Nominated for the National Book Prize 2020
Linger in the obscuring waves of Lethe
Shed all you’ve been so you can start anew
For none is born until we can remember
But oblivion is the ground that breeds debut
So dip your toes and taste the silky sweetness
That loss of memory and self can bring
And find yourself along the banks of Lethe
And teach your heart again its song to sing
Lethe is the mythical river of antiquity where departed souls would cleanse themselves by bathing in oblivion in order to forget their earthly exploits before moving on to their next journeys. As a lyric metaphor, oblivion might seem like a curious place to seek the poetry of memory. Yet, it was precisely Lethe’s mythical course that marked a line of demarcation between the worlds, a place where memory and forgetting gently flowed back into the pure essence of simple being. As a medium, poetry is designed to invoke a flow of essence, and exceptional poetry is always characterized by the successful convergence of those two elements – flow and essence. That is exactly what Louise Vella has achieved in her first published work.
With themes ranging from love and death (and their inseparability), doubt and growth, femininity and emergence, from the deeply personal to even the powerfully political, Vella intersperses courage, tristesse, anguish and yearning alongside her inimitable humor, whim and joy. She thereby creates for us a world that we would want to live in. That world is most certainly not a safe space or a place for the fainthearted, but it is a place that surely draws any of us seeking to experience the fecundity of life as more than just a profane act of being alive.
Set against a background of Hellenic motifs, Lethe employs numerous symbolic, classical and even mystical archetypes. Make no mistake, however. There are no trite anachronisms here, and this work is actually ultra-contemporary in its vista. Where Vella does engage in traditional structures and rhyme schemes, she does so not merely as a convenient stylistic nod to the underpinning element of antiquity present in the book. Rather, it seems clear that Vella knows exactly what she is doing at every step of the way with nothing left to chance, as she quite consciously – and sometimes by way of adverse possession – appropriates and sometimes even weaponizes elements of romanticism and beauty, not to make her poems more beautiful or pleasant but, to the contrary, to make them so highly effective in conveying her truth.
Dr George L Mehren M.Sc.