12. 05. 2006. 08:07

Collected voices

Zsuzsa Rakovszky: A Way Back in Time

Zsuzsa Rakovszky's career as a writer spans 25 years, and she currently enjoys respected status as both poet and novelist. Only in the last few years has she begun writing prose, publishing two highly acclaimed novels. This year's publication of a volume of her collected poetry, Visszaút az idoben (A Way Back in Time), brackets the breadth of her poetic achievements.

Throughout these 25 years Rakovszky's poetry stands as a remarkably unified body of work. Central to the entirety of her work is what literary critic Györgyi Horváth identifies as Rakovszky's "poetics of time". The majority of poems unravel within the context of a clearly delineated season, often a specified month and time of day. Of the seasons, autumn appears most often and seems to carry the most weight, and within autumn All Soul's Day, the title of one cycle and a poem within that cycle, is perhaps the precise moment on which her poetry pivots, the border to which it returns over and over again, the line between the living and dead. 
Rakovszky's work is, in fact, heavily populated by the dead and dying. In one of her later poems a dying narrator sees the dead moving among the living and notes that for every living person there are three dead ("A ko, a víz, a szél…" ["Stone, Water, Wind"]). This can loosely apply to the world of Rakovszky's poetry as well; for every living voice there are three dead or dying voices. Szilárd Borbély, poet and critic, sees in her recurrent representations of the dead a connection to the late medieval tradition of the Dance of Death, or danse macabre. Rakovszky leads the readers in a ritualized dance or performance of death,  presenting us with a sequence of self-portraits of the dead and near-dead, a prostitute one moment, a fallen dictator the next. In these monologues the dead and dying reflect morally on their lives, alongside similar poems in which the living engage in the same reflection. The dead and living focus primarily on their sins, secrets and failures. However, most pass only limited judgment on themselves, rationalize and blame their less savory actions on happenstance, deny their agency and label themselves the victims of circumstance. The two poems translated here, "Circumstances," and "Incidents, Accidents", contrast interestingly with one another; in "Incidents, Accidents" happenstance is indeed tragedy, in "Circumstances" happenstance is used as an excuse for making tragedy. In presenting us with a cacophony of voices Rakovszky offers us an assortment of moral dilemmas, placing us in the position to judge. The many voices are one of the few marked differences between her earlier and later work. In earlier poems she tends to work with one type of voice, but with time she has added more and more voices, such as a gambler, an addict, a widow, a hairdresser, among others.
An essential element in her "poetics of time," Rakovszky returns again and again to the question of preservability – what passes, what remains and how.  Dozens of striking images bring this question to visual life: a wasp stuck in raspberry preserves, events mummified in the indifferent honey of memory, a fossilized shark's tooth in a limestone pillar, body parts stored in violin cases, a corpse suspended in a lit pool. Glassy, translucent containers, both man-made and natural, make frequent appearances in her poems – jars, bottles, aquariums, bodies of water, ice – and function as locations where bodies, objects and emotions can be visibly kept, held, suspended, remembered. Her cycle, "Az idorol" (On Time), starts with the line, "The past does not pass," and maintains that that which has at one time existed never comes to an end, but is preserved in the present. A later line in the cycle translates roughly as, "the present is the past in a change of clothes."
Rakovszky builds up her verse on objects of the everyday. She teases metaphysical questions and answers out of descriptions of day-to-day objects. From object to voice to season, her poetry is challenging in its examination of human trauma, uncertainty and infidelity, the violence people do to one another and themselves.
Rachel Miller

Previously on HLO
An excerpt from Rakovszky's novel, The Year of the Falling Star; a review on the novel 
Rakovszky Zsuzsa: Visszaút az idoben. Versek 1981-2005
Budapest: Magveto, 2006

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