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TERROR HÁZA: A review by Dave Lordan
Dave Lordan was born in Derby, England, in 1975, and grew up in Clonakilty in West Cork. In 2004 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary and in 2005 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. His collections are The Boy in the Ring (Cliffs of Moher, Salmon Poetry, 2007), which won the Strong Award for best first collection by an Irish writer and was shortlisted for the Irish Times poetry prize; and Invitation to a Sacrifice (Salmon Poetry, 2010). Eigse Riada theatre company produced his first play, Jo Bangles, at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum in 2010. He has lived in Holland, Greece and Italy, and now resides in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
(Lapwing Press, 2009)
£8 hardback, £3 e-book
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Terror Háza is Alan Garvey's third collection with Belfast's Lapwing press and is in large part a result of a trip to the House of Terror Museum in Budapest. This controversial museum, with an exhibitions policy controlled by the powerful and terrifying contemporary Hungarian right, documents aspects of the experience of Hungarians under fascism and Stalinism. Many of the poems here are attempts, based on various kinds of documentary record such as letters, photographs, film footage and, in the case of Miklós Radnóti, poems, to reconstruct in a condensed form the psychic experience of a cast of characters, drawn from the perpetrators as well as the victims of those so very recent and surely unfinished eras.
This type of poetic fieldwork, incorporating the skills of the archivist, historian and documentarist, is a welcome refutation of the idea of the poet as “some mordant/ fucker alone/ in his room/ with his books/ and dreams”, which is how Garvey expresses it in ‘A Modest Proposal’, the title aptly referencing one of the ur-documents of English-language political poetry. Garvey counters blind obedience to the aesthetic tyranny of write what you know with something like write what you can discover, what you think needs to be known. His poetry here, anything but dreamy and solipsistic, is driven by an attempt to engage with the world beyond the charmed circle of the privileged, contemporary, western liberal's personal experience, bringing the poet and the reader into contact with the objective as well as the subjective, with forces above and beyond and indifferent to the self, and with other ghostly and projected selves raised up out of the mass graves of the Eastern Front.
In moving beyond the empirical comfort zone Garvey exposes poetry to those terrible human historical truths that it is powerless to change or redeem. The holocaust, the Stalinist terrors, as well as the flattening and ongoing starvation of Gaza which Garvey courageously includes here in his atlas of murder, can all only be described, and never made-up for, in poetry. Garvey's skill at poetic re-enactment, the descriptive and emotional power of many of the poems, offers a kind of spiritual-wasteland cartography of Hungary's mid- 20th century ordeal. Terror Háza is strong support for the idea that poetry remains the superior mode of record, despite being far less immediate than the mass media that have long superseded it in the public mind. This power may lie in poetry's suggestive subtlety, in that it can show just as well through its silences and what it withholds from view, and in the attentive care it takes over, and the respect it has for what it tries to present and preserve. We can take in and reflect upon brutal experiences chillingly re-enacted in Garvey's poems that we would never be able to withstand in the more visceral form of a film, for example. However, as Garvey admits in his dedication, poetry can never again be seriously thought of as mode of redemption. “It is too late to regret the day/ that is”, he writes and we can assume that it is consequently too late to revive from the ruins of past disasters the society of “love we failed/ to realise but saw...”
As indicated above, Garvey's work has great descriptive power, managing in particular to get across the insane disordering of war – the surrealism of the bomb – and the epistemological clarity that can accompany it.‘Halbe’ is a little Guernica of a poem worth quoting in its entirety here:
shelling in the forest
the trees strike at us
splinters gouging deep
wounds in throats and sighs
the sandy soil rejects shovels
digging foxholes for cover
even the earth shuns us
as our sins are too loathsome
to bury for the earth to accept
rather we must remain gaping
in a Rorschach light
flat on our bellies –— snakes
waiting to crawl into the night
The boy soldier of ‘A Schoolboy's Observations’, awaiting crushing or fragmentation in a front line city has been given a “freedom” by his impending death that “means there is no obligation to lie”. In Terror Háza not lying means not transmitting the conventional idea (even if it has long been an utterly absurd idea) of a redemptory art. It means burying the figure of the artist as redeemer under the rubble of our seemingly endless sequencing of wars and counter-wars. Humanity, by any reasonable estimate of its legacy and current conditions and prospects has failed in everything but in expanding and refining the means of destruction and the methods of barbarism. Our true God, our aim and end, our ultimate and inevitable ruling abstraction, is death –—brilliantly symbolized here as ‘The Light Bulb’ (Guernica again) in another one of Terror Háza’s stand-out poems. Death is what we glorify and increase, with all our terrors. Nothing much can be done about that now, least of all by poets and artists. Perhaps poetry can purposelessly chart the arc of our doom –—but that's about the size it. All we are left is the curse of repeating the old horrors in slightly varying forms, with the artists out on the far margins observing it so, and being paid no heed, because “no one wants to hear from pamphleteers”. We are all in the situation of the soldiers of Halbe woods now, all “snakes/ waiting to crawl into the night”.
The book is not all horror and fatalism. In fact it is enlivened by the lingering romanticism, by the doubt of its doubt, found in poems such as ‘Days Cannot Dull’, ‘The Chaplain’ and ‘Something Sacred’, that go through in turn some of the traditional imaginary escape routes, aesthetic, theological and mono-erotic, by which humans have sought brief exits and oblivions away from the nightmare of the real.
However, the bulk of Garvey's work here, perhaps despite his own intentions, is of the no-poetry that Adorno cautioned was the only type possible in the post-holocaust world, a stripped down and unpretending word art that is always its own negative, always mocking itself, always admits its own failure to live up to the messianic need and promise which gave birth to it.
There is, of course, a striking contradiction between condemning, refuting and even abandoning a civilisation while clinging to classical poetic forms of that civilisation. Form is content and Garvey's absolute mastery of some familiar western stanza forms, which is his strongest technical attribute, may be his weakest thematic one. We could however, choose to read the deft formal safe-playing as adding further semantic support to the idea that there is no way for us to escape from our terrible legacies, that we can only speak about terror in the forms that it invented and continues to rule.
Finally, I would like to appeal to Lapwing to do more justice to their excellent writers by investing in better book production.
©2010 Dave Lordan
Lordan page at Salmon Publishing
Three poems by Lordan at Blackmail Press
Entry at Irish Writers Online