I had the privilege of meeting Josep Lluís Aguiló at a poetry festival this year and I can testify that he is as remarkable in person as he is on the page, in equal parts challenging and inquisitive, funny, considerate and startling. He is also fiercely proud of his native Mallorca, still fascinated by its landscapes and mysteries. His work has an integrity, vigour and lightness of touch to it that is missing from so much contemporary poetry.
His latest collection, Lunarium is shot through with a sort of magical lyricism, occasionally surreal in the manner of Borges but with an originality all its own. While the harbours and sands of Mallorca are a constant presence, the imagination is the primary landscape. The opening poem, The Rules of the Labyrinth, is a rubric for the book and his brand of poetry; we are set on ‘paths that make us walk ever further from the centre.’ But there is a crucial detail: ‘they are paved with dark desire.’ Sexuality is an undercurrent throughout these poems.
There are several poems about poetry, or at least language, which is something that never offends me. I Have Lost a Few Lines is an ingenious, deftly comic piece about how lines slip away from the poet: ‘They are like shy animals/sometimes they pass right over me.’ They also escape by other means: ‘…some spirituous liquor has ruined them/or the visitor from Porlock.’ It is adroit piece of work about the elusive nature of the perfect line; the bon mot.
There is humour in abundance throughout, albeit as dark as it comes; I particularly enjoyed The Rights of the Dead, where the dead appear to unionise, organising themselves ‘into associations to establish their rights and preferences.’ While some prefer the ‘permanence of buried coffins’ others wish to be ‘quartered and placed on high/mountains so that birds may devour them.’
However overwhelmingly, these poems are an affirmation of life and love; a reminder that life is fleeting and we must make the most of the now: ‘We are drowning in a sea of time./Tomorrow we will be older.’ It is unashamedly romantic stuff. ‘Maybe we’ll never/ again have the energy have the energy to make love with the night on each other.
Josep’s poetry is perhaps, more passionate than most English poets would allow, without losing any of the complexity of allusion or technique. It is a reminder why poetry in translation is more important than ever; surround yourself with people who look and sound like yourself and you will find within your echo chamber a deadening of the language and a paucity of emotional range; it takes you to a dangerously reductive place. Anna Crowe’s magnificent translation allows Josep to show us a brighter, more luminous world of possibility and language. We owe Arc, and Tony Ward, the adventurous publisher of this and so many other important work from beyond our own shores, a debt of gratitude.
Josep’s poem, Poetry, perhaps makes the most compelling case for the poet’s right to ambiguity and a mercurial spirit of independence. He defies an easy definition of poetry: ‘They want us to explain, in a single headline the soul of wine … and all the shades of turquoise in the sea of Ithaca.’ Poetry, he concludes, is not what you read on the page, it is ‘what is left inside us/long after forgetting this poem.’
Fervent, accomplished and infused with the rhythms of the sea as well as the heart, Lunarium is a book to jolt you into life and appreciate the miracle of existence. It is a poet’s manifesto too: his role is to ‘paint, in the void that has been given to you/the burning desperate words.’