08. 04. 2008. 15:00

Writing the same poem over and over

Zsuzsa Beney (1930–2006): a portrait

Who was Zsuzsa Beney? There are many answers to the question. She was certainly one of the most original voices in recent Hungarian poetry whose originality was vouchsafed by a voice and a theme which was both consciously and unconsciously monolithic.

But Beney was also a self-trained literary historian. Steering her way independently of current trends in literary scholarship, she examined the poetry of Attila József in a force field which merges the psychological and the aesthetical. Her focus was on the metaphors of thought, on the way in which the conceptual (logos) becomes transformed back into images (eidos), with the attention always on the transition, on the meta-phor, the smooth merge from one state to the other.
Zsuzsa Beney was also a pulmonologist with an unbroken medical practice of many decades who could never walk past a patient, a suffering person, without trying to help them and who, being a doctor, saw her illness and approaching death in sharper outlines than any X-ray could provide.
As an essayist she was working to find words for her most personal problems, doubts, her search for God and her finding of God, fear or death and longing for death, the indissoluble dialectic of the two. She stretched the limits of language to the ultimate. In her last texts we see her moving, living and, mostly, waiting in a linguistic space which annuls generic boundaries in the almost vacuous, sublime yet horrifying zone between silence and speechlessness, breathing the air of the familiar homelessness that characterised her.
She was also a teacher who instructed and shaped her students to her very last moments. Entirely free of the pride and narcissism of the teacher role, she never wanted to create an institution or a school but travelled every week to give her seminars as long as her strength lasted.
Beney was also a holocaust survivor who lived to see the end of Nazism but never ceased to carry inside her the fourteen-year old schoolgirl with frightened eyes who lost some of herself at the hands of Hitler’s German and Hungarian executioners. We can also see her as an almost mythological woman figure who first buried and mourned her 18-month-old baby, then her husband who never got over the death of the infant – a woman who found her destiny, her mission and her punishment in having to live through and survive.
The most apposite comment on Zsuzsa Beney’s poetry came from the literary historian Péter Pór who said that Beney is always writing the same poem over and over. Not meant as praise nor as critique, Pór stated this as a fact. Beney herself was known to reflect with amazing intensity and methodological objectivity on her own texts – the best evidence being when she won best critic’s prize with the literary periodical Holmi by submitting a paper under pseudonym about her own book of poetry. It was largely thanks to this attitude that her poetry, monologic in both its existential conception and its poetic structure, still managed to become infinitely open and dialogic. In Beney’s systematically built oeuvre, repetition, re-writing and re-visiting became a poetical tool. Thus if we carry Pór’s above quoted aphorism further, we arrive at the question whether we are not always reading the same poem and if so, what sort of impact, what kind of aesthetical experience does this offer to us? This is why it was important for Beney to find the appropriate context for the poem, the textual space within which the metaphors of thought can transform into sensual experience. Beney arranged her poems into cycles and series in order to arrive at the deepest possible root meaning of a particular word, image, phrase or motif.
Zsuzsa Beney’s poetry has some principal forms, such as the sonnet and the haiku, and it also has some principal words which crop up from poem to poem, from volume to volume in her lyrical work. After each recurrence they become more enriched in meaning and at the same time also lose some of their meaning. They become charged and they become hollow. They freeze into tight-packed images and assume a translucent surface like a mirror of ice. A few of these words are: snow, winter, mirror, fire, dust, smoke, silence, speechlessness, as well as the foundation of all that is relational: between.
If we read the entire body of verse that Zsuzsa Beney produced in 45 years, what we note most of all is the transparent density of this poetry. Sándor Weöres, one of Beney’s favourite poets, said in 1969, writing about young poets: “Hungarian poetry has barely produced anything more subtle, more spiritual than Zsuzsa Beney’s lyrical poetry. Her poems are so ethereal that at first we can barely perceive their themes – only after several reading do they unfold. They appear as immaterial, transparent veils of light, while in fact they conceal very solidly worked metier.” The ethereal character that Weöres observed persists throughout Beney’s poetry, but it is supplemented by an existentialist turn which also comes to include the enhanced density of the lyrical language. If there is such a thing as rich minimalism, this is certainly what characterises Zsuzsa Beney’s writing.
The poems of her last years transport us to a timeless lyrical world whose boundaries appear as though they were locked inside time itself. There is a strong sense of “no way out” – this world appears to be outside of time or before time. Stated in the stirring lines of “Por” [Dust], sharp in their very dullness:
I don’t look into death’s eyes unafraid.
Because there are no gates of death, just a slow
Gathering of dust. Mud and dirt cover our lives.
They gather in the corners of our souls.
We can’t step into the light for fear of drowning.
(Translated by George Szirtes)
In Beney’s work, “we” is a very problematic paradigm – her poetic world is infinitely lonely. The other is present only as absence. In this subject area her most tragic pieces are, beyond doubt, the poems of grief written after the death of her child – in musical terms their minor key is reminiscent of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony. In Beney’s poetics time is eternal and has surpassed its own existence – as though we were before, or possibly after the time of civilisation. Stone, dust, smoke. In the poem called “The River” the lines roll along heavy but fast toward their destination and their end, bringing to us the tensions of disclosure and concealment, transparency and non-transparent darkness in a single wave:

The non-transparent water shows time
only its wrinkled silk surface.
Mirror images of sparkling light.
Waves sliding one under the other.
Broken tiles in the mirror,
cracking, and still another glass,
between was and will be, I became / I’ll not be,
running water’s burning catharsis.
(Translated by George Szirtes)
Beney’s poetry offers no catharsis or salvation – this is why for a particular type of reader and beyond a certain quantity, it becomes unbearably tragic and unacceptable in its hopelessness. The poems of the last years, born after the unforgettable trauma of return from clinical death and reanimation, demonstrate even more clearly that her poetry had been tracking a one-way journey along the arc of death. It is through the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that the self-evidence of death and its physical reality became the central problematic of Beney’s poems. Besides a stubbornly critical attitude to language we can sense ever more clearly that her poetry was almost reborn or reanimated amidst death’s whirling, humming, yet relaxing embrace. An inseparably intertwined dichotomy of the analytic and the mystical is what characterises these haikus and strophes born on the no-man’s-land between silence and speechlessness, before death and after life (before life and after death). In the very same line she detects the beauty of life and the horror of death and, emphatically, the inseparability of the two. If there is a sphere where life and death become one, this is the world of transcendence and the road leading to it is marked by metaphors.

János Szegő

Tags: Zsuzsa Beney