Believing in Lines of Verse

Believing in Lines of Verse: Review of Szilárd Borbély’s In a Bucolic Land

by Alina B. Williams

Mulzet’s translation of Borbély’s words invites us to reflect on the simultaneous infinite capacity and utter insufficiency of language to remember the dead.

Borbély, Szilárd. In a Bucolic Land, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. NYRB Poets, 2022. ISBN 978-1-6813-7591-5. 144 pages. Paperback $16.00. 

“What does it mean / to believe in lines of verse?” asks Szilárd Borbély in the poem that opens his final and posthumous collection In a Bucolic Land, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (5). Framed by two versions of the same “mourning verse,” in remembrance of the professor Lajos Szuromi, Borbély’s In a Bucolic Land meditates on this question as he invites us to observe life in Túrricse, the tiny village of his childhood that sits just 10 kilometers from where the borders of Hungary, Ukraine, and Romania meet. Here in Túrricse, in this bucolic land, the gods—almost always men and often synonymous with the Communist authorities and government officials—are both transcendent and immanent; they are cruel and merciless and utterly mundane.

In a Bucolic Land, published in 2022 by the New York Review of Books, has never appeared as a single collection in the original Hungarian. Rather, as translator Ottilie Mulzet notes in the afterword, the poems collected here appeared separately in Hungarian literary journals from 2011-2013. (119) The collection opens and closes with two poems titled “Mourning Verse, on the Death of Lajos Szuromi.” The title of the first is enclosed in brackets, and the final poem in the collection, which appears without brackets, was read by Borbély at Szuromi’s funeral in August of 2010, and these elegies, which bookend the remainder of the poems, cast a haunting pall over the otherwise grounded and almost tangible encounters with life in rural Hungary. The poems that make up the middle of the collection are largely set in Borbély’s hometown, with the exception of the final two poems comprising this section. These last two poems take us out of the village and into the city, where the speaker now lives in the “housing projects” and visits his father, once a god and now institutionalized, in a psychiatric facility, where he must watch as his father’s physical and mental condition deteriorates.

The body of this collection, too, stands in stark contrast tonally and imagistically to the abstract and philosophical ruminations on language, existence, and death that frame this book. In this middle section, we are met with a convergence of gods and men. Borbély’s language here is concrete, bodily, and at times crass, such that we can almost feel the chalkiness of the freshly limewashed houses, hear the snorting of the bull and the bellowing of the heifer as the family cow is impregnated, and smell the “chlorine, urine, excrement, all mixed in with the / exhalations of the bodies producing poison.” (80) With these poems, Borbély holds our faces against the raw, fraying edges of humanity, in all its messiness, cruelty, and pain. These poems are, in many ways, 21st-century deconstructions of pastoral idyll. Borbély does not romanticize the village nor lament the supposed loss of traditional ways of life. Instead, he offers a vision of rural childhood that acknowledges his village is a place where the hierarchies of the gods dictate one’s life and where “the nettles, / one of the first plants to bud, burst open next to the pigsty….” (16) Borbély’s images of the sunrise and of “the fields during the biting cold of autumn, when the red berries / of the rose hip plants are nipped by frost” would seem idyllic if not for the presence of horseflies drunk on blood, the horse that drops dead in the road, and the bodies, naked, masculine, and obscene. It is a bucolic land, Borbély assures us, but there is no idyll to be found here. 

When reading the opening and closing poems of In a Bucolic Land, however, it is impossible to escape the feeling that we are seeing Borbély elegize himself. On the heels of his death in 2014, Mulzet’s translation of Borbély’s words invites us to reflect on the simultaneous infinite capacity and utter insufficiency of language to remember the dead. And yet, paradoxically, despite Borbély’s own anxieties about the capacity of words, of poetry, to speak of and to those who are no longer here—“But who was / this person we call he, for want of anything better?” (3)—this whole collection is a testament to and remembrance of Borbély’s life, both the pain and suffering to which he gives voice and his role as the measured academician who invites Sándor Petőfi and the god Mercury to walk the eroded, forgotten dirt path out of Túrricse toward Szatmárcseke.

The problem of scale is immediately evident in the body of this collection, as the pantheon of Greek gods concern themselves with the everyday workings of the tiny Hungarian village in which we find ourselves, filled with haying and calving and milking and drinking. In this collection, then, the hierarchy among gods, people, and animals is challenged as each being jostles for space among the others. The gods, certainly, are at the top of the hierarchy, but in momentary snapshots the other beings break through and allow us to dwell, for a moment, in a world of suspended hierarchy, where Greek gods and rural villages are placed on equal footing. This collision of beings and scale is perhaps best exemplified in the poem “Arcadian Pasture, Angel of Twilight,” in which the speaker contemplates the dirt-road path of the herder and the deaths of the animals that “never died of old age.” (49) “She stood, as if frozen,” Borbély writes of the family cow, Manci, “in front of the statue of the winged angel. With her large soft rose-colored / nose, she slowly drew near to the angel’s face. She could not / believe her eyes.” (51) And so the cow, who by mistake has wandered into the courtyard of a church, comes face to face with an angel as a young boy stands by and watches the scene unfold.

It is in these moments of topsy-turvy scale, where the cow and the angel for a moment lock eyes, that Borbély’s vision of this tiny slice of the world is most remarkable. Life in Túrricse is harsh and dirty and repetitive. The people are poor, and their government offers no reprieve, yet the cruelties of war, of violence, of genocide still haunt this small village in ways both profound and mundane. In passing, the speaker of “Arcadian Pasture, Angel of Twilight” recounts how he ran “from Church Street to the head of Crooked Row, where / there was a tavern; before, it used to be a Jewish house, then / it became vacant.” (50) This passing, passive voice reference to the Holocaust, which Mulzet discusses in the afterword, is a testament to the complicated ways in which global events shape small communities and are reincorporated into the fabric of their everyday lives, and Borbély’s poetry in Mulzet’s translation reveals this seamless interweaving of the local and the global among gods and cows and men.

Mulzet’s translation of Borbély’s poetry is careful and precise, mediating across languages and worlds to offer a version of Túrricse and rural Hungary that is both accessible and particular. Mulzet does not shy away from the challenge of translating life in Borbély’s hometown village to an English-speaking audience likely unfamiliar with both the minutiae of day-to-day life on a collective farm and the broader history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century in general. And it is in these moments of particularity when the feat of this translation is most strongly laid bare. This work reveals a vast knowledge, not only of linguistic mediation from Hungarian to English, but of the history of Soviet collectivization, the specifics of a Hungarian agricultural tradition, and a deep understanding of the messy and complicated ways in which the distant and often abstract workings of geopolitics are felt by even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant communities.

In the final poem of the collection, we are presented with another version of Borbély’s mourning verse. In this version he asks, “Do these words really / signify someone? Language is an impersonal and indifferent / oscillation, a wavelength, which then flies off somewhere else. It is / a phonetic shape. And memory, also just a shape, keeps trundling / the cold sounds in front of itself.” (99) Despite Borbély’s concerns about the potential for language to signify someone, to remember the dead, this collection is a pronounced remembrance of Borbély, of the poet and of the Hungary he both remembered and recorded. Here, in a bucolic land, Borbély calls upon us to believe in lines of verse.

Alina Bessenyey Williams is a Hungarian-English translator and a PhD student at Indiana University in the Department of Religious Studies. She also holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Skidmore College and an M.A. in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research focuses on the relationship between religion and communism in Eastern Europe, and in August 2020 she received a grant for emerging translators of Hungarian literature from the Petőfi Literary Foundation.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 15, 2022

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