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Raft of the Medusa: Anthony Labriola

The Raft of the Medusa is a painting (1818–1819) by the French Romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault.


The Refugee Crisis continues to create change across Europe, and many more conversations about it need to take place. In late 2015, the co-founders of ZVONA i NARI created a group called Protiv žice/Proti žici/Contro il filo/Stop the Wire, a collective of artists and other citizens who reject the installation of barbed wire across the Croatia-Slovenia border. It was, and remains, a call for a more humane Europe, and on a larger scale, the removal of other barriers erected unilaterally by certain governments to unjustly restrict human movement.

The event, held at the Dragonja-Kaštel crossing and featuring participants from both countries—on

both sides of the wire—received intense media coverage. The Slovenian authorities were originally opposed to the event, but an open dialogue was able to clear up intentions and the event moved forward. Writers, athletes and others played volleyball and exchanged pieces of writing over the barrier. Nevertheless, an appeal for sanity, compassion and freedom sent more than a year ago has not been answered yet. The wire is still there causing harm to people, animals, plants - the whole environment:

In reading the work of the Canadian poet, Anthony Labriola, we are reminded of the lethal water crossings that have been part of the migrant crisis ever since the very start. The death, the horror, the exploitation. We would like to thank the author for keeping this at the top of mind as Europe continues to struggle with its place on the compassion spectrum, and as it confronts moments to replace fear by trust and understanding.

There is nothing more artificial than a border that can be erected in the middle of the night. There is nothing darker than a stormy sea and no information about the journey ahead. Anthony's work helps to illuminate all of this and more. He sent us some notes contextualizing his work.

"Canada is a nation of immigrants from our First Peoples to the Syrian Refugees and now to those risking their lives to flee the U.S. and cross the northern border to find freedom and acceptance. The immigrant experience is one that I know well. As a little boy, I stood on Pier 21 in Halifax, Canada, with my mother and my two brothers. Behind us was the Atlantic Ocean. Before us was new country on a new continent. We stood with our suitcases and a steamer trunk and stepped into a new life. The first step across any border is cautious, sometimes awkward and difficult, but with that border-crossing, a new life begins in a new world.

In the poem, "Raft of the Medusa," the refugee's song ("Find me, rescue me, hold me, keep me") is a longing for compassion and acceptance. But it is also a heartfelt plea to embrace the personal struggles and moving stories of crossing borders.

The poem, "Sea Dragon," is an evocation of the fear of departure and the anguish of arrival. The image of the little boy who did not make it, his little body washed up on a sandbar, face down next to a policeman's boot, broke my heart. I had him in mind as I wrote the poem. Where is the border? How do we cross it? It was not supposed to be like this. The loss of life is both catastrophic and devastating.

In "Victim or Lost Object," I allude to the Syrian crisis and appeal to people of conscience to "speak" about the borders that divide us... I suggest that we must find a new language in order to speak about the suffering of refugees. The language of fear prevents the crossing and seeks to build walls of exclusion."


Raft of the Medusa

The refugee boat becomes a new Raft of the Medusa.

Already on this side of the waves,

you’re preparing for the transformation, like trying

to collect coins from the bottom of the sea.

Migrant children throw in more coins, upending

a bucket, but the rope snaps in two on the seafloor.

You crank and lift letters out of the sea’s scriptorium, wearing

the habit of a lost alphabet. But when words go missing

in the hull, you write the word rain and substitute it

for sky. Rain sticks revolve to the rise and fall

of a bamboo flute. Then words are made of rain

and raindrops fall at the same instant

in the atmospherics of seagoing weather.

In reams of sameness, self-similar words

carry your refugee’s alphabet

across the Indian ocean to the Pacific

shore. Shipwrecked on the Raft of the Medusa,

you go missing. Everything comes from boatloads

of bitterness on the 13-day odyssey.

Back home in civil war burnt bodies lie facedown in the dirt.

And when sea-wracked bitterness comes from sleepless

nights on board this seasick raft, the result

of rebels, dragonflies and disease,

wind-wrangled voices pray to the call of seabirds.

We’re all ocean spawn. The sea dragon is out

to devour us (as foretold). Will the raft be found at last

in a tangle of snake-haired waves? Sing the refugee

song: Find me, rescue me, hold me, keep me.

Sea Dragon

In the sea change, two atmospheres

are just right for the videotaped escape by raft.

Though they have confiscated your camera

on boarding the vessel, your documenting eyes

shoot wavelengths of footage. Your eyes contain the films

you dream of. As the raft toils between East and West,

in twilight till now, you record the sun-drowned waves

and mirroring sky. With other refugees,

you turn around (in reverse angles) to see

where the surge has been. Freighted with

the sorrow of the beginning in its snake-headed wake,

it determines how to slay the sea monster.

The creature’s tentacles hold you in a coiling

embrace. Then sway lift and toss the human cargo,

toiling up and down in a navigator’s

shipwrecked dream of drowning in the ocean.

All around you with its many arms and so close

that you can’t see it, some say it is

invisible; and others that it is

legend, a sea-wracked figment of dark fears.

The sea dragon raises its winding tail

and lashes the spray of giant waves.

Sky-trafficking clouds fly past in long shots.

Hundreds more turn away from the blood red

horizon of your borderless and lost homeland.

Victim or Lost Object

In one of the 7 plots of all life’s stories, you flip words

you flip words, like two-headed coins, with gamblers

and other storytellers. To determine

the outcome, you toss heads or tails

in the falling action. Victim or lost object,

you pay the price for the failure to change.

So do arrow-headed words that pierce the heart.

But yours do not fail, especially along migrating

shores as refugee boats cast out to sea.

What’s the word for that wordless little boy

who dropped from the exodus and washed up

on a sandbar facedown close to a policeman’s boot?

Do you have a word or two for the little

Syrian girl, small hands held high in surrender,

who believed the photojournalist’s camera was a gun?

Say something heroic about Aleppo.

Still, that’s been said before in the blood red

testament of war. Or turn your cat-got

tongue into a didgeridoo. Coming

from you, even a single note will do.

Some call it mean. Others call it meaning.

We’ve had your ticklish silence that says:

I don’t know how I did it, what I did,

what I sang, what I said. I’m a victim, too.

Now hold your peace or speak your piece. Open your yap,

yawp or spew out one blissful syllable:

a flimmering sound like u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u.

Or speak the name of the song-poet that left

the table and blew out the flame, beyond

the Nobel Prize, like the silence of the stars.


Anthony Labriola studied at the University of Toronto and received a B.A. in English and French, a B.Ed. in English and Dramatic Arts, and an M.A. from the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama. He taught English and Drama for 32 years, and then went on to teach Life Writing and College English at Seneca College in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He lives in Toronto with his endlessly amazing family. Some of Anthony Labriola’s works have appeared in The Canadian Forum, Prism international, Lo Staniero, Primitive Grace, Vallum Magazine, Stone Voices, Still Point, and Passion: Poetry. His published works include: a poetry collection entitled The Rigged Universe, published by Shanti Arts; a poetry collection entitled Sun Dogs, published by Battered Suitcase Press; a novella, Devouring the Artist, and two collections of stories, The Pros & Cons of Dragon-Slaying, and Poor Love & Other Stories, published by Anaphora Literary Press in 2014. Invisible Mending, a poetry collection, is out now. His tribute to Dylan Thomas, “Missing Dylan,” was selected for inclusion in The Color of Saying, a celebration of the Welsh poet’s life and work. He is the recipient of the Toronto Literary Arts Grant for a work-in-progress, The Blessing of the Bikes & Other Life-Cycles, published by Anaphora Literary Press in April 2015. The Japanese Waltzing Mouse & Other Tales appeared in August 2016, published by Cranberry Tree Press. A new novella, The Lonely Barber, will be out in June 2017. A new collection of poetry, Bird & Arrows, to be published by Shanti Arts Press, will be out in 2017.

Author photo by Joanna Labriola.

Media photo by Nel Pavletic/PIXSELL.

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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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