George Szirtes is a well-established poet, editor, and Literary Fellow. Born in Budapest, he came to England as a refugee in 1956 and was brought up in London, where he studied Fine Art, before publishing his first poetry book in 1979 . His poems have been published by several houses, earning him a host of awards across the years. Notably, his collection Reel (also published by Bloodaxe), was awarded the T.S.Eliot prize in 2005. His life has been one absorbed in literature, from writing to teaching the subject in numerous vocations. Alongside his poetry, Szirtes has published a prose collection, edited several other volumes, and translated numerous books into English. It is no surprise then, having read Bad Machine, that the collection feels as though it has been influenced by several different life experiences and cultures.
This anthology is comprised of seven different sections, of varying lengths. Although listed as separate works on the contents page, the poems themselves are presented as a single, continuous entity. Initially, being unfamiliar with Szirtes work, I assumed these segments held a meaning that was essential to the reading and understanding of the collection and of its continuity. My concern was quickly assuaged by the discovery of the poem “Dictionary” and the line: “The problem of continuity – of syntax, to think of this is to think of something else.” Directly under the poem’s title and as if an errant thought, this statement appears to give permission to focus specifcally on the poem being read without being overly concerned with any deliberate or accidental links of meaning, theme, or topic.
However, Bad Machine does feel very contradictory. Some segments link flawlessly; in others the poems feel as different as it is possible for two poems to be. Some of this is due to Szirtes’ obvious talent with, and delight in, poetic form. He moves effortlessly between free verse and rhyming patterns, his confidence apparent, perhaps most strikingly with the inclusion of several canzone. His considered use of white space allows his free-flowing poems to contrast strongly against his rigorously structured, traditional looking verses, creating an aesthetic that is both pleasing and jarring. For example, “Snake Ghost”, serpent like on the page, sits opposite “The Swan’s Reflection”, four verses which mirror each other in shape and meter.
The real beauty of this challenging, oxymoron-esque collection is his clear love of the abstract. Bad Machine relies on abstract images throughout, but it is Szirtes’ blatant acknowledgement of this tool that really resonates. Within the very first line of the opening poem he writes, “Here is where the enchantment starts”. Very soon, we are faced with questions, “At which point did the mind become the sea?” (“Postcard: The Rower”), and self-analysis, “Talking like this is just talking. It is like being stripped naked.” (“Grey Wood”) This obsession with the obtuse, the use of questions that cannot be answered by the reader alone, is compounded in the second segment of the work, in a poem aptly entitled “Abstraction” ,which proudly claims:
Taking control is the point. That is the process
implied by abstraction,
Yet Szirtes confident display of the his more opaque imagery is attractive and, sometimes, became my reason for loving the poem:
Because if mind and wave and wall and sea
are of one substance, and the loss of sight
result in loss of meaning – so that wall
is where the mind is (“The Rower”)
With reference to the collection as a whole, it is impossible to escape his command of natural imagery and the subtle links he forges between landscape and mind . Bad Machine holds beautifully fragile references to biography, nature and the human condition, making it a challenging yet enjoyable read. My favourite poems were “The Lump”, “The Rower”, and “We Love Life Whenever We Can”, all of which capture the different strengths of Szirtes’ work. The resonance of this collection is nothing less than you would expect from one on the Eliot shortlist; perhaps Szirtes should make ready to gain another honour.