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POETRY

Review: Optimistic Sister Hope short on wit and humour

Sister Hope

By: Milan Rúfus
Available at: Eurobooks, Jesenského ul. 5-9
Price: 110 Slovak crowns
Rating: 4 out of 10

Milan Rúfus, Slovakia's most popular living poet, has finally made it into the English language. Sister Hope, a collection of 12 short works, is now available in at least one bookstore in Bratislava. In addition to English, the poems are also translated into German, Spanish, French, Swedish and Italian in the thin yellow book.

Meant as a cost-saving means of introducing Rúfus into six Indo-European languages, Sister Hope all but leaves out the original Slovak. There is one exception, and it seems like an error filed randomly amid the English on page ten. But judging from this one Slovak entry alone, the absence of rhyme and metre in the English version were not casualties of the translation. It's free verse in any language you care to read it - short, segmented, unadorned poems meandering down a path of metaphor.

In 'Childhood Landscape', Rúfus warns that in trying to reach past playgrounds a person becomes a stowaway stepping out from a plane "...straight onto a small cloud." Several lines later, dreams of the past become like an altar, "...And no one has seen God." In the next line, however, dreams are harmless thoughts, with the poet urging the reader to stop and enjoy them, "...Then walk on and live on."

It is unclear, however, how Rúfus reaches this conclusion. Neither reason nor feeling is invoked to explain his changes of heart. In 'Lines', the poem reaches an even less satisfying end, unravelling into a series of questions about the creases on an old man's face. "And who is all this for? Who'll play \ the face like some old record?"

The collection's highlight is the title poem, 'Sister Love', which drives steadily toward an invigorating conclusion. Starting bluntly with the declaration, "In fact I have no other choice \ than, being alive, to live", Rúfus ultimately makes the decision to side with hope rather than despair: "...while hopelessness outruns possible death,\ my decision is made -\ I side with hope."

This compromise between melancholy and a commitment to hope seems to explain much about the other poems in Sister Hope. Rúfus faces the limitations, tragedies and confusions of being human, but refuses to slide into negativity. Nor, on the other hand, does he confront these feelings with optimism, wit or humour. The result is flat verse that doesn't stray far from ordinary human thought, and which is uncreative in its explorations of fate.

Beauty, if it is to be found, lies in all the places so familiar to readers of poetry. In 'Mother', the ageing women "...caress the shirt of their grown sad children \ as passionately as in ballads...". Even the dilemmas Rufus describes are squarely conventional. Facing the double edged sword of self-awareness in 'Deposition from the Cross', the poet finds that he is "...Afraid he doesn't know.\ Afraid he knows."

A similare problem, in the end, confronts Rufus' readers - wanting to know more about Slovak poetry, we don't particularly want to find it so lacking in originality.

A short biography of Milan Rúfus is provided in English on the back cover of Sister Hope. No information, however, is provided about when the poems were written.

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