Now that we ate the last morsel of bread
and then drank all the water in the jug,
we shall look for the next city on the map —
for that is our place. We must make our way there.
PIAZZA SAN PIETRO, VATICAN CITY
Many years ago, in this square:
I drank my first Coca-Cola from a can;
I saw syringes and needles lying on the ground for the first time;
learned the meaning of bibite... and t’ammazzo, cazzo;
and my faith started crumbling, a little at a time.
LARGO CORRADO RICCI 6am
Kneel and write —
* the addresses where you went in and slept
* the names that escaped with your whisper
* the dates when you attempted to leave
* the exact time when you did
* any airports you flew from unawares
The city you’re looking for was not there;
That for which you’re searching lies elsewhere:
where no plane can take you,
no tram and no train.
Kneel and write —
Beneath dirt, beneath skin there is nothing.
I undo my laces; let everything fall.
You quickly close your eyes or look somewhere afar.
Somewhere out through the window
strange images drift by
like boats midsea, rolling, heavy with cries
of tall men who have never seen such waters before;
women in their eighth month, navels pointing ashore;
children silenced, whining babies; droplets of milk left — no more.
Quick, go to the window; smell the wave as it comes,
making you hunger for bread with tomatoes — red, ripe, and plump.
Let go; ride this wave, rich with aromas that call,
and grab you and twirl you, leave you spinning in awe.
Now pause in this wave; it will bring back your ma.
Sleeveless dress, floppy hat,
crunching crabs that she'd catch;
next the smell brings your pa, engaged in a quest
for his urchins — you watch him dive devilishly deep,
come up wrapped in octopuses, struggle to his feet as
the wave keeps on coming — painting Gizzy now, sheer delight
in her floral bikini, she is surely the light of Birżebbuġa Bay, with
her bosom ablossom, and you following its sway.
How sweetly it smells this most blessed of waves.
See it boldly, how blue! As a child, who else knew
how many times you sneaked and impatiently drew
this bluest of wave, in your notebooks each spring;
as you waited to see what the summer might bring.
Quick now, to the window; you know not the wave's course,
because rows of containers lie in wait at the port;
reaching out as it crashes, robbing the wave of its force.
And this crushing wave crashing ... carries how many breaths?
How many mummy-mummy-save me!-save me!'s?
How many tears, goodbyes ... and deaths?
At Birżebbuġa Bay my own child exclaims:
“Look how shiny the sea is! Like silver." ... He stares.
"And look! See them glowing? There are fishes down there!"
And he begs to go down romping
with mullet, saddled bream; begs to swim with the blennies; but
I fear there might be some
loose wish, ragged dream chafing right up against us;
tearing at, wrinkling our paper white, smooth soles.
Because look, my dear child,
this is not the sea that I know.
When I was your age the great poets all wrote
that this sea never ages; that it never gets old.
Everblue is our sea; that is what we were told.
They would dive down for coral; no cylinders, wetsuits.
And this sea that they lived in had color, music too;
stunning, bright, with anemones; the sea tinkled with bells
ringing mysteriously from the deep. ...
And I believed what they said.
And they celebrated: "this sea of ours overflows with our history"
of heroes sailing skillfully for centuries and centuries;
Oh, how many vessels (and aircraft carriers that saved)!
and countless fishermen, gods, kings —
oh, and sirens that sang of
sweet temptations with pleasure —
downing seamen with hopes.
The poets told me all this, and I listened; I took notes:
"this sea of ours is pure history," I believed and I wrote.
So I dived like a fish straight into the deep,
let the sea tell me stories, kissed the waves' mouth — it was sweet.
And I rejoiced when I resurfaced: it was true what they said!
I got up with me a pebble and a fistful of sand from that seabed!
And laid them under my pillow so at night I could hear
the scorpion fish calling: "come back to me, stay near."
But today, I admit it: I now fear the sea.
Not the bass, bream, and dentex that used to swim, free,
but these unfinished books at the bottom —
that's what's frightening me:
Tall men who had never seen such waters before.
And pregnant women, swollen, full wombs ever closed.
And hungry children asking:
What is happening? Where is home?
And one by one they all tell me
that the poets' sea is aging.
Its bright blue no doubt is noticeably fading.
The corals have vanished; and the anemones still left have
blackened even more than the seabed itself.
So if you must dive down there, strap cylinders to your back,
and take care you don't lose yourself far from the shore.
Believe me, you won't know these waters,
though you've seen them before.
* Birżebbuġa is a village located in the southern region of Malta
WILL THIS BOAT ARRIVE?
Will this boat arrive? Will it?
Or will it lose breath, ceasing
just before the sea stops and land begins,
a land that does not know us?
I walked through alleys, I walked through streets,
through hamlet, town, and city,
everywhere sweeping crooked steps just to keep on moving.
I crossed rivers and valleys; climbed mountains
which swore they’d return to crush me beneath them;
still I walked on
through fickle suns, phasing moons,
reaching out to pluck a bright star,
blow it and send it back home,
so it might, through the window, warmly kiss
my mother, my father, my sister,
that is, if they still are, if they are still.
Before me, wave upon wave of sand,
a yellow fishless and waterless sea.
I walk on,
counting all the steps and the notes,
holding the white plastic bag in my hands:
a bottle of water, a cluster of dates, a handful of photos,
some travel sickness pills, old papers folded,
certifying that I'm a learned one,
a jacket, a jersey and, of course ... the passport.
I got burnt, frozen.
Terrified most by the dark, that is, till the ghibli blew in.
Taunting and cruel its searing hot winds bearing down,
tearing skin with fine dust,
and swearing one day it would return to crush, bury me secretly in its gusts.
I wept mightily, prayers rolling where there once had been tears,
prayers to a God full of mercy; I supposed he would hear.
I summoned him, calling him by name more than once,
twice, in the nothingness surrounding me.
When I dozed off I dreamt of voices
used to hear often wafting through lush tree branches:
I dreamt of the voices of old folks I knew, maundering on for hours;
I dreamt of the voices of apples, ripe melons,
of milk sauntering freely through my mother’s full breast and
spicy voices rising from latakia leaves, pungent, being smoked
by olive dark men. And then ... I dreamt again:
of sweat and of bones, of coal black holes
piercing me, pleading me: "Don't go!"
Telling me to turn back, get away from the shore, pay no attention to men with boats:
“Beware the water,” they say, “it is cruel."
And the voices cry out danger, warning me sure:
"Don't step on another man's land."
I woke with a jolt and saw before me the sands;
a blue carpet unfurling to that cold land;
a land that's afraid of, yet, doesn't even know me,
a land that I'm no less determined to set foot on.
So I walk on ... toward the boats.
I carry this bag that I have chosen, packed it with my whole story —
one bag — and even that will soon get lighter once
at gun or knife point I pay my passage
to climb into their sea craft, challenging
voices urging me to stop.
Will this boat make it? Will it?
Once upon a shore, there were children playing,
chasing a ball; running and laughing.
Someone from afar ... someone from afar,
gunned them down.
And there was no one left on the beach
save the ball which stood there,
I remember that ball bouncing across the packed sand.
I remember my cousins laughing, running,
and the ball bouncing, speeding faster than us.
Then the wind joined in, played with the ball;
and it started playing with us.
We were trying our best to outrun that wind,
reach the ball it had cruelly snatched,
racing to see who might get it first.
Of course, I was the last: I ran the slowest;
I couldn’t beat the wind.
But I ran, I ran. We all did.
The taunt of the wind. The sound of laughter. And then ...
someone, from afar ... someone, from afar,
gunned us down.
And not one of us reached the ball. Still the wind stayed on,
having already won, kept playing on its own.
But with my face to the ground I see nothing at all.
Now I have no idea how long I’ve been here
A day? Two? More?
locked up with strangers locked up with me.
And we look and we look at the dark blue sea,
and we count, counting very strange numbers
of suns, banknotes for the guy with the kalashnikov,
Steps we take waist deep into the water to
get to this fragile boat meant to transport us.
And I see that my bag is swelling with the sea.
My passport inside close to tatters.
Faces of my loved ones now drifting in water.
My pills one by one, melting and dropping.
My dates have already lost their sweetness, quickly turning salty.
The jacket and jersey threadbare.
And I lose all my story — now drenched,
watch it dissolving.
Like caught fish packed in crates
we set off for the unknown.
Behind me a shore with damp sands.
There's no one left there save a gust of wind
and the heavy silence you always hear
as you close one book to open another.
There’s a curious white blot, and it's spreading,
carried neither by wind nor by water.
But I can see clearly: there’s a child
in a red top, face down,
kissing the sand. Washed by the sea —
a cleansing for burial.
And the wind begins to blow, as it always does when it wakes.
But the red-shirted child does not stir.
And the boat carries us off now away, away.
Maybe we'll get there, maybe ... and we ask:
Will this boat make it? Will it?
Or will it lose breath, ceasing
Just before the sea stops and ... ?
Waves descend, mountainous crushing.
Cold. Thirst. Cries.
Translated by Ruth Ward
Copyright 2002-2023. Immanuel Mifsud. All rights reserved.