Tag Archives: New York Review of Books Poetry

Review: Berlin-Hamlet — Poetry by Szilárd Borbély

I received a review copy of this title from NYRB.  This collection was published in the original Hungarian in 2003 and this English version has been translated by Ottilie Mulzet.

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My Review:
berlin-hamletI was debating whether or not to even attempt any type of review of this collection of poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép could never be unpacked or fully explained in one short review.  But I found the language and images of Borbély’s  poetry so moving that I decided I had to at least attempt to put some thoughts together in order to bring more attention to this Hungarian poet and his tragic end.

The collection of free verse poems is divided into five interwoven themes and each poem in a cycle is given a sequential number.  The cycle of poems entitled “Letter” are based upon quotations extracted from diaries and letters of Kafka.  Borbély puts his own unique touch on each of Kafka’s quotations by rewriting and reworking them.  Kafka is the perfect figure through which to mix images of Berlin, with city he had a connection through Felice, and Hamlet, whose indecision is reminiscent of Kafka’s own hesitancy about his relationship.  The first in the series of “Letter” poems is the perfect blend of elements that include Kafka, Berlin, and reticence:

[Letter I]

At last I have a picture of you as I
once saw you. Of course not as when
I glimpsed you
for the first time, without your
jacket, bareheaded,
your face unframed by a hat. but
when
you disappeared before my eyes into
the entrance of the hotel,

as I walked beside you, and nothing
as of yet
connected me to you. Although I
longed only
for the strongest tie to bind me to
you. Tell me,
don’t your relatives pursue you
altogether too much? You shouldn’t
have had time for me, even if I had
come
to Berlin. But what am I saying? Is
this how I want
to bring my self-reproaches to an
end? And finally,
wasn’t I right not to have come to
Berlin? But
when shall I see you? In the
summer? But why
precisely in the summer, if I shan’t
see you at Christmas?

The second cycle of poems specifically deals with the city of Berlin and Berbely’s visit there in the mid-1990’s.  Each poem in this series is given the name of a specific place or a district in Berlin. Poem titles include, “Naturhistorisches Museum,” Herrmann Strasse,” and Heidelberger Platz.”   The translator, in his afterword, points out that it is in this series of poems where Benjamin’s Arcades Project is heavily alluded to.  The poems are a blend of Borbély’s personal experience of Berlin with that city’s complicated history.  In “Krumme Lanke” he opens with a memory of the “last days of the Reich” and proceeds to tell a story of two soldiers who ignore their superior’s orders and have a clandestine meeting.  The poem then shifts without a transition to the poet’s own memory of walking next to Krumme Lanke:  “Our conversation/ was more of a remember, a/revocation of all that had happened earlier. Like a/ film being played in reverse.”  There is a deep sense of wandering that pervades these poems as he visits train stations, various seedy parts of the city and the natural history museum and uses these places as starting point with which to reflect on Berlin’s past and the poet’s present.

The series of poems entitle “Epilogue” do not appear to have any specific references to famous authors and are the most deeply personal and reflective.  These poems only appear at the beginning and end of the collection and show us a writer who is battling many emotional demons:

[Epilogue II]

For the dead are expected to know the
path
above the precipice of the everyday.
When
they leave the lands of despair, and
depart
towards a kingdom far away and
unknown,
which is like music. Swelling, a solitary
expectation everywhere present. this
music
does not break through the walls. It
taps gently.
It steals across the crevices. Silently it
creeps,
and cracks open the nut hidden deep
within the coffer.

Next, are a series of poems entitled “Fragment” which are all addressed to an unnamed receiver.  There is a deep sense of not only hesitation but also loneliness in these poems.  He begins the first “Fragment” poem:

Yes, I could express it simply by
saying
that our conversation left in me a vacant space. Since then, every
day contains this space.

Of the five different categories of poetry, the “Fragments” are my favorite because Borbély’s  own voice, pain, and struggle come through most clearly.  I found a line from “Fragment III” especially chilling and laden with foreshadowing: “My need is for those who will know/how/all of this will end.”  Borbély tragically takes his own life in 2014at the age of fifty and there are hints throughout his poems that allude to his melancholy.

The final category of poems are called “Allegory” and are a mixture of philosophical observations which still maintain obvious references to Kafka.  The first poem in the collection especially evokes images of Kafka and his complicated relationship with his father:

[Allegory I]

The pierced heart, in which lovers
believe, recalls me to
my task.  Always have I desired

to be led.  My father’s spirit instruc-
ted me
in ruthlessness.  what he missed in
life, he now
in death wished to supplant.  I did
not

find my upbringing to be a comfort.
the spirit of our age is for me
excessively
libertine.  My scorn is reserved for
the weak.

Finally, a word must be said about the afterward which was beautifully written by the translator. It serves as a thorough introduction to Borbély’s life, literary influences, and style of writing but is also a fitting eulogy for this gifted poem whom the world lost too soon.

 

About the Author:
borbelySzilárd Borbély is widely acknowledged as one of the most important poets to emerge in post-1989 Hungary. He worked in a wide variety of genres, including essay, drama, and short fiction, usually dealing with issues of trauma, memory, and loss. His poems appeared in English translation in The American Reader, Asymptote, and Poetry. Borbély received many awards for his work, including the Attila József Prize. He died in 2014.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry

Review: The Voronezh Notebooks by Osip Mandelstam

My Review:
MandelstamThis edition of Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks, recently published by the New York Review of Books, is a collection eighty nine verses the Russian poet wrote while he was exiled to the city of Voronezh.  During the early 1930’s Mandelstam wrote and published poetry that mocked and criticized Stalin and so it is no surprise that he was arrested and sent into exile.  During part of his exile he was allowed to live in Voronezh which was a bit more civilized as far as Russian exiles were concerned.  He was lucky that his wife Nadezhda was allowed to go with him and if it were not for her then much of his poetry would have been lost to us.

The first notebook contains poetry written between April and July of 1935.  All of the poems are numbered as well as dated.  In this first series of poems we understand that Mandelstam is relieved to be in Voronezh although he by no means feels at home in this city.  He lives is a crowded boarding house that he describes as a “coffin” in the first poem.  He and his wife have no privacy and they hear every movement and sound of their neighbors.  In the third poem he begs Voronezh to have mercy on him and “restore” him but throughout these poems we get the sense that he feels hemmed in, claustrophobic and hopeless.

The second Notebook beings in December of 1936 and goes through February of 1937.  The imagery of winter that one encounters in these poems are particularly striking.  He describes this season as a “postponed present” because the length of its extent is always uncertain.  Poem #37 is one of my favorites from this collection; he admires the goldfinch who “curses the sticks and perches of his prison.”  He admires this  bird who makes so much noise and is “disobedient.”

The final notebook is written between March and May of 1937.  As I have already hinted at through his writing of winter and the goldfinch, Mandelstam’s lines abound with images of nature and the forest.  In the introduction to this volume, Andrew Davis, the translator, tells us that Mandelstam composed these verses in his head while he was walking.  He seems to have done a great deal of exploring his natural surroundings and appreciated, even for a few hours, the illusion of freedom which they provided.  But Mandelstam realizes that his stay in Voronezh is not his own choice and he is still a captive of a fascist regime.  In Poem #72, for example, he writes of the night sky and the stars which he is fighting against as they hem him in and suffocate him; although the sky appears limitless, he is stuck under the sky that only encompasses this city.    In Poems #76 he declares, “I am ready to roam where the sky is greater.”

Finally, in his introduction to the collection Davis points out that the Notebooks were saved through the extraordinary efforts of his wife who, even after his death, saved pieces of them in teapots and other small places hidden around her apartment.  Each day she would practice memorizing them and Davis explains that “she made it her life’s work to preserve her husband’s poetry.”  Because of her act of devotion and bravery this seemed to me like a fitting collection to review as we celebrate and acknowledge those we love on this upcoming Valentine’s Day.

 

About the Author:
OsipOsip Mandelstam was a Russian poet and essayist who lived in Russia during and after its revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. He was one of the foremost members of the Acmeist school of poets. He was arrested by Joseph Stalin’s government during the repression of the 1930s and sent into internal exile with his wife Nadezhda. Given a reprieve of sorts, they moved to Voronezh in southwestern Russia. In 1938 Mandelstam was arrested again and sentenced to a camp in Siberia. He died that year at a transit camp.

The translator has written a wonderful article about the difficulties of translating Mandelstam’s poems from Russian to English that I encourage everyone to read: https://psa.fcny.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/own_words/Osip_Mandelstam/

 

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Filed under Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry, Russian Literature