Antoine Cassar

- Malta -

Antoine Cassar (London, 1978) is a Maltese poet, translator, editor and creative activist. He writes in Maltese and English, mostly about maps and borders, cities and language, walking and mental health.His poetry has featured on Lithub, RN Books & Arts (Australia), France 3 TV, Radio Nacional de España, SFR 2 Kultur (Switzerland), and RTV Slovenija, among others. 

            Erbgħin Jum (Forty Days, EDE, 2017), a book-length poem on childhood trauma, depression, and walking as a process of healing, was awarded the Malta National Book Prize in 2018, and is shortlisted for the European Poet of Freedom award.

            Passaport (2009), a long poem printed in the form of an anti-passport for all peoples and all landscapes, has been published in eleven languages, and adapted for the stage in Malta, France, Belgium, Italy and Australia. Proceeds from the sale of the booklet are donate

Antoine Cassar’s Forty Days 

Antoine Cassar’s prizewinning collection Erbgħin Jum (Forty Days) published in 2017 is his most personal, intimate work to date. It took many of us by surprise. It certainly took me by surprise. Up until this heart-wrenching account of pains from his childhood and youth resurfacing with a vengeance in his adulthood, I had always identified Cassar’s poetry with creative energy, audacity and eclecticism, with the joys of poetic creation. 

This collection doesn’t lack any of these qualities, but reading these poems leaves one with the strong feeling that there is so much more to his poetry than a passion for rhythm, intricate imagery and layers upon layers of world literature and Maltese literature. This is a poetry struggling with the verbal and physical violence of an ever-present past, a tightly knit cycle of walks that allows the poet to revisit that past and attempt to rewrite the present. “At times”, he writes in Day 7, “it makes sense to postpone the past. / Walk.”  

Forty Days is a struggle of body and soul. Of dark days and sleepless nights. “Another day will dawn, with guilt afresh / after another night hearing the ghosts.” )  These are poems about the mind that are marked, at almost every turn, by the physicality of the body. The body seems to be doing its level best to pacify the mind. But it often fails. Perhaps it is the rhythm that quells the troubled spirits.

There’s nothing celebratory about the poet’s sublimation of his inner torment. What’s extraordinary is his ability to wrestle with his raw tribulations but maintain the critical distance required of the craft of writing poetry.

In an interview he gave to Teodor Reljić, Antoine Cassar says that "The book is very self-centred, which I’m not proud of, and at times rather pathetic". But don’t trust him. There’s a great deal of pathos, no doubt, but nothing pathetic about these tormented, but ultimately therapeutic and liberatory hendecasyllables. The poet’s choice of the classic line of Maltese literature, a mainstay of Romantic, Modernist and contemporary poetry, is in itself a poetic statement. This line of verse was inherited from the Italian tradition, but over the past 150-odd years of poetry written in Maltese, a language of Arabic origin, it has acquired a life and sound of its own and it features prominently in the work of leading 21st-century Maltese poets. Despite the heaviness of heart, the steady pace of Cassar’s hendecasyllables is determined, relentless, almost unforgiving. Writing in The Sunday Times of Malta, Rowna Baldacchino notes that "Ultimately, were it not for the creation of these poems, Cassar’s purging of his inner turbulence may not have been possible". But they are also more than that. Like every remarkable work of poetry, Antoine Cassar is “reinventing” Maltese poetry. His hendecasyllables are now also the lines of childhood trauma, of physical and psychological violence, a renegotiation of the fragile relationship between mind and body. 

At the end of Day 7, the poet has no illusions about the power of his walks to mend his deep fragilities: It’s not possible to walk in order not to feel anything. You need to walk to live, and you need to live to walk.  The use of the literary device of the antimetabole, a subtype of chiasmus, allows the second phrase to reverse the order in the first phrase. These poems are perilous journeys into the known and the unknown. They trace a path but they are also traced by a path that seems to have been laid out in advance. The process itself is one of antimetabole. 

These are poems that remind us that we have no option but to walk. To forge ahead. It’s perhaps the only way to allow the past to settle into the pace of the present, without halting it.

Writen by Adrian Grima