I would like to express my thanks to Zsuzsanna Ozsvάth and Frederick Turner for kindly agreeing to curate these translations of Hungarian poetry, all of which were orinally published in Light within the Shade: Eight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry, edited and translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, and published by Syracuse University Press in 2014. I would also like to thank Suzanne Guiod of Syracuse University Press for her support in allowing them to be republished here. The editor.
Those interested in widening their knowledge of Hungarian poetry can obtain a copy of the book here: http://syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/spring-2014/light-within-the-shade.html
THW 13 March 20, 2019
József Kiss: Poem
AGAINST THE TIDE
White cumulus above the night–
Does God keep watch, or is there none?
Don’t ask me–for I do not know,
But go to sleep, my little one!
That monster from grim centuries
Walks the earth’s wheel in unchecked ease,
The light of burning stakes, its eyes.
It could knock here before sunrise…
– But go to sleep, my little one!
From land to land it walks about,
A plague–disasters where it’s gone;
All mercy dies upon its trail,
And mind’s great rights are overrun.
Madness makes riot everywhere,
All are obsessed, the foul and fair,
And those it takes, it eats, insane,
Until their names alone remain…
– But go to sleep, my little one!
The ancient charge won’t go away;
Your father drinks warm blood, they’ll say,
And you too, when you’re fully grown,
Will drink blood as your father’s done!
White cumulus above the night–
Does God keep watch, or is there none?
Torment if none; or God’s at fault.
Either would crush me with its weight!
– But go to sleep, my little one!
The slander’s easy, that we fail
To love this country where we dwell;
Birds love their nests, the beasts their lairs,
But you and I, we never shall!
The burned mark of the galley-slave
The jailer brands upon his brow
Is not so shameful as this slur
That lurks in every corner now…
– But go to sleep, my little one!
If you defend–then you offend;
If you are silent—cowardice!
If you cry out–you’re sensitive;
Even a sigh draws prejudice!
The heart beats to a common law,
The blood pumps round, the brain conceives,
There’s no exception, only one,
That’s you, my child, my darling son!…
– So go to sleep, my little one!
Be dim, you lovely shining stars:
My little boy’s sweet closing eyes!–
Why twinkle in such nights as ours?
The day that starlight testifies
Against me too, you’ll realize
In burning tears and fruitless cries
What you inherit as my son,
My beautiful, my little one!
June 23, 1882
József Kiss (1843-1921) launched an important literary journal, A Het (The Week). He was one of the first poets published in Nyugat (West), Hungary’s most important literary journal of the time. ‘Against the Tide’ prophetically recognizes the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
Endre Ady: Two Poems
AM I NOT HUNGARIAN
Ancient Dawn-lands dreamed him such
As I am.
Heroic, cloudy, proud, inordinate,
Cruel, but one who’ll bleed to death
For no more than a thought.
Ancient Dawn-lands dreamed him such,
He the courageous, the new, the wild,
Noble, forever the great child,
The thirsty, sun-souled errant knight,
Hurt masterpiece of some poor luckless god,
Wounded and incomplete,
Hungarian, son of the Sun.
(And to the sleepy one, the dirty one,
The crippled one, the fancy one,
The one who’s half-alive, the foaming one,
The super-Magyar one, fog-eating one,
The Swabian turned Hungarian,
I am not a Hungarian?)
THE VOICELESS BIRDS
There they fly by every noonday,
In the sizzling lightbeams of the brilliant sun:
One by one.
Treasure-birds, magical griffins,
Vultures, staring at the Sun and cursed with spells.
Diamond on haughty diamond
Are their skulls.
Soundless in their august silence,
If they were to cry out, they would fall away,
Like the grey-predestined sparrows,
Turn to grey.
Still they fly by every noonday,
Glittering in their dark pride beneath the sun:
One by one.
Endre Ady (1877-1919) is recognized as one of Hungary’s greatest poets. He belonged to a group of modernist literati associated with Nyugat. His poem ‘Am I not a Hungarian?’ represents his answer to critics who attacked him for turning his back on the ‘traditional Hungarian poetry’ of Petöfi and Arany, and thereby on the country. Some of his earlier poetry is still in the lyric style of an earlier era. By the time he writes ‘The Voiceless Birds’ he is a thoroughgoing modernist—but though the poem sounds like free verse, it is still in metrical form.
Lajos Kassák: Poem
Scholars we are not, nor are we meditative golden-mouthed priests,
nor heroes who with war-music’s tintinnabulations go into battle
and who lie now faint and still, on the silent sea-floor, on the sun-dazzled mountaintops,
and the thunder-smitten battlefields over and over the whole world.
Under this firmament so blue the hours yet bathe in a damnation of blood. . .
But we though are distant far from all this. We sit in the dark basements of tenements:
mute, complete, like the indissoluble prima materia itself.
Yesterday we still wept, and tomorrow our works may be the marvel of the century.
Yes! Because out of our ugly stubby fingers fresh force is forking and sprouting,
and tomorrow will soon drink a pledge on the new walls.
Tomorrow with iron, asbestos, enormous baulks of granite, we will fling new life on the ruins
and away with the official State ornamentation! the moonlight! the stagy Orpheums!
Gigantic skyscrapers we shall build, and for a plaything a replica of the Eiffel Tower.
Basalt-booted bridges. Onto plazas of steel, steel that sings songs out of the new myths,
and onto dead railroad-carcasses we hurl fiery screaming locomotives,
coruscating in their completed orbits, like the eye-paining actinic meteors of the sky.
We mix never-before-seen colors and stretch out new cables under the sea
and we it is that cause the prim spinsters to be big with child, that the earth may nurse a new race:
that new poets may burst out rejoicing, the poets who sing before us the new face of the times:
poets of Rome, poets of Paris, poets of Moscow, poets of Berlin, poets of London, poets of Budapest.
Lajos Kassák (1887-1967) was raised in a working-class environment and began as an apprentice locksmith and labor organizer. Fiercely left wing, self-taught and penniless, he discovered Dadaism, walked to Paris, met some of the artists and intellectuals there, was expelled back to Hungary, and became a passionate member of Budapest’s avant garde. His memoirs were published in Nyugat. He is as well-known as a painter (in the constructivist style) as he is as a poet. Although he joined the Communist Party, he ended up at odds with it, and under the Soviet-backed regime after WW2 he was regularly censored and silenced.
Lörinc Szabó: Poem
DREAM OF THE ONE
You being you and he being he,
his interest, not yours, he serves,
truth just a set of formulae,
or some state of the nerves;
and since the outside world won’t please,
and since the masses grant no victories,
and I’d no say upon the world’s decrees,
it’s time for me
to liberate myself from all of you,
to loose the bonds, go free.
What am I waiting for so humbly here,
to glimpse what future times will do?
time’s running, and all life is dear,
all that’s alive is true.
Either I’m sick, or you are, only one;
and you tell me I shouldn’t watch that gun,
whether it’s love or hate that makes you run,
and I’m the prey?
if I’m the understanding one,
where does that leave me, pray?
No, no! No, I won’t be just a thread
in someone else’s tangled skein,
giving the guards respect and sympathy,
feeling my jailer’s pain!
He who could stand it long since got away,
yes, though he walks through daggers every day.
The world and I, the two of us, must stay
stuck in this cage;
as self-concerned as is the world itself, I stand
right at the center of my stage.
See, my soul, the lock is almost forced,
we’re getting out; intelligence
paints on itself the simulated bars
of its offence.
What is a thousand outside, is but one within!
Who’s ever seen that fish’s scale or fin
that no net, mesh untorn, could yet contain
nor filter out?
Is this forbidden? Some forbid it. Sin?
Oh certainly, if it gets out.
Within us are no borders or details,
it’s just us–mind and soul, not good, not bad,
Hide deeper in yourself! There it will be;
that wanton reckless dawning, huge and free,
the dream that flows so endlessly
as in the acid salt
of tears and blood we taste the memory
of our dark mother, who’s the sea.
Into the ocean, back forever!
Only then can we be free!
From the Many, from what’s outside, we’ll never
get what we need, to be.
Bargain with the masses if we must;
truth like ashes turns to dust;
our homeland is a One that will not trust
itself to be shared out;
dream then, if we can, of that true Oneness:
dream it beyond doubt.
Lörinc Szabó (1900-1957) came from a working-class family but his literary talents propelled him into the prestigious Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest and various editorships of literary journals. A winner of the Baumgarten Prize, he was a prodigious translator, rendering into Hungarian major works by numerous European writers. He fought in WW2, and became associated with the European Writers’ League, a right-wing literary group. After the war his original work was shunned, but the ruthless frankness of his poetry was finally recognized.
Dezsö Kosztolányi: Poem
I will tell you. If you won’t be bored by it.
Last night–at three–my work just wasn’t coming
and I quit.
I lay down. But the brain’s machine kept humming,
throbbed as if it couldn’t stop its drumming;
I tossed and turned, bitter, exasperated;
no dream awaited.
and though I summoned it with foolish words, with counting,
with caustic sedatives, it fled my hunting.
What glared at me in fever, I had written.
With forty cigarettes my heart was smitten.
With these, and other things. Coffee. Everything.
So I get up, quite reckless now, start pacing,
clad in my nightshirt, up and down, unresting.
Their mouths slack with the honey-glazing
of sleep, my family, nested, lies embracing,
and so I stagger here, drunk brain still racing,
stare through the window-casing.
Wait. How should I start, how can I make it clear?
You know what it’s like here:
you’ve seen the house; if only
you recall the bedroom, then you may
imagine well how at that time of day
this bleak Logodi Street lies poor and lonely.
Where you can see
into blank rooms through their windows’ vacancy.
People lie blind and tumbled around me;
struck flat by sleep, their closed eyes
roll round beneath the eyelids into each head,
into the dreamworld’s fog and glittery lies
because the daily brain-anemia has bled
them of consciousness.
Tidied away, their shoes, clothes, all they possess,
and they themselves, lie locked up in the room,
a box which, when they waken, they’ll trim and groom,
a dreamlike task in itself, but–truth to tell–
every room’s a cage, each chamber is a cell.
The clock ticks out of silence, turned by its springs,
limpingly hesitates, and suddenly rings;
the roaring alarm that says
to the drowsy sleeper: “Wake up to what is.”
The house too sleeps now, corpselike, senselessly,
as, in a century,
collapsed and overgrown with weeds it shall;
when nobody knows to tell
our own home from the stall of an animal.
But up there, my friend, up there is the lightening sky,
a clarity, a glittering majesty,
trembling, crystallizing into constancy.
A heavenly dome
the blue of my mother’s eiderdown back home
so long ago; the waterblot of monochrome
that smudged my paper-pad with an azure foam,
and the stars’ souls
breathe and glitter quietly in their shoals
into a Fall night’s
lukewarm mild, before the winter cold is here;
from unimaginably far away
they watched the files of Hannibal; today
look down at one who, having fallen from the rest,
am standing at a window in Budapest.
And then I don’t quite know what happened to me,
but a great wing seemed to swoop over me; the past,
all I had buried, bent down to me its breast:
There so long stood I
to watch the vaulted miracles of the sky
that in the east it reddened, and the wind
set all the stars to quivering; sparks, thinned
by the distance they’d appear and disappear;
a vast thoroughfare
of light flared up, a heavenly castle door
opened in that fire;
something fluttered then,
and a crowd of guests took places to begin
deep in twilight shades of dawn
the measures of the last pavane.
Outside the foyer swam in streams of light, and there
the lord of the dance bade farewell on the stair,
a great nobleman, the titan of the sky,
the glory of the dancing-floor; by and by
there is a movement, startled, jingling,
a soft womanly whispering
miraculous; the ball is over; pages
ready at the entrance call for carriages.
Under a lace veil
streamed a mantle, fairy-tale,
from the frail
deeps of twilight, diamond-pale,
blued with such a blue
as the morning dew,
which a lovely lady dons for her surtout,
and a gem, whose hue
dusts with its light the pure peace of the air,
the otherworldly raiment she would wear;
or an angel pins, with virgin grace,
a brilliant diadem into her hair,
and a fine light chaise
rocks to a soft halt and she glides in,
quieter than a dream,
and, its wheels agleam,
on it rolls again,
a flirting smile glimpsed on the face of the queen,
and then the stallions of the Milky Way,
with glittering horseshoes gallop through the spray
of carnival confetti, each flake a star
of bright gold, where hundreds of glass coaches are.
Standing in a trance,
with joy I cried and cried out, there’s a dance
in heaven, every night there is a dance;
for now a great old secret dawned on me,
that all the heavenly hosts of faerie
go home each morning on the glittery
and spacious boulevards of infinity.
I waited there
till dawn, and all I did was stare.
At last I spoke: and what then did you do
here on this earth, what worn-out stories told,
what harlotries have here imprisoned you,
what manuscript thus treasured or thus sold,
after so many summers past and winters cold,
nights idly frittered through,
that only now the dance is revealed to you?
Ah, fifty years–my heart chokes in its tears–
among them, gathering, my own dead dears–
and all those fifty years, blazed on above
the host of faerie neighbors bright with love,
who see me as I rub away my tears,
and I confess that crushed and in a daze
I bowed down to the earth with thanks and praise.
Yes, look, I know there’s nothing to believe,
and that this life is something I must leave,
but as my bursting heart stretched to a string,
into that blue I could not help but sing,
that azure Him, who dwells beyond all mind,
Him, whom in neither life nor death I find.
So, though today my body is distressed,
I feel that in the dust and mire, my friend,
stumbling among lost souls, in a fruitless quest,
of some unknown and mighty Lord, yet kind,
I was the guest.
Dezsö Kosztolányi (1885-1936) referred to himself as a ‘homo aestheticus’. He refused to take any political stance, seeing himself as a poet who belongs to no other world than the realm of beauty. Son of a professor, he attended the University of Budapest and became a novelist, translator, and journalist, succeeding Endre Ady as a reporter for a Budapest daily. He was another contributor to Nyugat, and his first book of poetry, Complaints of a Poor Child, was an immediate success; his later work was recognized by no less a figure than Thomas Mann.
Attila József: Three Poems
I am alone on these glittering crags.
A sinuous breeze
floats delicious, the infant summer’s
suppertime simmer and ease.
I school my heart into this silence.
Not so arduous B
All that is vanished is aswarm in me,
my head is bowed, and my hand is vacuous.
I see the mane of the mountain
each little leafvein
leaps with the light of your brow.
The path is quite deserted,
I see how your skirt is floated
in the wind’s sough.
Under the tender, the tenuous bought
I see you shake out your hair, how it clings,
your soft, trembling breast; behold
B just as the Szinva-stream glides beneath
the round white pebbles of your teeth,
and how the welling laughter springs
tumbling over them like fairy gold.
Oh how much I love you, who’ve given
speech to both the universes:
the heart’s caves, its trickweaving deepenings,
sly involute lonelinesses
and starry heaven.
As water glides from its own thunderous fall
you fly from me and we are cleft and parted,
whilst I, among the mountains of my life, still call,
still kneel, and sing, and raise the echo with my cry,
slamming against the earth and sky,
that I love you, step-nurse, mother-hearted!
I love you as a child his mother’s breast,
as the dumb caves their own bottomlessness,
as halls the light that shows them best,
as the soul loves flame, as the body rest!
I love you as we who marked for death
love the moments of their living breath.
Every smile, every word, every move you make,
as falling bodies to my earth, I press;
as into metal acids eat and ache,
I etch you in my brains with instincts’s stress,
your substance fills the essence they partake.
The moments march by, clattering and relentless,
but in my ears your silence lies.
Even the stars blaze up, fall, evanesce,
but you’re a stillness in my eyes.
The taste of you, hushed like a cavern-pool,
floats in my mouth, as cool;
your hand, upon a water-glass,
veined with its glowing lace,
Ah, what strange stuff is this of which I’m made,
that but your glance can sculpt me into shape?–
What kid of soul, what kind of light or shade,
what prodigy that I, who have long strayed
in my dim fog of nothingness unmade,
explore your fertile body’s curving scape?
B And as the logos flowers in my brain,
immerse myself in its occult terrain! . . .
Your capillaries, like a blood-red rose,
ceaselessly stir and dance.
There that eternal current seethes and flows
and flowers as love upon your countenance,
to bless with fruit your womb’s dark excellence.
A myriad rootlets broider round
and round your stomach’s tender ground,
whose subtle threadings, woven and unwound,
unknit the very knot whereby they’re bound,
that thus thy lymphy cellbrood might abound,
and the great, leaved boughs of thy lungs resound
their whispered glory round!
The eterna materia goes marching on
happily through your gut’s dark cavern-cells,
and to the dead waste rich life is given
within the ardent kindney’s boiling wells!
Billowing, your hills arise, arise,
constellations tremble in your skies,
lakes, factories work on by day and night,
a million creatures bustle with delight,
a heartless mercy, gentle cruelty,
your hot sun shines, your darkling north light broods,
in you there stir the unscanned moods
of a blind incalculable eternity.
So falls in clotted spatters
at your feet this blood,
this parched utterance.
law is the only spotless eloquence.
My toiling organs, wherein I am renewed
over and over daily, are subdued
to their final silence.
But yet each part cries out
O you who from the billioned multitude,
O you unique, you chosen, wooed
and singled out, you cradle, bed,
and grave, soft quickener of the dead,
receive me into you! . . .
(How high is the dawn-shadowy sky!)
Armies are glittering in its ore,
Radiance anguishing to the eye.
Now I am lost, I can no more.
Up in the world I hear it batter,
my heart’s old roar.)
(Now the train’s going down the track,
maybe today it’ll carry me back,
maybe my hot face will cool down today,
maybe you’ll talk to me, maybe you’ll say:
Warm water’s running, there’s a bath by and by!
Here is a towel, now get yourself dry!
The meat’s on the oven, and you will be fed!
There where I lie, there is your bed.)
FOR MY BIRTHDAY
Upon my thirty-second year,
what a surprise, this poem here,
a little gift with which I say,
lurking alone in this café:
Thirty-two years just blew away,
I never made ten doits a day:
A pedagogue I might have been,
not this pen- busting, might-have-been,
But no; Herr College Chancellor
showed me the outside of the door:
It was a short sharp shock for sure,
my “father” poem go its cure;
that saved the fatherland from me,
evoked my spirit and set free
>As long as I have any say
you’ll not teach here a single day’–
If Mr. Antal Horger’s pleased
our poet’s grammar study’s ceased–
no high school, but a nation I,
although he like not, by and by
April 11, 1937
NO FLOWERS, BUT A SPIKE …
No flowers, but a spike, you proffered,
scorn to the other world you offered,
gold you promised her who suffered,
her, your mother; now you squat,
mad toadstool in the roots, and glower
(appear thus to your anxious knower),
locked up inside the Seven Tower,
where hope is void, escape is not.
With milk teeth, why did you bite granite?
Your daydream errand, why begin it?
Why, too late, try to save a minute?
What did you want then, after all?
Your nakedness you always flaunted,
tore off the scabs from wounds you vaunted,
you’re famous, if that’s what you wanted.
And have you done your time? You fool.
Did you give love? Who would embrace you?
Fugitive! who would even chase you?
Just make the best of what will face you:
no breadknife, and of course no bread.
You’re in the Seven Tower for good.
Be glad if you have firewood,
glad for a pillow to your bed,
be a good boy, lay down your head.
Attila József (1905-1937)is recognized as one of Hungary’s greatest modern poets and the one with the widest international reputation. The son of a washerwoman and a Rumanian drifter, he added new speech patterns, new rhythmic combinations, and new sounds to the known forms of Hungarian poetry. He was recognized by a wealthy patron, Lajos Hatvany, who supported his university studies in Austria and Paris. Although József was attracted to the Communist Party, he disagreed with its methods and emerging goals and was rejected by it. Unnoticed by the public and by most popular writers and poets of his time, he committed suicide on a railroad track at the age of 32.
Miklós Radnóti: Four Poems
You are trunk and root,
plenteous leaves and fruit,
and the cooling breeze,
the warm sun, ripening,
root that binds and heals,
blood that runs and trills,
slim and branchy bole,
O you wind-befriending
leafdress of my limbs,
run into my arms,
blossom of my breast,
heart’s coverlet and cling,
you’re the waking sun
in the shining dawn,
fruit of all my leaves,
with me awakening,
as with me in deep
sweet peace of evening,
silent pulse repeating,
winged and feathered breath,
with spirit fluttering,
light within the shade,
brighter than a blade,
dark jewel in the light,
O smoky cloudying,
evelight as it glows
on your eyelid’s close,
rock me in your arms,
your body opening,
O blessing in life’s war,
smile hidden at the core,
who shall among my bones,
on the cold earth’s stones,
hide you forevermore.
March 8, 1935
The moon sways in a foamy sky.
How strange that I’m alive. A bland,
efficient death searches this age,
and they turn white on whom it lays its hand.
Sometimes the year looks round and shrieks,
looks round and faints away.
What kind of autumn lies in wait,
what winter dulled with agony to grey?
The forest bled, and every hour
in that revolving time bled too.
The wind was scrawling numbers, huge,
and darkening in the unsettled snow.
I have seen certain things, such things
that now the air feels dense as earth.
A rustling tepid silence holds
me fast, as in that time before my birth.
I come to a standstill by this trunk.
It stirs its thick leaves angrily,
reaches a branch down—for my neck?
Now I am neither weak nor cowardly,
just tired. Unmoving. And the branch
searches my hair, terrified, mute;
such things one must forget, but I
have never yet been able to forget.
Foam gushes forth upon the moon.
A dark green venom streaks the sky.
I roll myself a cigarette,
am slowly, carefully, a living I.
June 8, 1940
À LA RECHERCHE …*
Gentle old evenings, you ennoble yourselves into memory
with the glittering table, with poets and young wives garlanded,
but whither are all of you gliding, mired in the past?
Whither that night when the quickened companions would pledge
their friend the Grey Friar* from the slender goldeneyed glasses?
Verses swam in the lamplight; glimmering green
adjectives danced on the froth and comb of the meter, and
the dead were alive the prisoners home, the missing
belovedest friends so long ago fallen were writing;
on their hearts lies the soil of Hispania, Flanders, Ukraine.
Some of them gritting their teeth would plunge in the fire
and went into war compelled, they could do no other;
while the squad around them slept uneasily, under
the cover of dirty nights they remembered their rooms
that had been for them island and cave in this age of the world;
some, in a certain place, travelled in sealed boxcars,
unarmed they stood paralyzed, silent, out in the minefields;
and some, in another, went willingly, armed, as silent,
knowing this struggle here below was their own,
and nightly the angel of freedom guards their great dream.
And some, . . .but what matter. Whither the wise wine-drinking?
The draft-cards were flying, fragments of poems multiplied;
so also the creases around the beautiful smiles
and under the eyes of the girls; heavy their fairy–
light footsteps became in the silent years of the war.
Where is that night, that inn, that table under the lindens,
and where are the living, where the trampled in battle?
My heart hears their voices, my hand preserves their hands’ pressure,
I summon their lines; their proportions loosen, I seek
their measure (dumb prisoner), here on the sad heights of Serbia.
Where is that night? That night will never return,
for what happened takes on from death another perspective:
there they are, sitting at table, hidden in girlsmiles,
and they’ll drink yet from this glass who sleep unburied
in forests deep and remote, and in foreign fields.
Lager Heidenau: in the mountains above Zagubica.
August 17, 1944
*This is one of the ten poems inscribed in Radnóti’s address book that was found in the pocket of his raincoat, when his mass grave was exhumed in 1946.
Rolling from Bulgaria the brutal cannonade
slams at the ranges, to hesitate and fade;
men and beasts and carts and thoughts are jammed into one,
neighing the road rears up, the maned sky will run.
And you’re the only constant in the changing and the mess:
you shine on eternal beneath my consciousness;
mute as an angel wondering at the catastrophe,
or the beetle of burial from his hole in a dead tree.
In the mountains. August 30, 1944
At nine kilometers: the pall of burning
hayrick, homestead, farm.
At the field’s edge: the peasants, silent, smoking
pipes against the fear of harm.
Here: a lake ruffled only by the step
of a tiny shepherdess,
where a white cloud is what the ruffled sheep
drink in their lowliness.
Cservenka. October 6th, 1944
The oxen drool saliva mixed with blood.
Each one of us is urinating blood.
The squad stands about in knots, stinking, mad.
Death, hideous, is blowing overhead.
Mohács. October 24, 1944
I fell beside him and his corpse turned over,
tight already as a snapping string.
Shot in the neck. “And that’s how you’ll end too,”
I whispered to myself; “Lie still; no moving.
Now patience flowers in death,” Then I could hear
“Der springt noch auf,” above, and very near.
Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.
Szentkirályszabadja. October 31, 1944
*These are four of the ten poems inscribed in Radnóti’s address book that was found in the pocket of his raincoat, when his mass grave was exhumed in 1946.
When Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) was twelve, his father died and only then was he told that his birth mother and twin brother died in childbirth, and when he was born. His dark beginning and his presentiment of his dark end haunted him, but his ebullient spirit and delight in natural and artistic beauty never ceased to sustain him. He started to publish poetry in the late 1920s, and attended the University of Szeged. But by then, as antisemitism mounted, he had little chance to become known in his country. During the late thirties and the early forties, his poetry circulated in samizdat copies, gaining him the reputation of a passionate love poet. After the collapse of the Axis eastern front, he was marched by troops of the Hungarian army towards Austria and the deathcamps of the Reich, with several thousands of other Jews. His body was found in a mass grave one and a half years later. His last poems were found in his pocket.
Gyula Illyes: Poem
A SENTENCE ON TYRANNT
Where there is tyranny
there there is tyranny,
not just in the rifle-barrel
nor in the jail,
nor in the chamber of inquiry,
nor in the night of the bawling turnkey,
not there only
is there tyranny,
not just in the smoky
morse tapped on cell-wall,
not just in the judge’s Guilty!
is there tyranny
nor in the soldierly
snap to “attention,” “ready”,
drumroll, “fire!”, and they
drag the heavy
corpse to the pit,
nor in the secretly
nor in the fearfully
lips sealed with forefinger,
there, is there tyranny,
nor in the hard-barred
grille of the features, set already
in the rictus of agony,
the wordless writhe of its scream,
the silence growing
with the mute tears flowing
from bulging eyes,
not there only
is there tyranny,
nor just in the heel-clicking,
the thunderous saluting,
where there is tyranny,
there there is tyranny,
not just in exhausted
palms limp with applause,
in the opera’s horn-calls,
the stridently lying
stone of the statues resounding, the same
in the pigments, the gallery’s halls,
in every picture-frame,
even the brush, the same;
not only in the midnight purr
of the gliding car,
in its halt
by the door;
where there is tyranny,
it’s there in its presence
everywhere you go,
as was not even God long ago;
in the kindergarten
in the advice of fathers
the smile of mothers
in how the child
answers to strangers,
not just in the barbed wire,
no less in the lines of print
than in the barbed wire,
the stupefying phrase;
there it is
in the farewell kiss
as your spouse says:
what time will you get home, love;
in the “how are yous”
too often repeated
in the street,
the handshake suddenly gone limp,
as in an instant
your lover’s face freezes,
for there it is
in the trysting-place,
not just in the interrogation,
it’s there in the confession,
in the sweet word-intoxication
like a fly in the wine,
for not even in dream
can you be alone,
it’s there in the wedding-bed,
and before that, in the attraction,
for you can only find lovely
what already belongs to it;
that’s what you were lying with
when you thought you were in love;
in the glass, in the plate,
in the mouth, in the nose,
in the cold, in the shade,
indoors and out,
if the window’s open,
it’s the stench of a corpse,
if you’re in the house,
somewhere there’s leaking gas,
in the conversation
tyranny’s asking the questions,
even in your imagination
you’ve no independence;
above, the Milky Way has changed:
a borderland, where searchlights sweep,
a minefield; a star
a spying window,
the crowded tent of heaven
one big labor camp;
for tyranny resounds
from fever, from bells ringing,
from the priest in confession,
from the sermon,
the church, the parliament, the rack:
they’re all just theater;
close and open your eyelids:
it’s still looking at you;
like a disease
or a memory, you can’t shake it off;
you hear the train-wheels on the rail:
they rattle at you, you’re in jail, in jail;
on the mountain, by the sea
you breathe it in unceasingly;
let lightning flash, it’s there
in every unexpected noise it’s there,
in light’s sudden stare,
in the heart’s shocked startle it’s there;
in peace it’s there,
in this handcuffed boredom,
the endless rush of rain,
the bars reaching up to the skies,
in the cell wall,
its white imprisoning snowfall;
it looks out at you
in your dog’s eyes,
and because it is in every intention
it’s in your tomorrows,
in your every reflection,
your every motion,
as water its bed,
you fit and create it;
so do you try to spy out from the encirclement?–
it looks at you from the mirror,
it spies you there, you run in vain,
you’re the jailed one and the jailor;
in the taste of your tobacco,
in your clothes’ texture,
in your marrow,
you think, but only its thought
comes to mind,
you think, but see only
what it conjures up for you,
and it has flamed up already in a circle,
a forest fire from a match,
for when you threw it down,
you didn’t step on it;
and now it’s watching out for you
in the factory, the field, at home,
and you don’t feel what it means to live any more,
what bread and meat can mean,
what it means to love, to desire,
to open your arms,
handcuffs the servant
both creates and wears;
eat it, it grows,
your child you beget for it,
where there is tyranny,
everyone’s a link in the chain,
from you it stinks and flows,
for you yourself are tyranny;
like a mole in sunlight
we walk in blind night,
and fidget in a room
as if in the simoom;
for where there is tyranny,
all is in vain,
even your poetry,
how true to you soever,
for there it stands
beside your grave,
it tells who you were;
even your dust obeys.
Gyula Illyės (1912-1983) was the son of a wealthy gentleman and a domestic servant. A left-wing activist during his schooldays in Budapest, he could not complete his studies at the University of Budapest because and was forced to go intoto escape into exile in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, where he met the leading surrealists. Returning in 1926, his expressionist and surrealist approach made his reputation. However, he fared little better under the communist regime that followed the war. The poem in this collection was written in 1950, during the most brutal years of the country’s Russian occupation. It became one of the most important revolutionary poems during the year of 1956, the time of the Hungarian Revolution, and gained him an international reputation.
Istvan Vas: Poem
THE TRANSLATOR’S THANKS
I give you thanks, benign and gentle giants,
That silenced I could speak, nor lacked for air,
That my banned voice through yours voiced its defiance,
Schiller and Goethe, Shakespeare, Molie`re!
I’d not be one to echo, then, full-throated,
The floodtide choiring of the fulsome lie;
Instead, furtive, in foreign lines I quoted
Piecemeal the secrets I existed by.
When I translated Nero’s despotism
Before me functioned that of my own time;
In Tacitus’s solid aphorism
I was set free to tell of it in mime.
My blinded stress, that anxious elevation
That comes from pained disgust, was rendered real
In Villon’s lonely falcon-scream, whose passion
Announced that I had never made a deal.
Faithful to all in the old text explicit,
The new experience could find a way:
Just what I saw—that could alone elicit
What William Tell’s poor peasants had to say.
Once I had loosed the anger that arises,
I went, as they had done, off the deep end:
I saw the hat that in a hundred guises
The Emperor’s margrave stacked wherever I turned.
How many new things did my thought and feeling
Lock into the old masterworks’ alloy?
How much did I stamp into their annealing,
Tartuffe mixed with the Party’s solemn lie?
But while my rhyme, with Molie`re’s whip a-snapping,
Upon the unsuspecting stage lashed out,
I watched lest sneaking zeal, always eavesdropping,
Had cast the holy hook into my throat.
Because I couldn’t change nor see commuted
My nature’s secret bent, that which in me
Is individual and persecuted
Fled along ways unguarded, dark, and free:
My trembling lawlessness, late-come and wary,
Fled to the sunshine of a long-past scene,
Where heroines and heroes might unbury
Their authors, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Racine.
Invisible the wall I looked through always
To westward, westward—was it all in vain?
But Thackeray would set me in his post-chaise
And bear me to the West, to his domain.
My wishes, sunlit, fell to the seduction
Of Henry Esmond’s sentences and sense,
And on the road of glory and of action,
I rode that punishable elegance.
He lies, who lives; unless they have elected
That you’re an embalmed mummy, dead and safe;
But in Hungarian you are resurrected
By my will’s force and galvanizing life.
I owe you thanks for this your sanctuary,
Where true to you, as true to me I stay;
Into the future’s oceans now you carry
The waves my heart sends from its secret bay.
Thanks, that through you I could affect the nation
By those lost times I won back through your power,
And to these days, steaming with their contagion,
Could bring the ocean wind and the free air;
Thanks, that from prison I can still keep peering,
And can entrust my message to your hand,
You gentle giants, generous and cheering,
And to world literature, our common land.
Like Radnóti, Istvan Vas (1910-1991) was a Jewish slave laborer in the war years, but unlike him he survived, hidden during 1944-5 by Géza Ottlik, who is memorialized at Yad Veshem. Like many of the poets who survived the war he was censored and outlawed by the communist government, and made a living by his translations.
Ágnes Gergely: Poem
YOU ARE A SIGN ON MY DOORPOST
For my dead father
I haven’t any memories,
and if I do I don’t hold onto them.
I don’t prowl sniffing in the cemeteries,
I’m not moved by organic chemistry.
But sometimes, when November comes,
and it gets foggy, and behind the clammy pane
I find myself gasping for lack of air,
– the place your body lies unknown —
tracking some kind of vegetative memory
one of your gestures oozes, oozes up.
I feel how in your long and nervous fingers
a thermos turns, a bad can-opener,
a pocket-knife, a back pack with an open mouth,
one pair of undershorts, a prayer-book,
and taking on the weightless weight your back
creakingly finds it still can carry it.
I feel you’re setting out, the well-dressed wayfarer:
you never take the trip, only set out on it.
You laugh, you look back, you are only thirty-eight;
I’ll be back soon, you nod, and point —
next day would have been your birthday —
and whimpering inwardly, like a picture by Mednyánsky,
you wave—and how you wave!
Your sign’s still on my doorpost: you cling on yet;
Ferdinand Bridge, the palm-sized grating,
the slushy road, the inanition, crazed grass-eating,
all of them only lucubration,
for I lied. I keep on seeing you;
under that strangling November sky
I’m with you as you start, you’re breathing and it’s you,
your tears that choke my throat, I leave them as they are,
and up above, there where it flew,
that slender cigarette knocked out of your mouth
burns eighteen years now on a star.
Ágnes Gergely (1933-) has published thirteen volumes of poetry, three memoirs, several novels, and many essays. Her father was murdered by the Hungarian National Socialists and she has lived under the pressure of this tragedy throughout her life. She has won the Attila József prize and the Kossuth Prize, and took part in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. She is a prolific translator of British and American writing.
Otto Orbán: Poem
WHAT IS SCHUBERT’S SONG
One flower on the tomb of István Vas
In Schubert’s song, in Schubert’s melody,
Death, my dear friend, also must surely be.
Its sweetness, then, is sweetness inaccessible,
a deep bitterness, deeply untamable,
the Sultan’s drop of poison in the crystal by your side,
the shadow standing always at the left hand of the bride
that darkens all the sweet life, all the sweet bygones,
from which the dark Last Judgment still intones
not with its lightning words but the piano’s plangency,
the clanging minor chords’ wild harmony,
with Schubert’s song, with Schubert’s melody.
In Schubert’s song, in Schubert’s resonance,
in every sound death has its residence,
yet to the ear death here has no maleficence:
you’re flirting, smiling, twirling at a dance.
Death when it comes in cartfuls is too much of death.
An overdose of Schubert’s drug will save your breath.
And shot into a death-world you may roam
by the swift brook where trout swim, the meads in bloom,
and you see deep in a dark wood where there burns a fire
and the Death Maiden’s there for your desire
and flame in the lap of music in an eternal trance,
and you shall resurrect, as he on the Third Day once,
In Schubert’s song, in Schubert’s resonance.
Like Ágnes Gergely, Ottó Orbán (1936–2002)lived with the constant awareness of his father’s murder by the Hungarian National Socialists. He was influenced by modern American lyrics, but he also used the poetic experience of Hungarian poetry and the discoveries of the avant-garde.
Krisztina Tóth: Poem
The tearful woman in a negligee
comes out to you, barefoot, stands there alone;
It makes no sense to stay awake this way,
go back to sleep, you say, from today on
it will be different; the crickets cry;
you’re on the bench, she has been sleeping with you
twenty years, she whispers, this July;
the summer is too hot, there’s a moon-shadow,
and I sleep in my dreams’ chaotic voices
and listen, blanketless, to hear whatever
final word the tearful woman chooses
while pulling the mosquito-net together.
A guelder-rose, a guelder-rose! you say
—and you reach down, to turn it to the air,
but now in fragile flakes it breaks away:
the grass is full of fatal petals there.
Everything’s linked with secret vein and tendril,
the morning-glory runs, cranes to look out,
listens into silence with its blue funnel,
how many more years, then, have you still got?
The handsome bulrush leans against the fence,
a lanky fellow with a cigarette;
it’s growing cold, the stars burn on, intense,
the dew-touched grass is starting to get wet;
the bear-paw, though, as if somehow aware,
has thrown off all its leathern leaves; in heaven
the Great Bear isn’t going anywhere;
sleep now, for every promise is forgiven—
. . . it’s hard to catch the moment of the morning,
the lightening, but still the moonlight falls:
your body throws two shadows in that dawning,
and each one reaches after different calls.
How still it’s got, the crickets now are dumb:
the scent of the gardenias floats out wide.
The hour when one lies awake has come,
and gone, you’ll need to get up, go inside;
you’ll stop there at the terrace, pinching out
the dried seed-heads, and look the garden over:
the grass looks threadbare, and you are in doubt
where to begin, you see that you could never
tear out the moss, the garden path is full
of it; the sunny parts are overrun
with starwort, by midsummer it will all
be naked, burned, and shriveled by the sun.
Don’t bother, just lie back, you tell him; he,
mightily yawning, says you’re blithering,
this patch is flourishing, why, don’t you see
that the star-meadow covers everything?!
Krisztina Tóth (1967–), winner of the Attila József Prize and the Laureate Prize, is one of Hungary’s most highly esteemed contemporary poets. Her poetry shows the formal tradition of the past. It is rich with surreal elements and sensory imagery, with a strong narrative element.
Zsuzsanna Ozsvάth is Professor of the Holocaust Studies Program as well as of the Literary Studies and History of Ideas Programs at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has published a number of books in addition to many articles, dealing with the aesthetic and ethical aspects of Holocaust Literature. Her new book, My Journey Home will be published in 2019 by Academic Studies Press, and she has translated and published (with Frederick Turner) the poetry of such Hungarian authors as Miklós Radnóti, Attila József, and many others. A volume of their new translations of 100 poems by J. W. von Goethe will be published this year.
Frederick Turner was born in Northamptonshire, England, in 1943 and raised in Africa by his anthropologist parents Victor and Edie Turner. His science fiction epic poems led to his being a consultant for NASA’s long-range futures group. He has received Hungary’s highest literary honor for his translations of Hungarian poetry with the distinguished scholar and Holocaust survivor Zsuzsanna Ozsváth,. He has also won Poetry’s Levinson Prize, and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. He is the author of some 40 books and is presently Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.