Negotiating the dark corridors of history

Sat, Mar 5, 2005, 00:00

Poetry: This latest collection from the Hungarian-born poet, George Szirtes, which has won him the T.S. Eliot Prize for 2004, begins with a dedication that signals the task with which much of the book will concern itself: to traverse generations, and to straddle worlds.

"To the ghost of childhood," writes Szirtes, "and the body of the adult."

These words suggest at once a struggle and a resignation - something precious and intangible has passed, and some unwieldy entity has come in its place. But in the fact of being, and somehow remembering, comes a sort of triumph in fragility's face. And it is such a triumph that these masterful and uncompromising poems achieve; out of the hurts rent by history, by the loss of home and all that it holds within itself, Szirtes's voice emerges, never as certain but always as true. For this is a book born of lost certainties - lost childhoods, lost cities - and crafted of the hard work that must follow in their wake.

The title poem is at once a lament for the Budapest of Szirtes's birth (he left there for England as an eight-year-old refugee in 1956) and a sigh of wry relief that it has grown closer to the mundanity of all cities; a film crew shoots it into blandness, renders its past suddenly simpler and more digestible - "Decade/ after decade resolves itself in the traffic" - and the native feels nervous of his role now, where the statues keep a "close secret", where the clocks "tell different times", and where new confidence seems to obliterate the reality of what once happened:

Even the light here has grown eloquent.

Its language sparklingly authoritative.

The city glories in its element.

The poet strives to remember, and only the city's last pockets of darkness can assist him; those "Dark corridors and courtyards in which something true/ Survives". But to remember is not easy. Fruit rots, documents lie shredded in "blackened piles", trees die off, architecture whispers indiscernibly. The mystery of the city is bound up with that of the body as it slips into age; to watch the city, always moving, always ungraspable, "is like watching skin/ Crack and wrinkle". And, all the time, the reel turns and captures, "the film rolls on". But what can it capture?

Nothing. Communing with ghosts and confronting the mortal facts of embodiment, these poems shirk the pretence of surety. Meeting Austerlitz, an unforgettable eulogy for W.G. Sebald, fuses night and day, memory and realisation, in the fog of a December field. "It'll be dusk pretty soon," grins Sebald's ghost, pointing to the faint moon in the afternoon sky. But for the poet, it already is. "It was as if an enormous window had misted," he writes, in a beautiful rendering of grief. And, in Sheringham, the website image of a man once known as a schoolfriend shocks the poet into seeing, once more, that life is as vulnerable as skin itself:

It shocked me because both images were thin,

thinner than I had expected and so exactly

matched in the way the waves had rinsed them clean.

But language, met with such worry, proves magnificent, and Szirtes holds its powers firmly in his grip. Poems such as Mother and Mirror in the long sequence, Flesh: An Early Family History, are exquisite imaginings of nascent and earliest life, and of the secrecies of childhood. Like Andrei Tarkovsky's film of the same name, the latter poem evokes the pain of being seen through eyes which are "not ours, nor have they ever been" - of intimacy and the separation it entails. Lighter themes, too, are met with care, and with an intelligent humour that comes as no surprise - The Morpheus Annotations and Three Poems for Puppetry are written as much in empathy as they are in wit. But it is the formal grace and confidence of these poems, as they negotiate traditional forms - sonnet, sestina, terza rima - with contemporary turns, which is most memorable. This confidence shows Szirtes's skill, it points to his bravery; but above all, it exhibits an unshakable faith in poetry.

Reel, By George Szirtes, Bloodaxe Books, 144pp. £8.95

Belinda McKeon is a critic and journalist