Mathias Svalina’s THE WINE-DARK SEA


The Wine-Dark Sea, by Mathias Svalina. Sidebrow, May 2016. 76 pages. $15.00, paper.

Taking its name from one of Homer’s most enigmatic and contentiously debated epithets, The Wine-Dark Sea, Mathias Svalina’s fifth book, is comprised of seventy-six poems, each bearing the collection’s title. The nod to Homer, as well as the opening epigraph by Diogenes, lends itself to drawing a connection with another leading figure of the Greek tradition, Heraclitus, who famously proclaimed “You cannot step twice into the same stream.” Though serialized, the poems seem more like different points of entry into the same tempestuous and capacious psyche than a progression of narrative or ideas. Sparse and constructed through load-bearing images, the poems—whose content varies from the abstract (“Speaksalt / night”) to straightforward admissions (“I can’t remember when / I decided to kill myself”)—act as prisms, refracting the myriad desires, anxieties, and wanderings of a consciousness attempting to simultaneously construct and escape from itself.

The central concerns of presence, limitation, self-realization, and connection in The Wine-Dark Sea are brought to the fore in the opening pages of the book:

I am trying
to be simple as ink.

I talk to you
in the daylight.

At night
I try not to

There is so much
I can’t form
that is true.

Celan said this
to Ilana Shmeuli:

Through you I translate you over to me.

Beginning with the simplicity of intent, or the intent for simplicity, the poem is quickly problematized by the introduction of the relationship between the self and other. The complexity of expressing truth (and the speaker’s limitations, presented through rhetoric of construction) will fuel much of the further explorations and excavations within the book. The snippet from Celan is one of few direct quotes, and it acts as a provocation for the speaker’s project, which could be phrased as “Through whom do I translate me over to me?” (Celan continues to haunt the pages of The Wine-Dark Sea through Svalina’s idiosyncratic portmanteaus: “moonceasing,” “nightcoughs,” “nightnothing,” “deathgains.”)

The prevailing argument seems to be that there is much preventing the speaker from fully inhabiting the self. Svalina draws the reader’s attention to these blockages from the very start. He writes, “I want to show you / what I saw / in the glass. // Let’s unbury everything / clotted / with nests.” When finally we come to a moment of communion, where connection is realized, it stands in contrast to the “age // of containment” that pervades throughout:

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.

Aside from the revelatory unveiling of the metonymy of the book’s central image, this passage enacts the speaker’s persistent, deep urge to take part of an identity larger than the self. This moment of sharing and being shared arrives as a breath of fresh air. There is a joyous solidarity in proclaiming “they and I are the wine-dark sea,” but that momentary joy does not alleviate solitude. This is perhaps most evident when Svalina writes, “I am on the island / that speaks a language / I can only understand.” Though the speaker is able to take in language, it does not find ready release: “a choked / throat sings / only numbers.” This points to an imbalanced relationship of consumption and expulsion, which becomes a leitmotif for the book: “I made my mouth / of this lead, / this trembling medicine, an alley unsaid.” When the speaker does speak—particularly in a time of crisis in which he plays a central role—it is through image:

I see my father

in the moment
of his death.

My mother in white.
I vanish as I appear.

I open my mouth
& stone spills out.

Because of this, points of connection—often represented through bridges, chains, and the roots of trees—are laden with a particularly heavy significance. Svalina’s spare poems are at their most enigmatic and evocative when considering this desire to reach into the interstices. The poems buzz with possibility, but we rarely see it play out. Instead, Svalina focuses on the moments before and after action, in which “We tremble.” This creates a complex dynamic, in which the poems are located on the periphery, passing through the margins, rather than acting upon the world:

I try to write myself
a price tag:

I always assumed
I’d die alone
on the edge
of a page,

flesh so soft
a fingernail would
burst the skin.

The effect of all this nervous energy, this “trembling” that occurs throughout the book, is an understanding of the world as an amalgam of many agents and stories, in which The Wine-Dark Sea is just a part. Svalina nods to Homer and the history of the epic through his title, but then challenges and interrogates it by casting his speaker to the margins. The resulting poems, written in image-heavy, staccato lines, call to mind the works of twentieth-century modernists. Yet they do not fall easily within this tradition, as they risk a more transparent mining of the interior than those poets allowed. At times the poems miss their mark, and the internal logic can feel overly hermetic: “The hum, yes, that corruption. // That rot / at play. // Beneath me, / Easter. // Meanwhile, a PO box.” However, Svalina’s insistence on digging into the self in order to show us what lies “in the glass” pays off. Taken as a whole, the poems of The Wine-Dark Sea leave readers with the impression of a sweeping coastline, whose beauty and peril is readily felt but is impossible parse neatly into individual waves or lines. Mathias Svanila’s poetry, with its attention to the borders of sound and image, delves deep into the interior of an anxiety-riddled self and, despite the difficulty associated with rendering it in a manner “simple as ink,” emerges with a grace and power so that we cannot help but note “the song always on // the radio, / the radio // always on.”

Buy The Wine-Dark Sea at Amazon

Buy The Wine-Dark Sea at Small Press Distribution

Buy The Wine-Dark Sea at Sidebrow


Nicholas Carlos Fuenzalida is originally from Denver, Colorado, but now lives in New York. The recipient of a Goldwater Writing in the Hospitals fellowship, he assists as a producer for the podcast Commonplace: Conversations with Poets and Other People. His poetry can be found in Bodega, Rust + Moth, Potluck Magazine, and is forthcoming from Cleaver Magazine and the Indianola Review.

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