Bad Machine by George Szirtes. The Sheep Meadow Press. $16.00, 128 pp.
Let’s begin with “Long View,” a poem representative of the others collected in Bad Machine, the Hungarian-born English poet George Szirtes’ first book to be published in the United States (after publishing well over 20 volumes in the UK). The opening stanza is straightforward and conversational, rhymed and loosely iambic, not far from the unambiguous clarity of good prose:
Sometimes light wants to clutch whatever it can:
trees, hedges, spires, an ordinary roof,
until the tops of things vanish completely
into a sky wholly shadow-proof.
We know right away this poet has an eye and a bit of ear. He notices the play of light on landscape. The presence of “spires” and the enveloping light suggest an echo of Emily Dickinson and her “certain slant of light” that “oppresses, like the weight / Of cathedral tunes.” But this seems to go nowhere. The fourth line is paradoxical and nicely observed.
It’s like a subtle, almost silent burning, the fire
cold and buoyant, tipping skyward.
Long views, long frozen clarities: unreal
distances, half-moon above high wood,
The observations in the second stanza have a slung-together feel, with the randomness of a glance, not watchful attentiveness. The poem begins to seem as though it were flying apart, like a deck of cards in the wind, the phrases detached from each other.
and everything light, weightless, unborn.
Rooks labour past, ice darkens a little
as if by contrast, mud cracks underfoot,
our own bodies ablaze, refusing to settle.
This reader wonders: What has happened? This is less a finished poem than a collection of promising fragments, as is the case for most of the rest of the poems gathered in Bad Machine. Their internal logic, if it exists, is elusive. Did Szirtes lose control at some point in the crafting of his poems? Or did he set out to render randomness and confusion? One recalls Yvor Winters’ tart judgment: “To say that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration, is merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry.” Is Szirtes’ demonstrating a failure of artistic will? Or has he given his readers a mere sop to fashion? The questions are important only because Szirtes seems to possess a genuine poetic gift, one he consistently—and, for the reader, frustratingly—subverts. He deals almost exclusively in surfaces. Because he so often crafts good phrases, but slings them together with little regard for development, narrative or concentrated form, reading a poem by Szirtes can be like trying to make out a melody heard on a radio from several rooms away.
Szirtes is emblematic of the age, a writer, like Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Nabokov, and Czesław Miłosz, displaced by history. He was born in Budapest in 1948 and immigrated to England with his family on Dec. 2, 1956. The date is significant. Less than six weeks earlier, on Oct. 23, some 20,000 protesters in Budapest had rallied around the statue of József Bem, a national hero to Hungarians and Poles. Eight days later, Prime Minister Imre Nagy ordered Hungary withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact. On Nov. 4, Soviet tanks entered Budapest. Resistance folded by Nov. 10. Nagy was executed and at least another 2,500 of his countrymen killed. Some 200,000 Hungarians, Szirtes’ family among them, fled the country.
Since the late 1970s, Szirtes has published more than twenty volumes of poetry in England, all in English. In a parallel and equally prolific career, he has translated dozens of Hungarian works into English, including the novels of László Krasznahorkai and Sándor Márai, and poetry of István Vas and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. In the preface to his enormous New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008), Szirtes downplays the oddness of his linguistic situation. He describes himself as “an English poet with a Hungarian past,” and insists that “when I am writing a poem that is all I am doing. I am not flying flags of convenience.” His independence and refusal to play identity politics in literature is admirable – if only he took his landless muse more seriously. The cheap, second-hand surrealism of a line like “A quotation mark in space around the hollow / bones of the universe” (“Nautilus”) is worthy of an adolescent who has listened too earnestly to mid-period Bob Dylan, but not a worldly middle-aged poet.
In “Postcard: Untitled, monument,” Szirtes sketches a post-apocalyptic landscape in which culture lies in broken, lifeless heaps. Odd that Szirtes should share such a trope with Cormac McCarthy and the current craze in pop culture for zombies, though in his poem the destruction has no explanation—no plague, climate change or thermonuclear inferno. Just a lot of important-looking wreckage. Late in the poem’s first section, the speaker despairs: “Our words do not wing / their way home but hover in the air, / between haplessness and despair.” Despair is an honest if insufficient response to cultural bankruptcy. But the surrender to haplessness, to artlessness or anti-art, is complete in the poem’s second section, a long block of prose in which anonymous characters gather in a park. Their talk is portentous: “The passions in their breasts were melancholy but still passions. ‘We are returning to nature,’ said one, ‘if these weeds are anything to go by.’ ‘And nature regenerates,’ another responded.’” And this: “‘Is time irredeemable?’ asked one, sighing. ‘We shall see,’ another replied. ‘Too early to tell,’ added a third.” Too late, if you ask me. Szirtes’ figures are speaking half-digested existentialist twaddle, forgivable, perhaps, in a high-school creative writing class, or in a poet satirizing such silliness, but Szirtes appears to be in earnest. What do we make of a poem like “Prospero”?:
Prospero at his desk. Prospero
Entertaining visitors in his cave.
The libation of ghosts at feasts. Brave
Evening of magical conversation. A glow
Redolent of winter moons with a grave
Star’s dying fall. Veils. Shimmers. The officers
Courteous, the troops assembled in trenches
Under fire. If you die, don’t die by inches.
Pistols at ready! Move forward! The dressers
Hoard bright secrets. A medal of words strung
About a shaman’s neck. An island among
Merdes and talismans. A little sturm und drang.
Let’s assume, for the moment, that Szirtes is taking his poem seriously. Has Prospero already drowned his book and renounced his magic? Has Szirtes? Like his creator, is Szirtes’ Prospero an exile, awaiting his return to Italy? Has he freed Caliban and Ariel? Did those ghosts at the feast wander in from Macbeth? Is Szirtes hanging it up? Does he, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, ask his readers for applause: “But release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands?” Silence.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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