THREE POEMS, TRANSLATED BY GEORGE GÖMÖRI AND CLIVE WILMER

It was good news indeed to have learned that the Cambridge-based English poet Clive Wilmer was awarded the 2018 Janus Pannonius Prize for Translation. Wilmer and myself have been friends for nearly five decades co-translating modern Hungarian poetry into English, our joint efforts resulting in two books by Miklós Radnóti, one selection from János Pilinszky’s poems and two books by György Petri. Our second Petri book Eternal Monday published by Bloodaxe even made it into the final of the prestigious Weidenfeld Prize for Translation in 2001, as the only book of poetry amongst five volumes of fiction.

Apart from those mentioned above we have translated many other Hungarian poets, some of them to be found in the 1996 selection The Colonnade of Teeth edited by George Szirtes and myself. This anthology (also by Bloodaxe Books) comprised verse by 35 Hungarian poets from Lőrinc Szabó to Győző Ferencz, amongst them several contemporary Transylvanians, such as Béla Markó, Géza Szőcs and Sándor Kányádi. Kányádi I have known since 1956 and forty years later already considered him as one of the best poets writing in Hungarian. He believed in the power of the spoken word and managed to write equally well both for older and younger readers – in fact, during the oppressive Ceauşescu regime he was editing a Hungarian-language magazine for children which was essential for the cultural survival of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania. Four of his poems were included in The Colonnade of Teeth, three of which we reprint here, remembering the poet who passed away recently.

George Gömöri

I Shall Die

The way I die
will be such that even my last
gasp will be first
picked up then played back
on tape by
someone who re-
plays it a few times
toning it down till
it’s more acceptable
or just wipes it
Better to leave him with
that hint of a smile
of course without bitterness
that’s what he was like
with the hint of a smile
says that someone without
a sigh the someone whose stif-
ling hand I have felt
at my throat
through the whole of my wretched life

History Lesson

history – I tried to
explain it to the stones
they were silent
then I turned to the trees
the leaves kept nodding at me
then I tried the garden
it gave me a gentle smile
history consists
(it said) of four seasons
spring summer
autumn and winter 
now winter is drawing near

Engraving

there are lands there is countryside
where though beautiful nothing thrives
but bitter burdock where in the eyes
of wretched people with harsh lives
a glimmer of pale hope appears
barely flickers then expires
hope that one day it will all be over
stares into space as if forever
black kerchiefs and black hats encase
each rigid parchment-yellow face
and like their own hands on their knees
just so they sit there stiff with unease
on those old benches which worm-eaten
have as their lives have ebbed gone rotten
they sit as if in engraved prints
of mexico or way up where once
on manicured vancouver lawns
I came upon those indians
day-dreaming in silence dazed
barely a flicker in their gaze
and hands resting on their thighs
our lives their lives
you travel far for a surprise
to shock like that how our eyes
are like those indians’ eyes and look
more and more the way theirs look
as on a Sunday when we’ve all
met for a quiet funeral

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