George Szirtes – Five Poems

Postcolonial Operations: Malaysia

September. Morning.
Here the peaceable kingdom,
pale and serious.

Foreign languages
blossom in corners. Far off
bright blooms. Acts of speech.

On the hot island
food is served, chairs are wiped down,
nation building starts.

One thinks of angels
at their impossible angles
slipped into language.

Between languages
the hot day explains itself
using simple terms.

Puritans close down
the cinema of the soul,
yelling at the light.

Into September.
Into crispness. Into evening.
Into the clock’s face.

Back to the empire.
Back to old rites of passage.
Late sun. Darkness. Song.

In The Country of the Heart

I couldn’t remember if I had left my heart in the right place. There is a place for everything.

My heart was on a train heading for the right place but would it get there on time?

My heart was in one of two places, neither of them right.

Must you talk about your heart, they asked. We’ll be the judges of that.

They were looking into my mouth but it was my heart they were looking for so I produced a heart for them.

Is this your heart, they asked. You don’t want to leave it lying about the place.

May we direct you to the right place for your heart, they asked, indicating their batons.

I was able to demonstrate that my heart was in the right place. That seemed to satisfy them.

All our hearts were in the right place. It was getting crowded in there.

Too many hearts in one place. We were having trouble orientating ourselves.

Our hearts were joined in one big heart. Our hearts were full to overflowing

My eyes were closed, my mouth was wide open and shouting, my liver had gone missing, but my heart was in the right place.

Oil Slick

The first time we struck oil
We were covered in the stuff
I was slicker than a seal
It was hard to scrape it off.

The deeper sank the well
The higher rose the spurt
The smoother the gears moved
The more we hit pay dirt.

We swam through seas of oil
In sheets of heavy slack,
Dark statues of the glib,
A sculpture park of black.

Well-oiled we drifted past
Planets of black suns
Our memoranda viscous
Paradigms and puns,

Deaths, loves, pipedreams, plans
In plumage dense with glue,
We’d written ourselves out.
Now we were through, quite through.


All That is Solid

She is dry leaf, parchment, batwing, husk, a skim of earth. She is asleep yet awake, mobile yet collapsing. She is thinking.
Between wake and sleep there is only a flimsy, almost invisible sheet. It is onion-skin, India-paper: a brittle integument easily broken.
The will to control is strong. She owns a life. It must be hers. Whose else could it be? Whose is this skin, this half-dream?
Once there was a state of affairs. It was quite specific. If she could be specific now it would make an act of will, a document, a film.
Figures move about the room but are not precisely here. They are breath turned into presence. They are elsewhere and are obliged to be.
The present is not entirely present, she thinks. The past is a landscape shrouded in fog. She opens her eyes and drinks it down.
She treads a ground that is not entirely solid, but then, she feels, neither is she. All that is solid will melt. So let it melt.
Mind hovers between sense and matter. Is that her hand shaking? It is hardly shaking. It is the merest tremor. Not even that.
The air is glass. To walk is to move through glass, each step a moment frozen, glazed, perfected, the panes crashing behind her.
The room is full of ghosts. But where else are they to go? Let flesh enter them, she thinks. Let them seek their own bones. Let them pass.


Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these rages will show.

It was the rages he flew into
whenever she appeared
in the bathroom mirror.

It was not the mirror
but the page that appeared
that she flew into.

He was getting in touch
with his feminine side,
with Agnes and Dora.

But he was not about to become Dora
or Agnes. It was one side
or the other he had to touch.

He was the hero of his life.
She was the love of his life.
(Or possibly her life).

The rest was rages.
A matter of turning the rages.
Not to forget the writing of all those rages.

George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948 and came to England as a refugee in 1956 following the Hungarian Uprising. He is the author of some fifteen books of poetry in English and roughly the same of translation from Hungarian fiction and poetry into English. He won the T S Eliot Prize for his book Reel (2004) and has been shortlisted for his two following books, The Burning of the Books (2009) and Bad Machine (2013). His New and Collected Poems appeared in 2008. His translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Sarantango won the Best Translated Book Award in the USA in 2013, and his book for children, In the Land of the Giant was awarded the CLPE prize for best book of poems for children in the UK in the same year. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in England and of the Széchenyi Academy of Arts and Letters in Hungary.