14 January 2015

Classic Hungarian Poems of the Second World War

Gyula Illyés (1902–1983)
Waterloo, Wagram, Mohi – what were they
Before their mild and empty names were filled
With keenings, and a thousand deaths went sailing
Away to shell the overcast? Unskilled
We were in you, in fjord, hamlet, field
And equable river. And your fate incurred
Ought to have been, and ought to be today,
To persevere unheard.
But thus the earth expands. New meadowlands,
New mountains in the mind of the child at school
Rise where gun barrels probe the map and point
To what they meant, being devastation’s fool,
To erase from earth. The gun’s a new ferrule
For the geography master, bright and burning
Milestone on the one old road that bends
Towards one more turning.
One more, mankind? I who walked trusting by
Your side, now stand apart. Or do I plead
Against the tide, standing upon some whirled
Shipboard? If sin on sin is all the seed
Your learning sows, why then, my kind, indeed
Your servitude of spirit has to be
(An envious god’s curse) endless. I shall cry
As long as I can, my plea.
Be mute, Petsamo, bay and virgin hill
And you, secluded vales and homesteads; hounds
Couched to await a carcass like Sedan!
And you, small isles where Death the discoverer
His keel, and an undreamed-of epoch founds!
Small places, new Americas, so long
Doomed to great fame, whose ruinous bounties
Be mute – nay, howl! Give tongue!
And see your destiny through. Come brighten, burn
And so many new stars! Ranked in armies, make
Not only history to a new design
But a new geometry on a sky in wreck.
And you, Petsamo, lurid bloody speck,
Rise, a new dispensation, on our sight:
That some time Man: in time to come, shall turn
More hopefully, to the height...
1943, published 1947. Translated by Donald David
I saw: Budapest burning:
around a people’s head
before its fall, a glowing
wreath of fire; war; war dead.
I saw – as if someone else –
amid wild briarbush
of exploding shell, a corpse,
a nightmare carcass, crushed.
There was moonlight that morning,
six o’clock, New Year’s day;
the housewreck I was standing
on, at dawn, turned grey.
Like Moses’ bushes, burning,
each shell, with rapid shriek,
burst, screaming something –
God or Fate tried to speak.
In the icy snow of the street
I saw a human head,
a bas-relief trampled flat
by some inhuman tread.
I saw a baby, still blind,
close to its dead mother:
not milk to suck but blood,
blood not wool for cover.
The baby raised its bloody face
and cried out to the dead.
His mother was –, this very place;
himself – the years ahead.
Translated by Anthony Edkins
(From What You Have Almost Forgotten, Selected Poems of Gyula Illyés. Ed. William Jay Smith, Gyula Kodolányi. Kortárs, Budapest – Curbstone Press, Willimantic, 1999.)
Miklós Radnóti (1909–1944)
Old placid nights, you too have become ennobled as The Past!
The sparkling table wreathed with the poets and their young wives,
where have you slipped away to on the mud of these memories?
Where has it gone, the night when the quick-witted friends still sipped
pinot grigio gladly from the bright-eyed, shapely glasses?
Lines of verse swam in the lamplight, glistening, while green
adjectives surfed on the foamy crest of meter, and the dead lived,
the prisoners were home again, the ones who had disappeared,
dear friends, they wrote more poems, those long since fallen
with the earth of Ukraine, of Spain, of Flanders piled over their hearts.
There were those who gritted their teeth and charged into the gunfire,
and fought only because there was nothing they could do against it,
and while their company lay around them, uneasily sleeping
under the grimy lid of night, their minds paced the rooms
which were their refuge, island and cave in this social order.
There were those who travelled, sealed in cattle cars, to nowhere,
and those who stood, fear-frozen and weaponless, sent to clear minefields,
and those who went willingly, weapons at the ready,
mutely, for they knew that this battle concerned them down below –
and now the angel of freedom guards their great sleep deep in the night.
And there were those... never mind. Where have the wise wine-bouts gone?
Conscription slips urgently flew at them, fragments of poems multiplied,
and the wrinkles multiplied around the lovely-smiling lips
of the young wives, and beneath their eyes; the fairy-light girls
moved with heavier tread through the taciturn years of war.
Where is that night, that tavern, that table under the lindens?
and those who are still alive, where are these battle-trampled ones?
My heart hears their voices, my hand recalls their handclasp,
I go about quoting their works while their torsos decay,
and I measure it (mute captive) on this mountain range in sad Serbia.
Where is that night? That night shall no longer return – not ever,
for death has already thrown it all into a different perspective. –
They sit at the table, they burrow and hide in the women’s smiles,
and the spirits of those who sleep will drink from our glasses,
those who lie unburied in far-off forests and foreign pastures.

Lager Heidenau, in the mountains above Zagubica 17 August 1944

From Bulgaria the gruff, savage cannon-fire booms,
thudding to the mountain ridge, then wavers and dims;
they all pile up – humans, animals, wagons, thoughts;
the road brays and bucks, the mane of the sky bolts.
You are within me, constant, in this moving pandemonium
always motionless; in my mind’s deepest cranny, you
shine mutely as an angel amazed at the ruin,
or a beetle set to bury itself in punk wood.
In the mountains 30 August 1944
I toppled next to him; his body flipped,
stiff already, as a gut string snaps.
Shot in the nape. “You’ll end like this as well,”
I whispered to myself, “Lie still, relax.
Now, Death’s the rose they say that patience makes.”
Der springt noch auf” rang out above me.
On my ear the muddied blood was caking.
Szentkirályszabadja, Hungary 31 October 1944

All That Still Matters At All. Selected Poems of Miklós Radnóti. Trans- lated by John M. Ridland and Peter V. Czipott, Foreword by David R. Slavitt. New American Press, Milwaukee, Wis., – Urbana,
Ill. 2014.)

János Pilinszky (1921–1981)
At all times I see them.
The moon brilliant. A black shaft looms up.
Beneath it, harnessed men
haul an immense cart.
Dragging that giant wagon
which grows bigger as the night grows
their bodies are divided among
the dust, their hunger and their trembling.
They are carrying the road, they are carrying the land,
the bleak potato fields,
and all they know is the weight of everything,
the burden of the skylines
and the falling bodies of their companions
which almost grow into their own
as they lurch, living layers,
treading each other’s footsteps.
The villages stay clear of them,
the gateways withdraw.
The distance, that has come to meet them,
reels away back.
Staggering, they wade knee deep
in the low, darkly muffled clatter
of their wooden clogs
as through invisible leaf litter.
Already their bodies belong to silence.
And they thrust their faces towards the height
as if they strained for a scent
of the faraway celestial troughs
because, prepared for their coming
like an opened cattle-yard,
its gates flung savagely back,
death gapes to its hinges.

Where you have fallen, you stay.
In the whole universe, this is your place.
Just this single spot.
But you have made this yours absolutely.
The countryside evades you.
House, mill, poplar,
each thing strives to be free of you
as if it were mutating in nothingness.
But now it is you who stay.
Did we bind you? You continue to watch us.
Did we rob you? You enriched yourself.
Speechless, speechless, you testify against us.

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like a projection.
He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.
And this is all.
The rest –
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
Before he collapsed.

(From János Pilinszky, The Desert of Love. Selected Poems translated by János Csokits and Ted Hughes. Revised and enlarged edition. Anvil Press Poetry, 1989, London.)

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