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Review: New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation, ed. George Szirtes

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.

New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation is a big book showcasing the work of twelve poets, and its chief virtue is in the range of poetics it samples. The authors seem all to have been born in the 1960s or 1970s (although some are coy about giving a birth-date) and cover a spectrum of kinds of poetic language, running from the culturally untranslatable (irrespective of who is in charge of the linguistic translation) to the culturally and linguistically transparent. Interestingly, resistance to translation seems be owing less to the Hungarian aspects of the poet's identity than to his or her debt to the formal procedures of the historic European avant-gardes. The most revealing case is that of Istvan Kemeny, whose virtuosic prolixity seems to meander from one topic to another but in fact is busy gathering together unsuspected threads of connection between everyday rituals and historical and literary precedents, and between domestic and state politics. This is a nervy, voluble, driven and convoluted poetic voice, articulating the sense of loss and waste of a hampered and burdened sensibility with a paradoxical energy and bravura that is both haunting and rousing. It seems also to offer direct access to those indirect messages, those symptoms of cultural change, that have charged the psychology of an entire generation with alternating models for processing the past and imagining the future. This is one of the most important paradigm shifts of our time and Kemeny guides us straight to it.

I have to say I would have omitted the work of two contributors to this collection; neatly anecdotal, blandly conclusive, emptily portentous, they represent an international tendency to appeal to a common humanity that is historically inaccurate, politically obtuse, and formally lazy. This stuff is easily assimilable whatever the language in the case; it is as polyglot as it is repetitive.

But that's only about 15% of the total, and the rest of the volume is full of rewards. The editor is the immensely experienced and redoubtable George Szirtes, whose work has certainly underlined the pluralism of the new Hungarian poetry. For my money, the most interesting discovery to be made here is the genrically unstable writing of Virag Erdos. Irascible and rebarbative, she writes from a border zone between harsh reality and baroque phantasmagoria. Often recoiling from the everyday spectacle of poor health, disempowerment, victimhood, or just consumer inanity, she erects elaborate textual systems that transform the meanings of all these things, fighting misery with intellectual and imaginative brio, deploying a sarcastic wit to undermine the stiff and inflexible structures of thought and feeling attached to conventional forms: a true original.

Many of the English versions in these pages make good poems, especially in the hands of veteran translators George Szirtes and George Gomori. There is also some beautifully poised work by Antony Dunn and Agnes Lehoczky. But confusion reigns in the pages giving information about who translated what: we are given the biography of one person (Kevin Nolan, an excellent translator, as it happens) who seems not to have translated any of the poems, while Ottilie Mulzet, who translated nine, gets no biography at all.

[this was corrected in the reprint, ed.]