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Mónika MESTERHÁZI
( 1967 )

Biography

1967 born in Budapest
1990 teacherís diploma in Hungarian and English literature at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest
1990-94 teacher at the Ferenc Toldy Gymnasium in Budapest
1998 teacher at the Miklós Radnóti Gymnasium in Budapest
1998-2002 teacher at the Budapest faculty of the Dániel Berzsenyi Gymnasium
2002 PhD in contemporary Irish poetry, Eötvös Loránd University
2002-2004 translator's seminar at the British Council; freelance writing

Her prizes include:
1994 Attila Zoltán Prize, 1996 Tibor Déry Prize, 1998 Soros Prize, 2000 István Vas Prize, 2005 László Wessely Prize, 2007 Attila József Prize

Refreezing Slates
1992

1992 Visszafagyó táblák (Refreezing Slates, poems) Mónika Mesterházi is a poet and a prolific translator of British and American poetry. (She has translated poems by Simon Armitage, Elizabeth Bishop, Ciaran Carson, Robert Crawford, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Cathleen Jamie, James Joyce, Philip Larkin, Michael Longley, Sylvia Plath, George Szirtes and W. B. Yeats; radio plays by Padraic Fallontól and Carey Harrison, and edited and translated a volume of Katherine Mansfield’s letters and diaries, together with a volume of her short stories). Mesterházi’s poems of occupy a special position in Hungarian poetry. Not since early Dezső Tandori have we had such a strongly intellectual poet. She was influenced by her professors, the poets of the Anglo-American Department of the University of Budapest: István Géher, Győző Ferencz and Ádám Nádasdy. Mesterházi is akin to them in her precision and her sometimes enigmatic but always defined imagery and clear diction, her disciplined irony, rhythmical perfection and appealing self-control. Her bravery, however, is exceptional when she confronts nothingness and absolute absence, rather than the usual death or non-being. Her first volume, which contains her early poems written around the age of twenty, begins with a poem that speaks about the lack of God in the world and states that if God existed, there would be no need to write poems, just grateful and elemental songs. The poem (unique in its purity and complexity) has no title, in reference both to absence, and a kind of longing. The lines show the burning need for objective truth, a centre which can uphold a person’s fragile life; the unforgettable image of the “empty black moon on the negative” closing the poem is at once frightening and promising. An observant beholder like Mesterházi will see and show us that the negative of things is always present: noise is contrasted by silence, being by non-being, existence by non-existence. ‘Would an objective gaze help?’ inquires the poet, and she concludes that human emotions can’t be measured by a cold and humourless heavenly aspect, because it might not be loving enough. Her irony is a tool of self-protection, but her humour is the tool of love; the existence of love is the only fact that can defeat or at least counterbalance nothingness. Love is not objective, but it is still something to be trusted, because it is a sensual experience, not the false comfort of mere sentimentality. The poet states that she needs a power as sure as “the taste of an olive” in her mouth; in another poem this power turns out to be the non-reflexive happiness of a puppy or the silent and unexpected happiness of radiant sunshine. There might no be a God, but the dog and the olive both exist, and they give strength and spiritual force to the person experiencing their existence. Mesterházi the non-believer almost radiates belief by her ability to watch the greatness and the small facts of the world alike—and ask questions; she is able to see the core of things in such small entities as a twig, a dream, a human face or a single word (she is especially sensitive to the peculiarities of language). Mesterházi’s sad, beautiful and clear-cut world can only be viewed in paradoxical terms: a profane prayer.

Once Upon a Time There Was Not
1995

1995 Hol nem volt (Once Upon a Time There Was Not, poems) The poet here is again preoccupied with such difficult things and notions as love, perspective, light, silence and absence. The book cover features a cloud in the shape of a swan; Mesterházi is the poet of heights and the sky, she measures stars, planets and seasons, and her perspective is much broader than the average human vista. She knows how people and animals alike are affected by the change of light and the change of seasons (in one of her poems there is a dog who eagerly runs to the garden gate when it hears the sentence “Spring is coming!”), because every breathing being secretly treats the existence of both as something to be trusted in this fleeting life. However, the decisive season of the volume is not spring, the season of light, but autumn, full of the anguish of something finished, a season when only desire is able to defeat finitude. In spite of things coming to an end, there are always moments that seem to be rounded and complete in themselves. In this respect this volume is different from the previous one, because the poet is less desperate to find a centre or an origin—instead, she is willing to find points of reference in a system of co-ordinates. Indeed, the in poem “Security”: “Security? A few secure points of reference, rather” says the poet. If there’s light, one is always able to see things, to be able to look outside his or her entity, and instead of nothing, once it “was sure that something always is” (“All Saint’s Day”). Mesterházi’s voice is more mature, and if she’s not able to reconcile herself to her losses, at least she can draw a lesson from her experiences, and she does this with her typical humour and astuteness. In one of her characteristic poems she considers the shrinking of a wrongly washed wool sweater: when empty spaces (nothing, therefore) are removed, the whole thing becomes useless. Consequently anguish, the characteristic feeling of Mesterházi’s poems, can also be an edifying experience. This perception shows Mesterházi’s ability to be brilliantly playful. “She is one of our most sensitive and responsive intellectual poets; she is practically obsessed with constant and intensive thinking. The world and her own self are to be puzzled out, and she must know the truth about everything. There are few poets in whose work intellectuality and reflection is so inseparable with the workings of the soul, more precisely love and morality.” -Judit Márványi “Mónika Mesterházi plays out of despair, out of fun, out of the fact that she is a playful intellect. She plays to look out of herself and look back to herself as the object of observation; she turns the world upside down or sings while standing on her own head. And meanwhile she is able to laugh and entrance her readers.” -Júlia Lázár, poet.

I Would Not Have Believed
1999

1999 Nem hittem volna (I Would Not Have Believed, poems) The title again features negation, and the cover of the volume, like that one before, shows the sky, but this time instead the airy nothing of the clouds it presents the system of co-ordinates of the stars and the bright tail of a comet—the volume evokes the atmosphere of the great comet-poems of classical Hungarian literature. Yes, by now it is sure that there is something, something really exists (and the volume shows less “nothing” as its predecessors), but unfortunately there is more emptiness in this world than presence, just as a comet is present in a person’s life only for a very short period of time, before it disappears again into the universal blackness—as the poet playfully but philosophically puts it: “My comet… how shall I bear your absence for another two thousand and five hundred years?” (“To the Departing One”) This is the volume of great and brave poems: there are wonderfully intricate formal experimentations (“Sestina-experiment”); and the most unforgettable pieces are those which talk about personal human fate, family affairs and the weight of existence as a woman. At the age of thirty Mesterházi casts a particularly brave account of her life, concentrating on the decision never to have a child (“Sors bona”). “The poet looks at the sky and her intellect tries to find something she can hold onto, a sure point of reference. The stage is defined by the contrastive aspect of darkness and light; the decisive colour is blue, and there are a lots of animals and plants present … and human faces, some of them friendly. Acquaintances, strangers, the living and the dead. Time. Moon. Sun. ‘A motionless pen writing golden signs on a moving surface.’ As if the signs of the world operated according to a greater plan which could not be forcefully understood. Only watched. If attention fails, anguish gets stronger; in these moments, however, one can still hang on to the ear of a dog, a yellow sweater or a single chestnut.” -Júlia Lázár “The surface of her poems is again clear and comprehensible, but we always feel the urge to re-read, and it turns out that their background is complicated and thought-provoking. The tragic atmosphere is balanced by self-irony, and Mesterházi’s view of the world has become larger, while her voice is a bit harsher than before. It is truly a rare and puzzling phenomenon how this objective and precise speech is interspersed with the characteristic and individual nature of her experiences, without ever becoming sentimental or sweet; this voice is always present in her poems and gives not only a high quality to her work but also a very personal credibility.” -Magda Székely, poet

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