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Lampedusa: Migrant Tragedy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2021


Tragedies about the suffering of migrants are not a new phenomenon. So this article quickly turns to texts from classical antiquity by Aeschylus and Euripides. It focuses, however, on poetry written over the last decade. Following the routes taken by asylum seekers from Africa and Asia through such transit points as Lampedusa and across Europe to Calais, it looks at depictions of the suffering associated with travel, disaster, and problematic arrival, and at the interaction in tragic writing between old motifs and conventions (tragedy as understood by Aristotle or Hegel) and current issues and resources. Fresh insights are offered into the work of poets from migrant backgrounds (Warsan Shire, Ribkha Sibhatu) and into a range of modes from lyric (James Byrne) through experiments with translation and performance (Caroline Bergvall) into the late modernism of Geraldine Monk, J. H. Prynne, and Jeff Hilson.

© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Aeschylus, Suppliants, lines 112–15, in Aeschylus, Persians. Seven against Thebes. Suppliants. Prometheus Bound, ed. and trans. Alan H. Sommerstein, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

2 Euripides, Children of Heracles, lines 223-5, in Euripides, Children of Heracles. Hippolytus. Andromache. Hecuba, ed. and tr. David Kovacs, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

3 Angeliki Tzanetou, City of Suppliants: Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2012), 1.

4 Peter Sellars’ production of The Children of Heracles (Cambridge, MA, 2003) had refugees sitting on stage; Queens of Syria, an adaptation of The Trojan Women, was performed in Amman, Jordan, in 2013, with a cast of Syrian women refugees, and was widely seen internationally; Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Schutzbefohlenen, an adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, was read to refugees from Lampedusa in St. Pauli Church, Hamburg, where they had been given sanctuary, again in 2013, and the text went on to performances (with or without asylum seekers on the stage) in many theaters in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland. For the context of such productions see S. E. Wilmer, “Cultural Encounters in Modern Productions of Greek Tragedy,” Nordic Theatre Studies 28.1 (2016): 15–26.

5 To google migrant with tragedy is to throw up hundreds of results. Compare Imogen Dobie, “The Essex Lorry Deaths are Not Just “Tragic”: They’re Political,” The Guardian November 9, 2019.

6 Hoxby, Compare Blair, What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Katie Reid, “Q&A: Poet, writer and educator Warsan Shire,” June 21, 2013 (

8 See Compare “Conversations about Home (At the Deportation Centre),” in Teaching my Mother to Give Birth (London: Flipped Eye Publishing, 2011).

9 Murray, Douglas, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 8 Google Scholar.

10 Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life (1912), cited by Murray in The Strange Death of Europe, 3.

11 See, for example, her “Tales of the Central Athens Irregulars,” Times Literary Supplement, October 9, 2019.

12 Stallings, A. E, Like (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018), 100–02, p. 100Google Scholar.

13 Padel, Ruth, The Mara Crossing (London: Chatto and Windus, 2012)Google Scholar.

14 Tony Kushner, “Lampedusa and the Migrant Crisis: Ethics, Representation and History,” Mobile Culture Studies: The Journal 2 (2016), 59–92, p. 64. See Aristotle, Poetics, 1449b, on catharsis as the purging of pity and fear by rousing such emotions.

15 See, with the Italian text. For an alternative, see “In Lampedusa,” trans. André Naffis-Sahely, Modern Poetry in Translation 1 (2016).

16 Bergvall, Caroline, Drift (Brooklyn and Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2014), 25 Google Scholar.

17 Bergvall, Caroline, Meddle English: New and Selected Texts (Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2011)Google Scholar.

18 Bergvall, Drift, 25. Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani, and Situ Studio, Forensic Oceanography: “Left-to-Die Boat” Case (London: Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London, n.d.), 11, 25, 41, 47, 48.

19 Quayson, Ato, “On Worlding Tragedy,” in Etherington, Ben and Zimbler, Jarad, eds., The Cambridge Companion to World Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 149–63, p. 154CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Aristotle, Poetics, 1453a.

21 “Introduction” to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, ed. W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), xxxiv.

22 “Musée des Beaux Arts,” dated December 1938, in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977).

23 Monk, Geraldine, “Author’s Note,” in They Who Saw the Deep (Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2016)Google Scholar.

24The Wolf Interview: Geraldine Monk,” The Wolf 35 (2017): 57–65, p. 59.

25The Wolf Interview,” 58.

26 Jack London, The People of the Abyss (London: Ibister, 1903), 7. A copy of London’s title page, evidently supplied by the poet, can be found in the folders that hold the drafts of Of the Abyss in Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 10144/1648–1649. I am grateful to John Wells for facilitating access to this archive.

27 J. H. Prynne, Of the Abyss (Cambridge: Materials, 2017), sections 1, 5. On these linguistic and formal resources see Prynne’s lectures, “Poetic Thought,” Textual Practice 24 (2010): 595–606 and “Mental Ears and Poetic Work,” Chicago Review 55.4 (Winter 2010): 126–57.

28 A text of this poem is reproduced, along with its major source—in George Anson’s A Voyage Round the World (1748)—in a teaching exercise lodged in the Cambridge University Library folders dedicated to drafts of Of the Abyss.

29 Alluding, for example, to the venal clergy in Milton who neglect the “faithful herdman’s art”: “Look shall now in cost to count hireling shepherd / sea-blind scoop the light ahead,” which leads into a direct quotation from “The Cast-Away,” “and yet no light / propitious shone” (Abyss: 8)—that is, people smugglers who count the profit when shepherding refugees but not the cost in life.

30 See again Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 10144/1648–1649.

31 “across desert / attending traffic long possible fleet” (Abyss: 1).

32 Compare “the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears,” who “slits the thin-spun life,” in “Lycidas.”

33 Ecclesiastes 11:1.

34 “Mental Ears and Poetic Work,” 141.

35 Compare Prynne, “Poetic Thought.”

36 “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young,” The Duchess of Malfi (4.2.250), ed. Brian Gibbons, 5th ed. (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014).

37 William Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra, ed. Michael Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 5.2.316.

38 Stephanie Malia Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), 30.

39 See, for example, Caroline Bergvall, “The Voluntary Returner’s Tale,” in Refugee Tales, vol. 2, ed. David Herd and Anna Pincus (Manchester: Comma, 2017), 63–72, p. 64; Caroline Smith, The Immigration Handbook (Bridgend: Seren, 2016).

40 Bergvall, Refugee Tales, vol. 2, 85–91, p. 89.

41 Michael Agier, et al., The Jungle: Calais’s Camps and Migrants, trans. David Fernbach (Cambridge: Polity, 2019), 8.

42 Murphy, Joe and Robertson, Joe, The Jungle, new ed. (London: Faber, 2018), 67 Google Scholar.

43 Lehóczky, Ágnes and Welsch, J. T., eds., Wretched Strangers: Borders, Movement, Homes (Norwich: Boiler House Press, 2018), 54 Google Scholar.

45 Account of Latanoprost Variations (2017) on the Boiler House Press website.

46 Reprinted from Latanoprost Variations in Lehóczky and Welsch, eds., Wretched Strangers, 125–27.

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