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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Underwater Archeology

Larry Sawyer reviews
Swimming in the Ground: Contemporary Hungarian Poetry

Translated and edited by Gabor G. Gyukics and Michael Castro
Neshui Publishing, 2001, 166 pages, ISBN: 1-931190-26-7

We first become acquainted with Swimming in the Ground: Contemporary Hungarian Poetry, with a poem by Zsofia Balla of the same title. Although I have been familiar with the work of Katalin Ladik, which is also included in the anthology, this poem is my introduction to contemporary Hungarian poetry, and it strikes me as odd for all the right reasons. The same could be said of most all of the work represented by this thin tome. In ‘Swimming In the Ground’ Balla writes:

A man is swimming in the ground
The hills are waves
wrinkling with his sinking mouth . . .
The man is swimming, determinedly swimming.
From the sky, with a wooden shovel,
dirt is being thrown at him—
he is being watched. [p. 1]

     The inconclusive ending of this poem sets an appropriate tone for the wide swath of work included in the anthology. Gabor G. Gyukics and Michael Castro, the editors of this book, state in the preface that their intention is to show a cross-section of contemporary Hungarian poetry, with the exclusion of the poetry of Attila Jozsef. This is a forgivable omission, in that Jozsef lived nearer the beginning of the twentieth century. Their aim is to play provocateur, by showing the evolution of the Hungarian aesthetic since Jozsef’s monumental example. What we are given is a wide-ranging palette of styles and variations on the theme of making sense of the post-communist world. These poets incorporate all of the tricks-of-the-trade of post-modern poetry such as Cubism, Surrealism, expressionism, and even Eastern styles such as haiku. As witnesses to Cold War atrocities and the malignant bureaucracies erected to prevent their recurrence, these poets must write their way out and toward a fusion that makes sense of a nonsensical world.
    The specter of Surrealist method looms large throughout this book, but it is of a homegrown variety. These are examples of a largely visual poetry, meaning that these translations create vivid portraits and depict moodscapes of captured moments spent sitting in limbo. Attila Balogh in ‘Numero XXXV’ writes:

. . . my mother leans on her elbows in the winter:
she shelters an avalanche under her shawl,
little-girl-pennies cough on her apron,
the lungs also crouch behind the fence of ribs
and there they pant, like women’s bellies. [p. 7]

and in ‘Numero XXXIX’:

at agrarian weddings
technicians of fornication
unwrap and stir pleasure
from under the coolness of skirts, [p. 10]

     An undercurrent of the Old World clashing with the new exists throughout the text. The poem called ‘Gypsy Law’ by Karoly Bari is worth citing in its entirety, because it sheds light on the daily challenges that these poets face.

They fear the word, when it is true, when it charges
they fear the paper carved up by flames,
the world of blood stuffed puppets’ compliments
the true word shackled.
Again his lungs are tortured by the lovely spring:
its flower-charmed light reed whistles,
a sadness tears my black face:
neither a temple, nor a tavern can conceal me
from them.
Who stands trial on the misty rocks?
An indefensible word is needed for the charge,
and the only ones who can speak indefensibly
are those who can write mystery with their silence. [p. 11]

    I take the above poem as a declaration of an instinctual fear of language by those who have been abused by it; words can distort, tyrannize, expose, and exploit. There is no hiding place from the power of language. Neither alcohol, nor religion can save us. The only real defense is silence. But these poets know that silence is only a false truce. They still have, however, a reverential faith in language. They must write what they know of silence, which is one of the challenges of well-written poetry.
    Not being able to read Hungarian, I’m left to surmise that much of the poetry in the colloquialisms of these poets’ efforts was left out to sea, while the translations marched up alone onto dry land. I make this claim because the grammar and syntax used in a few of the selections leave me wondering if there might have been another solution to the problem of translating these clever originals. Regardless, the gist of each poem shines through in these translations by Gyukics and Castro and reveals the subtle topography of each poet’s mind.
    What keeps one turning the pages of this anthology, too, are the surprises one finds on each page. Laszlo Bertok writes in ‘Two Women’:

. . . The prison yard
falls forward. Between two needle heads
rises the heavenly
sand dollar. Neil Armstrong’s
footsteps are still visible. Things
should be licked into their places
when they are around. What can I say? Two women
in the Moon. They are happy. And stirringly
beautiful. [p. 14]

     Europe, historically, has been a breeding ground for strife in the twentieth century. The propaganda machine now, however, has a new face and a televised body:

. . . it is Sunday now (who knows?)
Palm Sunday maybe, or pussywillow consecration,
maybe Waterloo, maybe Stalingrad, Smolensk,
maybe Captain Scott just reached the Antarctic,
maybe Berlin fell, but Berlin’s linden-trees
are still alive,
believe the words and smiles of these pretty women
who appear
on the blue TV screen,
believe that no amount of squandering could hurt this
lovely world,
do not turn the TV off, why would you be the one to end
the lie,
the massacre?

[Peter Dobai, ‘A European Is Sitting in Front of
a TV Screen,’ p. 16]

     Akos Fodor’s poetry lens takes in smaller vistas. His staccato outbursts provide a stark contrast to the Whitmanesque, worldly visions represented by the others included in this anthology. In ‘From the Best of Intentions’ he writes:

fall asleep;
die the same way a child
bites into an apple. [p. 29]

and in another one-liner we get:

I plan it as a farewell [p. 30]

This is what makes the anthology such a varied pleasure. There are many gradations among what the poets represented here consider poetry. These poets know what they are doing and what to reject in order to maintain their art. Agnes Gergely in ‘Whitmanesque’ writes:

Botticelli’s Venus, a peacock feather,
A bunch of asters, still smells like a cemetery—
I prefer the subway’s phony blood-red seats:
let me live [p. 38]

This, in fact, could serve as the credo of many of the poets included in the anthology. The men and women of this anthology are breaking new ground and looking toward the future, but all the while they are aware of their collective past; they cannot escape it, in fact.
Lajos Parti Nagy in ‘Becomes a Small Machine’ states:

I drank a lot my guilty conscience was
more than the next day could handle
I grasped this thanks to the explanation of my
white fingers . . .
I was ignorant, blind-dubious
and I reacted as I learned about it
without finding myself, in my steady hands I
oozed away
into poems if I ever existed
into lyrics I admired through the poems . . .
and the intellect, if there is any . . .
that it happened inside her with me
is because a poem is not an intellectual clumsiness
the poem belongs to something that leaves
during an operation
becomes a small machine buzzing and flitting . . . [p. 85]

     These poets, most of whom are in their late fifties, have seen enough of life. They are not blind or ignorant. Let’s hope they continue their analysis of what ails this world. We have everything to gain by considering these forays into consciousness. This book is a cause for celebration, because it brings their work to light for an Anglo audience. In the words of Tibor Zalan: ‘Something has begun, as if right now.’ [p.150]

Larry Sawyer is editor of milk magazine at

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