Na­ture’s way con­ceals mys­ter­ies of the lost city

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - James Bradley

Meet Me in At­lantis: My Ob­ses­sive Quest to Find the Sunken City By Mark Adams Text Pub­lish­ing, 306pp, $32.99 We live in a mo­ment when tech­nol­ogy seems to be un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies of the past at dizzy­ing speed. Be­tween satel­lite im­agery and com­puter anal­y­sis, hardly a week goes by with­out some­body an­nounc­ing they’ve found the rest­ing place of Cervantes or lo­cated yet an­other lost city hid­den in the jun­gles of Ecuador, or nut­ted out how long Ne­an­derthals breast­fed their chil­dren (seven months, in case you’re won­der­ing).

Yet if there’s one mys­tery of the an­cient world that re­mains stub­bornly elu­sive, it’s that of At­lantis, the “great and mar­vel­lous power” de­scribed by Plato that was sup­pos­edly lost when the is­land on which it stood sank into the ocean. Did the mag­nif­i­cent city re­ally ex­ist? If it did, where was it? And what ex­actly hap­pened to it?

Th­ese aren’t ques­tions many se­ri­ous his­to­ri­ans or arche­ol­o­gists lose sleep over. Yet the same ques­tions are an ob­ses­sion for a small but ded­i­cated band of am­a­teur ex­perts, as Amer­i­can writer Mark Adams dis­cov­ered when he be­came fas­ci­nated by the lost city while re­search­ing a se­ries of ar­ti­cles about the great philoso­phers.

Whether At­lantis be­came an ob­ses­sion for Adams as well is an open ques­tion. Although he de­scribes be­com­ing in­fected by the “contagion” early on in Meet Me in At­lantis, he never re­ally suc­cumbs in the way many of his sub­jects have, re­tain­ing in­stead a re­as­sur­ingly scep­ti­cal per­spec­tive.

This scep­ti­cism gives Adams the dis­tance he needs to un­ravel the com­plex and of­ten con­tra­dic­tory tex­tual, his­tor­i­cal, arche­o­log­i­cal and — sig­nif­i­cantly, it turns out — math­e­mat­i­cal el­e­ments of the At­lantis myth and trans­form them into some­thing that at least re­sem­bles a de­tec­tive story.

One by one the var­i­ous can­di­dates are as­sessed: Malta, Crete, the lost Greek city of He­like, the foothills of Morocco’s At­las Moun­tains and, per­haps most tan­ta­lis­ingly, the an­cient city of Tartes­sos, which was lo­cated in what is now the Donana Na­tional Park on the Span­ish coast near Cadiz.

Adams’s treat­ment of this as­pect of his story is never less than en­ter­tain­ing, but there’s no stance is never far from a her­metic re­nun­ci­a­tion of pol­i­tics. Many po­ems turn on a twin im­pulse: to med­i­tate on one’s wis­dom or lack of it — the es­sen­tial empti­ness of the Bud­dhist teach­ing — ver­sus the im­pulse to fight for so­cial jus­tice and avoid­ing the fact sus­tain­ing the mys­tery of At­lantis’s where­abouts for al­most 300 pages re­quires a fair bit of cre­ative foot­work, es­pe­cially around the ques­tions of how lit­er­ally we are to take the “facts” as Plato de­scribes them.

Sen­si­bly, there­fore, Meet Me in At­lantis is as much about the peo­ple ob­sessed with the lost city as it is about the knot­tier ques­tions about its ex­is­tence or oth­er­wise, those peo­ple who be­come, to bor­row a phrase from one of Adams’s sub­jects, pos­sessed by the sub­ject, “their minds … fired with a con­tin­u­ous fever”.

This fo­cus gives the books a won­der­fully hu­man edge. Like Jon Ron­son, Adams is ego­less enough to al­low his sub­jects the space they need to un­furl their the­o­ries, and by ex­ten­sion their ec­cen­tric­i­ties. In places that is charm­ing, as in Malta, where he meets a pe­di­a­tri­cian who is also the lead­ing ex­po­nent of the the­ory At­lantis was in fact part of Malta, a man whose all-too ob­vi­ous gen­eros­ity and good na­ture can­not dis­guise his re­fusal to coun­te­nance the prob­lems with his the­o­ries.

At other times it is frankly bizarre, as when At­lantol­o­gist Rand Flem-Ath (his sur­name is an amal­gam of his own name and that of his wife) launches into an ex­pla­na­tion of his the­ory that the con­ti­nents of the Earth go through pe­ri­odic stages of sud­den con­vul­sive change, a process that sup­pos­edly re­sulted in the con­ti­nent on which At­lantis once stood mi­grat­ing to Antarc­tica just un­der 12,000 years ago.

And some­times they are both touch­ing and re­veal­ing.

“I have given up on find­ing work,” one of Adams’s At­lantol­o­gists con­fides in him. “Two equal­ity. He has po­ems sat­u­rated with quiet and sad res­ig­na­tion, in the man­ner of Wang Wei, Tu Fu or Li Bo; and he has grum­bling, bit­ter po­ems of in­dig­na­tion, as di­rect as a protest song, their dic­tion there­fore run­ning the risk of be­ing hack­neyed.

Be­tween th­ese two poles, most of the po­ems of Habi­ta­tion dwell. Their canny ne­go­ti­a­tion of the two poles is what gives Hamill’s oeu­vre its stamp of lit­er­ary qual­ity and en­dur­ing po­lit­i­cal bite.

The first few col­lec­tions con­tained in Habi­ta­tion earth­ily evoke the Utah Hamill knew as a dam­aged kid — ‘‘the dif­fi­cult beauty of my boy­hood’’, as he wryly puts it. Hamill’s typ­i­cal form of ad­dress has the demo­cratic ethos Walt Whit­man wanted of po­etry. Yet all along there is, as with Whit­man, the soli­tary, in-turned voice within an open field of speech. He is ‘‘al­most fifty’’ and ‘‘al­most over­come with lone­li­ness and grat­i­tude’’, when he ru­mi­nates on Whit­man’s Leaves of Grass: It is spring, full moon in a cloud­less sky af­ter a long dark win­ter, a year af­ter an­other stupid war. Maybe th­ese years ago I learned I have Asperger’s syn­drome. It is a mild form of autism.”

Yet in the end it isn’t the mys­tery of the city’s ex­is­tence and lo­ca­tion or the per­son­al­i­ties that are most in­ter­est­ing about Meet Me in At­lantis but the sense that buried some­where in its fab­ric is an­other, larger set of mys­ter­ies.

Some­times th­ese are as sim­ple as an oceanog­ra­pher’s ob­ser­va­tion that rapid sea level rises at the end of the last Ice Age prob­a­bly sub­merged not just the oc­ca­sional set­tle­ment but the ev­i­dence for the ex­is­tence of many cul­tures world­wide.

But it’s equally present in an an­thro­pol­o­gist’s re­marks about the way our ob­ses­sion with ter­res­trial arche­ol­ogy blinds us to the un­con­sol­ing stars know the se­cret names we can­not know … A Leaf

It is hard to find a note of po­lit­i­cal con­so­la­tion in Habi­ta­tion. There are vivid, love po­ems, and their limpid, naked speech is con­so­la­tion of a kind. But those ex­pe­ri­ences are mostly tran­si­tory. The ‘‘true peace’’, as he writes in a poem of that ti­tle, comes to him as he is ‘‘half­bro­ken’’ on ‘‘a smoky night, hunched over sake in a ser­vice­man’s dive’’: he finds him­self con­tem­plat­ing news of the monk burning him­self to death in Saigon. He won­ders what it can pos­si­bly mean to make a sac­ri­fice, to give one’s life with such hor­ror, but with dig­nity and con­vic­tion.

In the long­est po­ems in Habi­ta­tion Hamill strives to work ev­ery­thing out at once: his­tor­i­cal wounds, the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the dead, the re­bar­ba­tive pol­i­tics, one’s dam­aged heart, the cli­mate of opin­ion, the cli­mate it­self — the po­et­ics, in fact, of the to­tal­ity.

The best of th­ese are tours de force of lyri­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tion and al­lu­sion. A Pisan Canto, for ex- so­phis­ti­ca­tion of an­cient mariners, and, per­haps most po­tently the de­gree to which hu­man his­tory, like that of the Earth more gen­er­ally, has been shaped not by grad­ual devel­op­ment but by sud­den catas­tro­phes in the form of vol­ca­noes, tsunamis and even me­teor strikes.

Or, as a Span­ish nat­u­ral­ist re­marks to Adams at one point, in words that will res­onate for many in a world in which a trans­formed cli­mate seems like­lier ev­ery day, “in the end na­ture erases ev­ery­thing … I think that’s the real story of At­lantis. No mat­ter how big and pow­er­ful you get, you can dis­ap­pear like that.” am­ple, shines as a crit­i­cal lament re­gard­ing Ezra Pound — no mean feat for a left­ist to pull off.

The older Hamill has grown, the more deft the ‘‘wis­dom’’ state­ments threaded through­out. My favourite col­lec­tion, Bor­der Songs (2011), is his most re­cent: it is sat­u­rated with grief for the death of his wife and in­formed by the stud­ied hu­mil­ity that be­comes a sage, al­beit a sad, rather em­bit­tered one. “What is true peace, I can­not know … mine’s the heart that burns …’’ We come to this a few lines af­ter read­ing about Shel­ley’s heart that ‘‘re­fused to burn’’.

It has to be said, I sup­pose, that over­all Hamill is a ro­man­tic poet in ex­tremis. Hence his mor­bid ten­den­cies, which are not al­ways al­le­vi­ated by Eastern teach­ings. But it’s a mis­take to fo­cus too much on the solem­ni­ties. Here is Road Hog Su­tra, a poem from back down Hamill’s track, in the mid­dle of his dark wood, as it were. Bod­hid­harma’s face — big bushy brow and long beard and dan­gling ear­ring — on my lapel pin prompts a postal worker to ask, “Hey! Who’s that biker you got there?”

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