Reviewed by Kelly Amoth
“To the ghost of childhood and the body of the adult,” so the latest collection of poetry by George Szirtes begins with a self directed inscription that haunts and informs the reading of each poem. Carefully blending the realm of memory and recollection with flashes from the present, Szirtes constructs a world that is enlightened and strengthened by shifts in time and tone. In the opening poem, “Reel,” he writes, “Here all the clocks tell different times. / All the statues point different ways. Film crews / Shoot Budapest for Berlin,” as if to warn the reader that his journey is not linear--it will change mid-step, reverse its direction, and transform into the unexpected.
Following the first four poems and the remembrance of a friend via flashback in “Meeting at Austerlitz,” the book is divided into three sections that are each different movements in memory and thought. The most emotionally driven of the sections is “Flesh: An Early Family History.” With five poems and an eclogue in each of the five divisions, Szirtes ties the remembrances to one another through theme and a seemingly effortless use of terza rima that his dense imagery and guarded tone carefully mask. Focusing on his family, he forgoes sentimentality and writes instead with a keen sense of reality about memories from his past that are personal and often intense. In the stream of these poems, the memories of people, images, and places merge together and then drift apart in a continually changing landscape of consciousness. Each poem exists as another scene from the vault of the family's home movies that captured both the good and the bad. Szirtes does not attempt to hide his memories from the reader, for he cannot hide from them himself. Knowing he can never escape the details of his past, Szirtes writes in “Outside,” “You forget so much. Memory drops away, / its phantom limb still waggling,” but he successfully reattaches his phantom limb of memory in this section to recreate the pains and glories of his childhood, during which he was forced to flee his native Budapest for England with his family and become a refugee at the age of eight.
While the poems of each section are written with a vivid sense of memory, the eclogues that close are more reserved, as if the narrative voice has pulled away from the scene and speaks from a distant vantage point where he is more conscious of the past in lieu of the present. Veering from the norm of a pastoral poem, the two voices of the eclogues that are differentiated by the stanza lettering seem to belong to the past and present before merging to form a unified voice. In the eclogue “Fair Day,” Szirtes, in remembrance of life in Budapest, writes with the perspective of a man whose history is slowing fading:
Everything slips from the books you are reading:
The plot, the descriptions, the fascinating characters,
And the only thing left is the smell of the pages
Or the way they turned over, and the child that once turned them,
Who slips from the book now. Look, look at him slipping,
And the hand on his shoulder, a moon with its planet.
The poems of “Flesh: An Early Family History” envelop the reader with Szirtes's hypnotic style that opens the door into the guarded rooms of his memory. He is a man haunted by the personifications of his mother as a bird and his father as the moon, the desire to forget while in the process of remembering, and the vivid ghosts of the nameless dead who he describes in “Early Music” as having “bloodied faces and emaciated bodies / Resounding through the child, endlessly implicit, // In scales, arpeggios and those awkward studies.” In the section “Secret Languages,” Szirtes's voice reverts to his youth as he is forced to see the world as an outsider. Dedicating an entire section to the memory of his mother, Szirtes reveals his reverence for her and the power of her love in “With nails filed smooth into deep curves” writing, “Her fingers curled into their hearts. The ache / Had found a home where it might live / Forever if her fingers did not break.” Szirtes's father, who leads the family out of Budapest in “My father carries me across a field,” is the object of his admiration and is given his own voice in “Eclogue: Shoes.” Though Szirtes often struggles with his memories, the pleasure of his past emerges through the textual snapshots he creates of his parents.
From the matrix of memory, Szirtes veers into the subconscious realm of dreams in the section “The Dream Hotel.” Like watching the swiftly moving landscape from behind a car window, the poems in the section are narrative flashes of colors and visions in which people and places are temporarily invented before being replaced. Stylistically, Szirtes expands his range and does not maintain a fixed rhyme scheme or length (except in the “Black Sea Sonnets” portion). The poems are as much revealed by their colors as they are concealed, for they are dynamic and constantly change direction just like the mind. Szirtes begins “Turquoise”:
Good to have reached the turquoise age. Not green
not blue but something in between, this
smoky crystalline concentration, clean
as an iceberg, astringent as the kiss
of water on iron
and three stanzas later has changed the meditation entirely: “Our knees are stiff, getting up is a pain. / We take care of our bowels, eat sensibly, / nothing too spicy after nine.” In the realm of Technicolor dreams, Szirtes places himself back into the subconscious of humanity after the purging of his memory-tortured soul in the previous section. Ever in control of the scene, Szirtes allows the reader glimpses into the lives of others before fast-forwarding the extensive poetic movie he is creating, such as in “Zoë and Neil” when he writes with startling precision, “After the baby died it was as if her heart / had been drawn out on a string through her eyes, / and there was no more rest for them, together or apart.” Not only is Szirtes able to capture his personal pain, but he convincingly inserts his voice into the vast canvas of humanity.
The final section, “Accounts,” includes the final kaleidoscope of poems that vary from each other in tone and style. Szirtes shows his versatility in writing on subjects ranging from an art exhibit to a characterization of mythical personalities in “The Morpheus Annotations,” and the sardonic prophecy in the poems of “Decades.” He even reveals his sense of humor in “The Glove Puppet's Inquisition”: “Fancy having a hand up your backside / all your life! To be so filled with Hand / that hand is all and all. / This is a religious proposition.”
With such a diversity of subjects and tones, it is difficult to accurately classify George Szirtes's latest collection; however, the power of memory and its repercussions are undercurrents throughout the very different sections of poetry. Though his familial recollections are sometimes painful, Szirtes writes each poem as a tribute to the past carved in the perspective of the present. His reel of images constantly rotates with flashing images, but he is able to maintain a sense of reality in these recollections, for as he reveals in the title poem, “Here I find lost bits of my heart.”