The earliest records show the southern part of Transylvania belonging to Dacia, a Roman colony at the very frontiers of the Empire. With the fall of Rome that area was overrun by successive waves of invaders, the Ostrogoths, the Huns, the Bulgarians, the Avars, etc., and finally in 896 AD by Hungarian tribes that occupied the whole Carpathian Basin. Then for a thousand years Transylvania was the home of Hungarians alongside Romanians and the descendants of the other invaders.
However, Hungary as a whole has had a turbulent history of decline. First, a brief but devastating Mongolian invasion killed off much of the population. Then the area that is the present site of the country was laid waste by a 150-year Ottoman occupation. During that time the northern parts were under Austrian rule while Transylvania had to pay tribute to the Ottoman Empire to remain an independent Hungarian principality and the repository of Hungarian culture. After the Turks were ousted by combined Christian forces, the liberated area was repopulated by Slovaks, Germans and others. Hungary was united once again, but only under the auspices of the Habsburg Empire.
Another disaster hit the country after the First World War when the peace treaty of Trianon arbitrarily chopped it up, giving the northern regions to Slovakia, the southern parts to Yugoslavia, and Transylvania to Romania. The Hungarian population, known locally as Szekler, suddenly found itself in a disadvantaged ethnic minority status in an enlarged Romanian state where now Hungarian culture and language were marginalised and discriminated. No wonder there is a pervasive spirit of dread in the Hungarian poetry written in a land that is no longer Transylvania but a region in Romania. Ironically, the present Hungary is relatively new, with a mixed immigrant population that – almost miraculously – assimilated and took on Hungarian identity and the language. Perhaps this could not have happened without Transylvania.
The prime of the poets in this selection coincided with the Ceauşescu period, a time of strict censorship that called for hidden messages best delivered in surrealist style. The poets of that besieged group in those tragic times accepted as their mission to speak out for their people. However belatedly, their anguished voices now speak to us more clearly than any TV documentary, not only about their suffering but also about their attachment to the land of their birth and their commitment to the survival of their Szekler community regardless of the political system or state government that claims to rule over them. Yet these voices are not blaring propaganda for some kind of nationalistic programme; each one remains an individual and personal confession of faith – and doubt. The mission thrust upon them by persecution was accepted reluctantly and is presented as part of the human condition, just another aspect of life. The universality of their message is rounded out by a sprinkling of love poems, a subject second only to the love of freedom. These are themes that flourish in any language. Their verse is quite current, but reflects that special Central and Eastern European angst that has accumulated in the collective consciousness of the region over a turbulent history.
All these poets deserve to be introduced to Anglophone readers. The featured translations first appeared in LochRavenReview, an e-journal; this is their first print publication.
Sándor Kányádi was born in 1929 as the son of a peasant. After the fifth grade he enrolled in Protestant parochial boarding schools, and eventually graduated from a technical high school. He worked as an editor of Hungarian-language magazines until his retirement. He published his first poem in a newspaper in 1950 and from then on, his poems were published widely in Hungarian-language publications. Translations of Romanian poetry (done as much for literary reasons as to pave the way toward ethnic reconciliation) soon followed and earned him a prize from the Romanian Writers’ Association. Because contact with the West was restricted at that time, his international career flourished later, culminating in the coveted Herder Prize. Volumes of his poetry in translation have been published in Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Russian, Swedish, and recently in Sohar’s English translation: DancingEmbers(Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2002), In Contemporary Tense (Iniquity Press, 2015), Behind God’s Back (Ragged Sky Press, Princeton, 2016), and The Curious Moon (Synergebooks, 2003).
the alarm is raised in the
bureau of shadows
when it is discovered
there is still one person
who is not afraid
of his own shadow
the administrators hold a quick
brainstorm and decide unanimously
the suspect’s shadow
and after a lapse of time
they issue to him
a double shadow
which at first brews
anxiety slowly growing
they even shadow
my own shadow
mutters the wretched soul
besieged by fear that
even his own shadow
may not be his own
The Homecoming of Marin Sorescu*
the wagon drawn by a pair of oxen came to a halt
a not-so-old gentleman got off
it’s not you Marin
welcome home my dear son
the neighbour woman clapped her hands
or it could have been a niece
could have been even his mother who
as a young widow had sent his little son
to the big-city school in the same wagon drawn by oxen
how much fun they had back then how much they laughed
there’s no better medicine for misery
there’s no better magic potion than laughter
do you remember my boy my dear sir
the woman corrected her mode of address
giving another occasion for laughter
my god my god how time flies
it’s as if you’d left here only yesterday
you haven’t changed at all except your skin tone
its colour seems let’s say colourless
but the fresh air at home will remedy that
yes there’s some stuff to eat in the wagon
under the books or on top of them I don’t recall
something for everyone
there’s fish there’s herring and salmon you’ve never tasted
in your life before and leeks too
and I brought some eggplants that’s out of season
in this region at home
the journey’s come to an end
my lord my god how many books and in how many languages
how many books my god he says
my journey’s come to an end and no one wondered
no one asked what kind of a journey
has come to an end but passed it on like a revelation
by mouth the news travelled among the gathering crowd
people from the street so if he says so it must have come to an end
he was never in the habit of talking just for the sake of talking
he allowed himself a smile as much as his paleness allowed
he allowed himself a smile about the things he had seen behind his closed eyelids
and things prompted by what reached his ears from home
he said he would like to go out
and when he staggered back to the hospital room
it had been rearranged and enlarged
there was a king-sized bed between the two windows all made up
quotes from world literature were embroidered on his humped pillow
and elegant quilt and the rug for his feet on the floor
at the feet of the king-sized bed a diko
he was glad to recall the words of his home village
at the feet of the king-sized bed near the door
a crib covered with a handmade coverlet was
kneeling to the rush rug on the dirt floor
under the huge quilt I could sleep leisurely
till judgment day and nothing would bother me but and
at this point he ran his hand over the handmade coverlet
but here resurrection would come more easily and more often
this is the best time to sell the oxen he said already turning
toward the wall the rumour has it that it may be alright now but
the time is coming again when those in the yoke will have no value
Gizella Hervay (1934–1982), though born in Hungary, is known as a Transylvanian–Hungarian poet. At an early age her large, poor family was dispersed, and her hectic life took her to various locations. At last she found safe haven in a parochial boarding school in a Hungarian town in Transylvania and went on to finish her higher education with a doctorate in 1956. While holding a series of editorial jobs she had a brief marriage to the love of her life, Domokos Szilágyi, a fellow poet and classmate in college. The year 1976 was a turning point, with Szilágyi’s suicide and a publishing house in Budapest offering her a steady job, as she was starting to make a name for herself as a poet. In spite of crippling depression Hervay carried on with her job and poetry, until her suicide.
The Heavenly Rally
Here we are in heaven in which we don’t believe
and which doesn’t exist as we all know quite well.
But we are here, there’s no doubt about that.
There’s a tired light bulb hanging
it’s turning to dusk.
The angels place their halos
on the night table till the morning.
In another heaven are
our mother’s calling cries.
Off we march into
a heavenly vision.
Upward, for here we can
only go upward.
A reverse elevator
is our plunging life.
On the signpost “Future”.
We are happy,
have been so or will be soon.
Here we are in heaven in which we don’t believe.
I grew up, didn’t I. That means we should re-do
the resume. There was too much vagrancy
connected with being an orphan, and too
few were the homes available per person.
This we must re-write. Yes, I’m at home here.
I create my own landscape. Out of words,
of course. Out of good, sturdy words.
They can be size eleven, too, but they must be
boots. Without boots you can’t march off
to war. But of course that’s
over now. And an overcoat
is also important in this area. It’s safe
and secure like childhood. Which I didn’t have.
It can be long, too. We can always tuck
it in. One can grow out of them by the end
of their useful lives. Of the poems,
of course. The rest we can cross out. Please
cross it out. Just leave the bare facts. Please take
this down: I was born like others. I accept the
responsibility. According to
Let me have a copy, please.
Aladár Lászlóffy (1937–2009) was born in Transylvania. He graduated from Lutheran Preparatory School, then from Babeş–Bolyai University in Cluj (Kolozsvár) with a degree in Hungarian Language and Literature. After a few years of freelancing he started getting steady jobs as an editor, and finally as a professor of world culture. He published his first poem at the age of nine and went on writing and publishing for the rest of his life. He has received all major literary prizes in Romania and Hungary.
The Cat Set On Fire
We must loosen up, at least at dawn,
when the answers to the ultimate questions
start dripping from
the leaves, and so does dew!
Let dew spread over the table, the
bed! That’s when the body enters,
and the naked embrace of alcohol,
because anyone alive for any period
of time must like it
that we’re androgynous
outside the idea of it and bare
like shell fish split open. At times
like these that cat starts
running around on roof tops,
set on fire by the spirit,
protesting rest and the loss of
swallowing light so long.
A voice streaks through the ghost-sharp,
starrynights of stagnant-gold whisperings:
Show me the poets you all read,
and I’ll tell you folks who you are.
Show me the poets you respect,
and I’ll tell you where you’re coming from.
Our grandfathers’ gaunt figures I see
in unbearable times when
our parks withered and we only had our books
to tide us over the winter.
Show me the poets you rally around,
and I’ll tell you what will become of you.
* Marin Sorescu, Romanian poet 1936–1996, enjoyed pop star status, also served as a minister in the post- Communist government.