Larry Sawyer reviews
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 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.
. . . my mother leans on her elbows in the winter:
and in ‘Numero XXXIX’:
at agrarian weddings
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
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.
. . . The prison yard
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?)
[Peter Dobai, ‘A European Is Sitting in Front of
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:
and in another one-liner we get:
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,
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.
I drank a lot my guilty conscience was
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]
Jacket 18 — August 2002
This material is copyright © Larry Sawyer
and Jacket magazine 2002