Ulysses Shelter Project: Notes from Isolation

The Ulysses Shelter project got off to promising start when the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in general lockdown and travel restrictions. Some of the participants had just completed their residencies while […]

Posted by Alexandra Büchler on 16 June 2020 Features, Literature Across Frontiers

The Ulysses Shelter project got off to promising start when the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in general lockdown and travel restrictions. Some of the participants had just completed their residencies while others had just started. The Welsh-language poet Grug Muse had been on the Croatian island of Mljet for just a few days when she had to return home because the island effectively cut itself off from the mainland to prevent spread of the virus. The island’s residents kindly offered their hospitality in the event she would not be able to leave or would like to stay, but general travel restrictions across Europe disrupted the entire project and the residency programme had to be paused until further notice. This didn’t mean however that the participating authors stopped being engaged – on the contrary, like all arts organisations, the project partners switched to digital activities.

In Wales, Literature Across Frontiers and Wales Literature Exchange held a meeting between the Welsh writers and those who had chosen Wales as their residency destination. The authors met online and each spoke about their work and gave a reading. Subsequently, a poetry translation workshop with young poets around the Welsh-language Y Stamp magazine and poets in the group of project participants selected for residencies 2020 was held in order for them to translate each other’s work.

Each of the project participants is asked to write a short blog during their residency and here is what Grug Muse wrote after her short stay on the island of Mljet:

English translation follows below

Nodiadau o ymynysiaeth.

Rydw i, yn dechnegol, yn byw ar ynys. Dyna ydi tir mawr Prydain yn y bôn, er nad ydi o wastad yn teimlo felly. Byddai’n cymryd dyddiau i gerdded o un pen i’r ynys i’r llall, er enghraifft. Y brif adeg pan mae Prydain yn teimlo fel ynys ydi pan mae hi’n mynd ati i gau ei ffiniau, i geisio ‘ym-ynysu’ a thorri cysylltiadau gyda’i chymdogion. Bryd hynny, mae’r ynys hon yn teimlo’n fychan a chaethiwus iawn.

Tra gwahanol oedd y profiad o aros ar Ynys Mljet. Gellid cerdded lled yr ynys hon mewn ychydig oriau, a hyd yn oed ei hyd, o Pomena i Saplunara, mewn diwrnod. O gopa un o niferus fryniau’r ynys, o edrych tua’r gogledd a’r dwyrain gellir gweld ynysoedd Lastovo, Korčula a phenrhyn Pelješac, ac weithiau, pan fo’r machlud yn taflu ei gysgod, mae modd dychmygu eich bod chi’n gweld mynyddoedd yr Eidal dros y gorwel i’r de orllewin.

Y mae’r hen bentrefi ar Mljet wedi eu codi yn uchel yn y bryniau, i guddio oddi wrth morladron. Erbyn hyn, mae pentrefi mwy wedi tyfu ar y glannau, wrth i’r morladron gael eu cyfnewid am dwristiaid ar yachts moethus. Mae haenau sawl cenhedlaeth o ymwelwyr a mewnfudwyr yma: gweddillion Rhufeinig yn Polače, mynachod Eidalaidd Ynys Sveta Marjie. Yn ôl y chwedlau, yma hefyd mae ogof y morwr Groegaidd, Odysseus, fuodd yma yng nghwmni Calypso. Ac ar dde’r ynys, basddwr San Pawl, lle’r llongddryllwyd yr apostol o Darsws, Twrci. Heddiw, mae’r traethau wedi gorchuddio a darnau lliwgar o blastig o draethau Albania a Groeg, wedi eu sgubo yma gan y gwyntoedd deheuol.

Ynys fechan sydd wedi gweld dipyn o fynd a dod, a heddiw, sy’n gartref i Ulysses’ Shelter, cynllun sy’n creu rhwydweithiau rhwng llenorion o 5 gwald wahanol- Cymru, Croatia, Slofenia, Serbia a Gwlad Groeg. Mynd ati i gryfhau cysylltiadau, yn hytrach na’u torri, a defnyddio ynys fel pwynt lle mae sawl cerrynt yn cwrdd o sawl cyfeiriad, yn hytrach na thaflu cerrig at gychod yn y dŵr.

Nid mai felly’r oedd hi pan oeddwn i’n Mljet. Bu’n rhaid i mi adael yr ynys yn gynnar, ar un o’r hediadau olaf yn ôl i Brydain, am fod gwledydd Ewrop yn prysur gau eu ffiniau. Ymddangosodd cwch yr heddlu yn nyfroedd yr ynys, i gadw llygaid am gychod yn dod o’r Eidal. Bydd stafelloedd gwesty’r Odisej yn Pomena yn wag yr haf hwn; porthladdoedd Polače a Sobra yn ddistaw.

Notes from isolation.

I, technically, live on an island. That is what mainland Britain is in reality, even if it does not always feel like it. It would take days to walk from one side of the island to the other, for example. The times when it really does feel like an island are those when it goes about trying to close its borders, to attempt to ‘isolate’ itself, and break all connections with its neighbours. At those times, this island can feel very small, and prison-like.

The experience of staying on the island of Mljet, on the other hand, was very different. One could walk the width of this island in a few hours, and even its length, from Pomena to Saplunara, in a day. From the summit of one of its many hills, looking north east you can see the islands of Lastovo, Korčula, and the Pelješac peninsula, and sometimes, when the sunset is casting shadows, it is possible to imagine that you see the mountains of Italy over the horizon to the south west.

All the old villages on Mljet perch high in the hills, to hide from sea marauders. These days, newer villages have developed along the coast, as marauders have been exchanged for tourists on luxury yachts. Many generations of visitors and migrants can be found layered in the land here. Roman remains at Polače, and the monastery of Italian monks on Sveta Marjie Island. According to the legends, this is also home to the cave where the Greek hero Odysseus spent 7 years with Calypso. And in the south of the island, you can find the shallows of Saint Paul, where the Apostol from Tarsus, Turkey, was shipwrecked. Today, the beaches are covered with colourful plastics from the beaches of Albania and Greece, swept here by southerly winds.

It’s a small island that’s seen lots of coming and going, and today it is home to Ulysses’ Shelter, a scheme that creates international networks between writers from five different countries- Wales, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Greece. Strengthening connections, rather than breaking them, and using the island as a meeting point for currents from many directions, rather than as a place where from to throw rocks at boats below.

Not that is was quite like this during my stay. I had to leave the island early, on one of the last flights back to London before Europe closed her borders. A police boat appeared in the island’s waters during my stay, to keep an eye for boats bringing Covid-19 with them from Italy. The rooms of the Odisej hotel in Pomena will be empty this summer; the harbours of Polače and Sobra quiet and still.

Odysseus spent seven years isolating on Mljet, according to the legend. Not of his own volition, naturally. He was there for a while, on the way to somewhere else. It reminds me of another mythological island, Gwales from the Mabinogi, or Grassholm as the island is known in English. Here, 7 warriors, who like Odysseus were returning from a terrible war, spent 80 years captive to the islands magic, isolated from the world.

We here in Wales have only been isolating for about a week. Those of us lucky enough to have homes to retreat to, to weather out the storm, as Roman ships sought shelter in Polače, the safest bay in the Adriatic.

Photo of Grug Muse on Mljet by Matko Abramić.