The last two mentioned are the two currently off the shelves for a refresher. As it happens, they are the two most often brought down off the shelves for a that very purpose. (Incidentally, they also happen to be the two containing the largest number of lines that I have thought it necessary to commit to memory - though Seamus Heaney and Wallace Stevens might run them close.)
It was whilst refreshing my association with The Budapest File that I thought it might be worth while to post on it again. (The doubt suggested by that word might is occasioned only by the fear that I might not - will not - be able to do it justice.) And whilst I am on the subject, some of you may have realised that I did post on George Szirtes (and sort of on this book)about a year ago. here I felt then, and feel more strongly now, that I did not do either him or the book full justice. Hence this, in part, recycled post.
You may know that George Szirtes was born in Hungary and that his early childhood was spent there, that he came to England as a refugee and that during the eighties he began to write about the city, from his memories of it, and of its history. The blurb on the rear of my copy proclaims that: The Budapest File is like no other book. Certainly, it is like no other book that I have ever read. We have all read - probably too much - of the world's recent tragic history, of man's inhumanity to man, of loss and destruction, vanished hopes and criminal stupidity, but to be able to convey those things in such a way that they come home to us and become part of whatever it is that constitutes our soul, is an extraordinarily rare gift. How much more extraordinary must it be then, to be able to convey that desolation in words of great beauty. The poems in this book are tragic, desolate - and hauntingly beautiful. Beyond which, I do not intend to say much more, but to leave you with a few snatches of that beauty. Please be aware, though, that the beauty - and, indeed, the gravity - of these verses is in large measure cumulative. It will not all come through from these extracts.
The second verse of Undersongs
The empire underground: the tunnellingMore from Undersongs
Begins. The earth gives up her worms and shards,
Old coins, components, ordnance, bones and glass,
Nails, muscle, hair, flesh, shrivelled bits of string,
Shoe leather, buttons, jewels, instruments
And out of these come voices, words,
stenches and scents,
And finally desire, pulled like a tooth.
It's that or constancy that leads us down
To find a history that feels like truth.
The windows cannot speak because we pass
Before them all too often but the bricks know
What they stand on. There is no town below,
It's only bits and pieces as above.
Desire again, the Undersongs. The lostThis from part 5 of The Courtyards
Children feel it in their sleep,
and turn uneasily to the wall through which
Symbols pass and cool their blood like ghosts.
My mother's family has passed through it,
No one remains, and she is half way through.
Her brother disappears, the glove has closed
About him somewhere and dropped him in the ditch
Among the rest. The ditch becomes a pit,
The pit a symbol, the symbol a desire,
And this desire's the thread. The tunnels creep
Under the skin, the trains with their crew
O passengers can glide through unopposed.
Think of an empty room with broken chairs,From The Photographer in Winter
a woman praying, someone looking out
and listening for someone else’s shout
of vigilance; then think of a white face
covered with white powder, bright as glass,
intently looking up the blinding stairs.
There’s someone moving on a balcony;
there’s someone running down a corridor;
there’s someone falling, falling through a door,
and someone firmly tugging at the blinds.
Now think of a small child whom no one minds
intent on his own piece of anarchy:
Think of a bottle lobbing through the air
describing a tight arc – one curious puff –
then someone running but not fast enough.
There’s always someone to consider, one
you have not thought of, one who lies alone
or hangs, debagged, in one more public square.
Your camera is waiting in its case.As I said above, these snatches convey but a pale flavour. Context changes things. Poems in the collection to which they belong often blossom beyond themselves and mean more than when read in isolation. That is certainly true of the poems in this book.
What seems and is has never been less certain -
The room is fine, but there beyond the curtain
The world can alter shape. You watch and listen.
The mirror in the corner seems to glisten
With the image of a crystalline white face
Earth continues to heat up
while delegates talk on
and cool towards each other.