Lyrical Forms of Trauma
Szilárd Borbély, Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004–2010 (bilingual edition), translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2019, 186 pp., $55.00, ISBN: 978-0-691-18243-8
Szilárd Borbély (1964–2014) is one of the most respected contemporary poets in Hungary. A radical lingual attitude determines his poetry since his first volumes, especially since his long poem ‘Hosszú nap el’ (‘Long Day Away,’ 1993), of which language is exceptionally free and playful:
Everything was getting ever worse Everything getting
ever worse Everything than it was before
suddenly Everything worse than Everything
everything just worse, suddenly just Everything
worse, maybe, I don’t know, maybe
everything that there was Everything came apart
Everything apart, that maybe was till then
bad, maybe Everything always is bad
Everything, that was Everything now at once just went
All in all, Borbély’s works are characterised by meaningful enjambments, fragmented poetic form and intense musicality. A painful life event also affected Borbély’s literary thoughts. On the night before Christmas Eve of 2000, his parents were brutally attacked in a burglary-murder: the poet’s mother was bludgeoned to death as she was sleeping; his father suffered serious injuries. After his mother unexpected and tragical death, Borbély’s lyrical attention has turned to the issue of how to express the unsayable trauma of irreversible loss. Then, he started combining his early writings’ poetic and linguistic features with historical, cultural and social sensibility growing out from his grief.
‘Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004–2010’ is a collection translated by Ottilie Mulzet, which involves the poems of the poet’s two volumes ‘Halotti Pompa: Szekvenciák’ (‘Final Matters: Sequences,’ 2004) and ‘A Testhez: Ódák & legendák’ (‘To the Body: Odes & Legends,’ 2010). Mulzet is an outstanding translator of recent Hungarian literature: she has translated the works of Gábor Schein, László Krasznahorkai, as well as Szilárd Borbély. The bilingual (Hungarian and English) edition reviewed here offers an appealing insight into Borbély’s late poetry by revealing a broad spectrum of poems from his two collections mentioned above.
Related to the sequences, Mulzet writes in her knowledgeable and interpretative afterword that Borbély creates “a profound mediation on death—an ars moriendi—an examination of disintegration of the body, its relation to the spirit and to the divine” (p. 171, italics in original). This statement can catch both of the collections.
The poems of ‘Final Matters: Sequences’ are inspired by Christian and Jewish theology, Greek mythology, Hungarian folk songs, and other sacred texts. It consists of three parts: the first one refers to Holy Week; the second one creates a death allegory of Amor and Psyche; the third one evokes the martyrdom of Jews from Cain’s murder to the tragedy of the Holocaust. As Mulzet notes, ‘Final Matters’ can be read as an artistic response to what happened with Borbély’s parents. Rude violence and pure corporeality represented in the poems are reminiscent of the brutality of the death of the poet’s mother. Beyond that, as far as I see, one of the most notable aspects of this collection is how the poet brings together profane and sacred attributes to reflect on the loss of hope and the impossibility of Christ’s resurrection. The original Hungarian edition is illustrated by Andrea Mantegna’s painting “Lamentation of Christ”. By depicting dead Christ from an unusual perspective, Mantegna’s work confronts us with the human fallibility of Christ and the irreversibility of death. It is almost the same as the poem titled “Aeternitas” (p. 19) associates the euphemistic characteristics of the word “Eternal” to the dreadful image of death, which is emphasised even by line breaks:
“The Eternal is like
of the one killed:
Dread is in his gaze.”
While the odes of ‘To the Body’ query the totality of soul and body by reflecting on the fragmentation of language, the legends are based on painful life stories of women who experienced the Holocaust, and of women who faced with the heavy pain of forced or spontaneous abortion. Borbély rewrites authentic trauma narratives of women published in two books ‘Babies Crying in Mothers’ Dreams: Stories of Mourning’ (’Asszonyok álmában síró babák: Történetek a gyászról,’ 2006) collected by Magdolna Singer and ‘Salty Coffee: Untold Stories by Jewish Women’ (’Sós kávé: Elmeséletlen női történetek,’ 2007) collected by Katalin Pécsi. Mulzet is right as she remarks that “Borbély does not aestheticise their words or appropriate their pain, rather he assembles a polyphony of female voices relating their lives” (p. 184). By creating a reduced, concentrated, and even elliptical narrative with some grammatical errors and intensive musicality, Borbély only edits and slightly rewords the stories. Despite (or perhaps because of) his moderate recreation, the poems evoke a shocking lyric force in readers. One of the illustrative examples is the ending of the poem ‘The Matyó Embroidery’ (p. 113). It is not only a technical transcription of the original story: the poet also inserts two metaphorical animal images to the narrative to reflect on the sense of fear and the inhumanity of the Holocaust:
“Then they sent us into another one, and the iron door slammed, bolted shut. Screaming, I pounded on it again and again. We truly were lost, at last I understood… Turning around, the others already shaved bald. I didn’t recognise anyone. They stood there like sheep. Gooseflesh written on their skin.”
Hungarian rhyme and rhythm forms are more strict and regulated than in the Anglophone literary tradition. As Mulzet notes, Borbély “works with the abundant phonetic storehouse of the Hungarian language, especially its openness to rhyme and assonance” (p. 174). Thus, Mulzet seeks “a middle ground that conveys the musicality and respects the form of the original yet does not overburden the English text with awkward or bathetic moments” (p. 174). There are a few conscious or accidental assonances that fortunately strengthen the translated poems’ musicality. It can be well illustrated, for instance, by the lines of the poem ‘The Former Realms of Consciousness’ (p. 47, italics mine):
“[…] Colored pebbles shine like capsules
at the riverbed bottom. But in the depths of the soul, its torture
chemically muted, a satyr, his face contorted, shrieks.”
For Mulzet’s translation succeeds in echoing the virtuosity and musicality of Borbély’s poetry, her translations are as readable as the original texts. Mulzet is able to reveal what makes Borbély’s poems both dreadful and fascinating. Thus, the selection along with the translator’s afterword can be captivating for also the Anglophone readership that may not be familiar with contemporary Hungarian poetry.