The Wine-Dark Sea, by Mathias Svalina
There is a lot we take for granted. This is not an indictment of anyone – in this age of information it is impossible for everything to stay relevant to everyone. But it is something to be accounted for, because its effects can be more profound than we can appreciate. For example, when William Gladstone counted the mentions of colors in Homer’s epic “The Odyssey”, he found that there wasn’t a single mention of the color we call “blue”. In fact, there may very well be no ancient Greek stories that contain the word or its concept. Blue is something we take for granted. We are surrounded by it every day in our water and in our skies and, despite this near omnipresence, it is rendered by our minds as background information. It is believed that the Greeks did not have a notion of the color blue, that they might not have even seen what we see as blue. Homer described the sea in his Odyssey as “wine-dark”, and this is where Mathias Svalina gets the title and ethos of his collection, The Wine-Dark Sea. But Svalina’s work is so much more than a clever title – it embodies the exposure of that which we take for granted, the information lost in the imperfect nature of communication, and the novelty and significance of seeing the world through another’s eyes.
The structure of The Wine-Dark Sea is our first resonant presentation of the theme and tone of the overall work. There are seventy-six poems, each no longer than a single page and yet wholly owning their own spaces, each sharing their title with the collection itself. The effects of this are fascinating. As one glances at the table of contents, seeing the repeating title over and over again creates a kind of literary metronome that at once links the poems and gives the reader a taste of mystery, encouraging the reader to delve and pry and find out what makes these pieces different from one another. The physical act of turning or scrolling through pages as you read and seeing the title repeated over different poems, each with unique forms and curious observations, reminds one of the tide, continually rolling in again and again with familiarity and strangely new configurations.
a comb with teeth
Around me the white
draws a ring,
The choices of language and imagery in The Wine-Dark Sea continually reinforces this contradiction in a truly engaging fashion. Unlike the ancient Greeks, contemporary readers definitely have a concept of blue and the idea of a “wine-dark sea” can be unnatural for many of us, leading to both a beautiful strangeness and a sense of foreboding. There is an undeniable taste of hope in stanzas such as “My utopia opens / from both directions: the beautiful line, / the glossy rind.” But dark wine shares colors with blood and infections, noted in lines such as “That rot / at play” and “Yet water / continues to reflect / the black pain / of mountains”. From poem to poem, and even from line to line, there are repeated and random jumps as the speaker(s) regard their vivid, vibrant surroundings with seemingly contradictory ideas. There is an attempt to regard the forest and its trees simultaneously, and it stretches the capacity of the speaker(s) to engage with it. The fear and the need are deeply personal and vulnerably intimate, often confessional or conspiratorial in nature.
While I may be harping on the connection to Homer’s epic too much, I cannot help but feel that there is a strong reflection between the speaker(s) of this poem and the figures of that ancient tale. If one assumes that there is a single speaker, then The Wine-Dark Sea attempts the same thing that Ulysses did, another attempt to reimagine the struggle of a single individual in the face of vast and daunting forces. But unlike the Odyssey, this collection and its speaker(s) are acutely aware of the flaws – “When the drugs wear off / I am the car / beneath the tarp.” Flipping that perspective on its head, if one assumes each poem has its own speaker, then there are poems that sing like sirens and lament like souls trapped in Hades. And the borders between the those individuals, as well as those between them and the speakers, fall away as quickly as they appear – “In the sun I carry / everyone I know & I / am carried on their backs / They are the wine-dark sea. And I / am the wine-dark sea.” In becoming the wine-dark sea, their blood mixes and becomes indistinguishable. People are rendered into both obstacle and companion, making them immediately complex and forcing the reader to consider their layers.
Though The Wine-Dark Sea is not long, I highly recommend taking your time with it. Like all quality minimalist poetry, the language here is extremely dense and open to interpretation. Rather like water, it aggressively resists further compression and yet flows in a way that feels very natural. The collection does an amazing job at feeling like both a compilation and a complete work, fluidly moving back and forth between the two depending on the angle of perspective. More than likely, that is one of the primary points of the work. Light heavily refracts through water, and that water only appears as blue or wine-dark in our minds. There is nothing inherently “real” to either idea. We are encouraged to read of the pain and pleasure of The Wine-Dark Sea and be reminded of our uniqueness, both as a thing to be cherished and a force for which we must compensate.
The Wine-Dark Sea is available now through Sidebrow Books.