Review – 13th April, 2007

Taking possession of time

Zsuzsa Rakovszky

Review–13th April, 2007


In Rakovszky's poems, there is no description without existential weight, and there is no existential problem without sensual form.

Undoubtedly, Zsuzsa Rakovszky is one of the greatest contemporary Hungarian poets – on opening her books, we always feel as though we are traversing the highest peaks of poetry. Her latest volume, entitled Visszaút az idoben (Way Back In Time), is a selection from the whole oeuvre, and it also contains some new poems. The title of the book offers itself to the interpretation that the poet intends to take account of her whole oeuvre. Indeed, her work does show development over the course of time – yet, if we read the volume thoroughly, we can clearly see that in the poetic sense this is neither a ”way back”, nor its inverse, a linear development; Rakovszky's poetry seems to stand outside time. It is as if she was already a fully accomplished poet right from the beginning of her career – after a quarter of a century, her work seems to centre around the same poetic problems with which she began. Thus, this oeuvre is unified not only with regards to its high standard, but also thematically and with regard to the questions it poses – Rakovszky's basically talks about the same things today as when she started. The passing of time did not undermine her poetic stand.
The basic motif of this poetry – as the title of the volume indicates – is time; the indigestible problem of temporality and the need to try to understand it, against all odds. If we want to put it briefly, Rakovszky always talks about time: in the first and in the last poem of the volume, as well as in the title of the poems and the individual cycles. How typical the beginning of the poem: „Why should I try to take possession / of this dark, barren time?” This quotation provides a concise summary of her poetry: our existence takes place in time, yet we cannot take possession of this basic condition of our existence (which is, naturally, neither friendly nor threatening); it would be frivolous and vain even to try – yet we are compelled to face this condition of ours continually and unceasingly, since whenever we try to utter anything about the human condition, we immediately talk about time and temporality. Rakovszky's poems are in constant dialogue with time – sometimes from the side of death, merciless and irrevocable; sometimes from the side of temporality, forever fixed in our souls and set to become timeless – and this dialogue constantly sheds light upon our greatest dilemmas. The most beautiful statement of these polar opposites is perhaps in the two rival components of her ”Dialogue on Time”. On one hand, ”The past never ends, the present is just the past in disguise”; yet ”time like a guillotine crashes down … there is no path leading back from the flames”. Rakovszky's poetry is characterized by this monumental dialogicity, the dichotomy of unresolved dilemmas, and this is what clearly sets it apart from the poetry of transience so strongly present in the great tradition of Hungarian literature: her conception of time and her representation of temporality lack both nostalgia for times passed and a hopeful yearning for a better future. When she talks about time, she always speaks in the present tense – for her, transience is the present itself; the present is nothing but an artificially arrested moment within the unstoppable passage of time, lacking any special value. To mention a very strong example: in these poems, the dead swarm amongst the living.
As the title of one of her earlier poems says, these poems are as if they were excerpts from a novel in prose. Although they contain many elements that are characteristic of confessional poetry, they are not about a particular person telling us, crying out, or confessing what they feel in their soul at a particular moment. The so-called ”lyrical I” of these poems is often impossible to pin down: these are very often explicitly role-playing poems, reviving and describing a figure close or far away in space or time, speaking from their particular situation and with their words; sometimes a scene or a series of scenes is described – gestures that perhaps cannot even be regarded as lyrical in the strict sense of the word. Moreover, these poems are unusually rich in objective elements of the world – her images show a very colourful and very sensual, often childlike or fairy tale-like world, as well as the socially determined world in which we live: we clearly see everything that we are suggested to feel or think in these poems.
The extraordinary poetic force of Rakovszky's poetry lies in the fact that its world of sensual images and that of reflexions, of depth of thought are inseparable – the way she sees gives her poetry its depth of thought. The reason why her images are so complex in the rhetorical sense, why her sentences are so intricate, why objects mingle inseparably with the sensual and reflexive elements of observation, is that she does not distinguish between sensation and perception or generalization; for her, every single phenomenon appears in its perfect sensuality and rich ornamentality, while reflexivity constantly obliterates the objectivity of the representation – only whatever the gaze of the poet has already cut out (and interpreted in advance) from the endless mass of spectacles and observations is present in these poems. Her images are strikingly beautiful and richly ornamental – yet, on closer look, behind the magic of beauty, we catch a glimpse of the mercilessly paradoxical, often absurd sharpness behind the way she looks at things: what seems beautiful at first sight turns out to be a mere idiosyncratic building-block in a fantastic and surreal system of relations and references. Rakovszky treats existential problems through this objectified way of seeing – in her poems, there is no description without existential weight, and there is no existential problem without sensual form. This poetic representation is at the same time radically postmodern (since these poems have no subject or object, only a system of references) and strongly tradition-bound: as far as I can see, Rakovszky is the only Hungarian poet alive who continues Attila József's method of creating images. Let me just quote one example: ”At night, time, left to itself / potters about the house: gnaws at the fabrics. / Mixes up the books / alphabetized on the shelf...” How thick the fabric of images: the personification of time, the scene and the mobilization of allusions that veer in various directions all forcefully represent the unity of the experience of anxiety and of metaphysical perception, while the reference to the alphabet shows the everyday experience of disorder on a bookshelf parallel with the claim for a universal world order.
A Hungarian romantic poet of the 19th century, Endre Horváth, who also struggled with the idea of transience in his poems, said (in accordance with the Romantic nostalgia for times passed) that we ”with our passing we turn into a tale” – in other words, that the past can only be told in the future. Rakovszky's poems demonstrate that it is possible to turn into a ”tale” already in the present, through the perception and experience of our transience, already lurking in the present; and even if, at the end, there remains only ”in the end an unwrinkled nothing, quite / as if there'd never been anything there at all”, the acceptance of our existence in the present necessarily entails the need for utterance. Zsuzsa Rakovszky's poetry tells of this experience, for us and instead of us.
István Margócsy
(A shortened version of the original Hungarian text. The quotations from the poems were translated by Thomas Cooper.)


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