Saturday, 9 January 2010

Two Hungarian poems about loss

The first, by László Lator, I translated recently and is currently in The Hungarian Quarterly with a few others by him.


This unexpected flash of light,
this shower of glass, shadow of fire,
the forest says: all that is broken
will be mended. Things feebly surrendered
that offered themselves up and melded
into earth will suddenly be woken,
emerging and erupting everywhere,
all spinning, all burning, all bright.

Untenanted matter that has lost all form
shall rise from blindness and decay,
and in one momentary display
of enthusiasm imagine itself reborn
with a new body. Nothing is lost,
repeats the forest, time and again:
all will be reassembled from mere dust,
each flavour recalled, each subtlety made plain.
Or maybe the forest simply tells us what

we need to hear to quench the spirit’s thirst?
How else could it struggle with the worst
life offers us and still emerge intact?

No, says the forest, there’s no resurrection
and wild rejoicing: everything within
the body or beyond it faces the same corruption,
our flesh, our very cells are paper thin.
What has been, will be, and yet not the same:
if things come back at all they might pass through
some other medium—that’s the only claim
the body could make, nor is that body you.

The forest says—but forests cannot speak.
They tell us nothing, one way or the other.
They only encourage the foolish and the weak
to indulge in the usual round of mystic blather.
This forest says… it might address us so—
it could say this or that for all I know.

It draws us in: rejects us and expels us.
Both Stay! and Go! it says—that’s all it tells us.

This is what it says in the biog. note. László Lator has been an editor and translator for most of his life. His first book of verse was banned following the Communist takeover so a first volume only appeared in 1969. Since then he has published several volumes of verse and verse translations as well as essays on classical and contemporary poetry. Lator’s translation and creative writing seminar was perhaps the most influential workshop in the eighties and nineties. He is now working on his memoirs. My own note: Lator was born in 1927 and shares my birthday. He is probably the leading older poet in the country and much loved. It is the death of his wife, the poet and translator Judith Pór - with whom I played a game of table tennis in 1989 - that he is writing about, and has often written about in recent years.

And this poem by Szabolcs Várady (1943-), an outstanding but not very productive leading poet, I translated in 2003, for the Rotterdam International Poetry Festival that year. I had forgotten I'd done it but came across it while shuffling through things. I immediately changed a line since it appeared, then two, then three. That's how it goes.

With the Dead

I take good care in my dealings with the dead.
I’m not sure whether they know that they are lost.
You come through the door; it greets me as you pass –
but that is not quite how one greets a ghost.
And yet it’s not just me who feels embarrassed.
Let’s pretend. Let’s play the sickly host
lying in bed, the visitor at his side,
let’s try to help each other as they must,
incredulous, but credibly nonplussed.

How much time do you have? How much do I?
Your mouth is as sincere as it ever was,
that kiss of greeting isn’t merely mime.
I must have been desiring you some time.
We stood in the snow, lost, the pair of us.
No sun appears. Cold runs through the veins.
I love you. That’s what you said once: I love you.
The snow has melted, the earth is piled above you -
that remains.

The ending still bothers me a little. Várady's poetry - usually strictly formal but not always so - is, I think, very much in the precision of tone. I once wrote an article about Hungarian poetry in which I said the essential Hungarian gesture was the shrug. I was thinking as much of Várady as anyone at the time. It is a worn, humorous, deeply experienced, part ironic shrug that is never, but never, just 'cool'. It is related to gallows humour when expressly funny, but gallows humour lies under even a good deal of the fully serious material.

There is an act of mourning here too, but I don't know for whom. Maybe the ending is a little too straight... (love you / above you)... but his rhyming is pretty strict and I am dubious about starting strict and ending slack. Valery said a poem was never finished, only abandoned. If that is true it is ten times as true for translations!

Register! Tone! Intractability! I put the poem here because otherwise I like it very much.

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