(REVIEW) Poems of the Mare Nostrum, Costa Nostra, by Arturo Desimone
C Putschkin returns to a reading by Arturo Desimone he encountered over ten years ago, to enter into Poems of the Mare Nostrum, Costa Nostra (Hesterglock Press, 2019), a provocative collection that bears witness to parts of our world too easily forgotten.
The first time I saw Arturo Desimone recite his poetry was in 2009, in a sparsely lit, generously spaced apartment just off the Nieuwegracht in the Dutch university town of Utrecht, at an event dubbed Salon des Mots. I was struck by the animation and intensity of Desimone’s performance - because it was, indeed, a performance, comparable to that of watching a stage actor perform an impassioned soliloquy - and, more, by the vivid strangeness of his poetry: of the scorching, anthropomorphised Aruban sun and her many mythological accomplices; of the breathy, guttural interjections in Hebrew and Arabic; of the bizarre and, yet, altogether logical interweaving of history and contemporary life, of holiness and mundanity, of ancient gods, iPhones, and drug-ridden beaches. It felt to me, in 2009, as if I had stumbled upon a hidden gem, something as curious as an actual, living avant-garde poet—a 21st century, Aruban invocation of the European 1920s—and that I had been made privy to a new way of seeing.
Eleven years later, in the Covid autumn of 2020, I am reading Poems of the Mare Nostrum, Costa Nostra in the city of Bristol (which, incidentally, is where Desimone’s publisher, Hesterglock, is based) with a reinforced belief that Desimone was and remains a rare voice on the European stage of poetry. But despite his prolificacy - Desimone has been published in countless journals, ranging from the Kenyon Review to CounterPunch, and he has performed recitations all over the world - he remains unknown to the bookshelves of flagship bookstores.
Perhaps that is not so strange. Desimone’s poetry is not only epistemologically dense, it is also unimpeded by burgherdom restraint or political correctness. Jessica Sequeira has argued in Berfrois that his poems are “spiky, associative, ironic and rude; they seek to provoke.” Whilst I hesitate to disagree with her (Desimone entitles one poem, ‘A French Gypsy In The Line-Up To Be Murdered, First Reads The Tarot For Marine Le Pen’; in another, he describes St John of Patmos as a “proto-Nazi”), I prefer to separate the intention from the outcome, and suggest that his poems are principally provocative insofar as they bear witness to a world that many of us have become used to looking away from. Desimone’s collection is packed with anger, grotesque caricature and contempt, measured out in two to three pages long songs of free-flowing verse against global injustice, oppression, and a Western neo-liberal status quo that is busy flirting with something far worse. Poems of the Mare Nostrum, Costa Nostra shows readers a life lived in realms outside of the mainstream. From Tel Aviv to Athens, from Morocco to Switzerland, from France to Aruba, the ever itinerant Desimone allows us to see the world from alternative angles, not those seen through the lenses of news cameras and wealthy tourists. It is, indeed, the same view I glimpsed in Utrecht back in 2009: vivid, strange and uninhibited.
Desimone shows us the waiting room in a police station in Tunis during prayer time:
The songs of the night-Muezzin—or of the Compact Disc that replaced him, flew in resonant; myriad night-robins entered the salon of informants and victims
He discusses the work of Piet Mondriaan whilst filling out welfare forms:
Want to know the real secret of PM’s silly paintings, behind the conceptual Blah-bah sales-talk? Let me tell you: they are just windmills
In a poem entitled ”Pavane”, he describes the murder scene of a ”gypsy” named Charles, who
lay next to a fountain, his brains held the bullet between their teeth, one bullet in each knife under his robe. The sky was empty of vultures, but full of France.
And in one of many poems about the European refugee crisis and European countries’ responses to the arrival of asylum seekers, ”Amira and Oummi, a refugee child and mother refuged in the land of Nethenmark”, Desimone writes:
Land of New: old toys are left on beaches, like no-good boys, and time eats, and noise comforts, fills space like dark beer in a mug. Noise is the best drug, after Bayer.
In Poems of the Mare Nostrum, Desimone often seems to ask what the cost of Western power is, and he does this by illuminating how suffering hides in the open, how it is part of what is commonly accepted as everyday reality, and that it has a human price tag on it. It is a book that talks about ”noise” without becoming part of it, by cutting through it and showing readers a part of their world that is too easily forgotten or airbrushed, making them aware of what beauty, what horror, what comedy lurks behind the glossy shine of dark suits, silver screens and travel broschures.
In 2020, as in 2009, Desimone’s work lets me see differently. His suns are still scorching (as he writes in one poem, the ”son of a bitch won’t stay buried”), but they now shine elsewhere. The beaches are different, the gods are the same.
Text: C Putschkin
Photo: Anna Delaney