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Recommendation: Birds and Other Relations

Dezso Tandori has found success as a novelist, playwright, translator, and novelist but is most renowned in Hungary for his poetry. I found this slender volume in Riverby, and the cover immediately caught my eye: a pair of disembodied hands and a small bird perched on a finger. The exoticism of a famed Hungarian poet appealed to me, and I was sold when I flipped to a page and the original Hungarian was on a page facing the English translation for each poem. The odd aesthetic beauty of Hungarian with its dashes and umlauts in almost every word makes this book worth buying, disregarding the poetry entirely–but the poetry is fantastic; conversational without being overly simplistic and lyrical without being dense.

Of course there is some frustration involved in reading translated poetry, and I feel like quite a bit was lost, especially not being familiar whatsoever with Hungarian culture. Reading a massive, multivolume novel in translation is much different from poetry, which unfortunately loses much of its lyrical zing. I have no idea whether this translation is actually good or not, but the fact that it was translated is fully apparent–you could read these poems without knowing their original context and tell that they were originally written in a foreign language. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it adds a foreign sheen and some gravitas that might otherwise be lost on some of these understated poems.

The main tension in this volume is realizing a personal, aesthetic identity in the face of what is a cold, scientific, impersonal world. Take the first poem “Application for a Constellation”

Thank you for having chosen me from among my numerous

green-plant brothers.

Of the home-grown plants avail-

able to us I am one of the most un-

assuming. I come from East Indian, my extensive family

can boast of many gorgeous varieties.

Each variety requires, in winter, a place with constant temper-

ature of 18-20 C. I am one of those plants

In need of light. I request bright daylight.

This is an individual plant describing himself, alternately, as a single existence, but also part of a collective–the main tension throughout the book: how to exist individually and as part of a group? He laments the emptiness of the solitary, literary existence in “Let’s Buy Him an Alarm Clock…Oh, He Has One? Well, Then a Book. He Has that Too!” “The echo of writing can only be writing./ All I always do is keep replying.” He realizes the necessity of belonging to inject meaning into writing, yet when one sacrifices identity, isn’t a part of oneself sacrificed?

The birds flit in and out of the poems, not as frequently as you might expect, given the title. But I believe they exist as so extraordinarily important in this volume, because Tandori has chosen them to represent the ultimate unselfconscious creatures who belong to a collective, yet remain independent and totally free–something that Tandori strives for in his poetry.

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