The real subject of this post is a book for which I have been waiting avidly for some time now. It has recently appeared and I have only just now ordered it, George Szirtes's Collected. It must be the subject of some future post. Let me explain: something like eight or nine years ago I bought a collection of poetry called The Budapest File by George Szirtes. I can't recall how or why I bought it: was I browsing in the local bookshop and just happened upon it, or did I read a review and order it? I don't know, so I must assume that at the time of purchase I regarded it as no big deal. If that is how it was, then it did not stay no big deal for long. I knew the work of Szirtes, of course. Which is to say, I had read some of his poetry and thought I knew it. But the moment I began to dip into The Budapest File there came a seismic shift in my understanding. Which in itself was strange, because The Budapest File was Szirtes's tenth collection, or something like that, and most of its poems had been published in those earlier volumes, were distributed among them. I must have read many of them in the years before I bought the book. Whatever, I can't explain what happened, I can only recount it. Suffice to say that I was plunged into a world the like of which I had never inhabited before, indeed would not wish to inhabit save in the safety of Szirtes's poems.
Szirtes came to this country as a refugee from Hungary. It was sometime, apparently, before he began to write about his childhood memories of Budapest, but when he did, it was as though it had an inevitability about it - which likely it did have - and it became a theme, a major one which was at the same time very personal and distanced enough to place the personal in its political and social setting. His remembered world, his lost childhood - perhaps I should say his nearly lost childhood, maybe to some extent and in some ways regained in his poetry - is redolent with threat. It is a world in which nothing can be taken at face value, anything at all might turn out to be other than it seems. It is a place of echoing voices, of assaults on the senses that seem to have no rational cause. And indeed, very little of it could have been called rational. It is all the fears and nightmares of childhood that you and I have ever experienced, but multiplied a thousand times. It is all that, but experienced by children and adults alike. It is darkness which is always hostile, always malevolent, never neutral. The Budapest File has conveyed to me the horror of that time, and of the regime that made it possible, with greater clarity than all the political speeches, photographs or magazine and newsprint articles. It is horror writ as such horror is always writ: personalised.
I committed whole chunks of the poems to memory. Some, I didn't need to, for they lodged there, quite naturally, without any conscious help from me. But I have prattled on enough. Let me give you a few tasters of what I mean:-
The first verse from The Photographer in Winter:-
You touch your skin. Still young.The wind blows waves
Of silence down the street. The traffic grows
A hood of piled snow. The city glows.
The bridges march across a frozen river
Which seems to have been stuck like that for ever.
The elderly keep slipping into graves.
and the fourth verse:-
The white face in the mirror mists and moves
Obscure as ever. Waves of silence roll
Across the window. You are in control
Of one illusion as you close your eyes.
The room, at least, won't take you by surprise
And even in the dark you'll find your gloves.
This from Undersongs
Desire again, the Undersongs. The lost
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.
This from part 5 of TheCourtyards
Think of an empty room with broken chairs,
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.
This from Transylvana: Virgil’s Georgics:-
Poplars full of thrushes. Sky leans
on earth. The river dreams.
Shrubs light their torches. A bullfinch
sputters on a branch, bursts into flames.
So this review has not been about the book I have been waiting for, the book I have now ordered. I have done myself proud of late. It will be my third new book within a month - well over my usual budget. But if I had to ration myself to just one for 2009 it would be George Szirtes Collected, even though he has referred to Collecteds as Tombstones. I am confident enough to believe that this will not turn out to be a tombstone, merely premature.
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