To transplant a juniper is a tricky business – often it perishes in the attempt’, considers the poet, enclosed by a little-world of enduring canopies brought forth from his own defiant planting. ‘That is why, perhaps, it was junipers I chose. That is why I contemplate the survivors – they best understand what I mean’ (Junipers). Here the birth of expression meets the contemplation of memory – not so much a completed circle as an enduring spiral. What is done is recalled, not to be frozen in time but to be given new life.
In the leaves of this book, the reader finds himself in another’s boulevard of poems, not only nurtured and planted, but transplanted. We contemplate survival, astonished along with the poet himself, and thrilled at the resilience of expression in a world such as ours. ‘Words are taking shape slowly, a dream thrown into the wind: they will become this song’ (Voices Float from Bough to Bough), reflects the collection’s first poem, about a message that has travelled through centuries. At the other end of the book, the poet reflects, ‘We jot a fragment, a frail/ bit escapes through mouth or hand despite/ the body’s torpid hindrances – but only/ when our master helps’ (The Breath of Words). By what name do we know such frailty and resilience, which are not in conflict but strange concord, but creation.
Naturally, we might contemplate so about all manner of poetry, but these are thoughts that occur and occur to the reader among these boughs of poetry because of what Gyula Kodolányi has both attempted and accomplished. We live in a fecund age for poetry translation, and it has been more than fifty years since English readers were first able to regularly feast upon the best poetry of Central and Eastern Europe rendered in their own language. But alongside writing and teaching in both English and Hungarian, as well as long contemplation at the border between the two tongues, Kodolányi has written poetry that serves not only to carry Hungarian thought into English, but brings an English speaker’s own poetic discourse back to him through the medium of a foreign spirit and experience. The result is an arresting, living inter-reaction.
This collection, then, is a venue in which the conversation between Hungarian and English poetry that this author has been stimulating and participating in over five decades can be opened up to new readers. Unsurprisingly, since the author himself is also an accomplished translator in the other direction (from English to Hungarian), the awareness of the effect of one language on the other, as well as a deft teasing and kneading of words and phrases, ruminated upon and pushed in new directions, stands out across the poems.
The relationship between English and Hungarian poetry that is illumined and furthered here is all the more intriguing because of the range of English translators involved. This could have been a distraction, if this variety had shrouded the voice of Kodolányi himself, but the skill of the translation has prevented such a diminution. In fact, while there are differences caused by translators of different nations, ages, and proclivities, by far the greatest cause of variety in the poems is the diversity within the originals.
For example, the extraordinary diversity in the form, tone, expression, and sound of the poems translated by Clayton Eshleman, which one experiences when reading them together, underlines the variety of the original work. Eshleman has drawn readers into fellowship with the original poems through his translation, as it should be. Similarly, compare the four poems translated by Gerard Gorman – Crossroads, Four Hungarian Haikus, The Whole World’s a Stage, and Betrayal (the last of which has its own interest that will be addressed later) – and you will be struck by the range that Kodolányi has first achieved and Gorman has skilfully replanted into English soil. Again, reading Junipers and Butterflies, both translated by Tony Connor, illuminates intriguing differences that could only come from the differing tone and form of the originals.
But, of course, a poem in one language translating the poem from another – and a collection of such endeavours – is also much more than a matter of merely looking beyond the translation, as if translation was only a passive window. Each of the individual translators here represents a personal and artistic collaboration. Furthermore, the nature, productivity, and unique effect of a career-long effort at expressing English poetry in Hungarian and vice versa is not about re-production and simulation, but enriching, enlarging, and animating. Therefore, a collection capturing this should not only stimulate readers with the work of the original author re-written, but bring this conversation between languages alive before the reader’s imagination and intellect. And this is what grants Kodolányi’s inter-linguistic sensibility its particular reach.
Even without knowing the original of a poem like The Whole World’s a Stage, it feels like an exquisitely captured translation. There is an odd foreignness to it – not only of country but of emotional predicament – and yet nevertheless a startling profundity lurking and accessible. The stuttering of the poem and the stuttering of the mind as it grasps for a beauty that cannot fit, all leading to the unfurled line – ‘The obscene beauty of full gestures in the country sentenced to stutter’ – which stops the reader, leading to a profusion of expression before the old rhythm returns.
That the attention of readers is both drawn into the original poem and outwards to a larger, ongoing linguistic interchange does not, of course, mean there may not also be interest and stimulation for readers in looking for differing approaches to translation and contrasting styles, which the various translators weave into their efforts. Thus, in Treason and Betrayal, we have the great fascination of different translations of the same original. Treason is more conversational, with its grammatical sentences and firmness of observation, amounting to a declaration or attitude, whereas Betrayal seems to be more of a distracted reflection on a feeling. The reader’s sense of being ushered into a communion between literary languages is most profound within Kodolányi’s group of sonnets, Messages from W. Sh. Both individually and as a whole, the sonnets of Messages from W. Sh. variously and simultaneously inhabit, redirect, internalize, personalize, extend, and reorient imagery and phrases from Shakespeare’s sonnets, enabling them to both stand alone as deeply engaging meditations and return readers to the originals with fresh eyes and renewed enjoyment. The effect is delightful and invigorating.
Each poem pivots upon and sucks the marrow from an especially redolent phrase from a sonnet, making the new sonnet both a magnification of and an enlargement upon Shakespeare’s thoughts. The brilliance of the bard’s phrasing leads into pleasure at its pregnant possibilities. And the way that the translations retain and make use of Hungarian equivalents is also intriguing and stimulating, adding to and enriching the rhythm of the poems. With this technique, the result is not only a creative response to Shakespeare, but a literary reverberation between English and Hungarian, in which both meaning and sound play before us.
In Summer’s Lease, for example, there is a building rhythm and emotional resonance in the collocations of English and Hungarian equivalents. And this is particularly meaningful because the poet seems to be wrestling, as the sonnet does, between the contradictions of ‘summer’s lease’ and ‘eternal summer’. Is the solution the giving of life that is manifested through the act of creation – this divine game-play? Both the structure of the poem and the bilingual content create the sense of an internal debate and a reflection on the creative process that is being both considered and engaged in.
Meanwhile, within Make Thee Another Self, the feeling that Shakespeare’s rebuke (to one who is loved but loves not) is being genuinely appropriated and personally applied makes the new sonnet both strikingly effective and interesting. The original Shakespearean emotion is being absorbed and redirected, while the interplay between Hungarian and English equivalents in the text adds a unique rhythm and mood to the new poem’s mischievous urgency.
With Niggard Truth, we have a new sonnet in which aspects of Shakespeare’s sonnet seem to not only have been fully inhabited and redirected in time – speaking to the author’s present as well as Shakespeare’s past – but even rebelled against in the author’s plea for the generous love of what is flawed over pedantic honesty. The virtuous lie is defended against the assault of miserly truth-telling. Here, the decision to end with the Hungarian line aptly adds to this sense of defiance against the grey. The line, ‘Why must they bury my poem with my corpse?’, answering the original sonnet’s sombre modesty, is an exquisite manifesto around which the poem gathers before and after it.
Kodolányi’s delight in wrestling with words as not merely a poet’s lot, but as a means of establishing a reality and identity under assault is also crucial to the impact of another free-standing series within this collection (From the Diary of Noah Webster). Reading this imagined account of a famous objective achievement, as seen through the lens of a psychological crisis, one edges one’s way cautiously through the playful prose poems, unsure of the ground, sometimes shocked, sometimes gratefully receiving the partial consummation of a preceding theme or expectation, but always curious.
Much of the series is dream-like, with cool reflection beside frenzied emotion – delusion, desire, and honesty together. Most of all, the lyrical interest comes not so much in the changeable rhythm and phrasings or in descriptive expression, but in the way that the poems appear as a meditation on language itself. Coarse and florid words, wistful and urgent phrases, are alike ruminated on by the narrator, as he searches for mental clarity, definition, and completion.
This sense of an internal process both created by and mediated through semantics is particularly, and most enjoyably, represented by the poems which include the dictionary entries that Webster is producing (Inspiration and Naked). And it is in this semantic whirl that both narrator and reader are alike brought back, as in poetry itself, to the wordsmith’s ability to conjure and convey life. ‘I can only grasp Inez [Webster’s muse] when the language is sufficiently alive … This is how our life surges in the wake of swirling images.’
Webster’s quest for objectivity is garbled by the babble of his dream-life, crowding in upon his consciousness; and the border between sleep and wakefulness is, in general, a productive frontier that Kodolányi returns to in this collection. In the wonderful, To My Little Son When He Had a Fever, the oar-strokes of recurring dream and dream-like reality are utterly absorbing and deftly, gently achieved. The poet’s wish to return to a redolent scene in an interrupted dream brings him back to his son, who inhabits the centre of both worlds. In Imitations III and Imitations VI, the poet likewise yearns for a lost moment of punctured sleep: ‘I would sleep back to that place, to see the dark blue berg again, the black-blue sea of ice, but in vain. Morning’s splendor has come, honeyed May drugs us, it blocks out the black azure glitter’ (Imitations VI).
As with the fluid frontier between languages, the border of sleep and wakefulness maintains a profound place in the collection because it mirrors and affects other dualities upon which the poems hinge: soul and body; silence and expression. These seeming opposites blur, not because of similarity, but due to the struggle to define the relationship of each to authentic truth. Is the truth of man to be found in his waking or his sleeping; his spirit or his flesh? And how do these pairs correlate with each other?
‘When from the body to myself I awake/ Leaving behind the anguish of the Earth/ I behold a throb, a seething culture of rebirth/ An orbit of life floating near the light to take.’ This is how Kodolányi begins the first of his exquisite series of Plotinus Sonnets, and we feel the yearning to cast off cruel transience and dive deep into creation; but where is it to be found? In the struggle between shabby externalities and deeper reality, there is something of St Paul’s, ‘though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’ (2 Corinthians 4:16). But, as with the apostle, there is no shallow or simplistic contradiction between the two for Kodolányi, since the soul is yet both manifested and accessed in the body. Addressing the woman next to him in the twelfth Plotinus sonnet, the poet concludes, ‘It’s winter all around. You glow within. I was anxious/ to escape from death to you’. The soul is nothing if it is not the opposite and enemy of death, making every bud of life a precious vehicle of one and refutation of the other. While the heavy corporality of sleep prevents the lightness of dream from divorcing itself from our bodies, morning renewal rebukes the reproach of guilty night visions. ‘The world is tamed by morning’ (Branches and Roots).
In the Plotinus Sonnets, the mundane anguish of soul within body is ennobled, since it is only in their apparent contradictions that man haltingly reaches to find their mutual consummation. ‘What is salvation? An embrace, soft and dark and blind/ in which to risk the self, to leave it all behind/ to forget the fault of the body and the soul/ that they are not one? Is it the silence that we share?/ The hermit’s peace? A hand to hold in wild despair?/ Your glance: you know? Is that salvation, after all?’
This stretching of reality between the demands of body and soul is made urgently poignant by the context in which Kodolányi found and first developed his poetic voice. Living and working under the rule of a communist regime meant, for those who would not lend their hands to ‘build a mighty altar/ To non-being’ (Plotinus Sonnet IX), a ‘self-imposed marginality’, as Kodolányi himself describes it. In this situation, privacy became a contradictory bastion of expression. Poetic expression, that breath of words, can seem frail and contingent at the best of times, but when does the privacy that gives it limited license become the prison that renders it silent? To put it another way, what must a poet do to keep his expression alive, when silence must linger around its edges? Here lies ‘the obscene beauty of full gestures in the country sentenced to stutter’.
In the Kádár era, the cleavage between the absurd unreality of officially permitted political life and the second culture of a submerged civil society made this dilemma of daily significance. This is, in one sense, the dichotomy of body and soul played out. But one cannot help concluding that it was fruitful soil, preparing a poet to be both humble and defiant at the fragility of his endeavour. Constant, cheap exposure has dulled many modern artists into mistaking fleeting flairs of exposure for importance and relevance. The endless buzz of undemanding chatter proves a wretched schoolmaster. By stark contrast, Kodolányi stands within this collection as a poet whose long and early training in a wrenching tenuousness has given him a vital sense of quiet as the seedbed, not the grave, of poetry, just as resurrection, not sterile preservation, is the ultimate means of survival.
‘That world behind your gaze – unknown/ though intimated – different – always./ And my secret: the empty pages of my/ notebook. To these waste blanks, e puszta/ ürességre, I trust your overflowing/ world. To their invisible buds of quiet’ (To These Waste Blanks). Here is the genesis and trajectory of expression. The first translation, according to Scripture, was the eternal Spirit manifested by speech in light and matter where there had only been void. Ever since, each human imitation of creation starts with a world behind a gaze, a cosmos beyond it, and a pregnant space between the two. This too is translation, resting on the hope of survival in new life. ‘Why/ must they bury my poem with my corpse?/ Resurrect the words, nursed alive again’ (Niggard Truth).
To be engaged, as Kodolányi’s poems are, with both the human soul and the vivifying effects of definition and articulation, is also, by necessity, to regard word and world as co-dependents. As Eva Hoffman mused in her memoir, Lost in Translation, ‘Nothing fully exists until it is articulated’, but just as surely, the word rests on the world from which it takes form. Therefore, although the city seems always beyond the windows and doors of his poetry, Kodolányi remains alive to the prescience of nature. In these works, the created world is never a trope or a mere mute metaphor.
So it is that, in Sea, the trees as much as man pulsate to the unseen proximity of ocean, giving life to the mere sense of human witness. ‘In the town you can feel the awareness in each eucalyptus tree and magnolia bush that the sea is near. They all turn towards it secretly, even if they can’t see it, and that soft wakefulness, that indefatigable attention rocks them in a rapture of ripe fullness.’ In Thought Kills Me, ‘the smell of earth turned-up in/ spring gives me a foretaste of an ultimate/ peace’, not as a simile but as a genuine messenger. And at the close of the poem we started with, Junipers, ‘The thriving trees will be transplanted again next year. They have a premonition of it, I believe.’
This returns us again to the transplanting that this collection rests on and demonstrates. Next to the interplay between soul and body, that between different European languages becomes a relative one. But it is a vital one that informs and animates these creations. By giving root to English verse in Hungarian and Hungarian poetry in English, Kodolányi can offer articulation for thoughts we had not conceived. With the poet, we ‘contemplate the survivors’, seeing these trees of inter-lingual poetry as banners of life.
As a collection of English poetry; as a Hungarian poet’s work made coherently vivid; and as an insight into and a furthering of the unique poetic intercourse between Hungarian and English, this collection is a worthy contribution that will encourage and nourish readers on many levels. ‘Life is, in spite of everything,/ more grandiose than it appears to human reason.’
(Kodolányi, Gyula, For All This Here. Selected Poems 1975–2015, ed. Thomas Cooper [Hungarian Review, 2020]. With chalk drawings by István Kodolányi.)