Review of New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation

by Anna Lewis published in The Hungarian Quarterly

Coming Home to a Different Place

George Szirtes, ed., New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation. Translated by Richard Berengarten, Thomas Cooper, Antony Dunn, George Gömöri, David Hill, Matthew Hollis, Ágnes Lehóczky, Kevin Nolan, Clare Pollard, Owen Sheers, George Szirtes, Christopher Whyte, Clive Wilmer and Peter Zollmann. Todmorden: Arc Publications, 297 pp.

In October 2004 during the Manchester Poetry Festival, I attended a lively reading by a group of young Hungarian and British poets who were taking part in an exchange project called Converging Lines, organised by the British Council. The poets had worked together in Hungary to translate each other"s poems, and published a pamphlet of the results. Now the project has culminated in the publication of New Order, a full-length anthology of Hungarian poetry in translation. A long time in the making, then, this collection is presented as "the first major gathering of the younger poets of Hungary", a showcase to the English-speaking world.
The book's sub-title is "Hungarian poets of the post 1989 generation", a statement that immediately impresses a certain character on the twelve poets whose work is contained inside. We might approach the collection expecting writers who are defined and distinguished by the fall of the Berlin Wall. The reality is more complicated. To begin with, it is arguable whether these poets are indeed "of the post 1989 generation". All were born considerably before 1989, the oldest in the early 1960s, the youngest in the mid-1970s. Some published books in the 1980s. All have experienced life on both sides of 1989. We can perhaps understand these poets better as those of a transitional generation, who spent enough of their youth under Soviet rule to be aware of the changes that have taken place in Hungary, and elsewhere in Europe, since the Wall's collapse.
This does not mean, however, that the poets in this collection write explicitly about the social and political changes that have taken place in Europe over the past few decades. In fact, there is little overtly political writing. One of the few poets here who writes directly about history and conflict is János Térey, although his poems reach back into the Second World War. Several of his poems explore the bombing of Dresden, and combine an impassioned tone with original imagery:

A colossal rug will descend on Dresden
and impose its own pattern on the town.
(What Would Have Happened, If...")

Many of his poems here are on themes of destruction and cruelty, but the style is fresh and avoids polemic. In "The Circus", Térey tells of someone who, fleeing to the park to avoid the Dresden bombs, encounters

a tiger escaped from the circus:
It was the hour of the second attack.
It snuggled up to me, trembling,
allowing itself to be fondled. Poor thing.
It was more frightened than I was.

Filled with dangers and escapes, the poem has the sinister charm of a children's story.
Childhood images, inverted with threat, also occur in the poems of István Kemény. "Hide and Seek" begins in a tone of excitement:

I zoom off down to the hide-and-seek place
and hide on a step in the hide-and-seek stairwell...

before revealing the adult narrator, cowering

... like a terrified animal
till all the children have been discovered
and chant in unison demanding
that I be found out as well...

Danger is concealed inside cosiness, as in the book's opening poem, "Grand Monologue":

...The churches, courtly gardens and gas-chambers
will turn alike into a sort of warm
Sunday afternoon in a quiet house...

These are poems with a grand concept, in which present details of life disappear quickly into the mass of the past.
The poems of Szilárd Borbély are similarly ambitious in scope, written in various voices and bearing weighty statements. They are dramatic pieces which sound as though they should be read aloud from a stage; indeed, "Fragment II" concludes:

... I say that the Fates,
omniscient, have woven my own speech,
the theatre-stage upon which we meet,
while I declaim to you. I am the prince
of simulation, worshipper of the arts,
and of momentous deeds. Of ultimate beauty.
For whom murder is the truest art.

The writing is careful, and aware of its own duplicity; in "Allegory IV", Borbély writes:

Like after the performance, it will be difficult
to tell what occurred and what did not...

The delivery of these poems and the assumption of the personas within them is so controlled, however, that it is sometimes difficult to hear the poet's own voice underneath.
One poet whose voice resounds through his work, together with a backing-chorus of family and childhood characters, is Tamás Jónás. "Ballad of the Tortured" is a vicious catalogue of damaged and wasted lives:

... My aunty Roza, chewed by cancer cells,
was married to a man whose leg was lost,
Mum suffocated and my brother's face
some crappy surgeon fudged into a mess...

These are poems peopled by ghosts and demons, but the hauntings have a sticky, fleshy quality that makes them all the creepier, and all the more real. Even light and quiet have a physical presence:

The stillness gnaws upon our flat, our home.
You breathe. The moon chews on its bone.
("Slowly It Comes to Light")

In these blunt poems, terrors are personal.
A lighter side to grim subjects can be found in the poetry of Virág Erdôs. Her anthemic "A Lying Tale" was the one poem in this collection to make me laugh aloud, while her fast-paced prose poems, loaded with gory images and—in translation at least—American colloquialisms, have the feel of computer games in which real-world violence and intrigue have mutated into science-fiction. "Aliens" begins as a surreal tale about spotting aliens on the tube and in local villages:

... In fact everyone here is an alien.

Waders, tracksuits, aprons, and fur coats to top it all, never mind the silver boiler suits. Then the shape of their heads... there must be a obvious reason why they tie them up, the country bumpkins...
As it develops the poem turns slyly on its narrator, to reveal her own isolation from those around her.
Alienation is a theme present in the work of László G. István, whose poems are populated by characters detached from the noise and confusion of contemporary society. There is a religious intensity to his subjects: in "Headwaiter", the character performs

... a blindly
accomplished ritual among the paraphernalia
of the acolyte's long service

while in "Fishmonger", the character "who does what he does / for us all", has

... no bark around his heart. I mean picture a tree
nailed by lightning, the hanging flash of it aflame.No, I meant
the fish aflame in his hands, its last supper, its
mouthing
for water in the air.

In carrying out their daily mundane tasks, the people in László G. István's poems are drawn as priests or as prophets, steadily serving others as they distance themselves from the world's clamour.

Like László G. István, András Imreh writes about the everyday, but his subtle poems have powerful undercurrents. "Light Bedding" begins with a description of bedclothes being aired on a balcony. At the end of the poem, and the end of the day,

... we noticed them
on our way home
in the slant light,
among luminous ears of grass.
They were visible a long way off
and kept stirring and rising
as though someone were searching them
in the draught
but they were simply airing.

The revelations in Imreh's poetry are quiet. "The Bright Boys" is the declaration of those who "tick you off / if you smoke on a train", "slip a beer mat / under our guests" / glasses", who "keep asking" and ultimately "get hard time, / twenty years, / for talking back..." There is little drama or heroism here, in these poems which are not so much about lives as about days mounting up.
Anna T. Szabó also writes poems grounded in the day-to-day, but her poems are highly physical. Her long poem "The Labour Ward" is an account of giving birth; the muscular rhythm pulls the reader through every contraction, every moment of fury and hope and exhaustion. The child is a "dead weight, you hot iron, you stone", childbirth "turns / a woman to a wolf that howls", until eventually:

The pain's no longer physical. I am
a basin it has carved out of the earth.

In the sequence "Winter Diary", Szabó imagines herself as a houseplant:

Nectar jewels wobble in flawless globes.
Outside snow. Inside jungle.
I stand at the window in the silence, the
shaft of sun...

Szabó has such a gift for texture and sensation that, here, the reader can almost smell the plants and feel the sun's warmth.
András Gerevich is another writer who engages with the physical, but also with domesticity. In "Desire", he writes:

Desire is a cramped, fusty apartment
noisy with the highway traffic;
scents line up before the mirror
but the fridge is empty, the handle sticky.

Whilst "In the Storybook..." is a coming-out poem, few of the others here are statement-pieces. Much of his writing is set inside the home and inside relationships, and is characterised by intimacy and privacy:

I cling to you, water to skin.
The cells of my body are shoals
of excited fish and now the funnel
blares and the nets
are broken, the mesh has caught
on a reef.
("Mediterranean")

Imagination and physicality are closely bound together in these poems, which have the quality of windows or portholes through which the outside world is viewed from a safe interior.
Krisztina Tóth writes with a cinematic vision. Several sequences are included here, in which settings are richly painted and narratives are built from impressions, colours and shapes:

The way the teenage me would circle endless
afternoons of snow.
The silences the sleeping the furniture of dusk.
The fault-lines in the drifts of snow its midnight blue.
("The Year of Snows II")

Some fine images are contained in the sequences ("... the nylon-coloured mist / the drowsy headlights..."—"Tram Depot I") but, for me, the most affecting poem was the single piece "File", in which the narrator bumps into a long-ago lover on the bus. It is a casual, conversational poem with what seems an insignificant revelation, but the resulting disappointment—" Santa Claus. Storks. And now comes this"—is so raw, so sharp, that it spears from the poet into the reader.
As with Tóth, the writing of Orsolya Karafiáth tends toward the impressionistic. Her poems are constructed from quick phrases, glimpses of colour and fantastical landscapes, but the underlying ideas do not always come across clearly.
"Earth" begins:

The earth is scarlet. Or ochre.
It is here to be enjoyed.
Darkness. A Persian cavern.
A demi-semi shade of void.

Unfortunately some of her poems, possibly restricted by the nursery-style rhyme scheme, seem somewhat vague in translation. Her most immediate piece here is "Lotte Lenya's Secret Song", a singer's confession:

No footlights here. Visualize
a spotlight beaming broken gloom.
The corridor in my shut eyes
leads to a cheap old dressing room.

Unlike her more abstract poems, the images and emotions here are personal and vivid.
The poems of Mónika Mesterházi are self-conscious and self-questioning. In "Sors Bona" the narrator reflects at length on her decision not to have children:

I'm studying my own self, cell by cell.
Shall I dissect myself to find out more?
What pain, what higher pressure may compel
me now to tell this, as never before?

Despite the doubts and questions, however, Mesterházi's are confident poems in which the narrator stands at the centre. Her images range from the minute ("a mop of grass hangs in the water"—"On the Move") to the cosmic:

I've come home to a different place...
The gravitational force is weaker. I fall down,
so what, I can bounce back again.
("Gravity")

This mix of self-confidence and of looking out into the world, this scope that turns easily from the introspective to the external, is representative of many of the poems in this book.
Twelve individual voices are collected here and, whilst the banner of the "post 1989 generation" may give context, each voice is a very different response to the contemporary world. Most of the poets are translated by several different translators, a sensible editorial decision which helps the reader to hear the original voice of each poet break through.
It is a complement to the translators as much as to the poets that the voices sound so fresh and distinct.
This strong, diverse anthology is an excellent introduction to the twelve poets, some of whom are already well-known outside Hungary, whilst others are less so. A great number of beautiful and memorable poems are contained here, and I would look forward to seeing full collections from these writers in English translation. They deserve serious attention.

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