Thursday, 4 June 2009
On 4 June 1989 we were in Budapest. We had been there since early January and were to be there for months yet. The walls of the world we knew were falling in slow motion and by 4 June it was clear that nothing would be the same again. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie had been declared in February (Valentine's Day) and I remember our Hungarian friends asking us what it meant and what we thought. Sometime during that year I was asked for a hundred words or so by the TLS in response to it and I duly wrote them. I can't remember what I said. It seemed crazy and nonsensical but a very long way away.
Then came Tienanmen, the days of build-up, the awaited arrival in China of Gorbachev, the light-bringer, in the expectation of whose visit the students filled Tienanmen and built the foam and papier-mâché Goddess of Democracy.
In the meantime Hungary itself was building up to the state reburial of Imre Nagy and the great mass ceremony in Hösök tere, or Heroes Square. The headiness of that moment was amplified by the extraordinary, apparently impossible events in China.
And then it broke and the breaking ran through us like a flood of icy water. We watched on Hungarian TV, in black and white. Everyone knows this piece of film by now but no apologies for putting it up again. To see this for the first time was to see the reverse side of the world. Nothing could have been more moving, more uplifting, more tragic.
It broke and there was blood everywhere. Our eyes and fingers were sticky with it. Twelve days to go to our own version of Tienanmen. Suddenly everything that had seemed, unbelievably, to be decided one way, now swung back into uncertainty, anxiety, fear.. All it would take was a few tanks and a volley of bullets.
I was writing the title poems of Bridge Passages (some nice reviews on the Amazon link that I never got to see at the time) in 1989, a kind of poem-diary of the turbulence of that year. This poem, Chinese White, was the Tienanmen entry:
Do you remember that scene in Ashes and Diamonds where
the hero rushes forwards through the clotheslines and bleeds
to death among the sheets? Or was it
in Canal (I can't remember now). A square
of white turns slowly red. The redness fades
to black and white. The picture is a composite,
a form of poster. The War, the Resistance,
something about betrayal, all mixed up
in a child's mind who didn't see
the war, for whom it is a haunting presence
of sheets and blood. An image hangs and drops
in a grey passageway or alley.
His name was Zbigniew, and he wore dark glasses,
and later he jumped from a train (a true life fact)
because, well, Poles are like that,
they get drunk, morose, etcetera. The girl who kisses
the boy was blonde as always. Was it an act
of bravery him getting shot
or cowardice? We could look it up in books
but that is not the point (we pull our serious face)
but something in the falling, the how
and where of it. And so wherever one looks
the same old images return and find their place,
a square, an alleyway, a row
of ordinary houses suddenly still and hot
and people falling lying as if on a square
of film. You see the victim's head
as someone aims and shoots him, and you cut
to tanks or bodies or a sheet hung out to air,
a white square slowly turning red.
Zbigniew Cybulski was the man.
And he did commit suicide by leaping from a train.
The films were by Andrzej Wajda and I watched them in my childhood on our first or second TV. It was in fact Ashes and Diamonds and here is the very scene (first three minutes). He doesn't die quite there. But it is wonderful.
And then there are the tanks, and the single man in China. And on the 16 June I went along to our own great square of white with 200,000 other people and stood there in the bright sunshine.