so conversant with words we don’t normally use, inflexions we don’t normally make, and calques that might only appear in specialised papers translated from another language.

Briffa’s mastery of the language boggles the mind

It may sometimes sound like a cacophony, but as Joe Nutt says, poetry is the opposite of rash, careless cacophony. “It’s where words, with all their immanent power, beauty and capacity to move us as human beings, find the most fertile soil. In poetry we road-test words to destruction; squeeze impossibilities out of them and combine them to form beautiful structures unimaginable in any other context.”

It is not only the poet who needs to have a way with words. We all do. Listen to vulgar discourse on a work site – or indeed in many other places of stress in Malta – and experience the poverty of verbal vulgarity.

We are indeed imprisoned or enriched by the words we use, that we exchange with others, and how we marshal them in due order. The ideal place for words is poetry. That is where we test what language can do. Poets take our language not only to breaking point, but beyond. Briffa is a shining example of that.

But let us dig into the first poem in this collection, called Bħar-Raġel Vitruvjan, sub-titled Laqgħa ma’ Ibni Bertrand, with its nodding reference to the Roman architect Vitruvius and that great mind called Leonardo da Vinci. It is a worked-up visual encounter with a son in the baking, during a visit to the gynae, for a sound picture of a present and future son, splayed like the picture of manhood popularised by Leonardo.

The ground for this pre-vision is laid by the appearance of a radiographer walking in with the pace of an old tortoise towards the ward where parents wait their turn in the ultrasound unit.

A female doctor with wisened face goes in, flirting, in high heels, slamming the door in their face. The anxiety of waiting for the first sight of their baby spurs the waiting mothers to make derogatory comments on the technician who has earned the nickname of “Never let the morn dawn”.

Finally Mr and Mrs Briffa’s turn comes. The vest goes up, the button undone, the white belly jelled, the couch lain upon, the machines started up, the search initiated – until they find the baby, urging him to move so they can observe him better. “There is your son, Ecce homo,” says the one who knows, smiling between yellowing and missing teeth.

It is as if the new creature knows he is being ‘syndicated’, as he bounces and sucks his thumb, and his parents wave to him from the old world, waiting for him to be released from his prison, in their minds making him in their own image.

That is it. Wise as Solomon, the lady doctor pronounces he will be born in August. She wipes the belly clean, drives fingers through her hair sporting fading highlights, examines her watch and throws a glance at her colleague, stirs her matchstick thighs slightly apart – and the parents, with a reference to Him above, depart with their new knowledge.

Now here we have a step-by-step visit of new parents to the ultrasound unit. But everything about the visit is cruel and ugly, except for the miracle of life in a world beset by ugly and unfeeling people. A life that goes back to Vitruvius and Leonardo, full of marvels, but also appears redolent of menace. Life is not kind. It may be beautiful, marvellous, mathematical in its proportions, promising even, but it is fraught with danger and lack of feeling. A baby might be a treasure to its parents, but yet “another thing”, a jelly, to the professionals.

This poem can be a stepping stone to the rest of the anthology. Briffa may seem pessimistic or caustic about life. But he could also be Epicurean in his admiration of nature and a Stoic in his realistic view of the ugliness of destruction, particularly in our encroachment on the environment, apart from the betrayal of love.

Life hurts even as it invites wonder. What is more beautiful than love? And yet love betrays (J’Accuse). In Addio, the poet curses the love he has sworn that has brought him so much pain.

To say Briffa is a master of description of bird or insect is to short-change him. He knows the plants and the trees, the whole of the animal kingdom, but always he knows that change for the worse waits in the wings, as wholesale destruction of the environment goes on unchecked right under our noses.

X’Qalli l-Farfett Dħuli, dedicated to the poet Adrian Grima, sums up Briffa’s love of nature, but also the desolation of the beauty of the fields that have given way to high towers – disappeared for good. The lure of big and quick money for the powerful few is unassailable. And we cannot do anything about it except scream andwrite poems.

Bil-Boqxiex comes in a consummate production, with two absolutely brilliant studies by Charles Briffa and Tarcisju Zarb respectively.

Briffa’s poetry is a kind of magic that very few can create and even fewer can truly understand and appreciate in all its glory.

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