2 August 2013

Introduction to Jenő Dsida’s Poems. Poems translated by George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer


Jenő Dsida was born in 1907 in Szatmárnémeti (today Satu Mare in Romania). He began writing in his early youth and his first poems were published in the children’s magazine Cimbora (“My Pal”) edited by Elek Benedek. His first book of poetry Leselkedő magány (“Lurking Solitude”) was published in 1928 – by that time Dsida was a student of Law at Kolozsvár (today Cluj–Napoca in Romania). He did not finish his legal studies but took up journalism, becoming the technical editor of Keleti újság, a Hungarian-language daily published at Kolozsvár. At the same time his poems were published in Transylvanian literary magazines such as Pásztortűz and the much-vaunted Erdélyi Helikon. Although with the collection Nagycsütörtök (“Maundy Thursday”) Dsida made his name as one of the best Hungarian poets in Transylvania, it was his posthumous book of poetry Angyalok citeráján (“On the Zither of Angels”) which confirmed his place amongst the true masters of the Hungarian language. He died very young, at the age of 31 – we commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of his death this year.

Dsida was born with a heart condition and a leading motif of his poetry from the beginning is not so much “lurking solitude” as sudden death embedded in his body cells, ready to attack at any time. He expresses the awareness of death in two different ways: some of his poems such as “The Poem of Darkness” or “Farewell to the Condemned” are imbued with the fear of death, sometimes presented through images of natural decay or condensed in a great metaphor. In his brilliantly rhyming poem “Serenade for Ilonka” Dsida recalls the memory of a young girl snatched away by death at an early age, turning this event into a metaphysical adventure complete with a kind of poetic resurrection. The motto of this poem comes from “Annabel Lee”, a similar poem by Edgar Allen Poe and the melody of this beguiling and enchanting poem certainly influenced Dsida.

Denial of the fear of death and a strong confirmation of life are also an inspiration for Dsida: see the charming long poem “Why Did the Angels Prostrate Themselves in Front of Viola?”, also the more descriptive “Afternoon Roaming with My Beloved Dog” written in flowing hexameters. His world-view is manifest in both poems: it is a “Franciscan” version of Christianity based on solidarity with the poor and understanding for people living on the margins of society. Dsida wrote only a few religious poems, amongst which is the memorable “Maundy Thursday” (Nagycsütörtök) recalling the suffering Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, though it is more about the loneliness of an individual belonging to the ethnic minority in Romania alone in the stuffy waiting-room of a Transylvanian railway station at night.

Lately Dsida’s long poem “Psalmus Hungaricus” has become popular in Hungary. This poem was written in the mid-thirties of the last century as a reaction to new laws which drastically restricted the rights of Hungarians in the Kingdom of Romania. It was not published in Dsida’s lifetime, partly because (we know this from a reliable source) the poet was not entirely happy with the first version of the poem and partly because of a few lines which could have been deemed provocatively nationalistic. While “Psalmus” is an important poem, it is not amongst the best poetic achievements of Dsida, considering that he was never anti-Romanian and during his last fatal illness was considering the translation of the entire oeuvre of the Romanian classical poet, Eminescu, into Hungarian.

Let me add here a personal note: I was still in my teens in secondary school when I first came across this outstanding Transylvanian poet, marginalised and largely ignored by communist critics. In the summer of 1956, with three years of philological studies behind me at the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) of Budapest I visited Cluj/Kolozsvár to do some research for a few weeks on Dsida. Thanks to serendipity I found a few unknown poems by him which were then published in September 1956 in the local Hungarian-language literary weekly Utunk, accompanied with an article “Awakening Jenő Dsida” by the editor Zoltán Panek. This started a debate about the rehabilitation of Dsida, the short term- results of which were negative for Panek and other supporters of the poet, but on the long run it prepared the ground for an incomplete yet generous selection of Dsida’s poems ten years later, in 1966. The publication of the Collected Poems of Jenő Dsida however had to wait until 2012 when, thanks to the perseverance of Gusztáv Láng they finally reached the Hungarian reader.
 

 
JENŐ DSIDA

MAUNDY THURSDAY

 
No connection. The train would be six hours
late, it was announced, and that Maundy Thursday
I sat for six hours in the airless dark
of the waiting room of Kocsárd’s tiny station.
My soul was heavy and my body broken –
I felt like one who, on a secret journey,
sets out in darkness, summoned by the stars
on fateful earth, braving yet fleeing doom;
whose nerves are so alert that he can sense
enemies, far off, tracking him by stealth.
Outside the window engines rumbled by
and dense smoke like the wing of a huge bat
brushed my face. I felt dull horror, gripped
by a deep bestial fear. I looked around:
it would have been so good to speak a little
to close friends, a few words to men you trust,
but there was only damp night, dark and chill,
Peter was now asleep, and James and John
asleep, and Matthew, all of them asleep…
Thick beads of cold sweat broke out on my brow
and then streamed down over my crumpled face.

 

 
A CONFESSION

 
Where I live is like an island.
Each day what can I do
but kneel – preoccupied
by nothing except you?
It may be the sun cools,
it may be the moon will fall,
this resonant otherworld
dissolves me, absorbs me whole.
It has sweet fragrances,
the light has its own tricks,
the laws governing it
are happy as they are strict.
What elsewhere would be measured
by the tick of a small clock
here by the steady throbbing
in your breast is marked;
you speak and each soft word
that, dreamily, you yield
becomes a silver flower
set in a blue field;
and your sigh is the wind
stirring in my hair,
and your face has the moon’s glow,
and your face has the sun’s glare.

 

 
LAST YEAR’S LOVE

 
A memory that glitters,
though sometimes too it glares
at my pallid face, as I look
back into past years.
It was bright as a star is bright,
like fire it gave off heat,
also as white as snow
and, like honey, sweet.
I see its gleam at times
but the torment has now ceased;
it’s a cool, friendly hand –
I feel its light caress.
It has fallen like a star,
it has gone out like fire,
it’s melted as snow melts
and the sweetness has turned sour.
 

 
 
THE POEM OF DARKNESS

 
Once more, the vigil season!
Broad pen-strokes on my sheet look grim.
Night’s rust-juice floods the gardens,
by six full to the brim.
Damp oozes from the mouldering trees,
you muse on how much time
you’ve left. Your foot stops dead, in fear
of stumbling into a tomb…
But tell me: have you ever let
a snow-white sugar-cube soak up
dark liquid, dipped in the bitter night
of coffee in its cup?
Or watched how the dense liquid,
so surely, so insidiously,
will seep up through the white cube’s
pure, crystalline body?
Just so the night seeps into you,
slowly rising, the smells
of night and of the grave all through
your veins, fibres, cells,
until one dank brown evening,
so steeped in it, you melt and sink –
to sweeten, for some unknown god,
his dark and bitter drink.

 
Translated by George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer



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