01. 05. 2007. 09:07

Hell hath no center

Attila Balogh: Gypsy Drill

Attila Balogh remarked in a recent interview that he lives in three Hells: disability, Gypsiness, and poetry. He went on to say that it is only the inferno of poetry he cannot bear. His work is certainly a journey beyond and under the edges of the known world where we never dare arrive at the center.

He guides us down the circles; his cold, tight poems are filled with bright, shocking truths, arranged to trigger the emotions like those of the Hungarian poets Ferenc Juhász and László Nagy, not to mention their predecessor, Attila József.
 
Attila Balogh greets us from a seat at home. On the cover he sits in his armchair, his back to us, his crutch resting against the table, an empty seat (ours) and two beers. His face is reflected in a large mirror next to the window, his white shirt ablaze under his dark jacket. Attila Balogh’s explanation comes inside, how he arrived, looking at us as we look at him, daring us to follow him to a poetic crime scene where God, country, people, body, state, race, and family are all traitors who will betray us easily.
 
Already in the preface, like any holy man, he must be born before he can die. Balogh’s genius accordingly begins in the hospital of communism where he offers the imperative of the second person, you in the mirror, you that comes from your own seed, you who becomes a twisted and bent child, unwanted, humiliated, searching for a lover and mother, learning the rules. Balogh regards the beaten child and writes, “every humiliation became moral profit.”
In the first poem, he opens with a curious choice, a speech:
 
Gentlemen, this is Hungary over here,
they have exportable gypsies
souvenir lice,
the hovel disguised as landmark,
my mother lives here too, with thousands of gypsies,
they stammer in a kind of Asian language,
poverty steams here well.
 
The language can be horrific, unsparing, almost Gothic, yet also modern, with Beckettian undertones of mothers giving birth astride of a grave:
 
toothless virgins;
they sit on the curb of the well naked,
from their gaping wounds
newborns roll out silently…
 
Compelling, unnerving and successful as a technique is the voice of a child who is determined to die. Yet he cannot so easily. He must live, forever a poet. The poet peels back his skin to reveal a man and the man peels back his skin to reveal a poet. The poet, in his turn, goes on to peel away the skin of the world. In that way, Balogh the poet is doomed like all of us. It’s a refreshing blast of reality.
 
What follows in forty-one poems is growth and death, an invitation to follow our guide. Attila Balogh endorses no alternatives and offers no solutions, which sometimes leaves a bittersweet taste after the fire and spit of his poems, part phoenix, part death wish. The Kafka-like moments remind us that Balogh is not without humor in his yearnings for death that share a place with lice, roses, cigarettes, stars, and wounds glimmering within this abject world of poems.
Balogh is at least two poets at this point, an unlikely protagonist investigating the crime scene and an angry bard, the champion who turns the tables on the colonizer, victimizer and oppressor, and testifies in bright, hot words.
 
Like Black Elk (1863–1950), the Oglala Sioux healer and holy man, we can imagine Balogh’s voice as a witness to the destruction of his people, self, creator, and body, all of whom he is powerless to save. As a boy Black Elk answers a call to behold a sacred, tragic voice and sings a song of power, “A good nation I will make live. / This the nation above has said. / They have given me the power to make over.”
 
Balogh replies a hundred years later,
 
Search for a new home,
to tame the lands of Europe,
to find the path of blind horses,
to get going
to break the gates
with the cry of a child:
to seize a homeland.
Mother, here I am
twenty years old.
 
He is stubborn and informed but there is no noble innocence on his part. “Here I am with my deathly life….” And with that he wants to rend the world apart, threatening to tear, slap, and pluck all its very elements. “I step on the faces of the pebbles / and beat the Sun till it bleeds.” He sometimes pauses to explain the fight. “Man still hurts, because he strives toward the one place / where he can quickly / become an animal, / God still hurts because he is not needed / – man  must win.…” Then the anger of his voice turns inward. Indeed, he is judge and condemned, “I sentence him to be a gypsy, / and I pack poverty in his pockets….” In this ruthless mindscape we can, as Balogh suggests, warm ourselves by the light of a cigarette.
 
The tension builds sharply: poverty, death, anger. His brutal honesty brings to mind the African American writer Chester Himes (1909–1984) who used the wit and violent poetry of the streets to uncover the big fat American lie of equality and prosperity. Balogh also has this sense about his work. “I’m not coming here / to harm the law, / but I’m afraid, / that honesty is only a decoration…”
Thankfully, he lets his guard down a little at home: “but mother, you do not pray for me / it is me over here / not God….” Here, another of many takes:
 
My adobe-brown faced mother, where did the sunshine disappear?
Where did your tales disappear
about the home searching gypsy kids?
I haven’t eaten your stale bread
– who stole that too? –
Who told the lie
that gobs of mud pressed in the fist
turn into pearls?
 
Balogh eventually has to resign himself that he is not going to get the honesty that he asks for: “Our violins got used to the place too, / You know well / that man is the best instrument.” For what, he doesn’t ask. As his partners in this poetic whodunit in which Balogh rhymes over the bleak crime scene, we get no real answer at the conclusion of the poetic chase. By now, we know that we are guilty too. But on the way Balogh asks: who lowered those people into poverty? Who twisted that body across the room? And who made him a poet?
 
By the last poem, crosscut with sex, we have arrived in the contemporary room where Attila Balogh sits; his themes tumble line by line:
 
your frail rectum gapes
muddy fog
at dead men’s weenies,
beyond the back of God
man fondles a wheezing computer,
squeezes an amnesia-kiss into a nest
and installs
spring onto spring,
the mute consonants
scan the hidden program
on the dyslexic keyboard
in themselves…
 
His eye is sharp, his voice cracked and unforgiving, his compositions like hymns, hot and profane in a world where nothing counts. Balogh's poems are hard-boiled blues of fire and plastic, ancient and modern. He admits later,
 
I still have no donor,
the elevator is working finally,
I’d like a country transplant please,
bending to radiator’s warmth,
your butt got cold…
 
Gypsy Drill is a clash of verse, violence and words obliterating one another, sparks flying from the poems into our hands and heads. The translators Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics deserve great credit for rendering the force and majesty of Balogh’s poems into a strange English-language requiem to a cruel state, cruel god, and cruel being. The sole complaint is the book seems to have lacked an editor to groom the typographical errors that occasionally appear; otherwise, a fantastic discovery.
 
Tom Bass

Read some poems from Gypsy Drill in Milkmag Magazine here
 
Attila Balogh: Gypsy Drill
Translated by Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics
Neshui Press, 2005


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