Monday, 14 December 2009

The Poetry of George Szirtes: Pt 2

The Burning of the Books and other poems
Bloodaxe, Sept. 2009

One of the sequences in this collection is called The Penig Film. Penig was a concentration camp in Hungary during World War II and George Szirtes’ mother was imprisoned there as a very young woman. On his blog, George has a photograph of her standing with one of the soldiers who liberated the camp. Although she married someone else, she named her son after this man. A fragment of film from the Penig Camp was discovered recently.

In the poem, George describes watching the film, ‘a small thing, wound down to a few/inches, running across your life on the screen’. He wonders if any of the faces on the celluloid belong to his mother.

‘And so in Penig, in the unexpected sighting
of a moment that she, who is at the centre
of this poem yet not there, lost in its low lighting,’

The poem is a dialogue with Clio, muse of history, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Goddess of Memory) here portrayed as something of a cool media babe.
..................................You are not her lover
after all, merely a figure she meets while staging
one of her periodic out-takes in an ordinary place
on cheap location.’
Like a hardened journalist, Clio ‘does not/believe in getting involved.’ The poet, the protagonist, is left to write his own script.

‘Go on working in the dark, in the long night
of the empty cinema, I’ll leave you to it now.
I must catch my beauty sleep. I have an early flight.’

The poem reminds us that History can so easily become

that which propriety requires, the tidy sum
of tidy greynesses in an official film, shot
by army officers on an afternoon, glum

as the century’s mood, emerging from your cot
of earth, mud, lime and bone, to rise, or be carried
to a hospital from the place Clio forgot......'

The most powerful section of the poem is the last section ‘Excuse’ where Clio considers how history can be edited like a movie to fit any particular point of view. ‘Everything’s allowed.’
.........................................We can
say what we like about the past. We can raid

its archives, find films and texts, select a span
of it, cut and re-cut, splice, add soundtrack;
we can resurrect the voice of woman and man,

slur it, dub it, subtitle, caption it, run it back
so it sounds like prophesy, use it as prologue
or epilogue, render its subtle grey as black
or white,’
The past is always ‘delayed present’. ‘The past is no excuse’.

Part of the power of the poem is in its tightly controlled structure. Like a number of the poems in this collection, it’s written in terza rima. George Szirtes - ‘Poetry without shape is not poetry’ - is a master technician, choosing to write in some of the more challenging forms, finding a framework for chaos. Meaning and structure represent ‘the triumph of civilized values over barbarity. I think here of the barbarity that overtook my parents’ generation, that is never as far from us as we believe or hope.’ Language can be used ‘to exercise a degree of control over our otherwise inexpressible, inarticulate, inchoate lives.’

Writing, at best,’ George writes on his blog, ‘is a wrought set of dimensions within which it is possible to live. The young poet moves from self to language, makes a self inside language. That language provides its dimensions, the dimensions within which a written self can live. And through those dimensions it begins to explore the world, which is out there and not the self alone, but the wind and the cold and the cry of animals and the whistling of the planets and the voices of others.’

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