Uprising by Michele Battiste
Black Lawrence Press, 2014; 115 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
In Uprising, her second full-length collection, Michele Battiste gives voice to her grandparents Jóska and Jutka Nagy, and her mother-as-young-child, Erika, as they endure the Soviet occupation of Hungary from the latter part of World War II until they escape in 1956.
She writes through her family’s past because we need persons to help us understand a people, individuals so that we might grasp how dehumanizing this occupation was for the whole country. We need to be reminded to celebrate and to make love even in the worst of circumstances, which Jutka and Jóska do in “Erika, November 29, 1944: The Russians are marching.” The new life they conceive becomes their hope, their “pre-emptive strike” against the oppressive force, which can seem like too much to bear if there is nothing or no one to live for. Luckily, Jóska has his reasons to keep going:
From here I see the Palace rubble, the Danube
flowing south like a coward and I envy it. Every bridge is ruined.
Jutka, my calendar has stopped. I wait for food, more news of you.
I hear a Captain took our building, now a Bolshevik headquarters.
You do their laundry, cook their dinner in the cellar. You are safe
and not starving. Jutka, I remember the cellar. Jutka, I hear you
are starting to show.
The book’s first section shifts perspectives, allowing each of the three characters to document their suffering but also their love. Jóska and other Hungarian men must build ships for the Russians who are “bleeding [them] like / livestock before the butchering.” Hate rises in him so deeply that when he comes home, “his face is twisted / like a Russian tongue” and “he shouts at everyone.” It’s a loathing that’s almost impossible to be rid of, if it were not for Erika:
I cheer Daddy up with Zsuzsi. We sing songs
we made up about a fox in the garden. Erzsi
dances through the room, pokes Daddy
in the arms and belly when she passes.
Then he smiles.
Moments like this could be overly sentimental, but Battiste handles them carefully, balancing them with the pain of the men and women in section two, titled “Budapest Voices, 1951,” and the return to her grandparents’ daily struggle in section three. These are heavy but necessary poems that reward us as we progress into section four, “Uprising,” and desire their escape as much as they do.
Most important, these poems call us to remember the Nagys’ past, which could very well be our own families’ stories, given how much of our American identity is owed to immigrants. Battiste shows us how terrible it would be to not learn from the history that almost doomed us, and in the book’s closing lines, she reminds us of the potential tragedy of forgetting where we came from, the places which have shaped us:
We walk and the village
becomes alive, smoke rising from
chimneys, the outline of roofs. Behind
us, Hungary shrivels, its landscapes
blurring, faces already beginning
to fade. (“November 26, 1956: Behind us”)