Selected Poetry from the Antology edited by Csilla Bertha and

Gyula Kodolányi*

Part II




Iron-shod hooves clack and clatter on the pebbly bank…
Two Székely horsemen lead two pairs of horses to the water –
Pants and shirts off in a flash – and they’re already in it, splashing.
Quickly the water reaches as high as the horses’ chests,
And sweep them away it would, but the riders’ knees tightly squeeze
And their heels dig in, as they order the horses to turn –
The horses yield to the men’s command, stretching their necks,
So turning, they swim up and down a few times easily
Until one youth, impudent, calls out over his shoulder:
Hold it tight, Imre! And the other: Áron, don’t let yourself go!
And loud and raw they laugh heartily at their play –

Then, bored with that, they stand in the bankside shallows,
To dry in the sun that beams its tremendous light and heat.
The myriad droplets like golden dust as the creatures shake themselves!
This is how they spend the time on horseback, practically petrified,
Two tough Székelys, trouble-worn, mournful, stubborn-faced –
Birds beat past and the shadow-casting clouds swim overhead –
Noon becomes even more incandescent – they stand, motionless
As statues. Once they (or their fathers) stood in these postures
At the River Prut too, and also like this on the grenade-shredded
Cliffs at Doberdo1 – or the same in the deadly air of Pennsylvanian mines
And they stood wherever they had no choice but to stand,
Confronting their fate with bitter defiance.
And I don’t know what fate holds in store for these in the future.
Will there still be joy beneath this ominous sky?
But this I know for certain: if, instead of joy,
Fiery thunderbolts should also plunge down on them here
– While mournfully hundreds of years should pass away –
They, even joyless, demented in their torment:
Will stand here forever – so Imre’s holding it tight,
While Áron, for his part… Áron’s not letting himself go!


Translated John M. Ridland and Peter V. Czipott

Bozók (Bzovík), castle. Photo: József Sisa



Epilógus a Lófürösztéshez

For László Tompa

… And once those upright Székely youths
had rubbed down their fiery horses
into spark-throwing stardust
whose hair glimmered in the moonlight,
the tiny bullet-worms of death
instantly took up residence in them,
their bomb shrapnel-maggots,
and the corpses of the splayed-legged
animals, distended and purple,
swam on the waters,
vultures drew contrails
from their intestines up into the sky,
feral dogs rolled their chewed-off skulls
between the fresh gravemounds
of the heroic dead,
and the tractors’ harrows nibbled away
at the colts beached on the banks,
at the ankles of the beautiful, weeping-willow-maned
colts; those nearly empty-handed survivors, the crows,
struck up a fine feast of their flesh;
they certainly carried out thorough, unsparing work,
those upstanding successors:
the wire brushes gone wild over the years
bathed and rubbed down our steeds
to glisten with transparent light;
by now, only Saint Michael’s horse ambles along, head bowed,
by now, only his skeleton phosphoresces
rattling in the starless night,
and Áron still holds it tight, but Imre,
Imre, he lets himself go more and more.


Translated by Peter V. Czipott

Zólyom (Zvolen), the corner view of the castle. Photo: József Sisa




You can no longer
soar. And yet you blaze,
wind-slit Hungarian Tongue, sending
your snakelike flames along the ground, hissing
at time with pain,
more often with the helpless rage of the humiliated,
your guardian angels forsaking you.
Again in grass, in weeds, in slime.
As through all those centuries, among
the stooped peasants. Among
the tight-lipped old, keeping their counsel. Among
girls trembling under coned reeds as
the Tartar hordes swept past. Among
children lashed together
while mute lips shaped their words,
for the Turks, if they heard a sound,
would bring whips down in their faces.
Now you show forth
truly – and to me as well – your use,
your pedigree, your coat-of-arms, the stone-biting
strength in your veins.
Language of fertile smiles,
of bright tears shared in secret, language
of loyalty, lingo
of never-surrendered faith, password of hope, language
of freedom, briefly-snatched freedom, behind-the-prison-
language of master-mocked schoolboy, sergeant-
abused rookie,
dressed-down plaintiff, of little old ladies boring clerks,
language of porters, odd-job hired men, being a
of the no-good-for-the-factory, no-good-for-test-passing
language of the veteran stammering before his
young boss; testimony –
rising from depths even greater
than Luther’s – of the suspect
beaten up on arrival at the station;
language of the Kassa black marketeer, the Bucharest
servant girl,
the Beirut whore, all calling
for mother, behold your son, spittle
on his rage-reddened face,
master of many tongues,
held worthy of attention by other nations
for what, as a loyal European,
he has to say:
he cannot mount any festive platform,
cannot accept any wreath,
however glorious, which he would not, stepping
quickly down,
carry over to lay at your feet, and with his smile draw
on your agonising lips,
your smile, my beloved, ever-nurturing mother.


Translated by William Jay Smith and Gyula Kodolányi

Zólyom (Zvolen), the closed balcony of a bourgeoisie house. Photo: József Sisa



Teremtünk egyszer…

One day we shall create, among cliffs far away
where day breaks sooner by a quarter-day,
with money, strength, and iron will
(I guess you distant farer cannot glean
a germ of birth in all this mottled misery)
an Eastern Switzerland with three mother tongues
to brace the ailing like a boisterous Ahoy
through winter woods in the healing sun
heralding the spring:
a wealthy, independent Transylvania
that harbours in the ancient trees,
this dumb-struck fairyland of sleeping princesses,
the hope our ancestors nourished in times primordial
for a home sprung from the graves,
painting blue the Saxon2 towns anew,
reviving Hungarian publishers,
and letting the rest remain Romanian –
where poems for the drawer are consigned to life,
a country under three banners to test
if it can vie with grimy Budapest
and reap the triumph of the mind
over hatred, doom, and superstition.
Patching them up with something new,
we shall rebuild with every holy cornerstone,
and I shall be the New-World Ambassador
to this tiny country’s forlorn fairy throne.

(Chicago, 1957)

Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel

Végles (Vigľaš), castle. Photo: József Sisa

Heretic Telegrams to Pan Cogito on the Other Side3


Harmadik (sürgős) sürgöny

we urge immediate action on the part of the other world stop because nothing is working out for us stop it’s no use appealing to the authorities in person or writing stop it’s no use for the Csángó-Hungarians4 to pour their centuries-old dreams into petitions stop it’s no use for them to beg-beseech those in the shoes of the fisherman stop why not let them worship and praise the Lord in their native tongue stop no use bringing their whining petitions to the eyes of the holy see stop even though if there’s one person stop then it’s he who should know and let the world know stop that the Csángó-Hungarians are as much Hungarian as the Poles languishing in Lithuania can remain Polish stop as the Germans assimilating in Poland can remain German stop as the Finns crying into their beer in Norway’s Finnmark can remain Finnish stop as I can go on without though accomplishing a thing


Translated by Paul Sohar

Besztercebánya (Banská Bystrica), Beniczky-house. Photo: József Sisa



Homage to Albert Szenczi Molnár5

Our dwelling place in all generations,6
You Psalm have been our safe abode
When all the words we had ran out
And dirt was what we called a home.
With flags bereft of signs and symbols,
Just hearts ablaze in winds of shame,

Oft called to faith in sheer iniquity,
We might still be a worthy race.
In words we grieve and bow to dread
Under the weight of great adversity.
We strain to the edge of our shadow,
Relished today, outstretched tomorrow.

Give us the sense to bear a future
Falling on us like a toppled spire.
Our tongues be muted, voices stolen,
And our vision blocked and broken,
Mindless, we shall forget this all –
A backyard, homeland, just a wall.

Against ourselves defenceless,
In our souls condemned to sadness,
We fall to the seething dust of words.
Our plea is just a guild-sign on the transom,
A godless wreath of wheat among the sheaves,
for sins laid at the door, a humble ransom.

Oh, clothe our foes in mighty vengeance,
And hear the woes that choke our throats,
Ravaged graveyards, hamlets, bones –
Oh Psalm, deliver us from under this rubble,
Oh, lift us from this stony silence,
As you sang to save those crumbly stones!


Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel

Zólyomlipcse (Slovenská Ľupča), castle. Photo: József Sisa




Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Massacre of the Innocents

The mothers, Herod, beware the mothers!
The mothers must be the sword-hacked ones!
As long as mothers walk the wide world,
It’s in vain you murder the sons.

All the babies can do is whimper and plead,
Those sluggish, tormented women are numb,
But the meeker the masks that they put on,
The darker their plotting will become.

For while they rip and tear their breasts,
And mourning gradually robs them of reason,
In the womb’s strange workshop the next rebellion
Prepares to break out in a new season.

They conceive more sons in the secret cave
Of their loins which re-opens like a cliff s face,
And they push their shrivelled spawn into the world
And teach them how to put words in place.

Then the earlier sacrifice was in vain.
You can keep on having the infants killed.
But the women, Herod, remember the women!
Butcher them, they must all be stilled!

Excess of pity yields only pity.
Your throne, your robe – your rule may cease.
Only when mothers no longer exist
Can your power be safe, so you dream of peace.


Translated by John M. Ridland

Besztercebánya (Banská Bystrica), Episcopal cathedral. Photo: József Sisa




We cannot fail to love this earth of ours,
where we were born and where we see the blades
of grass grow from our fathers’ hearts below
before sunshine and scythes, the face that fades
of faithful King Saint László7 all the way
in ancient churches of the Székely,
we cannot fail to love our native lands,
our streams and wildernesses, and everything,
whether it’s bric-a-brac or all those things
we value…

Our fidelity is punished a hundredfold:
on the weak syllables of the little Csángó8 girl,
on the many thousand émigré families
(some taken off by death, others by train),
on the decomposing walls of Székely strongholds,
and in the nightmares into which I lock
my many everydays, just as you do. 

The Awakening? You’ll understand at last.
You’ll see what will become of those who bowed,
and what became of those who didn’t bow.
If you won’t undertake it, or if you will,
if neither the dead can rest in peace here, nor
the living, and if I become inured –
and you too, and him too – to all our watchtowers
crumbling away before the morning dawns:
then we’ll tear out our Magyar-speaking tongues,
allowing what will be to finally be,
and we’ll forget the common woe we’ve sung
like adolescent love. And whosoever
will undertake the trouble to return:
won’t even gain a thing from our scant traces!
He won’t be able even to loathe this land:
He will keep silent, inheriting silent places.

Protect us, hawthorn bushes, juniper boughs,
woolly poplars, so we will neither be
fugitives without a state, nor captives,
and they destroy not faith nor ancestry.
Protect us, heavenly dome, O Lord most high:
our willpower and our strength aren’t infinite.
This is our native land. We trust you, Lord,
to give us life and not extinguish it.

Translated by John M. Ridland and Peter V. Czipott

Somoskő castle (Hrad Šomoška). Photo: József Sisa

Indian Dirge


To the tourists it’s only another sight,
but to them it’s a holy site. It lies
protected by ancient spirits. A tiny land
circled by conquerors’ watchful eyes.

No furrow flickers on their wind-scoured brows.
They’re sipping the wine-coloured rays
of the setting sun; their soft words are foreign
prayer, in their looks a silent censure plays.

Rugs and flower decorations on clay
pitchers preserve the traces of their hands
and their murdered past – a drop in an ocean –
the treasures of a royal people’s lands.

Enclosed in the ring of new conquerors,
there’s another people, deprived of their say.
Their fate is the silence of gravestones.
– The Indians of the Carpathians – they are today.

(Taos {New Mexico], Indian Reservation. Summer of 1984)

Translated by Paul Sohar

Besztercebánya (Banská Bystrica), Beniczky-house. Photo: József Sisa



Indián szavak a rádióban

To poet William Least Heat Moon9

The Indians on the prairie will not let us down.
Others yes, but not them, they will not let us down.
Had they known what was to take place at Segesvár
but they knew not what was to take place at Segesvár
surely they would have shown up too,
some would have known they were coming too:
General Papa Bem,10 the Indians are coming, they would have said,
one morning to Papa Bem this is what they would have said:

across the Bering Strait
across the Bering Strait
an Indian cavalry is on its way,
cutting across Siberia
cutting its way to us
it’s coming to our aid –

the valiant officers would have talked like this,
tossing their gold-braided hats up in the air.

My Indian brother, we haven’t even got a reservation.
Ghetto, bantustan, a reservation
sometimes would be fine with us, but we have none.
The tribe gets together in the cafe,
we stand around a lot in the cafe.
Miss, don’t spare that Indian pie.
That’s what we say but to ourselves we think
but to ourselves we actually think:

some day a few Indians
across the Bering Strait
across any kind of strait
will cut their way through to us
to come to our aid
to come to our aid.

The Indians do not let anybody down.
The Indians do not let us down.


Translated by Paul Sohar

* A Nation Dismembered: The 1920 Treaty of Trianon in Hungarian Poetry. Hungarian Review, Budapest, 2019. 216 pp.

Besztercebánya (Banská Bystrica), the Beniczky-house with the coat of arms of the Mining Inspectorate. Photo: József Sisa


1 The River Prut and cliffs at Doberdo were scenes of some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, the former on the Russian front (now in Ukraine) and the latter on the Isonzo front north of Trieste in Italy.

2 Saxons are a German ethnic minority living in Transylvania since the 12th century; their towns are famous for their urban architecture. Today their numbers are radically reduced.

3 A series of fictitious telegrams to the fictitious character of Pan Cogito created by the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert.

4 The Csángó are part of the Catholic minority living in the Moldavian region of Romania, east of the Carpathians. They speak a distinct, ancient dialect of Hungarian. In the census of 2002, about 5,800 individuals in Moldavia identified themselves as ethnically Hungarian or Csángó; the Council of Europe in 2001 estimated the total Csángó population to be between 60,000 and 70,000, with underreporting in the census ascribed to a fear of discrimination.

5 Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574–1634): Hungarian Calvinist pastor, writer, linguist, translator of the Psalms.

6 Our dwelling place in all generations: a direct quote from the first line of Psalm 90.

7 László (Ladislaus) I (ca 1040–1095), king of Hungary (1077–1095), was canonised in 1192 as the embodiment of the medieval ideal of the pious, knightly monarch.

8 See footnote 2 on p. 103.

9 At the 15th of November 1985 session of the Cultural Forum in Budapest William Least Heat Moon, a native American writer and member of the US delegation, gave a detailed report on Géza Szocs’s house arrest in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), Romania. Least Heat Moon asked the Romanian government to consider poets a national treasure in a sarcastic reply to the Romanian delegate who claimed that the Hungarian minority in Romania enjoyed all civil rights in accordance with the official Romanian statement. Szocs was informed about all this by friends who had heard the news on the radio. (Author’s note.)

10 Joseph Bem, a Polish general in the Transylvanian campaign of the 1848–1849 Hungarian War of Independence, was greatly loved by his soldiers, hence the affectionate name, Papa Bem. A decisive battle took place at Segesvár.

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