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Review: Six Slovak Poets, ed. Igor Hochel

It is now more than twenty years since the ground shifted under people's feet in Eastern Europe and the tremors continue to be felt, not least in the literary culture of the smaller language communities. No publisher has been more scrupulous in giving a translated voice to these minority literatures than Arc, who have recently added three titles to an already substantial list.

The other two volumes under review have a more limited scope, a sharper focus, and a modest allowance of pages. They are both included in Arc's excellent series 'New Voices from Europe and Beyond', with each volume restricted to a selection of work by six poets. The Slovak volume has an unusual apparatus, in that everything inside its covers is translated by the same man, the inexhaustible John Minahane. I was dubious about this at first, but changed my mind when it became clear that palpable differences of register, sensibility, principles of organization and fields of reference all became more convincing by virtue of having filtered through the same linguistic brain. The other peculiarity about the editing of this volume is the decision to narrow the focus to include only work by writers born between the years 1935 and 1955, but this also turns out to be valuable in its representation of the cohesiveness of one generation's response to the historical crisis of coping with the pressures of politics and national culture, in a part of Europe whose relationships of alliance, antagonism and cohabitation with neighbours are especially complex. The evidence of this selection is that Slovak poetry has marshalled a remarkably homogeneous set of resources to absorb this crisis: a phenomenological
displacement into elemental landscapes, a perpetual re-invention of folkloric motifs, a haunted insistence on the spiritual journey and, most of all, a constant honing of the technique of pregnant implication.

All of the work featured here is serious, substantial and disciplined, but the most distinctive and intriguing is by Mila Haugova and Ivan Strpka. Strpka's writing is brittle, fractured, congested, many-layered and full of urgent asides. Its elusiveness is neither mannered nor irritating, but disturbing and compelling, a rare species of utterance that seems forced into existence. It resembles a nervous bulletin whose messages are so deeply buried they can only be surmised in moments of fugitive eloquence, surfacing here and there in rhapsodical gleams. If Strpka's language is unmanageably dense, freighted with trapped meanings, splitting at the seams, Haugova's by contrast has an almost starved and attenuated character. Its subject matter often involves ellipsis, interruption, forking paths, abandoned dreams, and its style is accordingly irresolute, segmented, reluctant. The poems are like slideshows of images whose congruency is plausible but fallible, micro-narratives of bewilderment whose uncertainty has been crafted with precision. Both Strpka and Haugova are veteran cryptologists who cover their traces with an idiosyncratic resourcefulness born of long experience.

There is no doubt that this book represents a worthwhile project that has been well handled by all concerned; nonetheless, it only tells part of the story of Slovak poetry, and makes one wish for an additional volume that would feature the younger generation, including the ingenious Petr Sulej and the brilliant Martin Solotruk. The latter are chief organizers of the annual Ars Poetica poetry festival, which has made Bratislava an international forum for innovative writing, extending the horizons of young Slovak poets and fostering the translation of a broad range of foreign poetry into Slovakian.