by Michele Battiste
Black Lawrence Press, 2013
Reviewed by: Kayla Haas
Uprising, by Michele Battiste is a poetry collection depicting the lead up and aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Her main voices, Jóska, Jutka, and Erika provide the reader with insight about the abuse Hungarians were subjected to by the Soviet Union. The collection begins in 1944 and ends over a decade later in 1956, at the end of the revolution. Though Uprising is considered a poetry collection, it also continues the contemporary trend of blurring the lines between genres. Battiste has crafted a narrative similar to fiction, and has chosen her own family as the voice of the Hungarians.
“…I think I understood
once. Sounds drifting through
the house like kitchen smells, the way you know
the taste before you eat. But my English was their song
—a long, slow stroke across the violin’s strings
and the magyar slept…”
– Learning the Dead Language
Battiste begins the collection with a prologue in her own poetic voice. “Learning the Dead Language” works like a “summoning” poem. As an adult, in the wake of her nagypapa’s death, the speaker recalls the Hungarian language of her grandparents: “searching/for the language that will take my tongue/back.” The speaker’s desire to go “back” provides cause for the collection; it is the catalyst for the poetic telling of her family history and the history of the Hungarians.
Jóska, Jutka, and Erika are the main voices of the collection. Battiste begins by titling each poem with the chosen narrator in order to help the reader make the association between the name, voice, and poetic style. Having each speaker have their own poetic form creates a narrative uniformity that is important to a collection with such historical accuracy. Keeping narrative voices consistent allows readers to focus on the precise word choice, historical events, and foreshadowing that Battiste’s poems have. Jóska’s voice is in the form of prose poetry and function like letters to his wife, Jutka. He’s often addressing only her, though at times a larger audience. Jutka’s poems are multiple stanzas with her poems reading much like diary entries. Erika, the daughter of Jóska and Jutka, has the most lyrical poetic voice. With staccato lines, childlike details, and indented lines to juxtapose against Jutka’s narrow stanzas, Erika’s voice captures the uncertainty of her childhood in the face of bombs, war, and kidnappings.
Uprising is broken into four sections: The Way to the Party, Budapest Voices, Steam in the Pot, and Uprising. The first, third, and fourth sections follow the narrators mentioned before, while Budapest Voices is a collection of seperate individuals. Battiste uses research to her advantage in order to craft poetry around actual experiences of Hungarian individuals. Battiste notes, “The stories in this section come from interviews conducted by Radio Free Europe with Hungarian refugees who fled the country. Transcriptions of the interviews were accessed at the Open Society Archives in Budapest (see bibliography). In most cases, names have been changed.” The choice to break from the narrative to provide outside perspective was a great decision. Budapest Voices is a reminder that the collection is not just about one family, but rather Hungary as a whole. Having the perspectives of different voices helps expand the world readers are introduced to in the first section. Readers are introduced to the disappearances of husbands, the recruitment of children, lists of deaths and suicides, and many more horrors that Jutka, Jóska, and Erika have only hinted at. Budapest Voices brings a needed sense of urgency to the collection and foreshadows the civilian unrest and fear in later sections.
A unique aspect of Uprising is the way poems “lean” on each other for support. Though Battiste’s poems can be vivid in imagery, many are narration-heavy in order to move time and plot along. As a result, some poems could not exist outside the collection itself. These poems are essential to the overall narrative and their impact is summoned from the poems before and after. Creating a collection that depends on plot, as much as a connecting theme, is a risk. When considering this, among the other elements of the collection, it becomes obvious that Battiste should be commended for being able to create such an organized balance to a collection that could have easily been tipped into disarray.
Last, what is perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of this collection is the fact it requires active readership. Battiste’s poems provide enough detail to flesh out the Hungarian Revolution and the horrors witnessed; however, she also provides key words, key dates, and a language that encourages readers to go beyond the surface and reach out to outside sources for true understanding. It is easy to read poetry with direct impact and understanding, but perhaps much more rewarding to be challenged, intellectually and historically, in order to fully understand the poetry provided. Readers are free to enjoy the collection through what is given, but can also dig deeper into the politics of the imagery in order to have an emotionally moving experience.
Uprising is a fascinating collection not only for its historical accuracy on a subject not many are familiar with, but also because Battiste meticulously has crafted a narrative—one that is complex and superbly organized—that illustrates her own family history and the history of Hungarians.
Kayla Haas is an MFA candidate at Wichita State University, Fiction editor at Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, and editor at Mojo. You may find her work in Gigantic Sequins and NANO Fiction, among other journals.