Helen Hajnoczky, Magyarázni
2016, Coach House Books
$18.95, 104 pages
Poetic Post-Memory in Post-Exile by Diana Manole
In an article written in the early 1990s, Marianne Hirsch coined the term “postmemory” to describe one’s relationship to personal and/or collective traumatic events that preceded his/her birth. Even though the remembrance of these experiences is mediated not through actual recollection but through stories, images, and/or behaviors of the actual survivors, their impact on the second generation is so profound that, according to Hirsch, there is the risk of “having one’s own life stories displaced, even evacuated, by our ancestors.” Helen Hajnoczky’s collection of poems, Magyarázni (Coach House Books 2016) avoids that. As the author told rob mclennan in a 2015 interview in Touch the Donkey, this project was inspired by a discussion with her father about how he, his sisters, and his mother fled Hungary after the Soviet army crushed the 1956 revolution. It was also emotionally informed by her subsequent research interviews with other Hungarian-Canadians who left the country during or immediately after the same event, even though these were not directly cited in the poems.
However, Hajnoczky subtly grafts her second generation postmemory onto her own dilemmas as a child of exile, the offspring of a bilingual and bicultural family, torn between “the English of your mother’s song, /Hungarian of your father’s” (“Altatódal”). This duality is further emphasized through the book’s unusual structure: the poems are in English, yet their titles are in Hungarian with no translation provided. Additionally, the table of contents does not list the poems’ titles, but the alphabet, in a manner that reminds us that even letters are under the spell of cultural context. “A” can also be “Á”, “O” can be “Ö,” while each language would mark specific and often unique sounds through particular associations of letters, such as “SZ.” As Hajnoczky notes in the final piece, “Learning Activities,” she has also included Q, W, and X, which are not “true” Hungarian letters. Her alphabet, like her cultural identity, is a hybrid.
In the press release, the book’s title, “Magyarázni,”is translated as “make it Hungarian.” In this collection, however, the poet attempts to re-make herself Hungarian, reinventing Hungarianess from a distance and learning/using her father’s mother tongue as a second language. In the author’s own words, Magyarázni “struggles to answer the question of how much one person’s experience of a language or culture can be representative of a community as a whole” (Touch the Donkey), while graciously but painfully exposing the never-ending process of negotiating one’s identity.
Fred Wah, Andrew Suknaski, Anne Michaels and other Canadian poets dealing with their mixed cultural allegiance and/or inheritance appear to choose the more self-preserving position of observers, even though with occasional sharp notes of pain and/or self-irony. At the other extreme, D'bi Young Anitafrika, Pamela Mordecai, and more recently Bänoo Zan, Nilofar Shidmehr, and Anna Yin, to name but a few, approach the same topic more “head-on,” reflecting on being “less than one and double” (Homi Bhabha) and pleading against oppression of any kind and a more cosmopolitan attitude towards “accented” fellow citizens. Magyarázni reinvents the middle ground among intellectual detachment, sociopolitical activism, and emotional involvement.
The opening poem, “Pronunciation Guide,” asserts dualism as the defining principle on several levels, switching codes from academic, “Not used in English; corresponds to the German Ö,” and realism with a rhyming absurd, “Jam in the fridge, the edge of a bridge,” to the nude expression of feeling exiled in both cultures, striving to be a “more magyar Hungarian,” while savouring “illicit snippets of English” (“Cserkészek”).
As I do not know Hungarian, I was tempted to search for the translation of most of the titles, which offered me one more surprise. The poems do not clarify their dictionary and/or cultural meaning, but rather suggest, reinvent or even ironically contradict it. “Altatódal” (Hungarian for “lullaby”), for example, is more of a riddle that references and eventually blends English and, maybe, Hungarian lullabies. According to Word Finder, Állatkert was “an above-ground station of the M1 line of the Budapest Metro,” from 1896 to 1973, to which the poem appears to make no reference. Instead, it is ostentatiously and stereotypically Canadian, talking about a “K-car or school bus or Suburban” stuck in the snow in Kananaskis (Alberta) as if being the immigrant’s daughter alternative means of transportation.
The style of most poems is Urmuzian with undertones of a child’s imagination but Hajnoczky does not hide that she only rewrites her childhood as an adult. In “Állatkert,” a “cow” may very well be a “hypo,” yet the knowledge and the longing are of someone who knows that “Hungarian is [not] Latin” and looks back at herself as a “quiet little creature, snow mammal, prairie dweller, adapted from a temperate climate,” at the same time displaced, through her father’s exile and her own postmemory, as well as at home, through her mother’s English background and Canada as her own birth country.
Language/communication becomes then only the means of both postmemory and actual/personal memory, “Sharp clang of memory. / Twinkle of memory” (“Belváros”). Our shared histories, plus the information that her father was a political refugee, give ambiguity to lines like “you don’t swallow until they look away” (Cukorka), which may refer both to a shy child or an adult in a concentration camp. In other poems, the references to the World Wars are more direct. The bottom of Duna (Hungarian for Danube), for example, is “scattered with bombed-out bridges” (“Duna”).
Using the allegory of dolls as victims, “Forradalom” (Hungarian for “revolution”) makes apparent the second generation’s guilt, as well as its duty to continuously remember past sacrifices, even when going about mundane chores, “twirling the pleats of / your skirts at the dance house or running to the bank,” but to also to reconnect to the parents’ cultural background through “memorizing folksongs.” The end is a shocking appeal to awareness: “Every happiness you have / is an accident of war.”
Magyarázni retraces the author’s life journey, from Calgary to Budapest, via Montreal, and from childhood to student years, growing up, and adulthood. Common questions are mixed with self-ironic concerns: “You wonder where the time went, / why you never got that pet hermit crab” (“Rák”). The return becomes impossible, her parents’ childhood places in Hungary are no more than tourist destinations on an “annotated map” (“Útikönyv”) and “home,” as a place of peace and redemption, is unreachable: “Home is wherever / you are not” (“Otthon,” Hungarian for “home”). The poems’ common denominators are the vivid expressions of the second generation’s post-exilic anxiety and postmemory (“Jelentés”), the longing for “something familiar,” and the nerve-screeching warnings:
Long ripped apart
by ill fate.
You ache for a time of
Wail: have you not
burned for your sins?
Your past affronts and
future wrongs. (“Himnusz”)
Hajnoczky’s conflicted attitude towards language/languages evolves into a reflection on communication, which is perceived in its socio-political, historical, and ontological context from both an inherited traumatic perspective and a personal bicultural viewpoint. She feels a prisoner in English, the lingua franca of digital technology, “your instructor offers / tips in a language the machine couldn’t / accommodate” (“Gépel”). She also feels alien in “Hungarian [which] is not a gendered language” (“Nem”).
Sometimes, she would like to use the “axe of a word to split myths, to cleave false memories” (“No common contemporary word”) as the overburdening effect of postmemory. Eventually, language [English? Hungarian? Both? Any?] is silenced on the “mute page”, while the letters are still “to bloom, to go to seed” (“Írástudatlanság”). The poet eventually rises above the immediate reality and collective traumas. In “Szotár” (Hungarian for “dictionary”), my personal favourite in the collection, Hajnoczky daringly replaces “word” with “language” as the Biblical and anthropological beginning of everything:
In the beginning there
was the language and
the language was with
you and the language
was you but
Yet, as signs whose meaning is somewhat randomly assigned, words can mislead and betray, whereas body language and organic reactions remain a more universal and more reliable means of communication: “A yawn has no language but the heat / from your body curling in the cold air” (“Ég”). As a cultural equivalent, Hajnoczky resorts to what she identifies as visual poetry, intricate floral designs in vivid colours, each of which is centered on only one letter, in alphabetical order. The titles/letters that identify these paintings are the ones listed in the table of contents, highlighting their role in the book.
In my view, however, the visual renderings are rather an ingenious and successful attempt to uncover the visual potential of letters as two-dimensional entities, not semiotic signs, in a return of the abstract into the visceral. As the poet mentions in the same interview, they were inspired by the tulips carved by her father on a wooden chest. Given my own Eastern European background, some look to me like my own grandma’s embroideries on tablecloths, scarfs, or blouses, others like stained glass in traditional peasant homes or churches. When slightly anthropomorphised, like “K,” “LY,” and “Ő,” they recall the illustrations in children’s books, whereas when the letter dominates the image, like “L” and “O,” the impression is of medieval illustrated (historiated) initials, which in luxury manuscripts occupied an entire page.
Similar to the text poems, Hajnoczky’s images bridge not only the vegetal order (the flowers) and the cultural products (the letters), but also distant myths and contemporary habits. In contrast, the everyday reality and jargon anchor the poems in the present:
The era of analogue dissection passed, you are
now the sought-after expert on
digital vivisection, called on to
give teleconferences, lectures on logging into
email accounts, hooking up printers. (“Gépel”)
A clearer narrative line throughout the collection and some more specific geographical/cultural references might have enriched the understanding of the poems. Hajnoczky included some of them in the final piece, “Learning activities,” a prose poem in its own right, and, as I mentioned, explains others in her interview about this project. She also gives us a glimpse into the laboratory of a highly self-aware poet, who has discarded draft after draft for being “unintentionally bitter” or “unintentionally saccharine” or even “flat.” The final, published draft proves that the long creative journey paid off. Magyarázni is a bicultural, bilingual, and bimedia compelling and beautifully conceived proof that an individual can bear the burden of postmemory and the reality of bicultural post-exile without losing him/herself. Maybe Hirsch would agree that even in life two negatives may equal a positive, as the ultimate survival strategy: “I can’t but I can’t” (“Zsibbad”). Hajnoczky convinced me.
Dr. Diana Manole is a Romanian-Canadian writer, translator, and scholar.