02. 09. 2009. 20:49

Watermarks

Dezső Tandori: a portrait at 70

There are poets who are moved to write by the radio waves of language. Others simply look – they look until they see that what they see is not what they see. It is not a pipe, it is not a rose, it is not a bouquet of tulips. Until that certain "watermark" appears, "from which we may state that behind the startled and mundane actualities something must be standing in complete motionlessness."

It was the recognition of these watermarks that Dezső Tandori learned from Ágnes Nemes Nagy. “Ágnes Nemes Nagy is reading poems by Rilke to us, and… and… and…. I see the bouquet of tulips even if not ‘that’ one. The trees on the Vérmezo.(1) In the evening, the shadows, many storeys high. […] Everything that was needed for me to begin” – writes Dezső Tandori. What could that school of poets have been, that school whose very existence and necessity Ágnes Nemes Nagy called into question, and yet where all the same the attendance of writer-friends such as Géza Ottlik, Miklós Mészöly, László Kálnoky and – among the school-age disciples – Dezső Tandori was unfailing. What was it possible to learn there? Obviously, not how to write poetry. On the other hand, perhaps how not to write it, or at least to know what was unworthy of being written. Were words threadbare? Were forms hollow? Such questions did emerge: in any event, to observe in silence seemed the better stance. It turned out that it doesn’t hurt the poet to have ears; the most important sensory organ, however, was the eye: “we must tauten our attention onto the objects, the appearances, as existentially as the ancient hunters with their ancient quarry” – we can read in the famous essay “The Geometry of Verse” written by Ágnes Nemes Nagy, the “Professor” herself.
 
“That ever I was born to set it right!”
 
The sight then unfolding was captivating, and yet at the same time alarming. Something like when the skeleton of a majestic shipwreck takes form before the eyes of a deep-sea diver. Tandori’s first volume of poetry, Töredék Hamletnek [A Fragment for Hamlet, 1968] – indisputably the most staggering event of Hungarian poetry in the twentieth century – was still written in the hope that the sunken debris could yet be brought forth to the surface: “Only that exists, which can. Step into / the channels running within you” – the author wrote with sincere faith in the strength of creation (Az üdvözlet [Salvation]). Then, the gaze was directed inwards and downwards, leaving behind the chattering surface, and he employed Eastern techniques of meditation (among other means) to attempt to seize the “ancient forms” resting within the depths of inner truth: “who has lost the whole / will find its parts. // Preserve a few fragments, its foreign wholes” (Egy sem [None]). Is it possible not to notice – particularly after four decades – how this melancholy fragment-principle, along with the creative fantasies emanating from it, were deeply Romantic in nature? The speculative poems in the volume addressed to Hamlet sought an answer to the questions raised by the Nietzschean announcement of the rupturing of the world: how can one exist in a world abandoned, without God? How, indeed: if one takes upon oneself the care of Providence, and in one’s art recreates the world’s lost unity. This is the first Hamlet-like movement of Tandori’s lyrics – the devoted solicitude for a world that has lost its God: “Oh, inconstant devotion, / you upon whom a dust-sized particle of unsifted time / fatally sits” (Töredék Hamletnek [Fragments for Hamlet]).

Then, not too much later, the continual haunting return of the Rilkean mode of creation, chill and subjective, turns to the poetry of objectivity. One cause for the shift might have been that the poetic methodology – crystal-pure, introverted – brought to life in Fragments for Hamlet would, beyond a certain point, be incapable of continuation, incapable of further generative work. Tandori created miracles with Hungarian grammar: he culled it into its parts and then rebuilt the language poetically; the lyrical self-examination of Fragments for Hamlet was nonetheless a narrative of a particular stance towards life. It also emerged that seeing is not merely passive contemplation, but is in itself movement. Perceptibly, the gaze directed within also pulled everything inwards. And so it had to be turned in another direction. The volume expressive of this transformation, known as the ‘Yellow Book’ (Egy talált tárgy megtisztítása [Cleansing of a Found Object]), long since acknowledged as timeless, once again brought a new poetic language to life. The extreme abstraction and subjectivity pushed into an infinity of concreteness were transformed into “objective poetry”. After the experience of the contracting inner world, the poet turned towards the expanding outer world, characterized by a kind of New Objectivity: Duchampian objets trouvés, chess-poems, visual poems, ready-mades, and the fluttering flock of mobiles, all took the place of imagination. After the debris of the soul, Tandori sought works of art for himself in the stumps of dismembered reality, in “found objects”. The gaze drilled into nothingness, which however could not cast off the artistic demand to create something out of this nothing, and thus to replenish the void left behind by God with vivid reality.
 
At the same time, however, a grave doubt (in relation to the question of this new openness to the world) emerges: “What did Duchamp gain by avoiding the human genus (well, OK, he neither gained nor lost) – but by the fact that he was able to withstand the permanent chatter of others, what! even turning it into a practice, all the while presumably living withdrawn into his own silence?” (2005). It seems that both directions of vision, existence and creation draw certain negativities after themselves in both directions; that every distancing is actually an approach, every approach a distancing; that it is not possible to know what is what, what is above, what is below. The danger of the abandonment of poetry remained: the original title of the ‘Yellow Book’ was A. Rimbaud Shooting in the Desert, a clear reference to the catastrophic danger of ultimate muteness, which threatened even when the poet was regularly writing more than twenty sonnets every single day. Tandori deduced the necessary conclusion, which, however weighty it might have been, did not come to fruition. Somehow, the weight shifted. 
 
“To live instead of everyone”(2)
 
As if a benevolent angel had muddled together the double-entry bookkeeping of life, completely rewriting the content of the “Liabilities” column into that of “Assets” – suddenly it seemed that everything had succeeded, everything was there. An infinite tranquility and happiness alighted upon the poet – if one can put it like that. BEINGS had arrived into his life: teddy bears, birds, and horses. “THE ESSENCE OF BEING – THE BEINGS!” (Ördöglakat [Devil’s Padlock]). In any event, whether sitting in the cupboard, flying around inside the cage or outside, or chasing each other around in circles: they always live. They speak. One only has  to look, observe, to hear what they are saying. The poet undertakes the task of the universal “inspectorate”, they however bestow upon him the gift of their words. Beneath his supervision, these living sparrows are no ordinary birds, but something like little deities belonging to a higher realm of reality, who sit with devotion, dependent upon their all-powerful carers. Between them, there forms a perfect sphere of mutual dependence. “No one has ever sided with my little birds, with my bears against me […] Why is that?” Maybe because it is easier and safer to write that Tandori is experimenting with new uses of language, or that he has made real the enigmatic unity of life and literature, or that he keeps mixing genres.
 
Yet one must acknowledge that the poet’s angel-winged guests are in the right. It is enough simply to look – both then and now – into the morass of faces, to sniff the musty odor of kale, to perceive that the words of the BEINGS, with whom the poet has set up house for decades now, excluding nearly everyone else from his life, have much more weight than those of people. We know the oft-repeated Tandorian joke: “Meeting: – I hope I am not disturbing you? – Ah, everything disturbs me.” Tandori finds more significance and humanity in sparrows, in his tiny flatmates Spero, Sam, Auntie Pipi, than in any other company.  
 
The newly evolved artistic life-form of the Seventies – at once concrete and metaphysical – was a transposed and expanded variation of that same objectivity we spoke about in relation to the ‘Yellow Book’. We know that Tandori was first and foremost a follower of Paul Klee when he interpreted the activity of the artist in terms of the parable of creation. The Tandorian creator: “Does not ‘qualify’ anything as good, / and yet does not condemn, / does not ‘want’, when creating something from those shavings / rent by the sensory organs, / steeping them in his absolutizing drug; his fact-halting machine transmits them across himself; the ‘material’ is finished” (Előszó Paul Klee-hez [Introduction to Paul Klee]).
 
In the following two decades to come, his poetic diction was adjusted to a particular kind of lyric realism: “let us speak as if the grass would hear, and, because of the grass-melody of our words, would proclaim us to be grass”. The 1980s, that decade of putrified boredom! and yet, what a great era it was, we can only see that now if we take the thick volumes of Tandori into our hands, the sensitive Celsius (1984) and A megnyerheto veszteség [The Loss to Be Gained, 1988]. The latter is a colossal flow of speech, the separate pieces of which are, for the most part, indicated only by Arabic numerals. Many of these are great poems, texts of immovable value, yet we cannot see them in insolation without destroying the entire volume. Life or literature? “I envy the suddenly-disappearing Madame de Renal / from The Red and the Black / what I will die of, could it also come for me, when it is my time to die? / My hand would rest on our birds, and something would cover my eyes” (Most-se-soha [Now-Not-Never]).
 
“To sleep; no more”

Sometimes it happens that we lose the thread, and we hear from others that oh, Tandori actually leaves his house now to go here and there, that he no longer writes bird-poems, but horse-poems, or rather, horserace-poems and prose – he tells fortune and writes poems from horseracing tips and racing results; then we hear that he does not do even that, goes nowhere and is occupied with only his own self, with such and such an ailment. He fabricates jokes, aphorisms, evidence stories; for example there is a blokeish “proposition” concerning the Hamlet-monologue, and he writes and re-writes everything.

Then, if we follow his writings, we see that actually nothing is happening. “Let nothing happen” – he says. Or at most, only things that will make one “wiser”. We know: Kant, Cantor, Wittgenstein, Zeno, Heraclitus and the others. We can leaf through the pages of the new biographical novel quoted above, the “great watermark” poems appearing here and there in the periodicals, and the markedly jocular Devil’s Padlock, if we really want to understand correctly what the situation is. Has he once again “turned within”? Once again practising “subjective” poetry? It is not very likely. What is certain, though, is that with the passage of time, his attention is more and more focused on the most intimate physical, bodily realities, and (for want of something better?) this shall be the object of his poetry, its fabric. His statement “Living, I decease” can be interpreted in this way.

Nonetheless, it is indisputable that he has many times gazed despondently within, all the while creating his newest verses and novels with mechanical genius. He has stated the following about his counterpart Ernő Szép: “in his highly valuable, world-relevant works, Ernő Szép does not hope for any kind of exit, the overall picture is dark.” The angels, the little deities have moved out of his life, out of his field of vision, and the once-unconditional devotion belongs now to the past. In relation to Paul Klee, he recently wrote – a statement equivalent to a self-confession – that his artistic struggles were “an overappreciation of spiritual possibilities” and that the degree to which Klee avoided the “avowal of negativity” is today truly striking. Tandori does not avoid such avowals, he acknowledges that he no longer believes in anything, and that he has become indifferent.
 
Nonetheless – it appears – that it is precisely in this viewpoint, in this avowal of negativity, that the true “loss to be gained” resides: the possibility of eternally beginning anew, its nearly daily frequency. For in this, he has already had enormous practice. If there is an open question here, it is he who has opened it, and if there will be a solution, that solution can only be his: “I do not try not to think of myself, for there is no Memory that would lapse so far” – he writes in the poem entitled “Now-Not-Never” quoted above, and which concludes with the following words: “I never believed there would be a chorus of angels. / And true, never that there would be such chaos. / Yet never did I believe that it would be for the best, / that what falls away shall always and forever catch me, / holding me back so that I yet may fall again, / writing me into a riddle that anyone can solve.”
 
A more beautiful or fitting message of congratulations is difficult to imagine.
 

Notes
(1) Literally “field of blood”: a park below Buda Castle, given its name after the execution of the Hungarian Jacobins in 1795. Both Ágnes Nemes Nagy and Dezső Tandori lived in the vicinity [translator’s note].
(2) Quotation from a poem by Ernő Szép (Néked szól).

Pál Ács

Translated by: Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: Dezső Tandori