Poetry Review: Mathias Svalina’s The Wine-Dark Sea

Illo for Mathias Svalina review.The promotional blurb for The Wine-Dark Sea (Sidebrow Books, 2016) lauds Mathias Svalina’s voice as “clear-cut” and “as simple as ink”—these claims are both true and false.

Stylistically, all of the poems in Svalina’s fifth collection are acutely focused, reading like minute droplets or choppy waves interrupting the dominant stillness of the titular sea. I compare them to the shards left behind by some lonely, ancient island-hopper, reminiscent of Sappho’s fragments. The omnipresent lacunae on each page mimic the smallness of the speaker juxtaposed with the massiveness of the ocean. The speaker is very much the skittish ant he likens himself to, darting to the shadows of the periphery, actively “trying not to die.” One piece simply pleads:

Exit this poem for me.

Show me a way.

—“Exit this poem for me”

In fact, the most aggressive, brawniest text in the collection is arguably the table of contents: since each piece is titled “The Wine-Dark Sea,” it reads like Terrance Hayes’s “Sonnet” or James Tate’s “Lewis and Clark Overheard in Conversation,” poems that likewise are composed of one line repeated numerous times. To underline the speaker versus sea dichotomy, the speaker is an insect fearing a boot, whereas the table of contents is a megalith daring the reader to either move it or gnaw into its solidity.

The minimized speaker aspires to gnash like a beast—he laments, “I wanted / a maw / & got a scattering.” Like a snapping chow chow, the speaker seeks to compensate for his small overall size with the size of his teeth; if he can’t overpower the sea, he can at least take a bite out of it. The speaker nips at his environment for investigation as well as defense, however, searching for the answer to what makes love “so hollowing.” As Barthes wrote of dissecting his lover “as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the other’s body,” Svalina’s speaker tears at coverings to unveil what is inside, and he discovers that what is inside is ripping those insides apart. He also gnaws to discover his own hidden layers, biting “this lip off / to find the more / fragile lip.”

Perhaps the speaker is a stratified, metamorphic rock. He often likens himself to a stone. His self-portrait in the section beginning “I break” culminates in the instructions:

Imagine something
perfectly round.

Then cut it
in half & imagine

it again.

Cracking a stone open draws focus away from its smooth surface and towards its surprising innards. Inside, the speaker is also catatonic, immovable like the megalithic table of contents. He claims to have been suicidal, warping the common notion of “a will to live” by stating, “If I had will / I’d be dead.” His wavering between flight and resignation shapes him into a kind of lyric Holden Caulfield; instead of stumbling through New York City, Svalina’s voice skims the currents of the ocean. Perhaps Svalina’s speaker glides across the Mediterranean Sea—when I first heard the title of the collection, I envisioned tidewater stained with runoff from Plato’s symposium. (Symposium literally means “drinking party.”) I may have likened Svalina’s fractals to Sappho’s, but the ancient Greek his voice most recalls is Diogenes. Svalina precedes his poems with a quote from the Cynic philosopher. Svalina’s speaker bares its fangs like a terrier; Diogenes observed that he was called a dog because he “set [his] teeth in rascals.” The term “Cynic” comes from the Greek for “dog” and “dog-like.” The characters of this trifecta (Svalina’s speaker, Diogenes, and Holden Caulfield) all amble around their domains like strays.

Svalina’s speaker also appears to share Holden’s mission of guiding children as they play in the rye. Perhaps the most curious element of The Wine-Dark Sea is the occasional use of rhyme that is simultaneously playful and dark. These lines, although semantically dour, sonically recall John Skelton or The Cat in the Hat:

Who made my mouth
of this lead?

I made my mouth
of this lead,

this trembling medicine,
an alley unsaid.

—“Stone circles light”

The speaker asserts himself not only as a teacher of the young, but also as a spiritual authority, one that will “bless / the festival” of holy days.

But what about the ant scuttling for an exit? How can the speaker act simultaneously as a megalithic oracle and a cornered dog? This complexity is what falsifies the “simple as ink” hype.

According to the speaker, he must vacillate between personas because he doesn’t deserve a solid identity. He craves a defined, and therefore limited, self: “One must earn / the I its cage.” Svalina’s distortion of syntactical categories is similar to Shane McCrae’s examination of them in his 2011 book Mule, however, McCrae’s work constantly tests the limits of linguistic convention, whereas Svalina’s collection intermittently defies it outright. He declares, “I try to think with.” He instructs the reader to “verb the ditch.” The arthropod speaker grapples for both an escape hatch and a means of expression:

I am on the island
that speaks a language
I can only understand

—“I am on the island”

He remarks that he can only understand the language; the reader is forced to draw the conclusion for herself that he can’t actually speak it. This brilliant mimesis underlines the irony of this entire collection: it is well-crafted communication claiming the inability to communicate well. Practically a poet writing about how he can’t write poems.

I suppose communication is difficult in the sea; speech is garbled underwater. Containers also muffle Svalina’s speaker. In the first poem, he wishes to unearth all that is “clotted / with nests.” A mountain is “stripped to a bowl.” Svalina’s collection is studded with vessels, similar to H.D.’s Trilogy. His speaker even laments “an age / of containment.” The speaker intends to employ these vessels to bottle the ocean, to carve a chunk out of its megalith. He pronounces, “The shape of / language is vigilance.” Although the speaker often denigrates language, he acknowledges its authority over its citizens.

So the speaker alternates between being a feeble critter and a commanding prophet. He seeks to articulate his grandiose thoughts and then escape the page, get the hell out of Dodge.

Is he not the quintessential poet?
Katie Hibner is a confetti canon from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, inter|rupture, Modern Poetry Quarterly Review, Powder Keg, and Word for/Word. She is a reader for Sixth Finch and studies poetry at Bennington College.

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