Milan Rúfus, And That's the Truth, Bolchazy-Carducci, Wauconda, Illinois, USA, 2006

This is the first substantial English selection of the poetry of Milan Rúfus, Slovakia's outstanding living poet and in recent years a candidate for the Nobel Prize. 62 poems, taken from a range of published work spanning half a century, are given here in English translation with the Slovak originals facing. An introduction sets Rúfus's poetry in the context of Central European poetry generally, and a brief section on 'Life and Works' gives essential facts. This book breaks ground, and as such it is to be welcomed.

The choice was made by Milan Richter, who is publishing the complete works of Rúfus in 16 volumes, and his selection lets the poet's distinctive voice come through. The emphasis here is on Rúfus of the 'middle period', beginning with Bells (Zvony), published in 1968. No less than 17 poems are included from this collection, and in these mainly unrhymed poems, brief, urgent, concentrated thoughts on demanding themes, the translation is at its best. For example, why you cannot enter a childhood landscape:

It's as if you, a stowaway

tried to step out of your time

as though from a plane, straight onto a cloud.

Swearing that it will carry off

the heaviness that's you,

your winglessness forever.

(Childhood Landscape)

Or looking at that landscape:

Through the small window, narrow as an obol

under a dead man's tongue, you saw

your childhood landscape. On dusty panes

as on a dog-skin parchment you read

your family tree.

(The Window)

Or a very modern thought, set in the Rúfus frame:

Oh, our answers

age more quickly than our questions.

And heavy, Lord, too heavy for us is

the parachute of sky in which You hang.

(A Wayside Crucifix)

Or the superb Michaelangelo:

To bear a burden and to sing.

You knew

who carries beauty to its baptism.

We don't any more.


                                         And the poet,

a thrown rider, tries from the horseshoe's imprint

to create a horse.

Anguish and weariness...

Like babes in a wood, in much we've gone astray.

And beauty, once the intimate of God,

now relates to itself alone

confused and strange things.



Readers will surely appreciate these poems. But would they not appreciate them even better if they could see more of how Rúfus got there, if they could follow more of his poetic journey? I have in mind especially his first collection Až dozrieme (Till we ripen), published in 1956, which is a marvel. It is something like a geological event in Slovak culture, with a new mountain appearing out of the immense tensions of the earth. A young poet with a volcanic force of utterance, an unbearably intense need to speak, was confronted by nothing less than a revolution, which limited, questioned, challenged, for some years even silenced him.

In Till We Ripen the tensions are contained in highly-structured, fully-rhymed poems; two of them, Meeting on the Ringstrasse and Parting, are included in this book, and they stand out. The magnificent Parting (Rozlučenie) would stand out anywhere. While it can be read simply as a poem on the parting of lovers, the echoes of the second verse and the atmosphere of the whole poem tell us there is another parting also, one of wider scope and implications and even greater pain. There are other wonderful poems in that same collection, and I dare say some might argue that Rúfus's first collection is his best.

The introduction is fluently written and puts Rúfus comfortably among the best Central European poets of the late twentieth century. The authors rightly stress his 'immensely individual and original voice', but here and there one may question whether their guidance helps this voice to be heard. "Rúfus struggles with the near impossibility of conveying a sense of faith that does not allow a private experience into the public domain. It is a faith beset by philosophical absurdity where faith becomes an individual's cross." I cannot see what this has to do with Michaelangelo, or Thanksgiving for the Harvest, or the dozens of poems in this selection that would testify equally. On the contrary, Rúfus is a prophet: his faith is always and invariably in the public domain, at least potentially. To read him is not just to eavesdrop upon a soul. But the prophet has, so to speak, been driven into the mountains. Those poems in Bells especially, and all his later poems, have a mountain air.

These criticisms aside, this collection will give readers a sense of an outstandingly gifted poet and his fate 'to bear a burden and to sing'.