Here Was by John Portelli

John Portelli’s new collection of poetry Here Was, pierces the zeitgeist of what it means to inhabit that razorblade-thin realm of the foreign.

Zooming in on moments and encounters during travel in the poet’s homeland of Malta as well as the Middle East, Europe and Canada, the poems draw us in by engaging all our senses, leaving us spellbound by the sweetness of cardamom among the debris, and to hear the sweet cry of the women who sell mint, to smell the stink of death, comforted only by the poppies that grow unceasingly and the olive tree in yesterday’s square.

In this poetic journey, the soul hyperbolically reflects on the past and the present, as through a prism. A sensorial trove of poetic language juxtaposes the eternal beauty of the world with the pain of human precariousness, loss, displacement, and helplessness in the face of iniquity and war. Here was a Palestinian city/ a nation erased.

Place, identity, belonging, are the central preoccupations of these poems. The human heart longing for that paradisiacal Elysium which was mother, home, country: a place which was, but is no more, at least not as it was when it was our shell, except for in memories.

To be a foreigner, a life forever unbonded with this land, untuned notes, strange accents, the irony of“have a nice day.” In Traveling the world my soul does not think, does not, most likely exist, though it feels and understands. The poet coheres a rational view of the world which mitigates the raw pain of the trauma of displacement.

Global citizens gain an expanded awareness and sense of affiliation to simultaneous cultures, but to nature and the essence of people most of all. They are human beings looking at the world from the outside in, as observers, every place equal in the end, because in time one learns to carry the only place one craves inside oneself. Yearning here and there they migrate without a passport, place or anchor/infinite/ without frontier. The past lingers in the mind however: your voices still echo through foreign tongue and winter cold.

This book is important and necessary. The poems spoke to me with their immediacy. I was on that transatlantic journey to Canada too, that soul-jarring, drowsy landing of the dream: Toronto, among relatives and friends on Dundas. John Portelli’s words reminded me of myself as: an inchoate conglomerate of experiences, hopes and memories; a child moving through space and time without much of a rudder, but aspirations; a child longing for what once was; cohering meaning by writing and delving into the mystery of being; alone in the midst of multitudes, in the midst of the incomprehensible, unavoidably nostalgic for what once was; a child standing witness of the debris, of the ruins of what was once whole, declaring here was.


John P. Portelli was born in Malta where after completing a B.A. (Philosophy & Maltese, 1975) he taught history and modern languages at a secondary school and philosophy at a junior college. In 1977 he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship and commenced his studies at McGill University from where he obtained an M.A. (1979) and a Ph.D. (1984).

Currently, he is a professor in the Department of Social Justice Education at OISE, University of Toronto. He is Co-director of the Centre for Leadership and Diversity and a fellow of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Word & Deed Publishing Inc. (Aug. 7 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 112 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1777345480
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1777345488