02. 19. 2007. 09:08

Tamás Jónás

Tamás Jónás' poems lead us into a merciless world. There is no resting place: even in the midst of a family idyll, the individual is not allowed a moment of respite. He continually has to answer for some sin that he either has or has not committed, or call on others to answer for the sins they have committed against him.

Tamás Jónás (34) was born to a Roma family in the derelict city of Ózd in Northern Hungary, a dinosaur of the forced industrialisation of the "socialist" Hungary of the 50s. Of his childhood, he wrote an autobiographical work entitled Cigányidők (Gypsy Times, 1997, published in German with the title Als ich noch Zigeuner war). The first part of this book is a diary in which the 21-year-old poet tells the story of the 4-year-old child who finds himself in an institute after his parents are taken to debtors' prison. Today Jónás lives in Budapest with his wife and two sons.

Jónás' poems are confessional, almost to the point of being obtrusive. They often lead us right into the middle of the private sphere where we would prefer not to look. The absolute lack of emotional detachment sometimes make the reader feel as if they were engaged in a certain kind of voyeurism. He tells us shamelessly and mercilessly about a small child abused by an older boy, about an alcoholic father beating up the family, about becoming an adult by passing wind in the middle of the classroom or about the fact that his wife goes to the toilet every time he takes a shower. Often, someone is explicitly addressed – invoked, accused, pleaded – the "happy flappers", objects of his desire, his dead mother or God. Though most of his poems are defiant or filled with excruciating pain, sometimes he manages to keep an emotional distance from himself and his topic. Recollected in tranquillity, the pain softens into an elegiac tone and often results in poems built on some ritual formula or in a strict metrical form.

Jónás is often referred to as a Roma poet. Understandably, he himself does not like this epithet which forces him into a niche where he feels uncomfortable. He prefers to say he is a Roma and a poet (similarly to János Pilinszky, who claimed to be a Catholic and a poet rather than a Catholic poet). Yet being a Roma is inherently part of his poetry, in two senses. First, the existential experience of being a Roma is omnipresent in his poems. In "It Is Worth Stealing" (Lopni érdemes) he takes up the prejudice "the Roma steal" and writes a poem about how he actually did steal as a child as often and as much as he could, taking back, even if only for moments and even if only in symbolical amounts, his life stolen from him – eventually, stealing becomes an emblem of freeing oneself from an alien and threatening world.

Second, Jónás' is Roma poetry in the sense that it gives voice to an ethnic group steadily growing in number, but lacking in prominent intellectuals and artists. This is also a reason why his works are markedly different from most of contemporary Hungarian poetry. In the process of finding his own voice, he often reaches back to older literary models – to Villon, Attila József or 19th century Hungarian poets. For example, in his "Family Circle" (Családi kör), ironically titled after a Hungarian poem by 19th century poet János Arany – a poem depicting a family idyll, known by every Hungarian schoolchild – he harrowingly sings about a child forgotten in the kindergarten by his father. In "The Ballad of the Tormented Ones" (A megkínzottak balladája), he takes up the Villonian ballad to write about the miserable life story of childhood acquaintances and relatives. In many of his poems, the speaker is a child, speaking with the authority of immediate pain and with the eloquence of an adult at the same time. Some of these poems borrow elements from Roma children's songs, combining a simplistic, repetitive structure and wording with deep pessimism and a vision of the world as absurd and merciless.

If contemporary poetry is characterized by playfulness, a fundamental irony and theoretical consciousness, then Jónás' poetry is "outdated". No wonder that he reaches back to Romantic roles of the poet – e.g. the poet as prophet – sometimes even explicitly, though with a degree of self-irony. In trying to come to terms with the heavy baggage he is – and we are all – carrying, his best poems undoubtedly come close to an act of healing. 

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