“The Eternal and the Axe”: On Szilárd Borbély’s Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004-2010

Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004-2010.
by Szilárd Borbély,
Trans. Ottilie Mulzet.
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. $19.95)

At one particularly evocative moment in “The Task of Translation,” Walter Benjamin reflects that great works of art should find “their eternal afterlife in succeeding generations,” and that through translation “the life of the originals attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding.”1 In the case of Szilárd Borbély’s Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004-2010, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet for the venerable Lockhart Library of Poetry in Translation, Benjamin’s ideal comes to exhibit an unusual but exemplary poignancy.

Borbély took his own life in February 2014, as Mulzet relates in her cogent and vividly insightful afterword, some fourteen years after the poet’s parents were brutally attacked in their home the day before Christmas Eve. His father survived, though battered and rendered unconscious; his mother was bludgeoned to death with a meat-ax while she slept. By Borbély’s own account, the extremity, brutality, horror, and goriness of the crime took a tremendous toll on his own consciousness. As the poet reflects in one interview, “It is difficult to remember now since a great many things just vanished from my memory due to the dreadfulness of the following six years.”2

What invaded him, beyond an overwhelming sense of horror and uncertainty, was “a disturbingly new dimension of the unpredictable.”  This dimension of the unpredictable, elaborated beyond the happenstances of overwhelming personal grief to the cosmic and even transcendent scale, pervades the book.  It is as if the traditional God of Western faiths and the rational God of the Enlightenment had become subsumed beneath the implacable, fractious tides of human history. Faced with this knowledge, lived more than theorized, the poet needs to discover access to some sustaining, answering appeal–an appeal for more than the needs of artistic practice. Reading Szilárd Borbély’s Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004-2010, one feels the poems are the brilliantly wrought salvages of some perilous descent into the human soul and its primordial encounter with the agonizing mystery of its being.

During the process of working on the poems comprising the individual sequences of Final Matters, Borbély further reflected “I continuously felt that I was not writing, but that a greater force was carrying me, and I was just taking down notes from time to time.”3 If nothing else, Wallace Stevens’ conception of the imagination as a force, a violence within pushing back against the violence without, surely applies to these heart-wrenching yet broadly allusive, engaging, and challenging poems. It is the achievement of Borbély’s work, and of Mulzet’s exceptionally readable translations, to embody the poet’s almost impossible but utterly necessary answer with such urgent and unsparing honesty, empathy, and intelligence.

Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004-2010 is divided into four sections, drawing together selections from Borbély’s last two books, Final Matters and To the Body, and orchestrating a plethora of imaginative sources from Christian and Jewish theology, hymns, classical myths of Amor and Psyche, police reports, folk songs, and fictionalized accounts of abortions and memories of the Holocaust. Formally, the book includes allegories, parables, enigmas, sonnets, tercets, ballad-like quatrains, stitchic narratives, and sequences to wrestle with his disturbing subjects, the core experience of which is something more troubling than God’s apparent absence or the loss of divine potency. A few stanzas from the three “Aeternitas” poems of the book’s first section serve to illustrate the problem:

The Eternal is
cold, like the chisel
used to carve
the face of our Jesus.

*

The Eternal is what
I’d like to forget:
like life itself,
unyielding, without end.

*

The Eternal is thin
as the blade of the knife
which Death then slips
into your heart.

*

The Eternal is
like the axe
the assassin slams
into someone’s head.

The Eternal is
Like murder,
It destroys the Effigy,
The Face of the Dead.

In these striking formulations of what, by definition, exceeds human conception, the poet turns the analogical imagination inside out, such that Eternity becomes gradually more violently at odds with the substance of flesh and being.  The chisel that coldly carves Christ’s face transforms by the second and third poem into a blade, then an axe, until the figure of Christ and the figural as a condition of relation between time and what transcends time is destroyed. Other poems in this first section, Sequences for Holy Week, underscore Borbély’s deadly serious irony, an irony derisively impatient with the blithe acceptance of the non-metaphysical vision to which much of postmodernity has accommodated itself. In “Sequences of Christmas 1,” the infant Christ conflates to the Christ of Golgotha. “Final Matters: Death” relates the story of a murder with the flat tone of a police report—“no Dies irae.” In “Erratic Literary of the Hours” the poet’s antiphon petitions Death to come “in place of Christ our Lord” with those “who know the art of murder / so we may forget the trees / and all that is on the earth.”

In such poems, the psalm of lament modulates into something veritably like a taunt, transgressive, yet only, one suspects, to summon God to once again become God. In one of Borbély’s more affirming similes, Eternity is like a pebble that waters pass over, becoming tranquil.  It appears, submerged, again, in “The Former Realms of Consciousness” from the second section, Sequences of Amor and Psyche. Still, as the poet reflects, “in the depths of the soul, its torture / chemically muted, a satyr, his face contorted, shrieks.” That shriek is something more than a howl of inconsolable depression alleviated medically—it is the voice of metaphysical despair and longing. Here is Borbély again on history and God:

The experience of God as mediated through faith receives its shape
by the intervention of man. God is not real, he does not exist
independently of man, because the unfolding of human history
is the journey of God through the world. And I say this not as
an atheist, but as a believer.4

Borbély’s observations on God, mediation, and in essence the shape of human thinking in the past, present, and future suggest the most emphatic re-engagement with and re-imagining of “the journey of God through the world.” The poems of Final Matters enact that directive like a force driven from the ground of consciousness itself.

Poems from the third section, Hassidic Sequences, push Borbély’s quest further to engage rabbinical and Kabbalistic speculations of God’s tzimtzum, God’s withdrawal from being so that Creation might come to be. “Lord of Nothingness,” the Angel of Not advises in one poem, “You are the most powerful, for if / / something came into being, then you / would be at the mercy of existence,” which is exactly what happens, to Borbély’s way of thinking. That being comes into being at all places God and Creation in a merciless double-bind. “Without us humans, without our voice,” Borbély reflects, “God is powerless and frail on earth.”5 Yet, at the same time, nothing is more self-evident in Borbély’s world than the fact that all creation cries out here and now for God’s active justice. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the poems from Hassidic Sequences venture cosmogonies, as in one in which Reb Teitlebaum listens to Reb Taub discuss the origin of the Shadow: “God didn’t / understand why it was standing / around,” so God gets a Body to go with the Shadow, they meet up, “and that is how the material world came into being.” In another poem, Reb Taub declares “Murder is never finished” and “The suffering of God led / to the Creation.”

All of the poems of Final Matters, no less these folktale-like cosmogonies, seek to go beyond the rationalistic God of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment, to disrupt that too-neat mediation, to go under and beyond it at once, to re-mediate God in an imaginative rewiring that circuits from the wildly mystical to the materially secular and always with an ear, and eye, directed towards the limits of endurance—such as in “The Parable of the Fish” where one species of fish rips out one eye from its prey, then the other, and the blinded fish “swims on for a while.” Such disturbing parables throw as much doubt on the human enterprise, and the enterprise of Creation, as they demand the form of an answer that animates the physical and metaphysical dread in the very shapeliness of the poem.

Perhaps nowhere is this conflict more manifestly in evidence than in Borebély’s poems about language itself, the medium of the poet’s making and, from one primordial perspective, the medium of being and all becoming. In his poem “The Sequence of Emptiness,” the poet reflects “Ghastly the void at the page’s edge, / where the sentence comes to an end / and floats across // the next page, turning over / the leaves, yet nothing contains / within itself // the world.” Therein lies the ambiguity of language and the human predicament, as well as the agony of the gap between consciousness and its self-reflective medium and what stands outside its grasp.

Borbély builds on this insight in succeeding poems within the Final Matters, including “Emblem of Voices” where he muses: “Language is cruelest of all. Inhuman. / Nothing but the interplay of signs and grammar’s / sterile order.”  In a real sense, language, simply by being language, instantiates its own boundary as a medium of transcendence, at once framing and embodying the emptiness beyond both the page’s edge and the human mind’s. Why? “Because,” as Borbély reflects in “On the Wings of Freedom,” “language is like night. Moist, indecipherable grunts, Pure dread, and / inchoate visceral shrieking. Inhuman.” That shrieking recalls the poet’s satyr at the bottom of the soul, the inhuman origin that is always proximate and may manifest itself unpredictably as victim or criminal and winds itself through all the fictions of human construction—state, laws, cultures—everything. “Even God inscribes the Hebrew letter, Bet, emblem of House into the Void,” as Borbély reflects in Hassidic Sequences. Here, again, one finds Borbély’s fraught negotiation of metaphysical paradox.  The House of God, Bethel, and the House of the Void are, for the poet, one eternal abode—they “announce” or “bespeak” each other in a kind of self-cancelling superposition, like an encounter between matter and anti-matter. At the same time, for all of Borbély’s skepticism about language, he declares in “To Patience” that “words give us instructions / as to what may be endured.”

For Borbély, the dialectic of language as evidenced in these poems exists between the inhuman and the human, casting a shadow on all our pretentions about the progressive enlightenment of the species. At the same time, what remains a necessary inference is the trans-human. Occasionally in these often stark, unflinching, even brutal poems the trans-human manifests as a figure, as in “Enigma of the Butterfly,” where a serial killer who calls himself Animus fastens a peacock butterfly to the opened eyes of each of his victims. The name “Animus” is the Latin word for “soul,” a translation of Aristotle’s use of “psyche,” meaning both “soul” and “butterfly.”  The figure of the butterfly appears in other poems as well, with less graphic implications for the new birth of the soul beyond the limited sight of the human.  Similarly, the messiah appears in the form of a bird in “The Sequence of Isaac Taub,” and human life is portrayed in the same Hassidic Sequences as “a single, whispered / supplication searching for God’s ear, the uninterrupted prayer circling around in Existence—butterfly-like, bird-like.”

The poems of Borbély’s Final Matters have no set wish to resolve the conundrum, since to do so would be a falsification, or at least a circumscription of the transcendent, like the body itself as depicted in the poem “To the Body”:

The Body—just a coded message,
…..the meeting up of signs:
a woman’s body—the closed
…..transcendence of the male mind…

Here, the male mind offers the premise of transcendence, yet, obviously, the female body has become an idol in the “coded” message of its gaze, shaped as that gaze has been by culture and language. Yet, here, too, the bird is present, and like the sacrifice “is the code that will forgive… having no body in the word.” All of the poems of Final Matters might be understood as the poet’s multifarious interrogation of the analogical foundations of language, even consciousness, though, ultimately, they do as much to restore those foundations as they do to transgress them:

Everything is in God’s hands
…..there is such a thing as everything
God is there in its hands
…..And nothing is for free…

These lines from the aptly titled poem “Everything” encapsulate the mediatory nature of being itself that has God as its sustaining presence beyond and within the absence perceived by our consciousness, circumscribed as that consciousness is by being created.  For Borbély, the same condition renders God at once futile and necessary—futile because all God can do is hold all things in the kenotic, self-emptying act of Creation; necessary because that very fact defines the human obligation to journey fitfully, at times mutely, often tragically, even brutally—passionately, with all of the kerygmatic and etymological implications of “brutal” and “passion”with God toward God.6

The fourth section of Final Matters, To the Body: Odes and Legends, contains mostly longer poems in persona and dramatic monologues, and these poems explore the same physical and metaphysical dynamics through the medium of narrative time—the lives of women, survivors of personal and historical violence reflecting on the raw repercussions of their experiences for themselves and, by proxy, for the poet and the reader. Borbély’s narratives are less allusive than the poems of previous sections, more resonant with documentary experience than with myth and theology.

Consequently, perhaps, Ottilie Mulzet’s translations of these poems, line to line, are looser than the lyric poems that comprise the majority of work in the book. The overall effect is to push these near prose poems into the tonal arena of testimony—“Canary Yellow,” “On Margaret Island,” “Anoxia,” “The Matter” and “The Footstool” are all long accounts that amount to the bearing of traumatic witness.  Here, Borbély forgoes his penchant for allegory, enigmas, and parables, and relies on the immediacy and verisimilitude of the storyteller’s voice as an account of personal history intersecting with the wider human condition of feeling metaphysically bereft. Now the experience of being spiritually forsaken is underplayed, matter-of-fact. The opening two lines of “The Footstool” serve to exemplify the method and tone: “I grew up as a child of the Holocaust.  I roamed in and out of the camps / like they were my home. They were my familiar places, names, / faces, and foods…”

“The Footstool,” like Borbély’s other trauma narratives, lures the reader into believing the very nearly infinitely unfamiliar can be approached with a pretext of familiarity. As such, the poem is as much a meta-narrative of Holocaust narratives as it is a narrative told by one who deems herself a child of the Holocaust. Borbély’s assumption of the female point of view in these poems is risky, but convincingly rendered. Each gives the reader a first-person portrayal of a life lived in extremis. More relevant still is Borbély’s contention that, given it took only “the vote of a hundred men in the house of law for enlightened optimism to collapse” in the Holocaust, one must admit “the existence of the modern, secular state, and of its citizens, rests on very thin ice.”7 That condition, it must be underscored, is hardly isolated to one singularly horrific historical event. Written against its backdrop, and out of deep personal tragedy, Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004 -2010 brings together work of the utmost theological, historical, and eschatological urgency. In the end, one can only be grateful for these poems of Szilárd Borbély as they exist now in English in the afterlife of Ottilie Mulzet’s vivid translations.

 

* 1 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of Translation” in Selected Wrings Volume One, 1913-1926. Eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) 255.

* 2 Lázló Bedecs, “An Interview with Szilard Borbely,” Asymptote (October 2019).

* 3 Ibid.

* 4 Ibid.

* 5 Ibid.

* 6 The word “brutal” finds its origin in the Ancient Greek “brotos,” meaning “gore.” The gods were “ambrotos,” “not of blood,” “not gory,” a condition of being negated by the passion of Christ within the Christina framework. My thanks for Ryan Wilson for pointing out this important nuance to my usage.

* 7 Ibid.

Daniel Tobin

Daniel Tobin

Daniel Tobin is the author of nine books of poems, most recently From Nothing, winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award, The Stone in the Air, his suite of versions from the German of Paul Celan, and the forthcoming Blood Labors.He is author of the critical studies Awake in America, Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, and On Serious Earth, forthcoming in 2019. Tobin is also editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge, Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Arts (with Pimone Triplett) and To the Many: Collected Early Poems of Lola Ridge. His poetry has won the "The Discovery/The Nation Award," The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, among other honors.
Daniel Tobin

Author: Daniel Tobin

Daniel Tobin is the author of nine books of poems, most recently From Nothing, winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award, The Stone in the Air, his suite of versions from the German of Paul Celan, and the forthcoming Blood Labors. He is author of the critical studies Awake in America, Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, and On Serious Earth, forthcoming in 2019. Tobin is also editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge, Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Arts (with Pimone Triplett) and To the Many: Collected Early Poems of Lola Ridge. His poetry has won the "The Discovery/The Nation Award," The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, among other honors.