neither

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Cold Peace
György Petri
In the absence of peace, your plain man’s mind might think:
there will be war. There being no war,
your learnèd mind would believe:
this is now peace. But it is and will be neither.

“beyond three wild frontiers”

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Letter to My Wife
Miklós Radnóti
Down in the deep, dumb worlds are waiting, silent;
I shout; the silence in my ears is strident,
but no one can reply to it from far
Serbia, fallen into a swoon of war,
and you are far. My dream, your voice, entwine,
by day I find it in my heart again;
knowing this I keep still while, standing proudly,
rustling, cool to the touch, many great ferns surround me.

When may I see you? I hardly know any longer,
you, who were solid, were weighty as the psalter,
beautiful as a shadow and beautiful as light,
to whom I would find my way, whether deafmute or blind;
now hiding in the landscape, from within,
on my eyes, you flash–the mind projects its film.
You were reality, returned to dream
and, fallen back into the well of my teen years,

jealously question you: whether you love me,
whether, on my youth’s summit, you will yet be
my wife–I am now hoping once again,
and, back on life’s alert road, where I have fallen,
I know you are all this. My wife, my friend and peer–
only, far! Beyond three wild frontiers.
It is turning fall. Will fall forget me here?
The memory of our kisses is all the clearer;

I believed in miracles, forgot their days;
above me I see a bomber squadron cruise.
I was just admiring, up there, your eyes’ blue sheen,
when it clouded over, and up in that machine
the bombs were aching to dive. Despite them, I am alive,
a prisoner; and all that I had hoped for, I have
sized up, in breadth. I will find my way to you;
for you I have walked the spirit’s full length as it grew,

and highways of the land. If need be, I will render
myself, a conjurer, past cardinal embers,
amid nose-diving flames, but I will come back,
if I must be, I shall be as resilient as the bark
on trees. I am soothed by the peace of savage men
in constant danger: worth the whole wild regimen
of arms and power; and, as from a cooling wave of the sea,
sobriety’s 2×2 comes raining down on me.

Original

Levél a hitveshez (Hungarian)
A mélyben néma, hallgató világok,
üvölt a csönd fülemben s felkiáltok,
de nem felelhet senki rá a távol,
a háborúba ájult Szerbiából
s te messze vagy. Hangod befonja álmom,
s szivemben nappal ujra megtalálom,
hát hallgatok, míg zsong körém felállván
sok hűvös érintésü büszke páfrány.

Mikor láthatlak ujra, nem tudom már,
ki biztos voltál, súlyos, mint a zsoltár,
s szép mint a fény és oly szép mint az árnyék,
s kihez vakon, némán is eltalálnék,
most bujdokolsz a tájban és szememre
belülről lebbensz, így vetít az elme;
valóság voltál, álom lettél ujra,
kamaszkorom kútjába visszahullva

féltékenyen vallatlak, hogy szeretsz-e?
s hogy ifjuságom csúcsán, majdan, egyszer,
a hitvesem leszel, – remélem ujra
s az éber lét útjára visszahullva
tudom, hogy az vagy. Hitvesem s barátom, –
csak messze vagy! Túl három vad határon.
S már őszül is. Az ősz is ittfelejt még?
A csókjainkról élesebb az emlék;

csodákban hittem s napjuk elfeledtem,
bombázórajok húznak el felettem;
szemed kékjét csodáltam épp az égen,
de elborult s a bombák fönt a gépben
zuhanni vágytak. Ellenükre élek, –
s fogoly vagyok. Mindent, amit remélek
fölmértem s mégis eltalálok hozzád;
megjártam érted én a lélek hosszát,

s országok útjait; bíbor parázson,
ha kell, zuhanó lángok közt varázslom
majd át magam, de mégis visszatérek;
ha kell, szívós leszek, mint fán a kéreg,
s a folytonos veszélyben, bajban élő
vad férfiak fegyvert s hatalmat érő
nyugalma nyugtat s mint egy hűvös hullám:
a 2 x 2 józansága hull rám.

such a fool

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Love’s Fool
Margit Szécsi
It happened before my eyes:
grass sprouted miraculously,
and rancid oil on my tongue
didn’t taste bitter to me.
The world of all that is not
was setting light to my hair,
in my rags just like some saint
fiercely I preached at the air.

I know now he was laughing
at me for being a fool;
O how lovely my blindness,
believing was impossible.
And you came, mud-stained flower,
with such dreaming agonized;
when the sky came crashing down
it was myself I recognized.

intolerable

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Another example of a poem that could be translated so very differently.

The Shapelessness
Ágnes Nemes Nagy
The shapelessness, the endlessness.
I almost fall before I cut away
My statement from the timelessness.
With sand I wall a bucketful of sea
Against a waste of nothingness.
Perpetual indifference should be
Intolerable to consciousness.

Original

A formátlan, a véghetetlen.
Belepusztulok, míg mondatomat
a végtelenből elrekesztem._
Homokkal egy vödörnyi óceánt
kerítek el a semmi ellen.
Ez a viszonylagos öröklét
ép ésszel elviselhetetlen.

a comparison

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A Comparison
Ágnes Nemes Nagy
One who rows a storm at the inception,
quadriceps aching to the uttermost,
who strains to push away that rock, the footboard,
whose right hand loses, all of a sudden,
substance and effort as the oar bends backward
appropriated from a fractured handle,
whose liberated body then
convulses – can get my meaning.

Photo by David Cohen on Unsplash

Become what you are

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This poem has never been my favorite, but I like the imagery: “the island Iceland in a blind fog”. It reminds me so much of driving in the north of Iceland with my friend A, returning from the Verslunarmannahelgi weekend in Akureyri, driving back to Reykjavik in the middle of the night, creeping along, blind, through the thickest fog I’ve ever experienced.

I especially love how the poem closes on a geyser, a word we have co-opted into and mispronounce in English. One of the few words we take from Icelandic but didn’t bother to take its original pronunciation.

After All
Anna Hajnal
After all, what have I become?
The island Iceland in a blind fog.
Gliding in the far north.
I swim in mushy ice-water.
An ice-barrier surrounds me,
to protect me?
protect from what?
What boils in me darkly,
bubbling, swirling upward,
melting my thick cover:
the firmament may blanche
while being sliced upward to its lap
by a foaming, vapor-tressed head
ragingly crying: the geyser.

Grace

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The Rest is Grace
-János Pilinszky (Hungary)

Fear and dreams
were my father and mother –
the corridor was
my unfolding landscape.

This is how I lived. How will I die?
What will my destruction be like?

The earth betrays me. She hugs me close.

The rest is grace.

Cold Peace: Off to Budapest

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Heading off to Budapest for work.

I can only think of two things about Budapest now – my last trip there as long ago as 1999, wandering around and random old people asking me questions, which I naturally could not answer – nem beszélek magyarul. I don’t know Hungarian – clearly. Who does, other than Hungarians or people crazy enough to take on the daunting, crazy task of trying to learn this near-impossible language? I had a weird hankering to learn the language in my university years, but it was not offered anywhere near where I lived – it’s not one of those languages that everyone wants to learn, right?

Secondly, I think of Hungarian music and poetry. Of music, I think back to letters and tapes (yes, old cassette tapes!) exchanged with my former penfriend in Budapest, Szilvia. I fell in love with the music (Muzsikás and Marta Sebestyén). It put me into my own sort of world, wandering through Seattle and its suburbs listening to something that was so inaccessible and unknown to most of the people around me. I do distinctly recall, though, when I went to the cinema to see The English Patient, and from its very opening moments, the gorgeous song (Muzsikás’s rendering) “Szerelem, szerelem” played – I knew from the first moment I would love the film. Bias.

And poetry… I wish I could read it in the original, but as written above, only Hungarians and lunatics (not that they are comparable!) can deal with Hungarian.

After All – Anna Hajnal
After all, what have I become?
The island Iceland in a blind fog.
Gliding in the far north.
I swim in mushy ice-water.
An ice-barrier surrounds me,
To protect me?
Protect, from what?
What boils in me darkly,
bubbling, swirling upward,
melting my thick cover:
the firmament may blanche
while being sliced upward to its lap
by a foaming, vapor-tressed head
ragingly crying: the geyser.

Life Sentence – János Pilinszky
The bed shared.
The pillow not.

Cold Peace – György Petri
In the absence of peace, your plain man’s mind might think:
there will be war. There being no war,
your learnèd mind would believe:
this is now peace. But it is and will be neither.

On Hope – Sándor Petőfi
Man, what is hope? …a horrifying whore
Who doles to everyone the same embrace.
You waste on her your most precious possession:
Your youth, and then she leaves without a trace!

Logbook of a Lost Caravan – Gyula Illyés
Only the compass, keeping hope alive,
Stuttered on, uttering its paralyzed
Directions; with something somewhere beyond
To which to respond.

And for another long day
We struggled ahead through desert sand.

Then to the edge of stone cliffs
Covered with hieroglyphs.

Line after line, incoherent, they read –
Wrinkles on some mad forehead.

An ancient age
Struggled there in desperate tones –

With nothing more to say –
And only the wind moans.

Sand in our eyes. Between sweating fingers, and
Ground between teeth, sand.

We slaughtered the camel who knew the way…
Had our last meal today.

The Shapelessness – Ágnes Nemes Nagy
The shapelessness, the endlessness.
I almost fall before I cut away
My statement from the timelessness.
With sand I wall a bucketful of sea
Against a waste of nothingness.
Perpetual indifference should be
Intolerable to consciousness.

Agonia Christiania – János Pilinszky
The daybreak is still far away
With its rivers and blowing winds…
And I put on my shirt and suit
Buttoning up my death within.

The Dark Fates – Dezső Kosztolányi
The fatal sisters – death and cards and woman-
Stand sadly on life’s torturous road.
Inscrutable veiled destiny, what secret,
Meant for me, do your robes unfold?

Be you a witch, a fairy – never mind –
You’ll be my lover for a hundred nights.
I’ll find you in my Friday of misfortune,
To lay my worried forehead on your knee,

And pray to you for help, in exultation,
Pray for the word, the meaning, for the key.
My life is slow: enhance it, multiply it
With burning fevers, hotter still than hot!

So secret is this treasure-box – unlock it,
Make it let fall the hard, unyielding local!
Allow fast spinning then to every spindle,
Show, brilliantly transfigured, to my mind

Life – from the cradle to the coffin dwindle,
And, touching fate with fairy – gentle fingers,
Allow the thread of my slow life unwind.

Glassworks – Margit Mikes
The temperature is zero below
On the kitchen window the snow
Sticks in flower patterns;
Memory and fantasy together bring
The illusion of a white spring.
As I search for some matches,
A water glass shatters in the cold.
My breath catches.
What a painful shriek, a piercing sound:
A dangerous transformation of matter.
As I turn around
It clatters to the ground
And a cylinder of ice rolls out.
Before it was clear water, refreshing potion,
Now, in this temperature
It has become a miniature
Frozen ocean.

You transparent, dead glass
Our fate is the same.
Indifference engulfs us.
The tears that gushed
One my face freeze;
The pain numbs,
In the frozen vice of apathy
My heart is crushed.

The Rest is Grace – János Pilinszky
Fear and dreams
Were my father and mother –
The corridor was
My unfolding landscape.

This is how I lived. How will I die?
What will my destruction be like?

The earth betrays me. She hugs me close.
The rest is grace.