REVIEW by Sophie Baggott
by Maria Apichella
For a collection engulfed in haziness, a definition is an oddly precise opening. Maria Apichella translates her Hebrew title, Paga, as ‘intercession, a chance encounter or an accidental intersecting’. This debut poetry pamphlet is indeed marked by a crisscross of cultures and characters, but in uncertain terms: a yearning for identity pervades every verse. The narrator and her subjects are unsure of nationality, of religion, even of their very surroundings at times. These twenty-two poems knit together a compelling yet unrelieved tension in their pursuit of anchorage.
The melancholy is redeemed by Apichella’s linguistic poise. A focus on image-building often replaces any narration of action, conjuring up staling seaside towns and eerie manors. The poem ‘Margate’ is intensely atmospheric; besides ‘warm coins palmed for rides’, Apichella’s words dart around the page like the rides themselves. The meticulously scattered presentation of her poetry underscores the sense of fragmentation. Punctuation is haphazard, and peppered lists (‘ciggies kisses flame orange twists black sticks’) recall scenery without delay. Flickers of the art world emphasise the focus on visuality: both Rodin and Turner crop up within the first few poems. Turner’s rough light ‘slaps’ the poet’s Margate, as if a painter’s brush meeting canvas.
In ‘Do Not Be Far From Me’, Apichella isolates the word ‘silence’, which resounds with the implications of her character Reg’s death. An exception to the general void of action, Reg’s narrative preoccupies the centre of Paga and follows his looming mortality right up to the relatives’ agony after his death. The fragility of another figure, Virginia, in the early poem ‘Monk’s House’ adds to the prevailing impression of bewilderment. Virginia is seen ‘swimming harlequin corridors’, exhausted by pushing doors. Again light ‘slaps slaps’, and stings dazzled eyes. Coldness reigns, and the clashing of light and dark strengthens the suspicion that nature almost works against characters in this collection. This harsh climate is reinforced by gusts of chill and rain invading the car en route to Reg’s funeral.
Much of the collection certainly feels like a barren wilderness. Perhaps the second poem forecasts this with its quotation from Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’: ‘On Margate Sands. I can connect nothing with nothing’. A hint of Dylan Thomas’ rage against the dying of the light may be perceived several poems later, where Apichella’s narrator asks ‘‘Why not / swing, shoot, sink, dive into the Dark?’. The thrust of ‘Paga’’s meaning as ‘intercession’ often emerges in poems that read more as prayers. ‘Poem’ ends with the couplet ‘Strengthen me with goodness, / with your goodness make me strong.’.
Yet an air of alienation is prevalent, particularly in the pattern of poems entitled ‘East West’ which divide the page between two distinct voices. The culture of wrangling opposites is drawn out in these. In the third version, the left side of the page recalls Diwali whilst the right side remembers the ‘sherry and sellotape’ of Christmas. Though details generally remain vague, the familiarity of this repetition becomes something of a comfort.
More subtle is the tug-of-war between contrasts in ‘i.m. of A, 1985-2011’. Here Apichella jumps from memories of an anonymous character’s company to the reality of his absence in the present. The twists and turns between negatives and tenses compound the poem’s desolate confusion: ‘I / see I don’t see.’ The last stanza of this poem holds Paga’s most beautiful line: ‘I want to lean all my weight / against the clock’s long arms.’ Throughout the collection, a grip on time is elusive. One of the central poems seems to depict ‘Reg’ as suffering from memory problems, and on flicking the page we find a title that trips into the poem’s first line: ‘Reg Came Back, / briefly.’
This is poetry which demands every fibre of concentration. It will make you frown, nod, smile, shiver, and – most importantly – think. The journey through the collection is fraught, but ultimately rewarding.
Sophie Baggott is a Masters student at Cardiff School of Journalism, and previously read Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Her interests include spoken-word poetry, running, and Welsh drama.