Sunday, 18 January 2009

George Szirtes' New & Collected Poems

In George Szirtes' garden poetry grows. George hails from Hungary, the land that produces the world's best garlic, as any cook worth his salt will tell you. Like the Welsh poet R S Thomas, George Szirtes is a poet in search of identity.
It's a curious coincidence, if coincidence it is, that the Hungarian-born poet writing in English and the Welsh-born poet also writing in English, apart from his biography Neb written in Welsh, are both attracted to the work of Wallace Stevens, a poet, "insured to the hilt" as R S Thomas famously said of him. Thomas wrote a fine poetic tribute, a poem beginning with the words "Greetings, Stevens" in honour of the American.
George Szirtes opens his life's work, his 500-page tome culled from a rake of previous publications commencing in 1978 plus the addition of new material, with a Stevens' quote, a quote that nutshells Szirtes' poem-osophy:
Look round you as you start, brown moon,
At the book and shoes, the rotted rose
At the door
Writers, whose native language is other than English, or who have a strong second language, can and often do enrich the English language with their choice of vocabulary and turn of phrase. And this is only one of many reasons for reading Szirtes. This prolific and green-fingered poet with Transylvanian roots in Rumania's Cluj, and in many and various other plots, turns over the rich earth, picks up the stones, roots out the weeds, stokes the allotment ashes glowing in the oil drum: explores the worlds of the Princes of Darkness, of the refugees, of the lost families, of the gentlemen & scholars; and it all stems from his obsession with identity and what is beyond identity. He cultivates the new flowers, herbs and weeds; the thorns and the roses, the garlic and the forget-me-nots. He plants more seeds. They grow. Each one is a unique creation. Each one is labelled and collected. Their names are "Who am I?", "Where am I?", "Why am I here?" and so on.

And so to the poems. In Goya's Chamber of Horrors we find(p94):

The Allegory of the Cloth

His waistcoat runs away down his elegant chest.
The colour pools somewhere just below his heart.
It shakes him with its colds and satins.

The tie that breaks from cavities around his neck
Is a waterfall. His eyes are very wet.
He is indisputably unwell.
Somehow appalled and sentimental all at once
He falls into his own puddle which turns out
deeper, colder, silkier than paint.

George Szirtes, who produced New & Collected Poems to celebrate his recent 60th birthday, often writes on his blog of poring over family snapshots, is an admirer of the work of Hungary's most famous photographer, the renowned Andre´ Kertesz. Szirtes pays homage to Kertez in Blind Field (1994). The following poem is part of a wonderful tribute:

The Accordionist

The accordionist is a blind intellectual
carrying an enormous typewriter whose keys
grow wings as the instrument expands into a tall
horizontal hat that collapses with a tubercular wheeze.

My century is a sad one of collapses.
The concertina of the chest; the tubular bells
of the high houses; the flattened ellipses
of our skulls that are open like petals.

We are the poppies sprinkled along the field.
We are simple crosses dotted with blood.
Beware the sentiments concealed
in this short rhyme. Be wise. Be good.

There's no doubt that the author of this poem strives, like the God-questioning-and-badgering Nobel Prize nominee R S Thomas, to be the wise and good man. Thomas, as we know, continued writing at top level into his octogenarian years, and there he produced some of his best work. The same will one day be said of George Szirtes who now has the book, the shoes, the rotted rose and the door; for below the brown moon the path runs on.

Poet-in-Residence has no hesitation in highly recommending George Szirtes' New & Collected Poems.

New & Collected Poems
by George Szirtes
is published by Bloodaxe Books


  1. I leafed through this book in a bookshop that didn't take tokens! (I had some in my pocket at the time). I plan on ordering it and this has certainly prompted me to get on with it!

  2. Dominic, When you get your book have a look at pp 272-281.
    There's a lovely series to do with colour: sap green, prussian blue, romanian brown etc.
    "The copper dome of the old school had turned into the colour of the soup they used to serve..."


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