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Review of Three Distinctly Different Poetry Books
MIKLOS RADNOTI: THE COMPLETE POEMS IN HUNGARIAN AND ENGLISH, translated by Gabor Barabas, includes the books published in Radnoti’s lifetime along with the ten poems found in a notebook in his pocket after his body was discovered in a mass grave, executed at age 35 by Hungarian soldiers during the Holocaust.
In general, I’m leery of translations because poetry is so much about finding the exact word, conveying and obeying the poet’s true message, the shape of the poem on the page, and so on. But Radnoti’s fifth book, MARCH ON, CONDEMNED! blew me away. Here’s an excerpt from “Before Sleep”: “The melon’s flesh is animated by autumn’s breath, / and does not cry out when caressed by the edge of my knife, / but softly splits in two, dripping words of wisdom…” The foreword, by Gyozo Ferencz, states that Radnoti “asserts…that as a poet, he represents normalcy in an age of lunacy” and I believe that’s exactly what he accomplishes.
His early poems were cliché, full of too many adjective and adverbs, trite subjects—but he was young and experimenting, as should be. As his own life grew darker (brought to trial for “sacrilege and insulting morality” for his second book, which was seized and destroyed by the Hungarian right-wing, and called up to serve in three forced-labor camps), Rodnoti became more focused. As Ferencz says, Radnoti was “the only one among his contemporaries who sensed the danger that would, in the end, destroy him.” It’s sad and terrifying that his circumstances brought out the most intense and marvelous poetry in him.
I highly recommend this book, though I am not convinced of true translations and copyeditors carefully going through it. Some of the facts in the foreword by Ferencz and the introduction by the translator, Barabas, conflict. I am tempted, in fact, to wonder whether Ferencz, author of THE LIFE AND POETRY OF MIKLOS RADNOTI, might not have been the better choice as translator. Since I do not know Hungarian, I cannot judge, but there were many places where I felt the translation seemed like American phrases that were not accurate considering the place and period, or the punctuation was off (too often for comfort!), or the sentence length of the original vs. the translation was far, too far, apart. And then we have Barabas’s footnotes, which insult the reader often. And Barabas, I felt, talked too much about his own journey at the beginning and end of the book. Then there’s the fact that he overexplains everything. Can we not give the reader some credit? Maybe much of his “interpretation” should have come at the end of the book for a reader to explore or disregard as he/she chose.
Still, it’s an ambitious undertaking. There are poems that will haunt you. There are poems that will make you wonder why you had never discovered Radnoti’s poetry before this. There are poems, despite the fact that you are not Hungarian nor a Holocaust survivor, that you will recognize as a piece of yourself. And isn’t that what poetry is about?
From Radnoti’s “I Sat with Tristan”
“You could be a sailor.”—he said—
“Windswept, clean of heart,
and live between the
blue of twilight and the blue of the shimmering sea!”
“That is what I am,”—I laughed, “for a poet
can be anything!
HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY by Marilyn Nelson is a series of unrhymed sonnets based on her life and what was going on around her during the 1950s. It spans a decade, beginning with the innocent voice of a 4-year-old and ending as a 13-year-old who is still a child, but beginning to understand the world and her place in it as her father and family relocate numerous times to Air Force bases around the country. I was born on an AFB in Rome, NY, and my brothers were born on one in Fort Worth, TX. Maybe that’s part of the reason I loved this book. My father got out of the military when I was young, but we continued to move around (he was a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence person), so I understand what it’s like to forever be the new kid (eight schools total and five of those before age ten). As one of Nelson’s poems states, “When you die, you go to a different school.” I can relate. Early on, she loses herself in books, the way I did (and do). Marilyn’s story, though, has the added layer of being the new African American family in town. At eight, she learns that “TV is black-and-white, but people aren’t / There’s a bad name mean people might call you…”
Marilyn records her story with grace, not sinking into sentimentality or a poor-me attitude. The voice of a child is true (“That’s why I’m here petting this stupid cow”) as is the teenager who discovers poetry and the power of words. This is definitely a book to give a poetry lover or a child who feels different or alone. Some of my favorite lines from “Just Pick a Name”:
What if I left a note in a mailbox
out in the boonies, far from any town,
that said, I know it’s hard. You’re doing fine.
I wonder: Would that make things different?
THREE SCOTTISH POETS: MacCAIG, MORGAN, LOCHHEAD edited by Roderick Watson… I ordered this book because I had read a delightful poem by Norman MacCaig called “Small Boy” and was disappointed not to find it here. I was not thrilled with the quality of the print job either (Canongate Classics, printed and bound by Clays Ltd)—and it would have helped to have the poet’s name on the bottom of the page for his/her section—but I found much to love in the words. Best read in a Scottish brogue, these were some of my favorite lines from each:
Norman MacCaig: “The thatched roof rings like heaven where mice / Squeak small hosannahs all night long” and “a sea tin-tacked with rain” and “I love frogs that sit / like Buddha” and “The collie underneath the table / Slumps with a world-rejecting sigh.”
Edwin Morgan: “After many summer dyes, the swan-white ice / glints only crystal beyond white. Even / dearest blue’s not there, though poets would find it” and “half reluctant, half truculent, / half handsome, half absurd, / but let me see you forget him: not to be done.”
Of course, there were entire poems that were magnificent in addition to those few select lines. My favorite voice in the collection, though, belongs to Liz Lochhead. Her observations of the smallest details take on significance (e.g., her shampoo in “The Empty Song”). The majority of her poems are about relationships along with a brilliant monologue called “Verena: Security” in which she honestly explores the pros and cons of a significant other working away from home for weeks at a time. I’ll leave you and this review with the last stanza of Lochhead’s “Hafiz on Danforth Avenue”:
And to tell you this is easy,
scribbling this was as simple
as the shopping-list it jostles
on the next page of my notebook.
Love, as well as bread and coffee
it says eggplants, olive oil
the nutmeg and the cinnamon.