09. 21. 2009. 15:44

Speaking between two silences

Ferenc Szijj: Bread Tags

In this poetic oeuvre, language is not a tool of communication but instead, its direct hindrance. “I’m bigger than any sentence, / smaller than silence” – says the narrator of one of the poems.

When in a volume of verse the poems are titled, from one page to the next, after the days of the week, and so the eternal Tuesdays and the eternal Saturdays race along in the eternal weeks, then time itself – repeating and moving forward – will be one of the main characters of the volume as a whole.
The titles of the poems, therefore, indicate on what day Ferenc Szijj noted them down, and thus Bread Tags, with its fifty-nine poems in four sections, can equally be seen as an exciting and prolific work-log of a certain poetic phase.  This fecundity may, however, appear to be monotonous or even homogenous. The form consistently followed through gives rise to a volume in which the poems appear to be variations of one another.
Ferenc Szijj renounces rhyme, orderly metrics, and the traditional stanza. He continually breaks up his lines, whether long or short, into a different kind of stanza-construction, where they are then dissected by thought-rhythms, or more precisely thoughts, sensations released upon language and the rhythm of images. In this poetic oeuvre, language is not a tool of communication but instead, its direct hindrance. “I’m bigger than any sentence, / smaller than silence” – speaks the narrator of “Friday” in the fourth section. And the strangeness of the attitude, the paralysis – the narrator who cannot fit into something which is nonetheless visibly within him; homelessly at home amongst objects, unable to find his place which, however, is not even sought – is indicative of the volume as a whole. The question is, what kind of response will this condition elicit from the reader: sympathetic commiseration, or uncomprehending puzzlement? “For one thought, there is more or less only one form”, as we read in “Tuesday”. The reader, however, often has to complete the form himself, if at all costs he or she wants to deduce a sequence of thoughts.
The sympathy pertains or would pertain to the view of the tragic which could be designated as a global principle in Bread Tags, as well as to the subdued narratives lurking between the texts formed on the verge of muttering. For example, the volume’s longest verse, the first “Sunday”, its epic structure designated through non-rhyming quatrains, relates the story of the beloved’s unsuccessful suicide attempt to the suicide herself the next day at home. A latent presence throughout the entire volume is this situation of “I and thou”, in which behind the speaker, conspicuously separated and left by himself, there is someone else, compared to whom he is truly alone. Here, “even strangeness is only a mask, between knowing and unknowing / there is no border, no decision between existence and non-existence”.
Immediately, in the first poem, the first “Friday”, the lyrical subject addresses someone: “It was not I. You say / I, but it was not I, rather / someone else, or I was another / I too, an objective someone, / so I could help you, / although then it was but in vain.”  This complete uncertainty, in which the speaking I-consciousness loses its competency and slides closer with every line to the subject of the objective someone, is true poetic bravura. It continues in the next section and demonstrates perhaps the volume’s most original motif. “There was no one, or there was, / not I, but I was, / or everything else that I could be, / but in vain, for beyond a certain point, / and whether at the end or at the beginning, / in vain would anyone exist, / anyone not exactly you, / or nonetheless, not just I.”
Szijj directs our attention to the crisis of the sentence. In past eras, the collective metaphor of the problems of language was the word. The word as designation, the word as noun, a phoneme indicating things. Words were no good, words became unfaithful, everyone searched for the last word and no words were found. On the other hand, brilliant sentences were created as a framework to express the problems with words. Szijj is the perpetuator of a new state of mind. He has no problems with words, you could say, he can proceed alongside them, without them; in his poetry, he radicalizes the unity of the sentence, its mode of existence. He reverses the formula, using rich, pungent and exact words simultaneously to abolish and to preserve the sentences. It is as if he is trepanning the entire syntax of the sentence at the borders of the subordinate clauses, sucking out the essence of the coherent statement. “Words, words, words, but what is their essence?” And what remains: the perplexing mode of address of a foreign language, which can of course be interpreted in the most diverse manners. On the one hand, the sense auguring much, that looming behind the unfixedness is something vast, something unspeakable; on the other hand, there is incredulity, reservation, incomprehension, that this language cannot be understood: it is merely perplexing, and what is more, this mode of speech very nearly produces the symptoms of aphasia. Or imitates them.
In his use of syntax, Szijj discovers a new function, meaning and interpretation for postpositions, pronouns and auxiliary verbs. It is not the so-called major parts of speech that create the spatial forms and semantics of each sentence, but rather the secondary ones enter into the determining position. Selected at random, here are several word-forms taken from the beginnings of stanzas: as, as if, then, from that, but, through, because, that, then, and, maybe, just. As well, the most characteristic construction: “howsoever, but even so”. The mannerism of particles. The word “vagy” [either/or, about] is found countless times at the beginning of a sentence or a stanza. Invariably, newer and newer analogies, more sub-structures are capable of bursting out of the preceding predicate. Many times, the words “because” and “as” follow one another: simultaneously explaining and comparing the same situation within a single speech act. A frequent tool is the use of the infinitive, with its illustrious past in the history of Hungarian poetry; these linguistic means depict that lively abstraction, that agile de-concretization, which is the characterizing feature of this poetry.
This poetic voice does not listen between two speakings, it speaks between two silences. This is the kind of poetry that usually draws fairly extreme reactions from the reader. The deviations will be considerable as to whether each untraceable trope is regarded as mysticism, radicalism or empty imitation. The volume closes with the poem “Last Days”. The last four lines: “Once at midnight after a beautiful day / it slowly began to rain. // The umbilical cord of silence / from the thickening darkness.“ If we chop that off, theoretically that speech would begin which is outside the book itself – beyond the book.
Bread Tags was created in silence, and it ends in silence.
János Szego
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Previously on HLO
Ferenc Szijj: Bread Tags (poems)
Praise for Szijj in German

Tags: Ferenc Szijj