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Joel Swann continues his series of 21 reviews of the powerful Poetry and Conflict box set by Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.

You can find all of the Poetry and Conflict reviews so far here.

Gemma Gorga 詹瑪。哥爾伽, Semantics and Nutrition 語義和營養 (Hong Kong: CUHK Press, 2015), 76pp

It’s not easy to find Gemma Gorga’s poetry in English translation, and this volume makes it a little bit easier to do so, adding to the short selection presented in Six Catalan Poets.[1] If its title Semantics and Nutrition suggests that poetic meaning is a form of vital nourishment, the texts are more inclined to skirt around the edges of meaning, approaching it but seldom connecting with the depths it promises.

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The opening poem ‘Stones’ makes us think of poetry as fundamentally concerned with turning words around – reminding us how the word ‘verse’ originates with ‘vertere’, meaning to turn. Here, that turning is a sign of maturity. To the child, stones have no underside –

Being six years old

was simple, simple as dying. In both cases,

There was no secret other than the air:

breathing it or not breathing it …

An early lesson from her father is that like stones hiding scorpions, words conceal much more than they appear to. His death prompts a return to the stones:

as I pick it up and say yes? and someone tells me you’re dead,

I only think of scorpions, of what

you wanted to tell me when you repeated roll

the stones over, please, roll the stones over.

If poetry comes from rolling the stones over, this ending hints that it may be more of a fixation than a novelty, a comfortingly repetitive inertia rather than a movement or development forwards. Poetry does not live, but re-arranges the dead over and over again.

In poetry of this kind, forging connections of any kind tend to end up a frustrating business. In one mildly saccharine moment of ‘Little Story’, inspiration seems at one with nature:

The bee came close to my lips to dictate to me

the beginning of a poem found by chance

among the sweet syllables of the orange tree.

Yet the speaker cannot take it – ‘How to open the hands / To accept the unexpected gift? The following day / It is always too late.’ However much the world seems to desire translation to words, the poet is out of sync; Gorga’s poetry seems born of that disjunction. ‘Amusement Park’ likewise considers ways of meeting with others:

How long have I been going round on this wheel,

now so close to the world, now so far away?

Like an astronaut lost in space, I search for a cable

that may connect me to the breathing

of others….

But the poem ends with the hands of the speaker entirely empty.

If there is a satisfaction in these poems, it lies not in transcending the material surfaces and objects that inspire meaning, but in appreciating the imprint and change produced from fleeting interactions with alterity. As in the acutely observed ‘Book of Minutes’, with its claims that ‘Happiness is like a monosyllable … because of the brevity with which it visits our mouths’; or more intimately, of a departing person:

When you leave … my hands persist in the caress, though there is no longer skin to fondle but only the carcass of memory decomposing in the stairwell. When you leave, there remains behind an invisible you, adhering to the smallest things…. It is not difficult to find you: love is my magnifying glass.

Poetry often seems to record words coming and going – which may involve the desire of the other to ‘say something back’, in a phrase picked up in another recent collection – but is not part of a conversational circuit.[2] Gemma Gorga writes of words, people, and worlds, at harmony with the difficulty of bringing them together in any precise or final way.

[1] Ed. Pere Ballart and trans. Anna Crowe (Arc, 2013).

[2] Denise Riley, Say Something Back (Picador, 2016)


Joel Swann lives and works in Manchester.

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