Bitter Truths

John Minahane

Skryté titulky (Hidden Subtitles), by Mária Ferenčuhová, Drewo a srd, Bratislava, 2003
Princíp neistoty (The Principle of Uncertainty), by Mária Ferenčuhová, Ars poetica, Bratislava, 2008
Korene neba (The Roots of Heaven), by Michal Habaj, Drewo a srd, Bratislava, 2000
Básne pre mŕtvé dievčatá (Poems for Dead Girls), by Michal Habaj, Drewo a srd, Bratislava, 2003
Šport (Sport), by Katarína Kucbelová, Ars poetica, Bratislava, 2006
malé veľké mesto (little big city), by Katarína Kucbelová, Ars poetica, Bratislava, 2008
Strach z utópie (Fear of Utopia), by Peter Macsovszky, HEVI, Bratislava, 1994.
Mykať kostlivcami (Making Skeletons Dance), by Peter Macsovszky, Občianske združenie Vlna, Bratislava, 2010
Prvá trilógia: Porno/Kult/Pop (The First Trilogy: Porno/Cult/Pop), by Peter Šulej, Vlna/Drewo a srd, Bratislava, 2010 (orig 1994, 1996, 1998)
Koniec modrého obdobia (End of the Blue Period), Peter Šulej, Drewo a srd, Bratislava, 2008

NOSTALGIA

I come on my date with a diskette instead of a bouquet.
Ah, thanks, you whisper, and your face burns with confession.
You are only a cyborg and your love is only a programme,
like the blue sky, the Chardonnay 1890,
the gulls screeching over the beach, this whole seaside airport.
My beige suit and my straw hat betray me.
I am the first poet to emerge from the race of cyborgs.

The poets I intend to write about here are members of a special generation. They are old enough to have experienced life in the late years of communist Czechoslovakia, but their poetry was published only after Czechoslovakia’s change of regime (1989) and Slovakia’s independence (1993). They are a new breed, and self-consciously so. All of them are marked by West European and American literary and cultural influences, but without being overwhelmed. To my mind, anyhow, their poetry doesn’t begin and end with imitative attitudes and poses: there are signs of original encounters with their time, place and circumstances, which make this Slovak generation uncommonly interesting.

So let’s begin with nostalgia. In Ireland some of the leading critics are enemies of this feeling: they consider it noxious, the ragwort of the human spirit, and wherever they see it they set about pulling it up by the roots. But in Slovakia, at the time the above poem was published (2003), the nostalgic theme had been powerfully present in poetry for about half a century. In the tractor-worshipping 1950s it was detected and briefly driven underground, and for some time afterwards it could not be entirely open and explicit; however, in Milan Rúfus’s 1974 collection The Table of the Poor we find it in full bloom. This is nostalgia for the traditional life on the land, which the cooperative or collectivising (or modernising) movement in agriculture was sweeping away.

Rather a different kind of nostalgia set in after 1989. No small part of the Slovak population had feelings of warmth for the old socialist system, which came to an end not because of Slovak discontent but essentially because of political developments in Russia. (One could find such feelings even among the pioneers of the new order in Bratislava. I remember hearing the old system described by the mother of a highly ambitious teenager, driven in more senses than one, whose lessons began at eight in the morning, sometimes at seven, and ended at eight at night: “If you weren’t too ambitious, it was heaven for you ...”, and her eyes shone with affection. “You could have a small car, you could have a small flat; you’d always have your job, and you wouldn’t have to work too hard; if you got sick you’d be taken care of ... But if you were a bit ambitious, it was bad for you ...”)

The speaker in the poem quoted above (written by Michal Habaj, a man in his late twenties) is on a different wavelength. This isn’t nostalgia for any particular way of life or set of human arrangements. The stakes have been raised – but that is the wrong expression because it implies a game going on, and the game is already over. What is expressed here is nostalgia for mankind, for human beings generally. Habaj’s poetic insight is that it’s all up with the human race. We are living in the last days of humanity. Not that we’re facing any immediate threat of physical extinction: no, we are simply mutating into a new, rather horrible cyber-kind.

A century ago, Rilke was uneasy about the big impassive machine; he complained about its relentless activity, how it would never take a break and simply stay in its factory quietly oiling itself. Habaj, no doubt, would smile at Rilke’s naiveté, but anyhow the problem which Rilke sensed is being solved at mankind’s expense. Against the power, the fascination, the constant life-changing and soul-changing intervention of the new machines, we have no resources which would enable us to remain what we still perhaps just about are. Human values, human dreams? They cannot be sustained.

Habaj’s outstanding collection is The Roots of Heaven (2000), which is subtitled Poems from the Last Century. (“Last” here means “most recent” and also “final”.) The Roots of Heaven is a series of manic poems fragmented into phrases – this fragmentation serves among other things as a brake, slowing down thoughts that are moving a bit too fast. Ultimately all these thoughts are hurtling in the one direction, towards a sci-fi future, but the focus keeps moving between this future and the present and past; the time-shifts can be sudden and bewildering. Among the more present-centred poems, there is one which is soaked in the atmosphere of (roughly) 1999. At that time Slovak consumer society was just getting into its own, and the beautiful girls shopping in Bratislava’s hypermarket might get a bit excited about novelties on the shelves. An idea that Habaj keeps returning to is expressed in this poem: the mutation of young girls. Until now young girls were models of innocence, purity, spontaneity and so on, the unspoilt human sources were preserved in them, but in our times those sources are being destroyed.

The playthings of nature

in the hypermarket aisles: delicate models:
meticulously stand: suddenly they have understood all:
to catch marmalade to touch cacao: the trolley waits:
while the lovely miss: opens a cassette in her heart: heads
to the long-gone cinema of her childish loves: there: there
in those profundities: models too gashed their knees:
and bit their lower lips: when they had not managed to eat
supper and their father was menacingly silent: bent over a plateful
of fears for his dear little princess: our fathers
did not smoke marijuana our mothers did not snort cocaine
:
showing her teeth and smile and uncovered shoulder blades:
to the ever more curious neighbours: there: there in those
distances: models too got the lowest marks in life
and forgot their notebooks in strange places:
where only man’s best friend may be: the faithful hound:
obtusely he looks at the woman: who is acting as though
she were yoked to his past: she’s a model:
she speaks and does not wag her tail: she’s a model
and models are the playthings of nature.

The future won’t be all shopping. Strange wars and massacres are described, and cruel robotic systems “that have cast the last human beings / into jails and dungeons ...”. These systems, we are given to understand, will be especially cruel to young women. Here the poet has a flashback thought to the old factory system and the frightful suffering of indigent women and children in the early industrial towns. Continuing in this vein, Habaj briefly imagines a resurgence of socialist idealism, and he cites a poem by the finest communist poet of the 1920s, Ladislav Novomeský, about a young working class girl looking at a beautiful dress through a shop window:

... what and to whom
did that young girl do: in her white apron: that flower
seller: hammering her little fists on the windows of boutiques:
only glass miserly glass: that is them: that is us:
hopelessly seeking the island of yesterday’s day...
[New Davists (The Last Battle Has Erupted)]

The hopeless melody is played in many variations. Habaj is a master conjuror of hopeless atmospheres. He is describing a prospect of human downfall, partly already a reality, which is not only humanly deplorable but inevitably raises the question of what can be done, how we can still resist. Sometimes the voice in the poems affirms love and other great human virtues or values. There are times when this voice is raised in warning, or declares some sort of resistance. Or it calls for some champion who will stop the process of ruin: “Our rafts have got snared in the whirl of events: who will stop: / who will stop this mad merry-go-round of reincarnations?

But although such utterances are often made and almost every line might invite them, invariably they are undermined by the context. If by any chance, while reading The Roots of Heaven, one thought of the great Slovak poet Pavel Orsagh Hviezdoslav in 1914, crying out in his Bloody Sonnets for a champion who would stop the slaughter of World War I – returning to Habaj, one would be aware of going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Which is what Habaj fully intends. A brilliant poem called The fate of man makes it easier to find this poet’s wavelength.

The fate of man

polar night without end: has fallen upon the land: upon the broad land:
you and I: we stray each in the other: amidst the darkness:
that has shrouded the world: drape of death drape of emptiness:
you have seen a bird fly in the sky: you have seen a doe
hop into the thicket: you have seen spring water
and breathable air: you have seen a world beyond the monitor:
when did you last when did you last: break me off a bit
of the keyboard: of the sweetest gingerbread: touch
the screen: the most delicate skin: heaven is forever within:
in a space suit: we are walking in darkness: glove in glove:
eyes behind protective glass: do you love me tell me
do you love me
: my computer has not asked me this question before:
he has heard it from us or we have heard it from him:
amidst the dead planet: amidst the inhospitable
universe: one can maybe only just love: only love from the heart.
(The fate of man)

This suggestion for a post-human ethic (Love thy computer ... maybe), if one took it at face value, would represent Habaj at his most constructive and positive. But why ask a poet for what he cannot give? In a climactic poem of the series he addresses himself personally: “dream on, Michal Habaj...” And the fact is, Michal Habaj may as well keep dreaming, because if he wakes he’ll only find himself back in “the swamp of events”. And what great things can he (with his head stuck in a TV set) achieve in that swampland? What discoveries can he hope to make? Sitting on his sofa, remote control in hand, he can be

the Magellan of the satellite channels the Columbus of faith
in Nova Television
: not bound for exotic archipelagos: nor yet
to the starry hazes: to the depths of the receivers
may our ships take their course: ships of our dreams: but
who will switch to another channel: when you die in my heart:
but in which latitudes to seek a station: that
none before me had sought ...
(My televisual life)

But at this point the impatient reader, having tuned in to Habaj, may be wanting to tell me something. Such as: what is the point of reading things like this if you don’t have a sense of humour? Isn’t it clear that Habaj has his tongue in his cheek? Surely, in every single line he plays with the registers (and at times not all that subtly) in a way that invites us to laugh? That is indeed my opinion, and some of the Slovak critics say the same in their critical language. According to Jaroslav Šrank, The Roots of Heaven is a sustained pose. Every line that Habaj writes comes loaded with irony and parody, and about the only thing one can take as authentically his is an air of decadent melancholy, reminiscent of the 1890s.

Šrank, who is sympathetic to the post-communist poets, is careful to frame what he says as description, not accusation. And yet when he says that Habaj “has abandoned any attempt at authentic testimony”, his language seems to contain a judgement. Coming in at the end of a long line of earnest Slovak literary criticism, Šrank cannot help expecting that a poet should try to give authentic testimony. Otherwise he might have said, for example, that Habaj is taking dramatic licence, because certainly these poems are dramatic speeches of a kind. One can think of them as a series of monologues in an impossible voice.

Slovak literature, perhaps, was due this experiment. The young generation was bound to produce an antidote to the literary influence of Milan Rúfus, the outstanding Slovak poet of the late twentieth century. Rúfus, who was Christian to the marrow of his bones and saw not only individual life but also Slovak national life as a Way of the Cross, had a peculiar history and status. The vigorous world-changers of the early 1950s detected the “sad poet” in him, and as such he was silenced for a few years. But afterwards he was licensed, within Czechoslovakia’s official communist culture, to celebrate old-fashioned Christian rural Slovakia and to mourn its passing.

Rúfus was a type of the vates, the poet-prophet. During the communist period he was forced to be a prophet in the mountains, employing a somewhat oracular language. However, after the change of regime he came forward openly to warn and reprove his people. When addressing the issues of moral decline and the dangers facing mankind, he was always intensely serious.

In Habaj we have something like Rúfus imploding. A vocabulary is used which implies a Rúfus-like sensibility and set of traditional values, a conservative care for “the decent human being”. But this vocabulary is lodged in a speech that seems excited for excitement’s sake and comes in unnatural breathless bursts which go on and on. It resembles nothing so much as the speech of a presenter on some witless TV game show. The idea of such a person, in his full flow of patter, speaking from the heart – a heart like Rúfus’s! – but speaking now to a Sodom-and-Gomorrah Slovakia that is so consumed by its entertainments that no prophet can connect with it any more: the idea is wickedly funny. And Habaj is masterly in the light touches with which he controls a language that no human being could speak, because the elements making it up are in powerful mutual repulsion and at each moment flying apart.

The word “subversive” is often used as a term of praise in the critical language of our times. More than any other work of recent Slovak literature, The Roots of Heaven merits such a description. But this has not been acknowledged, possibly because the Slovaks are in no hurry to be subverted. Slovakia is better equipped than most places with conservative cultural resources, and perhaps there’s a certain protective dullness which denies due recognition to this dangerous masterpiece.

The Roots of Heaven draws its peculiar power from what exactly it is that this poet is laughing at. “The decent human being” presented as comic nonsense – the audience for this comedy has perhaps not yet matured! Reading these poems is a weird, uncomfortable experience. Anyhow, this is the most scintillating performance from the misanthropic wing of Slovak literature since Lovemaking in Goosebumps (1965) by Miroslav Válek.

In his next collection (Poems for Dead Girls, 2003, from which “Nostalgia” above is taken), Habaj stopped chopping his lines, and the critics detected him striving after old-fashioned poetic effects. And furthermore ... he was seen to express nostalgia. Now, this was a serious matter! The moderns (not only in Ireland), even as they hurtle forwards at breakneck speed, have some pathological fear of regression. It’s one thing if we’re ceasing to be human – very well, OK, no panic, so maybe we can’t go on being human; if not, we’ll just see what the other options are! But it’s quite a different matter if someone is found looking backwards – who knows what appalling consequences could come of that? And so the poet and critic Stanislava Chrobáková Repar accused Habaj of trying to write old-fashioned beautiful poetry, expressing conservative aggression, and regretting the passing of the past.

From what I know of Habaj’s later poetry, it is not my view that he is becoming more nostalgic. I think he is continuing to mine the same poetic seam. Just that it’s never again such great fun ... In his most recent collection (2011), entitled Michal Habaj – how many skins does that onion have? – there are signs that he’s weary of being a clever cyborg, but he doesn’t see a way back:

KARMACOMA

I try to fit on somebody’s brow,
but only the shadow slides
onto my rickety face.

In dusk the appletree whispers Our Father.
With its branches it blesses the night.

One morning I’ll wake up as I,
but I won’t tell anyone.

Breathing on the embers,
I recognise in them my own dust.

Peter Šulej (b 1967) produced three books of verse in the 1990s entitled Porno, Cult, and Pop. From the critics I learn that they belong to the genre of cyber-punk. They are full of strange graphics and poems designed to look like (and contain) bits of the ugliest and most tedious commercial prose. The computer is being pushed to the forefront here, possibly for no better reason than to annoy someone or other. But every so often (as I suspect) some alcohol gets into the programme, the monster breaks down, and a rather truculent human being comes out to bait the reader.

Slovakia’s literary critics are serious people, and some of them lambasted Šulej for his shallow posing. Others, sensing an unpredictable talent, urged him just to keep going. Viera Prokesová: “If Peter Šulej were a woman, I would say he writes very emancipated poetry; as it is, I can only say that he’s writing poetry which is evidently heading from somewhere to somewhere else!” And this turned out to be true.

The maturing Šulej became more reflective. However, in essentials he kept in touch with the troublesome young punk. There was the question of how to see oneself as a poet, having regard to society, history and culture.

For the best part of two hundred years Slovakia’s poets had thought of themselves as playing a part, an important part, in national life. Not a few of them had been active in politics. And if one considers, for example, Slovakia’s 1848 men, certainly one of their finest achievements was a love poem almost three thousand lines long called Marina. Written by a Lutheran pastor called Andrej Sládkovič, Marina is first of all an address to a particular woman – who, sad to say, married a richer man, a gingerbread-maker, instead of the poet. But it is also a poem of love to the Slovak nation and to life itself. Moving swiftly in graceful ten-line verses, totally untranslatable, Marina is fresh and enthusiastic from beginning to end, never short of resources, and powered among other things by Hegel’s philosophy, which Slovakia’s 1848 men soaked up with a passion.

The new generation of Slovak poets that appeared in the Czechoslovakia of the 1920s was more inclined to pursue art for art’s sake. But this in turn gave way to another movement of social commitment. The ascendant Czech and Slovak literature of the early 1950s showed writers conforming to Stalin’s famous description: “engineers of human souls”. In poems of this kind (written by the young Milan Kundera, among others) one can indeed feel the impact of rivets being hammered and piles driven and see many bulky things being built.

Slovak literature of the 1980s had a different atmosphere. No one would have cited Stalin’s formulation approvingly. The leading poets were not writing crude propaganda, and the literary scene showed a fair diversity of approaches. Among the poets being published was Ivan Štrpka, who had made a personal, controversial discovery of “art for art’s sake” in the early 1960s and continued to write in that spirit. Nonetheless, there was a certain understanding between the regime, with its many levers, and the literary community. It was understood that even the most alienated poets (like Štrpka or, at a deeper level, Rúfus) would not subvert the official culture, and that the literary community in a more sophisticated way than before would be an agency of socialist consolidation.

Stanislav Šmatlák said all this with exemplary clarity at the end of his readable History of Slovak Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, published in 1988. (In a later edition he cheerfully threw out a challenge, which remains to be met, for some post-communist writer to produce a new history, supplanting his own.) “Contemporary literature, at a higher point of the developmental spiral and with a whole complex of creative experience, is fulfilling substantially the same role which it took on at the inception of the historical period and which has become a continually topical constant: to be not just a truthful artistic image of the new epoch of Slovak national life, but also the co-creator of the socialist transformation.”

Now, in the 1990s the socialist transformation was being counter-transformed, and so literature could not continue to co-create it. But supposing one made a clean break with all that, as Šulej and his generation wanted to do, this would also imply rejecting what was associated with the co-creator’s role: the elevated idea of the poet’s calling and the many high or earnest attitudes that came with it. And where did that leave the poet? Surveyed with a punk’s cynical eye, the scene looked something like this:

hey:
hear my voice:
hear ye sirs what peter is telling you:
oëz seignurs ke dit peter:
these are words of disappearance loss and oblivion
only words (no phenomenon historically exists)
they say nothing about collective memories

about circles on the water which someone will snap and record
as in times of early psychedelia
bubble blowers and waving streamers

absence you’ll notice disappearance hardly
(after the blaze burns out you’ll rake the embers)

there’s no one after all who remembers evolution
we live at the terminus my friends …
(Disappearance)

This territory might appear to overlap with Habajland. In fact, there are human activities one can do at the terminus, like walk around and examine things. The resources of culture can be used to look from different angles at ordinary things, without striking pompous attitudes – say, a family trip to the beach. Starting with the sand, one can think of: movement and laws of movement, creation, order, disorder, mineralogy, biology, exploitation of nature. A child loses a coin in the sand, and one thinks of finance, monetary policy and balanced budgets ...

Šulej has at least two geological love poems, probably more. At times his poetry becomes over-demanding, and some of his work can be understood only by people who come from a certain mining valley near Banská Bystrica, given different names by its varied ethnic inhabitants, where tradition maintains that copper from the local mines was used to make fittings for the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, Columbus’s three ships on his first transatlantic voyage.

The cyber-punk would seem to have matured by way of marriage and family life. Against this background, things are interesting. He sees a new generation making its way and is patient.

 

he’s smoothing castles mansions maybe pyramids
from a pastry-cutter he places distant stars
later /

beings emerge from them
the knowledge that we’ve never been alone
our sight is restored to us
now blindness is only mental
we still need time
the boy has begun the journey to the stars

(we haven’t got there though as yet...
(on star anise and other stars surrounding us
later
)

As for the self, one respects the succession of one’s selves. This will affect how one thinks of the mirror. Why should anybody have to live with Sylvia Plath’s malign monster? Better to regard the thing as an archive:

first among equals

the ghosts in the mirrors lodge in their memories
all the forms of childhood / youth
really no one is curious about the future

who’s on the slide towards lethargy
the drowsy movement of years
incurable romantic
secret gnostic

primi inter pares

A remarkable poem of Šulej’s, reflecting in an original way on poetry, sees it as something like weather-watching. The suspicions of his generation are not denied here, far from it: they are prominently on display. There’s the contempt for high attitudes and distrust of lyric rapture (cloud cloud o clouds). There’s the warning not to confuse the window with the sky. I certainly wouldn’t stake my life on having understood this poem correctly. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, yet it seems to me that, in the mature work of this anti-utopian generation, this is about the closest one will ever come to enthusiasm.

Meteovision

the meteorology of visions is poetry
sketched onto maps of statement
to see the invisible

(yesterday you hoovered the stars and ironed the rainclouds
today your eyes reflect the balloon heaven
tomorrow you expect a drizzle of miracles
cloud cloud o clouds)

defence of the window begins with function
with the difference between verse and sky
we move in another world
oleluk the gnome will patiently knock on the door

nonetheless go and open the window
you’ll discover that a change will come
(with every single vision arrived)
in navigation of the zepellin

i am manifold:
i was a feather fairy
i was snow falling
i will be now and here
peter

Mária Ferenčuhová (b 1975) studied in France, and she draws on this experience in her first collection, Hidden Subtitles. There’s a kind of story of a young woman in a foreign city, at first Paris, later possibly Prague. But it’s more a story of atmospheres than events. Discontinuities happen in the narrative. Unconnected sentences slip into paragraphs and words and phrases into sentences, though the language keeps the rhythm of continuous flow. Life in the city is strange and its course is passive. One has fellow-feeling with the mice:

underground. in colours. under the seat. they seek food. in between two trains.
they went completely deaf: guided – like you – by the trembling of wheels and legs.

Whatever happens is distanced from the narrator. If the narrator feels involved, the event seems to be at a distance physically. There are moments of direct address, but they seem to be from letters or e-mails, or at best things spoken on the phone; the most intimate flashes seem to be purely in the mind. If one tries to break into the life of the city the results are frustrating, as in the literary tearoom:

in a literary tearoom where coldness gathers close above the floor: oppression.
over the glasses and next to the humming voices of retired grammar school teachers: it’s impossible to move one’s shoulders.
I read the proper way: I read.
you already know that in big cities speech permeates the posture and willy-nilly implies independence.

The mood is melancholy, but mild. Whatever else threatens the solitary narrator, one feels that it isn’t boredom. She can watch the scene that she’s in, like some moody French film. And here it is worth mentioning that Ferenčuhová is an academic expert and theorist on film, and very probably these poems are strewn with images from films that I haven’t seen:

I didn’t say what I expected to: what I’d lifted the receiver for. I just laughed. between one cold finger and the next – between thumb and index – I twisted the glass stem. looked at my feet dipped into water. a green reflection: an excessive movement: towel. room. lamp. darkness.
in two countries live a silent and a screaming reality: right and left profiles of banality. and between them a face that belongs to no one.
emails and letters are written without flourish. the radio is switched on, by turns silently and loud. I disconnect the phone. the noise does not subside: more and more windows light up in the house opposite.

The atmosphere is cold, but the voice isn’t. This voice seems in friendly dialogue with itself. As the story unfolds one is more aware of the clash of voice and atmosphere.

a twisted bough is accepted by the tree just like a straight one. at least at first sight. you count the leaves, look for insects.
the empty nest is in the grass, though, and it is pointless to blame the wind.

At the story’s end the narrator is in Bratislava. As a place, it’s promising. She is determined not to end up living in some vast alien city again.

But the alien city is a continuing problem in Ferenčuhová’s next collection, The Principle of Uncertainty. Here the element of protective solipsism seems to have gone, and the gentle tone that accompanied it. These poems are more discursive. In a nightmare poem about Paris (partly actual nightmare, partly what is perceived waking) the big city is pitiless, full of dissociated people suffering in public spaces. There is plenty of inhuman light:

A labyrinth of cold lights
smoothes out faces and removes their features,
pointing at the sick with spiny fingers.

One could try for a standardised middle-class happiness, and some people do. But it’s only an aspect of the horror. In the end one grits one’s teeth:

To travel in big machines, leave oneself at their mercy,
                and only then feel fear.
                To go about the cities.
You know where to go. You know where to look.
               Only you seldom speak of it.

In Accidents of the Perception of Time she tries to take stock of the heritage of culture. Michel Foucault seems to have an influence here, Foucault at his most ferocious. Somewhere in The Order of Things he describes a crisis where language has stopped functioning and words have become treacherous, or simply crumbled away. The problem is not with things: “things stubbornly remain in their ironic identity”. They are ironic because the words which claim to match them actually can’t, and what seem to be likenesses turn into monsters and will-o’-the-wisps.

That appears to be how it is here:

Modes of perception: between channels:
Wordless days, years, periods.
Centuries of drawing with black lead, or burnt sienna on the rock.
Restless notches. Silhouettes of clumsy figures.
A tangle of lines (animals in motion).
Millennia of the word: winding of words round the body, lashing,
silhouettes of clumsy sentences. Space behind them.
Muting: and a surge of noisy images. To unravel. To span.
To look like one understands.

What are the chances of making some sort of sense?

                Not just the impossibility of forming time overhangs,
long gone,
               into the waves of a different blue temporality,
               but also the air: only in the present,
face to the shape,
               dry branches and sawn boards, books with angular
               bodies –

               how to defeat
inertia
              with one’s tongue,
              if it constantly hardens into images,
              from which time cannot evaporate
              because it has never entered them?

Everything seems old, grey, decaying. Where will it lead to?

In the end what is meant by peace is fatigue,
limpness of muscles between the ribs
and ever- heavier breath. Searching.

You’re tired, though you keep on searching. But you get a bit better at the search over time. You equip yourself with a pointed stick and spear whatever is lying handy.

You don’t try to shape the water with your breath any more,
you don’t open it, the wake behind your finger, the ship’s screw, nothing.
You don’t seek images in it: it doesn’t matter whether they congeal or spill.
You just watch paper bridges
touching the water so it can roam on them.

But still you flatten crumpled surfaces,
counting how much was added (in area),
or lost (in density), making space of time
and shaking the salt from out of the folds.

One turns to a poem called Dumbness and finds that something has changed. Motherhood! – the nest is no longer empty! The first response is a kind of panic: after all, it was nice just to lose oneself in museums and galleries, and that won’t be possible anymore. But the resolution is made to accept life and fate.

Except – how to express it? Because still there’s that infuriating problem with words and culture: they don’t help, they betray their promises. Culture is a nuisance and words are confidence tricksters (which presents the prospect that every city, Bratislava too, will become like Paris). It’s not for nothing that the poem is entitled Dumbness and its major section called Logorrhoea.

The words which the old culture provided for accepting life and fate were religious: Thine is the Kingdom, Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy will be done. The speaker does not have better; the poem ends with prayer-fragments. But the supports that the old culture offered may no longer be relied on. One knows they are likely to crumble. Those words are not trusted, and this final section of the poem carries the heading Amenorrhoea.

A harsh landscape, to be sure! But at least it’s human territory, not cyborgland. And although the poem finishes in a kind of dead end, one feels this is only provisional. The struggle (on one level a struggle between Slovakia and France) is still in progress, and undecided. The next round, in Ferenčuhová’s forthcoming collection An Endangered Species, should be interesting.

In the mid-1990s Peter Macsovszky (b 1966) became Slovakia’s most controversial poet and a leading light of the post-communist generation. The controversy first of all concerned whether what he wrote could be called poetry at all. Some critics maintained that his work was desiccated, emotionally deadened, unoriginal (being actually copied and stuck together from other texts), boring, ugly, and generally unworthy of the name of poetry. But it’s a long time now since Marcel Duchamp submitted his urinal for exhibition, and in art criticism there’s a well-established argument that art is whatever gets into the galleries. Accordingly, other Slovak critics argued that poetry is whatever gets printed in certain slim volumes issued by persons or firms that are known to be publishers of poetry. Macsovszky’s work met this criterion, therefore he was a poet.

It is interesting that Macsovszky grew up in Nové Zámky, a town in southern Slovakia with a considerable Hungarian population. Slovakia’s unresolved and unresolvable (but currently peaceful and in principle containable) nationalities question is live there. One must remember that the fall of Czechoslovak communism resulted in not one but two political revolutions in Slovakia. There was the revolution among the Slovaks, which led to Slovak independence in 1993. Quite distinctly, there was a revolution in the politics of Slovakia’s Hungarians, whom independence raised from 3 per cent to 10 per cent of the population. Within a few years there was a cohesive Hungarian party, able to include and discipline factions of all shades, which consistently won 95 per cent or more of the Hungarian vote. (In recent times, under the stress of developments in Hungary, it has split in two.)

In Nové Zámky in the early 1990s many people would not have known what their neighbours were saying if they heard them on the street, and they would have had no access to those neighbours’ sense of the moment in history. But Macsovszky understood everything. Not only is he fluent in Nové Zámky’s languages, but he is one of the tiny number of writers who has written books in both. He was also keenly aware that a few years previously there had been quite a different sense of the moment in history, one which had not been challenged by either of the sides now contending. To quote from one of his most interesting poems:

Building communism. A while ago it was still there.
Or nearly. One short spell, it seemed, would do.
At school not a soul revolted. Not one of the dead.
And we bloomed on the resonances of resistance.
(Subway)

Of course, this is no more than a suggestive background. It does not explain why Macsovszky the poet committed himself to the strange literary production that begins with his first collection, Fear of Utopia. The title refers to an idea of Michel Foucault’s. In The Order of Things Foucault remarks that European thought is riddled with utopias that have long overstayed their term. It would be necessary to confront these utopias with heterotopias which would make them sterile. The idea of sterilisation, presented with Foucault’s typical misanthropic irony, no doubt has at least two senses: stopping infection, and preventing the utopias reproducing themselves.

Macsovszky had the fear, typical of his generation, of being the slave of illusions. Among all the utopias, communism and its heritage naturally bulked largest. But Macsovszky had no interest in writing superficial newspaper-type poems criticising communism, as some of the older poets began doing. He wanted to place his depth-charges deeper down than that.

One of the most controversial items in Fear of Utopia is entitled This Is A Real Thing. Fortunately, the critic Jaroslav Šrank has shown how to read it in depth. In what follows I will depend on him heavily.

This Is A Real Thing, in English, is the original title of the poem. In 1994 that would have made more impression on Slovak readers than it could hope to do now. English was seen as the language of the most advanced world culture, to which Slovaks had been denied free access. The claim which the poet made, expressed in English, suggested he was drawing on superior sources of wisdom. His reader would be given a healthy shock, an overdue removal of illusion, a dose of invigorating reality.

The reader (who might not have noticed the echo of Coca Cola’s advertising jingle, It’s the Real Thing) would then read the poem:

THIS IS A REAL THING

This is the regular speech of poetic discourse.
It denotes a degree of textual regularity,
arrangement of the text in its formal shape.
It is concerned with form rather than with content.
Its merit is brevity.

This here is a basic unit
of poetic rhythm, usually one line.
It is characterised by phonetic structuring.

What has been said hitherto fully
applies also to this grouping
of basic units of poetic rhythm
on the basis of a common rhyming scheme
and application
of the same metrical plan.

A couplet is the smallest stanza.

The text, where it keeps altering its schema
and does not fall into a regular pattern,
is less concerned with form and more with content.

At this point, the reader who was braced for having his illusions shattered must be ... well, sadly disillusioned. The poem contains nothing except a few banal statements about poetry. Those statements are not new or controversial; they are commonplaces, received wisdom, presented in a dry, unattractive academic language. They had also been commonplaces thirty or forty years before, in Slovakia, Ireland and everywhere else. To be sure, they are about poetry, but assembled in this manner, why are they supposed to be a poem?

Looking at them a little more closely, one finds that (assuming this construction is a poem), the way these things are said is not in accordance with what they’re saying. Taking the opening verse, for example, this piece of writing is not regular and is not formally arranged. The writer seems to be interested only in the dry-as-dust content, not at all in the form.

Admittedly, the line which proclaims the merit of brevity is itself brief. However, the poem thus far has been tediously long-winded, so this clipped line has the effect of irony. Continuing down the verses, we find more of these false notes. A metrical plan is mentioned and a rhyming scheme, but there’s no sign of either. “A couplet is the smallest stanza” we are told ... in a one-line stanza! The final three lines, explaining the function of free verse, are not in free verse, unlike the rest of the poem. They fall into iambic pentameter, which I have imitated in the translation.

So then, every statement falsifies itself by its mode of expression. What Macsovszky has produced is an example of the art of self-contradiction. Maybe a case could be made that it’s a paradox (of the type “The barber of Seville shaves every man in Seville who does not shave himself”). This poem is an explanation of why it is a poem which proves that it isn’t a poem.

Such an elaborate stunt would hardly be worth doing if these definitions of poetry were Macsovszky’s own, if they weren’t the work of some eminent man of the academy. And of course that’s precisely what they are. Practically all of this poem is taken word for word from a best-selling school textbook on literature by one Tibor Žilka, which was still in use while Macsovszky was attending university. The unfortunate Žilka had made these statements in the course of a work of some hundreds of pages written in the same style.

In Šrank’s opinion, it is hard not to see this poem as a mockery of Slovakia’s academics and educators. That they had it all worked out and neatly defined; that literature or some other field of thought was a terrain they had mapped, where they knew every hill and valley worth knowing: this was their utopia. Such people are not, of course, exclusive to Slovakia. They have been known in other lands, where a poet who was able to show them biting their own tails would have had his admirers.

But Macsovszky’s joke has gone on and on. His collections recycle texts of all varieties (mostly drily practical), chopping them, re-assembling them, blending them. This is gnostic poetry: only readers who have the secret wisdom will be able to feel the poem’s force. There are moments, however, when those of us who are not initiates seem to glimpse the heart of the gnostic. Take, for example, the poem called In Mute Despair.

This poem, like his others, is a test of the reader’s wits and the reader’s reading. For an Irish audience it’s a fairer test than most.

 

IN MUTE DESPAIR

The pointed arch frees the architect
from the inevitability of a square ground-plan
for the vaulting-bays:
massy walls no longer bear
the weight of roof and vaults.
The support system, a finely-jointed skeleton
of vaulting ribs, corbels
and supporting arches,
transfers their weight outwards
onto the supporting pillars.

In length and curvature there are differences:
the first rib is the shortest,
the longest the seventh and eighth.
Walls become superfluous.
Instead of them, extending
from pillar to pillar, there are huge windows
of coloured glass:
they reach right up to the vault.

At midnight I went to the wheel
to relieve the sailor.
When I got to the wheel
I found nobody there.
How happy are they to whom
sleep is a blessing.

One’s first problem is that the title seems to have no connection with the body of the poem. The opening verse contains nothing that would appear to suggest despair. It is written impersonally and conveys no emotion at all. Apparently it is from some general, non-specialist survey of architecture (according to Šrank, the critical detectives have not discovered the source). It might be an encyclopaedia entry. How little the writer cares about literary style can be seen by the way in which words like “vault” and “support” are repeated, though in fact the poet rather than the original author might be responsible for that.

To the extent that some of the phrases might evoke some sort of feeling, certainly it would not be despair. In the first two lines there is mention of “freeing from inevitability”. Later on there is the triply repeated notion of “support”. How could any of this induce desperation? 

The second verse continues with what is evidently the description of a Gothic cathedral. But now the language becomes a little more expressive and momentarily even fanciful (“walls become superfluous”). Combining with this, the final line about the stained glass windows, “they reach right up to the vault”, gives a feeling of aspiration, a sense of “anti-gravity” and independence from mass and bulk. This is what the Gothic cathedral is famous for, and what it suggests is not despair but hope.

The third and shortest verse, unlike the other two, is personal. It begins with a brief report by a ship’s crew member who went at midnight to relieve the steersman, but found nobody at the wheel. Immediately following this is the exclamation, “How happy are they to whom / sleep is a blessing!”

Once again, there is nothing here that immediately connects with the poem’s title. But in contrast to what has gone before, the language creates unease. If a ship’s steersman is not at his post, this can be a serious matter. And the pathos in the last two lines suggests that the speaker is not one of those happy people who sleep blessedly.

After the abundant light coming through the Gothic windows, with their coloured glass, we are suddenly at night, in darkness. And in some sort of nightmare. We have lost the abstract, elaborately constructed, deceptive (because even with its pillars the building is earthbound) and impersonal hope that the Gothic cathedral gave us. And instead we have what is personally, intimately ours.

The Slovak word loď (suggested in the first line of the original, Lomený obluk oslobodzuje architekta) means both the nave of a church and a ship. This is the idea which links the three verses, according to Šrank. We go from the cathedral-ship to another ship that has no steersman and is drifting ominously in the night. And those who are on it do not hope, they fear.

As it happens, Macsovszky has composed his third verse by splicing two fragments from one of the classics. Firstly, there’s the story of the missing steersman, told by the captain of the ship that is bringing Count Dracula to England. And secondly, there’s the rueful reflection of Lucy Westenra, one of Dracula’s brides.

Though Macsovszky has poems which go right into the coffin (for example, Scene from a Torture Chamber, in a collection which he wrote in the feminine guise of Petra Malúchová), In Mute Despair is as expressive as any. But the personal experience of disillusion which (Šrank too assumes) lies behind the poem probably has more to do with Michel Foucault than with Bram Stoker. The Order of Things is a devastating book. I can imagine that in a certain place, time, and circumstances, one might read that book and take it all in, and the experience might feel like being attacked by a vampire.

Without having followed his work exhaustively, I gather that over time Macsovszky’s pose becomes harder to sustain. Originally he was able to get the tone of sovereign contempt: he could address, as it were, a second and more initiated reader over the head of the reader actually reading. When ably done, there’s nothing so withering. But in time he began addressing the actually reading reader: why are you reading this drivel, when you profess to know that it’s drivel? What did you expect? Well, you don’t have the interpretative key – don’t expect anything! (Troubles with Artificial E.)

And yet ... somewhere along the line, he developed a vein of narrative. He has slice-of-life poems with illuminating moments, that can make one think in an old-fashioned way – as when he’s being hassled by some young black beggars in Paris, and he starts telling them about communism and its cult of resistance (Subway). A novel of his, Making Skeletons Dance, which is set in a pub in Amsterdam, shows a gift for description and a comic talent. The critics assume that it must be part of his war against culture, with more layers of pedantry than Ulysses. I wouldn’t know. One might say of this author: he’s at his best at those moments when he seems to have given up whatever he’s doing.

Katarína Kucbelová (1979) seems to share the suspicion characteristic of her generation. Her first collection, Sport, shows her examining basic features of existence and seeing what can be said about them plainly. Breathing, for example. This is thought about or evoked by the title in several poems: breath without content, they breathe life into me (about naming), sooner or later i shall stop breathing, which breath saved my life, it’s enough not to breathe in, breath without choice ... Kucbelová proceeds carefully step by step as far as she wants to go, and not an inch farther. This is breath without content:

breath without content

I.
if i am a process
the criteria of being do not apply to me

i am only the act of receiving

if to receive is not to appropriate
if the purpose is not to belong
to receive may mean to agree

to agree with the act of giving
i agree with the act of giving

i cannot feel gratitude
i can be the act of gratitude
if gratitude is the purpose of receiving

if i am a process
i cannot be either
a purpose or a reason for myself

i cannot
either want or not want to be
a purpose or a reason

if i am a process

i cannot want or be

i cannot not want or not be

II.
thanking from asking
inseparable

In little big city she tries to think herself into the modern “urban space”. (Little Big City happens to be the advertising slogan of the city of Bratislava.) It is soon clear, as with Ferenčuhová, that the relevant city is too big to be little and that it presents some problems to its inhabitant.

The speaker in these poems is a flight steward, a profession which can make places lose all definition.

every morning i wake up in a different city
all i can remember is the aisle between the seats

cities are many

too many not
to become dizzy
from the brand new organization of
the world

the borders

The speaker needs a sense of borders. Though aware that she herself lives on the borderlines, she knows that city borders keep shifting and tracking them isn’t automatic. So she maps the city ... or makes alternative maps ...

days pass through the city
like images

I pass through the city
I assemble images 
I assemble the city
I record it on maps

I pass through the city like days
I record the days on maps

days as days

images as images

as I pass through from one street to the next
I decide

how I’ll speak what I’ll say what I‘ll do 

or

situations pass through the city like days

on the maps I record the situations too

action is
decision is
precedent is

images pass through the city like situations

they pass through the city according to the maps

But it’s one thing to know your urban geography and another thing to belong. The anonymous milling crowds disorientate her. Advertisers and sellers of consumer products keep on communicating. A mild irony helps here, and an ability to be scornful of those who are well-adjusted to the consuming life.

But what fixity can one find in the whirl of meaningless transformation? It seems the pace of change is so fast it will bury everything:

 

here I have left my memory

these are remnants
of the former city
the city a few days ago

it is covered with other cities as upper floors

memory that depends on chance

may be revealed only
in the building of a future city

its creators are reburied
on the next underground level

memory that depends on the memory of others

 

The notion of memory inspires the most striking poems in this collection. Belonging, being at home, is bound up with memory. Yet the city offers memory no purchase, no way to keep its hold:

my memory can grasp nothing
the ivy shoots are powerless

a concrete wall is immune
to the suckers of the urban plant

Supposing that were not so, and somewhere there happened to be some content that would sustain memory – even then it would be trampled by the mob of consumers, those who

 

select buy and go

they know that nothing awaits them
they know which floor they’re parked on

they themselves await no one
accustomed to the dry urban storms 
they do not hear what
the thunders say

The big city sets an impossible task for those who want to be at home there. She meets an old woman, born on Kapitulska Street in the heart of Bratislava, whose parents had come from Leopoldov (a town that might be compared to Portlaoise, associated in most people’s minds with its high security prison). The old woman regrets a choice that was made before her birth:

we shouldn’t have moved from the Town
(Leopoldov)

Dad was promoted and transferred to another prison
(she said)

who eighty-three years ago
(thirty thousand days)

was born in the city
(on Kapitulska Street)

in the Town I wouldn’t have lost my memory
because we had family there
(you talk to each other you refresh memories)

all of them now are under ground
(she’d have met with the family’s children and grand-children
whom she’ll never get to know and they‘re not aware she exists)

now I’ve remained here alone
(it’s seldom that we meet the children of friends)

this is the worst imprisonment
(she was thinking of loneliness I think of the loss of memory)

This post-communist generation should be seen, in my opinion, as messengers, or even (much as they might scorn the idea) as prophets.

They have managed to distinguish themselves sharply. Their work stands out from that of the previous generation, whose leading representatives may be met with in English translation in Six Slovak Poets (2010). One has reason to think that much of what they write would not have been publishable during the 1980s.

Communism, which aspired to outproduce and outperform the capitalist system, in the end failed to do so. But it preserved the social utopia. In Slovakia, blended with Slovak nationalism, it produced a kind of humanist idealism, where a Milan Rúfus could be sheltered. Rather stagnant, to be sure, full of arbitrary quirks and hypocrisies, and (as its leading critic Vladimír Mináč was ultimately forced to recognise) frustrating something in Mr Average, l’homme moyen sensuel. And too dependent on the fate of the sick Russian giant.

In one of his books the German historian Ernst Nolte made a striking criticism of communism. He said: communism attempted to reproduce the human solidarity of the traditional rural village in the complex modern city. Nolte said this as though the absurdity of the notion should be self-evident. But precisely this was the life’s ideal of the poet Ladislav Novomeský. Bringing the solidarity of the village in among the tower blocks: that is what he attempted poetically in his remarkable poem 30 Minutes to Town (1964), which fascinated me when I came across it (I have included some extracts in Slovak Spring, my translation of a selection of his poetry). To my surprise, at least initially, the Slovaks I spoke to were not interested in it at all.

If one rejects all that as romantic lies – and there is a certain will-to-truth in the post-communist generation which one cannot help but register – the truths that one finds are bitter. The post-communist world is hard on the spirit. And of course, it raises the great question: what is to become of our mysterious monster, the city?

Mankind has decided to live there. Country life – the real thing, the genuine article, whose last twilight gleams I was lucky to see as a child in Ireland – is vanishing. Something of it remains, no doubt, in India; from the horror stories coming out of rural India one can assess its future prospects. All that will disappear, and there will only be the great cities – they will have their subordinate towns and their food zones, but the cities will define the world. What kind of life can they engender, with no counterbalancing country life, in constant hectic activity that risks becoming merely a ghostly adventure of money, burning up memory and tradition as they go?

Note on sources

Translations here are mostly my own. I have used versions by others, with some amendments of mine, for poems by Ferenčuhová (Marián Andričík) and certain poems by Macsovszký (Marián Andričík) and Kucbelová (Zuzana Starovecká). Most of these poems are to appear in a planned series of English editions by the Bratislava publishing house Ars poetica. Peter Šulej’s Disappearance and Meteovision have previously been published in Poetry Wales.

Jaroslav Šrank’s comments on Habaj are in Viliam Marčok (ed.), Dejiny slovenskej literatúry III, Bratislava 2006, p. 153. Stanislava Chrobáková Repar on Habaj is cited by Alexander Halvoník in another history of Slovak literature: Imrich Sedliak a kolektív, Dejiny slovenskej literatúry II, Bratislava 2009, p. 624. The quotation from Stanislav Šmatlák will be found in his Dejiny slovenskej literatúry od stredoveku do súčasnosti, Bratislava 1988, p. 561.

Peter Macsovszký’s poetry is discussed at some length in Jaroslav Šrank, Nesamozrejmá poézia, Bratislava 2009.

Other books mentioned in the text include Six Slovak Poets, ed Igor Hochel, Arc Publishers, Todmorden, Lancs, 2010; Ladislav Novomeský, Slovak Spring, Belfast Historical and Educational Society, Belfast 2004. There are two selections of the poetry of Milan Rúfus in English translation: And That’s The Truth, tr James Sutherland-Smith, Viera Sutherland-Smith and Ewald Osers, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Mundelein, Illinois 2006; To Bear The Burden And Sing, tr John Minahane, Matica slovenská, Martin 2008.

03/12/12

John Minahane has translated poems by the Slovak poet Ladislav Novomeský, with a biographical essay: Ladislav Novomeský, Slovak Spring (Belfast Historical and Educational Society, Belfast 2004). His other translations include Milan Rúfus, To Bear The Burden And Sing (Matica Slovenska, Martin 2008) and Six Slovak Poets (Arc, London 2010). He has also produced translations of literature in Irish and essays on Irish history and literature: recent books include The Christian Druids: on the filidh or philosopher-poets of Ireland (repr. Howth Free Press, Dublin 2008) and Conor O’Mahony, An Argument Defending the Right of the Kingdom of Ireland (Aubane Historical Society, Aubane 2010).

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