Portrait – 22nd May, 2006

Zsuzsa Takács


Portrait–22nd May, 2006


Trams, streets, promenades, familiar props of the cityscape serve as unsympathetic background for the speaker’s lonely, elegiac voice; changes of all kinds, transformations of shape, movement and personality take place, almost always intimately bound up with the identity of the speaker.

Zsuzsa Takács was born in 1938 in Budapest. At university, she studied Spanish and Italian; since 1970, she has published eleven volumes of poetry, a book of children’s verse, and several volumes of translations. From the beginning of her career she was acclaimed by critics for her strong individual voice, yet her work is inextricably interwoven with important traditions of late-twentieth century Hungarian poetry. Born in the same year as Dezső Tandori, she belongs to a generation strongly influenced by the first post-war generation of poets, the so-called Újhold (New Moon) circle. Members of this circle included Ágnes Nemes Nagy, János Pilinszky, György Rába, Zoltán Somlyó or László Lator, just to mention some of the most well-known names, and their work appeared in the now legendary literary journal Újhold (which had only seven issues between 1946 and 1948). In 1986 some of the original members started the Újhold Yearbook which for five years functioned as a prestigious forum for younger generations of poets. Zsuzsa Takács’s poems were published in these yearbooks in company with the poetry of the “postmoderns”, i.e. poets like Endre Kukorelly or János Marno who were born in or around the fifties and were nurtured by the neo-avant-garde movement of the late sixties and early seventies.

From the very beginning of Takács’s career the critical reception of her work focused on certain dominant (and recurring) aspects of her poetry, such as the consciously understated lyric voice, the strong ambiguity of the text, or the tendency to build poems around characteristic figures, episodes, or self-contained anecdotes. In spite of the sometimes highly impersonal diction, Takács’s poetry at its best is profoundly personal and interpersonal: her frequent use of apostrophe is aptly complemented by a minimally ornamented, colloquial, even confessional style. At first glance, Takács seems to write in what one might call “free verse”, yet a more careful consideration of her poems reveals that a special order of formal rigor applies to these texts: instead of rhymes and regular metrical lines one must look out for occasional, but momentous enjambments and rare, yet significant rhythmic patterns. The stanza structure – that is, when there are actually stanzas in the poems – is built according to speech- or thought-sequences rather than any formal convention, and Takács’s sparing and always functional use of imagery also capitalizes on spoken language. Her metaphors frequently derive their strength from reinterpreting banal turns of speech; the boundaries between figure of speech and context, however, are reduced to a minimum, or washed away completely in her extended similes which often hide or even lack necessary formal elements, and sometimes make up whole poems.

Apart from these structural and formal characteristics, Zsuzsa Takács’s oeuvre is fairly consistent on the level of motifs and themes too. Most critics point out that death (whether it be the mother’s or a friend’s death, or the lyric persona’s wish or fear of his/her own death, etc) and love (frustrated and/or redeeming love) are the main subjects of these poems, and that often they are presented as visions or accounts of dreams. Nor is Takács’s poetry devoid of irony: her special sense of humour (engaging in misunderstanding, double-entendre and the like but always involving the poem’s speaker) is most striking in her longer narrative poems. To these one may add two further characteristics: the special conception of space, and the persistence of the theme of metamorphosis. Already in Némajáték (Dumb Show), her very first volume published in 1970, a profound sense of “homelessness” pervades Takács’s poetry (“Homelessness, receive me!” – the speaker cries out in the poem “Dumb Show”). This homelessness is conceived of within a very urban space: the setting of Takács’s poems – whenever there is some hint of a defined setting – is almost exclusively the city (mostly Budapest). Trams, streets, promenades, familiar props of the cityscape serve as unsympathetic background for the speaker’s lonely, elegiac voice, yet the spaces which could actually function like “homes”, i.e. all sorts of interiors: rooms, flats, hospital wards, provide even less comfort; in fact, it is in these confined spaces that the fears and anxieties of the latently claustrophobic speaker are most explicitly thematized (and sometimes realized). Whether the poems are set in the open or within closed spaces, however, one of their recurrent concerns is metamorphosis. Changes of all kinds, transformations of shape, movement and personality take place (often without the speaker’s notice), and they are almost always intimately bound up with the (rather problematic) identity of the speaker. Two fine examples of this are the poems "Átváltozások" (“Metamorphoses”) and “Néger nő” (“Black Woman”) published in the volume Utószó (Afterword). The former is an ingenious reinterpretation of Kafka’s famous story, while the latter recounts the moment of identification with a black woman seen on a tram: “My God, this black woman dyed blonde / travelling on tram 59 / is me”. The woman speaks Hungarian, and in spite of all her efforts to please the man (probably her husband) standing beside him she fails: “Still, all in vain: the blue / silk blouse, the manicured hands, in their stillness / the expressive eyes, the whispered / prayer at dawn. Alien.” The initial epiphanic moment of identification is informed and ultimately overridden by the sense of total alienation.

Utószó (Afterword), published in 1996, is a landmark volume in Zsuzsa Takács’s oeuvre. Although the title evokes the process of completion, the subtitle (“New and Selected Poems”) indicates that it should not be interpreted as referring to some ultimate summary. Much rather, the after-words of this volume are a collection of afterthoughts: they reflect on the themes of Takács’s poetry from new perspectives. Most importantly, the ever-so-powerful theme of death is concretised in the poems dealing explicitly with the death of the speaker’s mother, while important pieces among the “Selected Poems” address questions of faith and identity.

The three volumes of the past ten years, A bűnök számbavétele (The Account of Sins, 1998), A letakart óra (The Covered Clock, 2001), and Üdvözlégy, utazás! (Hail, Journey!, 2004) embark on different paths, mapped out in Afterword. The 1998 volume is the first one to include prose pieces alongside the poetry. Some of these prose writings are the author’s interpretations of others’ and her own work, yet many of them are short stories reworking in detail the subjects and motifs of some of the poems. As the first sentence of the volume’s first story (“The Account of Sins”) shows (“This story did not happen to me, but I can only speak about it in first person”), the change of medium did not endorse a change in perspective: these prose pieces are as personally involved and as concerned with problems of identity as the poems themselves.

The Covered Clock is structured around the tripartite division of present, past and future; three of the poems bearing the identical title “The Covered Clock” address this problem directly. The previous two volumes’ predominant concern with the mother’s death fades in this book into the demonstration of grief, and the strong expression of the fear of the speaker’s own death. It is also in this volume that Takács modestly yet firmly articulates her difference from the Újhold generation (most importantly, János Pilinszky, in the poem “Marginalia”). The volume closes with a poem entitled “Refutation”, in which the highly traditional topic of recantation or palinode is presented through a characteristically ingenious story of metamorphosis.

Takács’s most recent book of poetry entitled Hail Journey! has been praised as representing a new direction in Takács’s poetry. As critic Péter Dérczy points out, the confessional first person singular of the earlier poetry is often changed into a collective “we” in the prayer-like pieces of this volume. Pieces like “This end-of-the-world place” do bear out the need for such a change, and poems like “Electric switch” clearly engage in this shift of voice; however, much of the poetry of this volume continues to dwell on already familiar themes (love, death, etc) in Takács’s unmistakably personal, settled, and yet strangely enigmatic voice.

Miklós Péti

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