‘Final Matters’ by Szilárd Borbély (Review)

A recent post touched on how I was more of a fan of prose than poetry, but 2019 has seen a few poetry books come my way, and today’s post reviews the second one for the (still young) year.  The writer isn’t one I’m familiar with, but the translator is, which is one of the main reasons I agreed to take a look.  However, even to a poetic (?) novice like myself, there’s a lot here to enjoy, even if enjoy isn’t always the apposite word…

*****
Szilárd Borbély’s Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004-2010 (chosen and translated by Ottilie Mulzet, review copy courtesy of Princeton University Press) actually contains a number of poems from two different books, Final Matters, Sequences, and Borbély’s final work, To the Body: Odes and Legends.  As Mulzet explains in her illuminating afterword, the translations were made without slavishly following the original Hungarian rhyming conventions in an attempt to produce English versions devoid of the stiffness that can arise in over-literal renderings.  The final versions are certainly beautifully done, and for those who (unlike me) can appreciate the originals, the Hungarian text faces the translation, allowing for easy comparison.

To the Body is a volume consisting of a number of lengthy poems, confessional pieces that almost cross over into short-story territory at times.  There are two main themes that emerge, with one being women and childbirth, a topic explored from many different angles.  Mulzet explains how despite being the poet’s last published collection, To the Body saw Borbély, even at this late stage, pushing his boundaries with a new style, adapting real stories and attempting to share the experiences of the women whose tales he tells.

Several of the poems examine the dilemmas involved in abortions, especially fraught in a highly Catholic society, highlighting the agonising, emotional turmoil.  The narrators must cope not only with the backlash from family members, but also their own regret:

Now I can dare to think of the one who was never born,
whom I murdered.  How old it would be.  And sometimes
I talk to it in the evenings: “Would you be my dark-eyed little girl,
with tiny freckles all around your little nose?  Or would you be
my headstrong son, with merry determined eyes like gray-blue pebbles?”
From ‘Virginity’, p.117 (Princeton University Press, 2019)

Abortions aren’t the only topic, though, with other speakers discussing repeated miscarriages, post-natal deaths and eventual successes in raising a child through those first few dangerous months of life.  It’s all rather powerful and moving.

The second main focus in this part is on the Holocaust, again with a Hungarian slant, as a number of women recount their experiences.  The German invasion of their former ally in 1944 led to a determination to ‘cleanse’ the country of as many Jews as possible, and here we see the individual stories behind the dry history.  Many involve the huge difference made between turning left and right, and the stories are told both by those who survived and by those who didn’t…

*****
Most of the book, though, is devoted to Final Matters, and the afterword has Mulzet soberly informing us of the history behind the book.  As it turns out, it’s a form of catharsis, gradually developing from the writer’s reaction to the brutal murder of his parents.  The work is divided into three parts, three sets of sequences, with each having a separate title and its own feel, exploring rather different themes.

Book Three: Hasidic Sequences, which was added for the second edition of the collection, is a mixture of untitled pieces in which rabbis debate the technicalities of the Creation, and several longer sequences, again referencing the Holocaust.  One compares the plight of the Jews in the concentration camps with that of their ancestors in Egypt, while others can be even more brutal in their explicit nature:

and in the fire the Three became one,
the spirit of the Father, the Son, and the Mother

became smoke in the chimneys, when Otto
Moll perfected his technique of using

ditch-cremation for the separation
of the crackling, reusable fat.
From ‘The Sanctification of the Name’, p.73

No, it doesn’t always make for pleasant reading, but it’s obviously not meant to be.

This Jewish book echoes the Christian elements pervading the first of the volumes, Sequences of Holy Week.  Here the focus is on angels, Hell, Christ himself or simply eternity.  In a series of poems entitled ‘Aeternitas’, Borbély riffs on different meanings of ‘The Eternal’, not all of which are as you’d imagine:

The Eternal
is like the axe
the assassin slams
into someone’s head
From ‘Aeternitas (3)’, p.19

This brutal touch runs through the section, with many a hint of the darker side of the Christian story.

For me, though, the most enjoyable part of Final Matters was Book Two, Sequences of Amor and Psyche, an interlude between the more religious companion volumes.  Many of these are fourteen-line, four-stanza poems (4-4-3-3) covering a range of themes: there’s the story of a ruthless Chinese Emperor faced with compassion, death, in many guises, and a whole host of butterflies – which is nice 🙂

Many of the poems here, though, concern love.  Yes, there are several that rejoice in the joy felt, but many dwell on the negatives, with several rather unflattering views of Amor, including the idea of love as a virus.  Some of my favourite poems come from this volume, with Borbély describing the death of love with delicate precision:

What before was light now begins
to subside.  The skin becomes colder, and whiter,
like a marble’s surface, the veins fleeting

across it.  In the nervous system’s fibers,
traversed by piercing signals,
of the soul, an imperceptible fissure lingers.
From ‘The Minor Death of Amor’, p.37

Of course, the meaning mostly evades me here, as is often the case, but it’s undeniably beautiful 🙂

In her afterword, Mulzet does an excellent job of explaining the many themes covered, and it certainly helped inform my reading of the collection.  I’d be the first to admit that certain aspects of this background, particularly the religious aspects, fluttered prettily over my head without leaving an impression, but other readers will get far more from her wise words.  There are many great Hungarian writers with work available in English now, and Borbély is another name to add to that list, a writer whose poems often had me coming back for a second (or third) glance.  Of course, prose is still my preference, but a little poetry now and then can’t hurt, and this was a book I enjoyed.  I hope other readers will agree.

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