Brenkus’ view is serious, and we could say it is exaggeratedly cloudy, full of gloom and a strange kind of sadness. Reading him, there is not only the taste of sadness, melancholy, inevitability and apathy left on your tongue, but also the bitter flavour of agnostic poses. The author gives us the suspicion that there is a way which in the name of natural evolution indicates his developing tendency, not just in poetry, but I guess somewhere beyond it...
Brenkus is a legitimate continuator of the Slovak poetical modern, especially of Ivan Krasko. Just like Krasko’s, so Brenkus’ verses are destined for night and solitude, because what is past exists no longer, it’s set in the land of no-return, “beyond the silence of the barrows” and the disillusionment of love. The future is exceedingly uncertain, full of bad and even worse alternatives, “because what creates us, / will usually destroy us too”. Nowadays the feeling of nothingness is the heaviest, and this appears to a lyrical subject like emptiness turned into nothingness, dreadful pseudo-being. It’s definitely subjective and symbolic, and through symbols the author strives to decipher the enclosed and chaotic world, to give it some contours, some shareable form – for example through the “most reliable medium” of his own soul. He creates original and impressive metaphorical-symbolic ringlets, usually ambiguous, e.g. “Cowered in the corner / you put your eyes / into the sockets of the dark”. The second source of inspiration in his poetry is surrealism, his ability to visualise human anxiety and the multidimensionality of the unconscious and subconscious, but in Brenkus’ comprehension it has primarily an existential function. Nevertheless, there is no place for catharsis.
Recently I happened to find a book by the Kosice poet Radovan Brenkus on my desk. The book is entitled “Requiem in the Dust” (published by the Slovak Writers’ Society, Bratislava 2002). The author’s debut collection was “The March of the Dead” (1997), and the titles tell their own tale. There is a fanatical obsession with death, emptiness, decay and ruins in his poems. Brenkus suffers with the notion of the non-existence of his ownself, as if he has still to find his unique unrepeatable individuality (“I is everyone”), in other words his self-confidence. In this, he is horribly consistent, the exact opposite of Narcissus. He seems to move in a vicious circle (“the further from the end, the closer we are to it”), he doesn’t know what to do with his “naked being” (“it is possible to be, or not to be / what is better?”). There is not one poem here without nihilism, and there’s no escape either. This is probably the gloomest collection of poems ever to be published in this country.
In his poetry the author has interestingly managed to combine symbolic expressions by means of retrospective stratifying of their meanings. Brenkus has inseparably tied the human striving to live their happiness to the full down to temporality. He submits the individual’s struggle with his or her apparent lot to some kind of fatefulness, and the consequence of all this is a symbolic aimless acccursedness.
The author’s third poetry collection, particularly with its title and cover, evokes in the potential reader a feeling of intense emotions, a notion of deep intimacy, which we could find in his previous work. Here however a much more important role is played by the content of the verses and power of the statement which springs from them. What is more, Brenkus emphasizes the point of the statement by using free verse, and this is in his case a good choice. He is not restrained from making full use of his memory-traces and messages, and his individual attitude to the poetic content is traced back to his own experiences, time, people, meetings, and his own potential for feelings. He skilfully puts to good use a wide range of poetical devices, alternating the smooth flow of words with lyrical collages which he makes up from fragments of histhoughts, images and visions. These are at first sight sometimes absurd collocations and contradictions, but they give his book its dynamics, and ultimately evoke in the reader a feeling of pleasurable and natural chaos.
“Romance with a will-o’-the-wisp” is a tragic chant of love in free verse with a homogeneous composition, introduction and conclusion, in which the leading role is played by the lyrical protagonist and his fantasy pilgrimage with a will-o’-the-wisp. Brenkus has configured his work based on romantic ballads, demonic tales, heathen rituals and fantasy stories – so we read expressive confessions and musings in the elegiac style of the new gothic. Apparently, this is all about creating a virtual asylum for true love against the tough world of reality.
To create as nature does, to imitate nature in its courses (not in its results), that is what Brenkus sees a sense in. He rejects poetry as an imitation of reality, but instead he professes a creative relationship with it. He reminds us of Prometheus rising against the gods with some of his stylizations. The extent of spiritualization in his poetry doesn’t take the form of religious searching or finding, but of metaphysical attachment in everydayness. In fulfilling the sense of human and thereby also his own existence, the important things for him are often ecstatic, emotionally-charged experiences. With suggestive imagery like Stacho’s, he addresses the eternal topics of death, love, eternity, total extinction..., using them as a response to the “shadows” and emptiness of people’s present-day existence. Brenkus uses themin fact to point out the loss of their own existential certainty.
The “undercurrent” and at the same time a kind of keystone in most of Brenkus’ writing is the fear of the paradigm established by Cain’s bratricide and continuing with today’s civilization of death, of deliberate killing. The road to knowledge, to some kind of ideal, let’s say to paradise, to the harmonious fusion of souls, albeit without God, that road leads through hell, that (pre-)image of the world both phantom and lived: “First we have to look into the darkness, and only then will we find the way to the light.”
Brenkus is a mirror of our dreaming, of something subconscious, relative and cruel, like a diamond covered in slime and spit hardening in the last circle of hell, created by human imagination.
Brenkus the prose-writer and Brenkus the poet have not grown closer simply by dealing with the same thematic content. In composing his latest collection of poetry he has made use of epical sequencing linked with the passage of human life. In the “Hell Returns” texts, on the other hand, we find strong lyricism. The author’s remarkable sense of detail enables him to thoroughly recreate the local colour of different places in various periods. It might even be possible to speak here of dialogues with the literary past, because there is a sense here of a sort of Poe-like mysteriosity or Baroque naturalism regarding life after death taking on new contours. It’s just that this occasional directing of expressivity towards the aesthetic of the unpleasant may not appeal to every reader.
The lyrical aspect of these texts is richly supplemented with metaphors and symbolism. The metaphors do not appear in the stories in an isolated way. One of the most interesting layers in “Hell Returns” involves the linking of the static and dynamic elements of the stories so that they mutually complement each other semantically. Each complete story then becomes one metaphor created out of a number of images. Their connotational scope is very wide: it starts with symbols which have become literary constants, proceeds to update them semantically, and concludes by re-expressing them with some originality.
As a prose debut, “Hell Returns” quickly caught the attention of readers and literary critics alike, and it sparked some conflicting reactions. The author was seen as a provocative narrator who was not merely offering fictional accounts, but also raising issues which philosophers and theologians are still trying to come to terms with today. In his prose writing Brenkus does not only reflect on the (non)sense of dogmas and specific teachings, but re-forms them directly through the actions and thinking of his literary heroes. This prose collection is bound into an integrated framework by a series of motifs: eternity, the antinomy of death and the afterlife, the justification of suicide, or the significance of miracles and dreams. It might seem that the author is using his stories to attack the spiritual world, but this is not the case. These texts are not unbounded accusations against God and the clergy, but a form of searching for the sense of one’s personal mission in life with the awareness that there is light at the end of the tunnel... In any event, Radovan Brenkus has brought a new vision into contemporary Slovak prose, possibly even a new line in artistic expression. He is not a teller of pretty stories; he faces up to phenomena which afflict people’s existence. As he observes in the story “The Garden of Eden in Hell”: “The true artist becomes everything, and sets himself up as a mirror to the others.”
With great sense of purpose, and regardless of critical opinion, the poet Radovan Brenkus (1974) is building up from collection to collection a self-contained, quite compact world which only sporadically reveals links to the world that can be corroborated by the senses. That is not to say that his constructional elements or interchanging constants cannot be identified. In his latest, fourth collection “Smoke from the Realm of Shadows”, the author draws attention more than ever before to the “I”, particularly as opposed to the singular (more seldom the collective) “you”... Spatially he prefers the cemetery – its scenery together with the characteristic requisites serves as the background for reflection on the processes of decay and decomposition, with associations to doom and annihilation. This is no pose; it is rather the consequence of an effort to find out what is supposed to follow in the hereafter. Any consolation that might be provided by faith is relativized, or simply rejected, nor does the prospect of immortality compensate for the grief felt at the loss of someone close. The obstinacy with which Brenkus cultivates his notion of poetry is impressive; it remains to be seen, though, where this path is going to lead him.
Is Brenkus carefully talking about the fact that we are actually living the hell on Earth and we are looking forward to so celebrated and gorgeously presented paradise by everyday, increasingly greater, more obvious and more noticing approach to death? No, he is probably not, because it would only be another interpretation of a poem which is the interpretation of impossibility to carry a moment itself – experience during which we were with some close person. Or we were alone. It is a description of something so intimate and personal that we would barely like to share it. (And hardly anybody knows how full and at the same time how awfully empty can be the poet’s solitude.) From time to time, Brenkus shares the sparks of intimacy with us; he talks carefully but absolutely frankly about love, whatever it is. But it is always love. He also talks about friendship, searching, loosing and about memories from which we compose the approximation of memory. Brenkus is a poet of the careful perception of things, he observes the sap flowing out of a tree and he sees an apple in the reflection of the opal resin. Completely concrete and easily thinkable imagery is something what surprises a reader in these verses the most and it is also something what terrifies a man who hasn’t gone through the surrealistic dictionaries. It is the imagery within the meaning of hyperrealistic photography which can, after having read a few lines, emerge from behind the narrowed eyes and which will drive us into sobbing.
From time out of mind, death has been a fundamental stone of each culture; it has determined a general tendency of the life’s nature and meaning. Culture has been different from other cultures in what it has thought of death. Originality of death’s perception also meant the originality of culture’s pulsing. Brenkus writes as though he would like to find, by writing, a verbally seizable Einstein’s death formula, a rule of the rules, a universal equation of the watchful being like the opposite to searching for the theory of everything for which is striving the modern physics.
Way, by which Brenkus seizes a theme, is melancholic. He belongs to the most melancholic poets in Slovakia. Freud connected the melancholy with such a lost of which a man is not aware, in contrast to the sadness when we realize a lost, at least to a certain extent. For Brenkus, such unconscious lost is the life itself which will only yet be lost one day. Melancholic unimportance of deciding on behalf of a decision lost in advance is a balanced level of this state.