For a book written by a Welshman, published by a Welsh press, supported by the Welsh Books Council and reviewed in Wales Arts Review, it is remarkably reticent about Wales – with, I think, only a single mention of “Gwalia” to nod to its native land.
That is by no means a criticism; in fact, I saw it as entirely in tune with the ideas I took away from Stowaway. This poetry collection by Richard Gwyn conjures up a dreamlike realm in which borders are traversable, identity is hazy – or even false, and origins are entirely besides the point. It’s not even the destination that is of concern, for the most part, but rather the journey itself. Characters rarely figure out who they are, or where they are, or why they are.
Gwyn stokes all this incertitude with superb poise, blending myth, history, comedy, and seemingly his own experiences of exploring the Levantine for a decade. Metaphors for mysteries also recur; we stumble upon no end of puzzles, conundrums, labyrinths. In one poem, ‘Map of Venice’, Gwyn employs the second person to hurl the reader into the middle of Venice’s twisting alleys and traps. He ends,
what is being described in all these false turnings, darkened doorways, dead ends, abrupt descents to water, falsely proclaimed destinations, humorous asides and triple, bluffs, is simply a map of yourself, or of anyone you care to name.
The above lines, to me, read almost as a purpose statement for the entire collection itself. In another poem, a character sniggers at “such self-parody”. The characters seem constantly to laugh at themselves across the collection, which is thick in layers of outward bluff and internal soul-seeking. In the poem ‘Workers’ Hostel’, Gwyn writes: “I try to remember who I am in this account”.
The central enigma? To decipher, as far as we can, who we actually are. At another point, the poet goes as far as to mock overuse of the descriptor “labyrinthine”; he himself employs this image (through the noun) at least three times. As perhaps always evoked by references to labyrinths, there is a great deal of classical myth in these pages (though not explicitly bringing up Theseus and the Minotaur, respectively explorer and resident of the world’s most original labyrinth). This is to be expected, given that the routes are following the footsteps of the ancients through the eastern Mediterranean.
Occasionally we come crashing back down to the present-day earth through Gwyn’s fragile allusions – never exacting – to refugee crises, conflict, persecution, natural disaster. Within the generally light tone, we’re in for a cold awakening each time reality seeps in. It’s almost as if the poet seeks to remind us that unlearning empathy, as has arguably happened in Europe in the 21st century, is a dangerous route on which to set out. In ‘The Cats of Aghia Sophia’, the poet is convinced of empires’ inevitable collapse: “Custodians of Byzantium, | their purpose is as lost as all that gold, | as certain as the collapse of Empires”. Of course, he is backed in this assertion by the fact that he’s surrounded by the ruins of ancient empires in this part of the world.
Though the poetry ducks and dives from one place to another, there are a few constants: cats and cigarettes, misery and migration all feature strongly throughout. The more serious moments are softened a little by the eccentric details and clever wordplay. Early on, the poet’s voice feels a little professorial, but more and more it is imbued with empathy and moves away from the philosophical to the practical.The third-person male pronoun comes up more than any other, and it’s quite a male gaze (particularly in ‘Museum of Innocence’), but I very much warmed to this collection the further into it I became embroiled. The vocabulary became less erudite, losing its earlier wielding of words such as “hypnopompic” or “metempsychosis”. Even with my Classics degree – distant as it now is – I couldn’t quite keep up, but this eases. On the whole, it’s a compassionate collection, weaving in diverse stories of itinerant figures so that the ending note comes as less of a surprise.
Ultimately, this collection is a timely reminder that good fortune doesn’t always last a lifetime. Though the poetic voice hails from a place of privilege – like many of us, with a passport that permits travel far and wide – Stowaway closes with a glimpse of those who travel nowadays out of dire necessity. The last poem, ‘On Lesbos (November, 2017)’, is heartbreaking. The character washes up on a Greek island, this time to see individuals sleeping besides deflated dinghies. He is taken back to all the anguish he has seen before: suffering in Smyrna and Beirut, the deportations of Saloníki Jews, the massacres of Shabala and Srebenica. By now, he has moved beyond indifference to empathy. He sees a woman he knew in Syria, who looks at him “with the air of one for whom | no harbour signals home.”
This is a poetry collection which, more than any other I’ve read recently, I implore you to take the time to read and digest.
Stowaway by Richard Gwyn is available now from Seren.