06. 27. 2018. 09:50

Just About Able to Keep on Going

A Review of István Kemény's Nile

In it the subjective moves, and existence is just about able to keep going, winning those matches which to Kemény (his dramaturgical œuvre notwithstanding) were always the most interesting. – Here's a review by Soma Csete, translated by Tom Sneddon.

I felt from the outset that a certain culture of self-accountability was spreading around me. It isn’t necessarily easy to say whether it was the texts of this volume which put me in this state of mind, or whether some recurrent elements of resigned, accountant-like rhetoric seeped through from the everyday world (and found support in the banal pathos of the blurb.) In any event, I read Nile with a certain sense of expectation, as though hoping for answers from it, and trying to connect the dots through every single line so each would have the meaning I kept hearing in it. I won’t say that this is a totally fair expectation – these are poems which practically flaunt their opposition to ‘big questions’, and the structure of a text is often visibly altered so as to avoid any word as concrete as ‘truth’ – but István Kemény is somehow capable, right from the first line of the book, of making us accomplices in plots to undermine his own poetic form.

It is, in any case, quite apparent that this is a game played on separate levels. The book continually and explicitly keeps us on the surface, generally by employing grand dilemmas: What is time? What is guilt? What is truth? What is eternity? I need not, of course, have been very surprised; after all, this author has previously explored these themes with great natural ease. Still, it struck me here as more fully-formed and obvious than in previous works. This compilation is unified by a playful theme exploring the world’s great rivers, as well as an unmistakable penchant for enigmatic verse and some more openly lyrical phrases. This might generate the impression that we are standing in a central spot where many different sources flow together, but Nile does not offer the unity or completeness we might thus have been led to anticipate.

Let us, by way of example, examine the two rivers. Ballad of the Quayside (the sole poem in the Danube cycle) and the poem Nile examine existential themes by exploring the buried strata of common language, or by finding ways to empty words of their meanings. At the same time there remains something human-scale in Kemény’s rhetoric, in his dramaturgy, and in the rhythms he employs to generate his visual metaphors, so that (though this may be considered bad form by some) it is though our own experiences that we as readers unlock these poems. It is not the grandiose closing image of Ballad of the Quayside which persuades us of the depth of the narrator’s inner experience, nor does the formal climax at the end of Nile lead us to believe that we are each unique and irreplaceable. Instead it is through his language: quivering verbs, heart-skipping slips in common turns of phrase and an undeniable aesthetic attention to detail which all come together to affect us with bare force of a confession. Kemény is thus able to create within these poems an atmosphere of absolute honesty, and there is no trace of self-justification to be found: He holds up his guilt, asking for it to be judged with the greatest possible severity.

There is, however, much in this work which is less successful. The poem entitled One Memory, for instance, which also adorns the inside of the dust jacket: (“Two times two is four, I said, but they just laughed. / THE END OF THE NEW AGE, they buried that tablet in the ground”) gives, alas, the feeling of flaying the same old horse for the umpteenth time, while CV and Plan A are painfully (and unusually for this poet) devoid of anything besides overbearing portentousness and pathos. The Posthuman Moment (“From its pen a creature catches my eye / it runs across to me, as far as it can come / looks, looks, then cautiously / sniffs the mirror’s glass”) seems to trivialise somewhat the poet’s chosen theme, while Gloss for a Mineral Lexicon is based on a kind of wordplay (“singularite,” for instance, as an imaginary mineral element) which is almost painfully embarrassing to read. The poem Internet (“The word flies away, and stays”) meanwhile, is a lyrical reflection on the idea that we are only capable of referring to ‘the new’ by means of ‘the old’ (and that this is the representative ideological and cultural condition of the twenty-first century.) This poem may, when the total linguistic perspective of Kemény’s œuvre is taken into consideration, prove a strong contribution, but he seems unwilling to explore these themes in as much depth as we might have hoped; a problem in evidence, as we have said, elsewhere in this collection.

There emerge, in spite of all this, expressions of such felicity that we immediately forget those ossified sections (which only occasionally detract from the atmosphere of the text.) Jewish Christian Social Meeting and The Investigators’ Argument both set up fresh and enormously interesting encounters, while Communication and The Special Squad are like dreams which might topple over into emptiness with a single line, soothing only with the balm of resignation. Amid these are also more convincing, drastic pieces (for instance Question, or The Bottom Row) while poems dedicated to various specific people fit adequately into the overall structure of the collection. The multifaceted nature of the poet’s conception, and the dynamic system of poetic reverses which he employs, are most visible in Hypnotherapy, which to this reader is the highlight of the whole collection.

As regards Kemény, I have said nothing in the preceding paragraphs which could not have been observed with a cursory glance at the reception of his other works, and from the organically-developed poetic path which he has followed throughout his career. What is interesting in Nile is that with its explicit pathos and sustained attitude of self-accountability, woven throughout like a thick web, Kemény is able to create a living, breathing poetry culture all of his own. In it the subjective moves, and existence is just about able to keep going, winning those matches which to Kemény (his dramaturgical œuvre notwithstanding) were always the most interesting.

Nile is a lean little collection, at once humble and impudent, and we should not fear giving it a try; so long as we leave aside any unrealistic expectations we might have, the text works – and of course continually undermines any such expectations. This experience is, among fresh works from hypercanonical authors, an almost unique experience.

Soma Csete

(Translated by Tom Sneddon)

This review was originally published in Hungarian at Litera.hu.

Previously on HLO:
Twilight Years (István Kemény: Dear Unknown) – Mátyás Dunajcsik's review
Reports from a sinking World – Lajos Jánossy's essay abot István Kemény's poetry