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Geoff Sawers Reviews ‘Tidal Events: Selected Poems’ by Mária Ferenčuhová (translated by James Sutherland-Smith)

This book begins with the gentle image of deer pacing into a city, and closes with a desperate echo of Goethe’s ‘More light!’ The deer disturb our notions of what city existence may be – elsewhere feral children or urban derelicts do the same from different angles. That opening irruption recurs throughout; the natural stands for the irrational, the uncontrollable, and it can be scary, or it can be a saviour. Tidal Events: Selected Poems is perhaps at its best at the points where this is echoed in the text itself, the formless irrational breaking into the more formal syntax of ‘the city,’ of civilisation. I may be wrong, but these I assume are the ‘tidal events’ of the title; uncontrollable surges of the real into the unreal or vice-versa.

The body has to become the interface between the man-made and the natural, the real and the illusion; it becomes a real unreal. A city itself becomes a body, its thoroughfares capillaries. In ‘Logorrhoea’ a pair of lovers crumble at last into dust, return to the landscape. Were they ever there at all? A new mother overwhelmed with corporeality (“flows of blood, milk/ scattered attention…”) dreams of pulling herself away from nature, back to “museums, pavements, squares,” – she wants solitude and borders.

Ferenčuhová’s cool tone is like a habit masking the panic underneath, a crust of tarmac over sewers or oil below. It is arch, indirect, and yet committed. Motherhood and the disintegration of the body lead to a fragmention of the subject/object divide. Whose body is really mine? Seeing herself repeatedly as a patient is a way of articulating some kind of clinical detachment.

But the tension between corporeality and detachment cannot be resolved, and so a fissure remains, a fault-line throughout the book. “In the twilight between ribs/ an exhalation….” (‘Tales 1’) Ferenčuhová is aware of it: ‘The Uncertainty Principle’ even touches upon it, suggesting that the more you could know one aspect, the less you could ever know another; that the desire or need for order will always be derailed by the natural. Insect and mechanical imagery hint at a fear of anonymity, of annihilation, in both real and unreal.

One of the hardest things to tell if you know nothing of the writer’s original language (here, Slovakian) is how much a translator has kept of his original’s rhythm. The stuttering rhythms of ‘Tales 3’ are excellent and, when the rhythms break up, I assume that to be deliberate. Odd or awkward phrasings (eg, “the body like I remember”) too. But actually there are obvious and annoying typos in the introduction, which unsettled my confidence. Work like this demands precision.

Which brings us back to Goethe, and claustrophobia. Ferenčuhová’s writing is spare, but at times almost airless, gasping. There seems to be so much more to come, or to be said. But how should we engage with the world, when we are either detached from it or overwhelmed by it? And how do we know who ‘we’ are, to look to engage? “We could have calmly dozed into death,” she writes in ‘Threatened Species’, “But we tore down the nets/ redrew the boundaries/ shifted destiny, enlarged our holdings/ sowed new fields…”

There’s a bright-eyed clarity to this, albeit one very different from Goethe’s. Do we take to the streets, or to the woods?

Geoff Sawers

Tidal Events: Selected Poems by Mária Ferenčuhová, translated by James Sutherland-Smith, is published by Shearsman Press, 2018, £9.95.

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