Poetry is a form of inner exile, the poet Péter Závada recently told me. We were talking about his first two collections of poems, Ahol Megszakad [“Where it Breaks”] and Mész [“Limestone”], and his third, upcoming volume.
Péter is one of the generation of young Hungarian poets who are coming into their own, finding their voices and places in the country, in the world, in their mid-30s. By now, they’re tried and tested, ‘battle-hardened’, and comfortable with the tools of their trade.
Péter started young, playing with words, rhymes, and rhythm from an early age as a member of a nationally successful hip-hop group. Heavy with plays on words, lyrical references, and humorous turns of phrase, they were not only successful, they were good.
But Péter moved on to poetry, and his first collection was a searching for form (in the sense of traditional, ‘fixed verse’ that is to this day a mainstay of poetry in Hungary in a way that has gone totally out of fashion in the Anglophone world), a ‘master-piece’ if you will, in the sense that with it, he showed his mastery of his craft and freed himself to deal more heavily with personal themes in his second collection, Mész. He moved from focussing on form to focussing on content (Mész is in blank verse).
His second volume was a book of mourning. In it, he began to deal publicly, artistically, with the untimely death of his mother, he began to mourn. Brutally, scientifically, literarily, unflinchingly, honestly, and fictionally. I say scientifically and literarily because his references come heavily from both.
“You are made of little crystals of calcium, Mum. Heated to a thousand degrees centigrade, or thereabouts, you separate into carbon dioxide and calcium oxide. The carbon dioxide is your soul that passes, what remains is the solid calcium oxide; burnt lime.”
This in a poem that references a famous Hungarian folk tale, about a builder who has to sacrifice his (beloved) wife, grind up her ashes, and mix them with his mortar (mész) to make his castle stand.
So Peter mourns a death, and the poems of Mész are about the ambiguousness of all relationships when you’re chasing something that you’ve lost. About how losing a mother can change the way you love a girlfriend or a wife. And it reminds us that at heart, everything we build is made to repair a loss.
More or less successfully. And that is why, like good writing, poetry is a form of inner exile – it forces you to confront yourself, your past, and what you want to do with it.
We’ll see what direction Peter takes with his third collection, coming soon. I, for one, can’t wait to read it.
By Mark Baczoni