Look – night is falling and dusk is absorbing the wild
oak fence, edged with barbed wire, the hut’s so floating.
A slow stare lets the frame of our bondage go
and the wire’s tightness is just in the mind, just in the mind.
Look, my love – see how fantasy can free
all of us here, as sleep, lovely liberator, releases
our broken bodies and the camp sets off for home.
Ragged, snoring and bald, down the prisoners soar
from Serbia’s sightless peak to the hiding-land of home.
The hiding-land of home! Ah, does that land still exist?
What if a bomb has hit it? Is it, as when we marched away?
The one huddled left, or whimpering right, will he make it back?
Say, is there a home where this hexameter’s understood?
Dropping accents, groping my way from line to line,
I write this poem here in the half-light as I live:
purblind, looping inchworm-like along the paper;
torch, book and all, the Lager guards have taken,
mail never comes, and only fog descends on our hut.
Here we live in the hills, between the rumours and bugs,
Frenchman and Pole, loud Italian, dissident Serb and wistful Jew,
one dismembered, fevered body with a single life –
waiting for good news, a pretty woman’s word, a free man’s fate,
waiting for the end, the fall into the thick dark, for miracles.
Caged, bug-ridden beast, I lie on my plank; the fleas renew
their siege, but the army of flies has turned in for the night.
It’s evening – look, captivity’s a day the shorter,
and life’s a day the shorter too. The camp is asleep.
The moon is shining on the land, and the wires are tightening
in her light again: see, through the window, the shadows
of armed guards on the wall, pacing between the sounds of night.
Look, my love, the camp is asleep, dreams are rustling,
someone starts awake with a snort, twists in his narrow bunk,
and he’s already asleep again, face glistening. I’m
the only one still sitting awake, in my mouth a half-smoked cig
instead of the taste of your kiss, and sleep the soother
refuses to come, for I cannot die, and cannot live, without you.
It’s a fool who, fallen to earth, gets up and trudges on,
flexes his ankle and knee, a single walking pain,
but still, as if lifted by wings, sets off again on his way,
and ignores the ditch’s call nor even dares to wait
and if you ask, why not? who might just find the breath
to say there’s a lady waiting and a wiser, finer death.
But the poor fellow’s a fool: back there, since time out of mind,
swirling over each house there’s only the scorched wind.
The plum tree is shattered, the house wall is felled
and all those homely nights are matted thick with dread.
If only I could believe that everything still worthwhile
were not just stored in my heart, and homecoming might be real;
if the bees of peace were humming now, like then, out loud
while the plum jam stood cooling in the old veranda’s shade,
if the late summer’s silence still basked on the drowsy garden
and, swinging nude in the leaves, the fruit were starting to ripen,
if Fanni were still waiting blonde by the reddening hedge
and the slow forenoon still writing the shadow’s slow edge –
yes, it might still be! The moon today’s so round!
Don’t leave – just give me a shout and I’ll get up, my friend!
Bor, 15 September 1944
À la recherche…
Serene old evenings, you too have been refined to memory!
Where are you going, glittering table garlanded with poets
and young wives, as you slide away on the muds of passing time?
Where is the night when sparkling friends drank szürkebarát, the grape
we call grey friend, gaily still from slender, pretty-eyed glasses?
Lines of verse were swimming round the lamplight, as brilliant green
images bobbed upon the foaming crest of meter’s wave and
the dead were living, the prisoners, the dear vanished friends, were
back home again, and the long-fallen were writing their poems,
with the earth of Spain, Ukraine and Flanders fields upon their hearts.
There were some who gritted their teeth and ran headlong through the fire,
who fought because they could not help it, and whilst their comrades slept
edgily all around beneath the trenches of the muddy
night, their mind roamed in their room, for this was an island and cave
all of their own amid the hugger-mugger of the platoon.
There were places to which they travelled in padlocked cattle-cars,
places where they stood benumbed and weaponless in the minefields,
there were places they went to willingly, weapon in hand, not
speaking a word because, as they knew, this fight was their affair –
and now, in the night, the angel of freedom guards their great dreams.
And there were places… it’s all the same. Where have they vanished to,
those nights of wisdom and wine? The draft cards flew, the lines of verse
multiplied, like the lines etched round the lips of the young women
with their pretty smiles, and under their eyes: the elfin-footed
girls trudged ever heavier during the silent years of war.
Where is the night? that inn, that table under the linden trees?
And those who live, where are those who were trampled into battle?
My heart can hear their voices, my hand guards the pressure of their
hands, I quote their works, the shape of their torsos unfolds, and so,
woeful captive on Serbia’s peak, I can take their measure.
Where is the night? That night will never come again, for even
now, death is giving another perspective upon what was.
They are sitting round the table, they are hiding in the women’s
smiles, and soon will be sipping from our glasses – the friends who lie
asleep, unburied, in distant forests and in foreign fields.
Lager Heidenau, in the hills above Žagubica, 17 August 1944
I tumbled beside him, his body twisted and then,
like a snapped string, up it sprang again.
Neck shot. “This is how you’ll be going too”,
I whispered to myself, “just lie easy now”.
Patience is blossoming into death.
“Der springt noch auf,” rang out above me. Mud
dried on my ear, mingled with blood.
Szentkirályszabadja, 31 October 1944
Translated by Francis R. Jones