07. 17. 2010. 13:08

Believing with doubt

Zsuzsa Takács: Adoration of the Body—India

The new volume of poetry by Zsuzsa Takács has found a captivating framework for the writing of the uncertainty of belief: the letters and diaries of Mother Teresa, which formulate her struggle between belief and unbelief.

The ever-difficult questions interwoven with faith belong to some of the most ancient poetic themes. The twentieth century was the era of doubt, in which waiting for God could manifest itself only in confrontation with the desire for individual independence; yet this contradiction gave rise to great poetic works such as those of Endre Ady or Attila József, or the entire oeuvre of János Pilinszky, polemicising, interrogating, searching, imploringly repudiating, sharply questioning the presence of good and evil. At the same time, the poet is forced to confront the fact that the impulse towards the encounter with God still was always just an eternal beginning, a cautious approaching, which causes us to doubt even ourselves.

The new volume of poetry by Zsuzsa Takács has indeed found a captivating framework for this “grievous mysterium”, the writing of the uncertainty of belief: the letters and diaries of Mother Teresa, which were published two years ago in Hungarian, when within the Vatican the processes necessary to begin her beatification were already underway. The diaries, however, formulate Mother Teresa’s struggle between belief and unbelief in such deep philosophical – and in other places, straightforward confessional – writing that many highly placed figures within the Church claimed that such an individual should not be placed before others as an example, and that she should not be beatified. The cycle of poems in Takács’s volume entitled “India” – which could deservedly form a volume of their own – are comprised of highly particular verses that seem to speak in the voice of Mother Teresa herself, as if the poet were slipping into her identity, reformulating her thoughts. Numerous fragments from the letters and diaries turn up in the poems, and if these quotations were not printed in italics, it would be difficult to decide where the quotation ends and where its poetic continuation begins. The formulation of two into one, this smoothing over, is itself the artistic work.

The poems can thus penetrate to the very roots of the problem: here is a frail Albanian woman brought up in a well-to-do family, who leaving behind the relative peace and security of the cloister, goes to India in order to help the destitute of the most poverty-stricken areas. She often performs her service in opposition to Church regulations – going out by herself along onto the street, although this was forbidden – and all the while she writes about that moment, about how, when she stepped out of the gates of the cloister, she lost her faith, and from then onward it was merely the humility and love which she felt towards other people that led her on into her work, which entailed complete self-forgetfulness; it was merely obligation dictated by conscience that took her onwards through the decades. An extraordinary life: Mother Teresa did the very most that any Christian could do, and yet her relationship with Christ is tortured by enormous doubts. The previous volumes of Zsuzsa Takács also spoke of suffering as the greatest argument against God, as well as the loss of security and the struggle to regain it. The perhaps accidental meeting of the poet and the diaries has, however, created a new situation: a more focused, more well-defined problematic, a fresh language and a vividly present example.

Indeed, we can see the sharp images of suffering: the children crippled from work, the petty thief beaten to death on the street, people starving, leprous and alone, the women dying before the stalls in the slums who, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, don’t even exist. The events described are written in unrhymed verses, in a restrained voice, in a language suited for the mere conveyance of facts, yet it is easy to be affected by them, and even easier to perceive that Takács is not writing about exotic experiences, not about the daily life of a faraway country; that her desire is not to shock but to speak of the destitution all around us, easy to see and touch -- and of course behind all of this the spiritual narratives independent of time and space. For example, as she writes in the poem entitled “The Newborn”, “Wrapped in a hospital towel, a one-day old newborn / placed upon a sack – Are they coming for it? I / conjure up the horror stories. And I am ashamed / of myself for not having blind faith in You.”

How does all of this connect to the first half of the volume, the poems collected under the title “The Adoration of the Body”? In one aspect, according to the lesson of the volume, the work of Mother Teresa was first and foremost about saving bodies; for surely the sick, weakened, mutilated bodies mean life: as long as there is a body, there is still life, so that the worship of the body signifies the endless love of life. Yet individuality can be complete only in conjunction with the body, for it is not possible to speak of somebody without speaking of his or her body, and we cannot think of ourselves as anything else but living, changing bodies. From the one or two poems that lead us into the cemetery, we can learn that there is only one reason to cling to the body, for the coincidental further existence of the soul would not be a true solace to those who remain here. The circles of themes, however, cannot be so narrow that there is no place in them for corporeality, that is to say sexuality. Naturally, it comes up in the poems, but it is treated naturally: purely, making visible the happiest, most intimate moments of love.

The volume clearly states: Love is the most vocal life-force, a passion which renders lovers defenceless and yet raises them, giving meaning and a goal to life. And last but not least, it gives life. Even at those times when there is often suffering. And somewhere here, the two strands of the book come together: love is full of uncertainties and doubts as is belief, and never as simple as we would wish it to be. Zsuzsa Takács has written her entire life’s experience and wisdom into these supple, tender and beautiful texts, which represent a culmination in her rich lifelong oeuvre to date.

László Bedecs
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Takács Zsuzsa:  A test imádásaIndia
Magveto, 2010

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