Szirtes is the son of Hungarian Jews, expatriated in the upheavals of 1956, who grew up in London and studied to be a painter. He would not return to his native country until the late 1980s, and only began to write about Budapest and Hungary a few years before that. Not surprisingly, given both his own estrangement from his Hungarian roots and the turbulence surrounding the country in the 20th century, the primary theme of this collection about the Hungarian experience is history, a fact he readily acknowledges in his introduction. The poems are even organized in loose historical order (rather than the order in which they were written or published), moving from the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire through the Holocaust (Szirtes's mother was a concentration-camp survivor) to the bleak days of the Communist period and its abrupt end and, finally, up to the confused but hopeful present. History haunts the collection much as it haunts Budapest, a spectral presence "that leads us down / to find history that feels like truth." As befits a work that is mostly about Budapest as a locus of history, Szirtes's version of the city concentrates on its public spaces, dusty, spare, and bleak; in Communist and post-Communist Hungary, privacy is at a premium, so the wall between public and private space, public and private memory, is a semi-permeable membrane at best. Szirtes is a skilled poet with the strong visual sense one would expect from a former painter and son of a photographer.
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