Incredibly, Bad Machine is George Szirtes’s first book of poems to be published in the United States. I say “incredibly” because the Hungarian-born, English-resident Szirtes enjoys a high profile in both Britain and on the Continent, and in his thirty-five-year career has earned countless distinctions, including the T. S. Eliot Prize and Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize, which is, of course, an American award. If there is one thing that unites the poetry communities on either side of the Atlantic, it is that there is no shortage of prizes, no lack of buzz about them, and no want of space to list them on the backs of book jackets. And everyone loves a high profile.
But George Szirtes is here now, and we may be happy.
It is a simple but useful truism to say that Szirtes is a great formal poet. This is, after all, the poet who included three crowns of sonnets in Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape (1998), an even longer sequence of sonnet “echoes” in Metro (1988), and who has almost single-handedly revived the use of terza rima in English lyric, for instance in Reel (2004). In his latest volume, he offers acrostics, canzones, double sonnets, mirror poems, and forms of his own invention. He may be comfortably mentioned in the same breath as formal tacticians such as Paul Muldoon or Glyn Maxwell or Don Paterson.
Szirtes has spoken elsewhere of “the notion of poetic form as an act of courage and grace.” Courage: to act as if he has ignored the last one hundred years of avant-garde poetry in English (which he has not, but that is beside the point), to defy the chaos that is language’s natural state. Grace: to bring order through repetition, replication, symmetry. The effects of Szirtes’s formal practices are several. First, certain material—words, units—is placed in a position of prominence again and again. One comes away from the book murmuring to oneself: “proposition,” “hands,” “number,” “animal,” etc. Second, on a larger scale, examples in every genre multiply biblically, each example tending to beget more. Scattered through the book there are, for example, ten poems referred to as “postcards,” five canzones, and five acrostics. They start to feel like old friends, or a large family that lives across the street. Third, and related, the poet, simply put, generates a lot of poetry. Bad Machine is about twice as long as most books of poems. I can see how it can happen.
But Szirtes’s vigour, feverish imagination, and impressive rate of composition belie a concern with fragility. With failing bodies, with fading memories, with irrecoverable experiences. These are the subjects of Bad Machine. For the “bad machine” of the title is the body itself.
In the past, Szirtes has been noted as a hawk-eyed historian of modern Europe as it stumbles toward and away from healing. In some quarters he has been considered a political poet. Here he is more personal. Let us consider the opening lines from the excellent title poem, “Canzone: Bad Machine”:
And so they handed me the bad machine
that seemed to me a miracle when new.
This, they said to me, was the machine
I’d have to play with now, this grave machine
whose workings were beyond me. It was mine
for ever, as long as any grave machine
could be, since it was only a machine,
albeit miraculous. And oh, the many parts
there were to it! I could move whole parts
and not even know that somehow the machine
was on. They’ll care for it, I thought. If care
was what it needed they could give it care.
Here is the book in nuce. The tone is deceptively neutral. It is all about the ego, in the classical sense. Szirtes gives us a speaker who feels compelled to examine his life, and who does not shirk that responsibility. This is not to say that he is particularly good at it. He can both describe and use his machine, but he cannot understand it (the machine’s operation is simply “miraculous”) or maintain it (he later says that his care manifests itself only in “subtle ways”). The machine is both a big deal (“grave”) and not too big to fail (and wind up in the “grave”), as it will eventually. In a stunning move, at the end of the poem he declares that it is only love as a sort of co-mechanic that allows him to keep his machine going at all: “My darling, look. See, here is a machine, / the bad machine that is our mutual care. . . . Be bad with me. Let bad be good as new.”
Love is one of the compensating joys of aging in Szirtes’s poems, but not always in predictable ways. In memory, one can access past romantic experiences and make them literary, permanent, as in “Plain: A Seventies Marriage,” which concludes with: “the clothes / lay where they dropped: high poetry, plain prose.” An erotic tension between poetry and prose: still mazy after all these years! Similar is the bittersweet predicament of “our beautiful mothers” in the poem of that title, who are “stuck in 1954, / their hearts hovering, whole and broken,” flirting with every possibility, whether of delight or disappointment.
Love’s counterpart, of course, is loss. “Terror of death. Desire for it” is Szirtes’s way of yoking the two together. We have already seen that the bad machine is not timeless. Numerous poems treat the aging process, explicitly (“From the Armchair,” “My Father’s Eyes in Old Age,” “A Photograph in Old Age”), metaphorically (“When Night Falls It Will Be Orderly”), or even as palimpsest: in a draft, “Canzone: Bad Machine” was preceded by a dedication “for my father at ninety-two.” He reveals a Larkinesque obsession with the passage of time, and exactly how it has passed. The word “day” is used over and over again, and more often than not it suggests the end of a day, not some brilliant noon. In a review of Szirtes’s Collected Poems (2008), Sean O’Brien posits that the poet has a “project of retrieving absolutely everything in the moment of its dissolution.” I suspect that the more things dissolve, the truer that insight will be.
The final sort of poem that dominates the collection is what I would call an exploration of the mind. These poems raise questions before they give answers. In obedience to their creator’s wishes, they march smartly in sections, subsections, and stanzas, and also across sequences. (“Postcard: Thirty-Three Propositions,” for example, is in fact sixty-six propositions split over two sides of a metaphorical postcard, and it feels like even more.) They are well ordered, indeed, and present their arguments in the classical style, but turned on its head. Every piece of evidence introduced leads not to one inexorable conclusion, but to unlimited inexorable conclusions. Some put me in mind of what a Wallace Stevens poem might be like if he had experienced human emotions.
Many of them, with plainly suggestive titles, are about language: “Colours” (the first half is a splendid sixty-nine-word-long list of mostly invented colour words), “Dictionary,” “The English Vowels,” “Goroo” (a nonce-word out of David Copperfield), “If You Say So,” “Say So,” “Actually, Yes.” The connection between the order of language and thought and the order of form is one thing that the poems do unequivocally affirm in the end, even as, as with all of Szirtes’s exploration poems, the poems hesitate to do anything so banal as “end.” In “Dictionary” he describes his language as “still working out its etymologies.” The bad machine, whatever else it may be, is a bleeping computer spitting out an endless tape of sentences.
The one complaint one might make of Bad Machine is that there is too much invention (“a surfeit of Szirtes,” to use a tongue-twister that he might like)—and that is the disingenuous finger-waggling of a reader who feels he needs to balance praise with quibble. Other artists don’t seem to mind his inventiveness. Some two dozen of the book’s poems are for, to, or after other artists and writers, such as Pascale Petit, Helen Rousseau, Tony Roberts, John Latham, Anselm Kiefer, Caroline Wright, and Mimi Khalvati, to say nothing of artists of the past like Titian and Pompeo Batoni and Brassaï. And to say nothing of similar tributes in Szirtes’s past work. And to say nothing of current projects with other artists, like Erasure, with Kevin Reid and Bobby Parker. Clearly, every artist in Europe has a connection to him. I propose, only half-jokingly, that there ought to be a Szirtes number in the arts like the Erdős number in mathematics, measuring collaborative propinquity.
The poem “Nautilus” is an example of what Szirtes achieves when he chooses to write about form, epistemology, and love. The nautilus, that famously geometrical mollusk, is “A quotation mark in space around the hollow / bones of the universe. A carousel spinning out of control.” How beautiful, but how frightening. It is also wears a shell that the speaker, separated from his beloved, in a different house, accidentally treads on “on the lower step when it was very dark.” Even as it is destroyed, in the dark, something very complex, and very like resurrection, occurs for the speaker:
My bed was waiting for my mind to wind right down. Meanwhile at home
you lay in ours as if at the back of time
that too was waiting to draw and settle us
into its own bed. Like the snail in its brittle dome
it waited, and we rose next day to this rhyme
that swims out of the dark, this nautilus.
(First, notice settle us / nautilus, which is not just pretty sound, but an important apposition, and a message: settle us, nautilus.) A separation, a coming-together of lovers. A creature, or a pair of creatures, bound by and empowered by captivity, and enjoying a unique liberty. Language (“rhyme”) that dims and illuminates. It is just such contradictory affirmations that ask us to keep reading.