A collection of poems from From Wreck In Lee (2017)
by Peter Závada
translated from Hungarian by Mark Baczoni
accompanied by replicas of paintings by Manuel Mathieu
You are the landscape
your fingers the bone-narrow twigs of the trees,
your barren hillshead peak
crowned a fortress
by the setting sun.
Mis-fortunate old man,
stumbling from wall to wall
of your hollowed eye-sockets,
trembling hand outstretched.
As if your eyes looked inward,
into your skull,
your gaze wandering down the aisles,
the parallel rows of seats
drawing you in
as somewhere on stage
the body’s vanishing point combusts.
And whichever way you turn, there
a potential life is made
of the mosaic pieces of your curiosity
as – gently cracking –
the layers of perception
separate out into planes
and slide, one over the other.
It was you, waiting
in the shadow of the rustling,
the forest’s lungs,
like a stuffy birdhouse,
filling up with noise.
The augur counting eagles
all day long,
forgetting again and again
where he’d got to.
The tempest fluting through
the hole drilled in your ankle,
teaching your limp to dance.
And the mountain kneeled,
It was you I saw
in the desert of the eye,
where time, locked into the grains of sand,
had scratched the lens of the wind.
I saw the fingers
of the shrubs weep darkness.
The bark of the argan trees sweat night,
and a caravan cross
the knife-edge of the horizon.
The silhouettes of the backlit bodies
tautened, like paper figures
in a fire,
and the face of the Sphinx,
like a petrified scream, floating
silent above the dunes.
You wanted to see what was hidden,
what withdraws into its own shadow.
Your blindness now is the night of the cosmos.
The eye is lost
in the radiant magnitude.
It’s not the generosity, but the sense of proportion
you find surprising, the sun scattering its light
and shadows before you:
two kinds of seeds for the hungry birds.
Like an arrowhead, you’re yanked out
of observation – you find yourself
amid the darkening murmur. The night takes one last
deep breath, pulling away from the shore
Breakaway days, cast out of
the continuity of our plans,
in the blindspot of our foresight: such was August,
the summer’s singeing our fingertips.
You can hear the trees sobbing in the garden,
their unmistakable counterpoint
knocking on the windowpane: the bony fingers
of departed grandparents –
no one gave them keys when they changed the locks.
The shadow of the word is an imagined space
the shape of the floating
blocking out the light.
flee the page
like little black earwigs,
chewing holes in the eardrums,
nesting in the brain
– their chorus never more to stop.
There’s nothing for it but
to move into this freefall
and inhabit its
We stripped off the plaster
of hollow talk to find ourselves
face to face with our forgotten selves
walled into each other.
The sponges of our eyeballs – soak the view
in colour and form:
cut-out shapes where the things should be.
Like stickers into an album –
what’ll you paste in them?
Where’s your handicapped brother?
On the patio? Who left him out there
in the rain?
No one thought to bring him in
he just sits there, rain falling
in his mouth, like a fountain,
birds drinking from it.
Requiem for Steve Irwin
Lagoons turn into coastal lakes.
Salt water, over time, turns fresh.
The future of a dominant species
emerges from the vegetation.
When you set off in the Range Rover for Lakefield
National Park, you leave behind
the dry season – drought has dried
the riverbed into a desert of cracks.
But the mangrove swamps still give off
the homely smell of putrefaction.
A teeming variety among the branches,
a rich taxonomy of families,
in the nests.
A fanboat carves a path
through the sweltering anaerobic heat,
the hum of its propeller scattering
herons and darters
from among the aerial roots.
An isolated area. From the roots of the ferns
there’s a view of evolution.
Those that found shelter in the mud and brackish water
have grown lungs
with which to blame you
for the dams, the draining of the swamps.
It’s your fault. The mudskippers
still remember the massacre of the native-born,
their place taken by colonies of prisoners.
And the descendants of these former convicts
turn back the dinghies, even close to shore,
of the fleeing.
It’s your fault. The mouth of the ravine
still echoes the screams of the murdered.
It tells of the Golden Age of Creation, when
formless space was delineated, resolving into material objects.
Things took form, damselfish were born,
and birds of paradise.
Every man is terrifying.
You’d rather be an anteater
in a catshark’s dream.
You’d shed your white, middle-class skin,
hardening shame into reptilian scales.
You’d assume the outer covering of
a tortured region.
Oh, for some blond naturalists
to trap you ‘mid ropes
quite near some holidaymaker’s paradise.
Your empathy would acclimatise,
like the temperature of blood,
to the cold puddles; and time,
like the blood’s circulation, would be reversible.
Shadows are the body’s harbingers.
The vertical slit of the pupil floats
darkly in the flat, elongated construct of the skull:
an inert log in the eutrophic water.
Blind terror of dawn.
The vertebrae of a spine appear in the water
like a scattered archipelago.
A habitat shrinking into an individual,
a slimy mise en abyme.
But you’re not one of them.
You will never know the
phenomenology of a tick.
The escape routes of guilt
lead you back into the body.
Those that walked in the footsteps
of the prehistoric reptiles left their own traces,
so that birds may now drink
the water gathered there.
Darwin, Comte, and Spencer have drawn you into
the one way street of phylogenesis.
But the mangrove swamps refuse to leave.
Barely audible splashes in the depths:
crabs scuttling in their muddy holes,
as the riverbank clings to the shrubs
so as not to be swept away by the waves.
Only a fraction of continuity reaches you as,
over millennia, dry land
gains ground upon the waters.
The themes and focus of Závada’s poetry have developed significantly over the course of his career. His early poems were more playful, searching for form, while his second collection, Mész, was dominated by the themes of mourning and loss arising from the poet’s mothers suicide at an early age.
His more recent poems published in Wreck in Lee are focussed on greater, more universal themes counterpoised with the precision (both conceptual and linguistic) of science and its terminology. Thus, themes as broad as Greek mythology and Christology are married to mathematics and geometry.
The poems are accompanied by replicas of paintings by Manuel Mathieu. Manuel once said that he is interested in the lost souls of this world, but more so he is interested in altered states of consciousness, transitions and different temporalities.