The photo may be District VIII, but there is plenty of such in District VII
I am very flattered to be associated with this poem (and to be the title!) by the excellent Clare Shaw. Knowing she was going to Budapest for the first time I asked if she wanted to write a post for the blog based on her impressions of the city, and, like a true poet, she wrote a poem instead. Clare's book, Straight Ahead, was published in 2006. Jackie Kay called it a 'blast of a book'. Clare herself is a blast. She is not just a poet but organises events in aid of asylum seekers like Lily Mosini. She acts with furious energy and kindness.
For George Szirtes
April 2011l: a five-night break in Budapest we booked mainly because it was cheap. We hadn’t been there before. I meant to read about Budapest before we arrived; I was busy and didn’t. We booked an apartment in ‘atmospheric’ District 7, just off Dohany Utca. ‘Close to a well-stocked supermarket and playground’. And then we arrived. And I began to read.
Thanks for the book
of your history.
I did not know where to begin.
Where did it start? – the bite marks
of bullets in recent concrete;
how balconies crumbled in chunks
to the street? The stairs to our flat
worn thin above a hallway black
with dust that had never been swept
away, which muttered and shifted
through restless nights and days
of unexpected sun
that made fire in glass; a beach
of the street – the sand too hot
till rain fell hard on Margit-sziget,
green through the tree’s green ceiling
where the blossoms lay thick
How big is the city
when you don’t know the language
for please, how to read, or
what is the sound
for “O” – why are the flags
all torn, the Glasshouse
made of stone, is the Eternal Flame
occasionally put out?
It took days to make sense
of the dark. But never
the unmissable House of Terror, never
the shoes in their iron rows -
and whenever I slept, I dreamt
of an angel who fell from a window;
there were fountains that leapt like fire or laughter
around the shapes of my daughter, my sister;
and buses were floating
wheel-deep in the river
and rusted steel stairs
spiralled upwards forever,
and the dust in the hallway continued to mutter
and the sound of the darkness grew
louder and louder. Flames.
And the sound of marching.
Boots. And the sound of flames.
Margit sziget (Margaret Island) is an island in the middle of the Danube, between Buda and Pest. It used to be known as Rabbit Island for reasons suggested by the name. District VII was the district I was born in and lived in as a child. Part of it was the Jewish ghetto during the war. The House of Terror, based at 60, Andrássy út in Pest, the old headquarters of the secret police in both the Nazi and Communist eras is now a museum and a constant bone of contention about which terror was worse and which should feature more prominently. Under current circumstances it is - no surprise - the Communist terror that gets the edge. Thank you, Clare.