In June 1986, Caryl Eshleman and I were invited to spend a month in Hungary by the NYC Soros Foundation. The idea of the visit, as well as contact with the Foundation, originated in 1985 with our friend Gyula Kodolányi, whom we had met while he was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara campus where I had a one semester job teaching creative writing. With Gyula’s help I went over some translations of his poetry by English poets and together we discovered a lot of translation errors. We rewrote some 15 pages of Gyula’s poetry and Gyula began to read my own poetry. Caryl’s and my trip to Hungary was thus partially inspired by Gyula’s and my desire to work together on another translation project.
The Soros Foundation paid our air fares and offered us a modest per diem that since we stayed with the Kodolányis in Budapest for most of our visit almost covered our land expenses. In exchange, the Foundation hoped that such a trip would result in some Hungarian writing finding its way into Sulfur magazine, a literary journal I had founded in 1981 and was currently editing.
Gyula and I decided that, working together three to four hours, five days a week, side by side at his deceased father-in-law Gyula Illyés’s worktable on the third floor of their home, we would try to co-translate between 50 and 60 pages of mainly contemporary Hungarian poetry. Gyula suggested that we do one earlier poet, and thus the 55 page section that appeared in Sulfur #21, 1987, opens with six poems by Miklós Radnóti (1909–1944). On the way back to Budapest from Sopron, north of Győr, Caryl and I stood in silence for a few minutes before the seven cracked concrete doors with cobalt-blue interstices that identified the area in which the poet was shot by Nazi guards. On the sculptural monument were Radnóti’s words: “ I lived in an age so ugly, men killed not only on command but for pleasure.” The five poets who followed the Radnóti selection are Miklós Mészöly, Ferenc Juhász, Sándor Csoóri, Gyula Kodolányi and Géza Szőcs.
Here we are presenting our translation of Juhász’s “The Biography of a Woman”. Kodolányi’s biographical note on the poet reads as follows: “Born in 1928, FerencJuhász was raised in Bia, a village near Budapest. After the Second World War he published his first poems and was hailed as a prodigy of Hungarian poetry. While book-length collections appeared in 1954, 1955 and 1956, Juhász’s reputation as a major 20th century poet rests on Struggle with The White Lamb (1964), which contains ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gates of Morning’, called by W. H. Auden, a very different poet, one of the great poems of our time. Selections of Juhász’s work were published almost simultaneously in English in 1970 by Penguin and Oxford University Press. Juhász’s central ambition is to be a modern epic poet, to write books of the universe. The recurring experience moving his writing is a fascination and horror over the forms and processes of life on both microcosmic and macrocosmic levels, the cells and the stars, which he describes with unparalleled mastery. The stage between, however, the human level, is often devoid of the personal, the individual elements that could make his poetry dramatically cogent. While his work is increasingly expansive, he occasionally publishes poems of the humanity and concentration of ‘The Biography of a Woman’, a short work by his standards”.
I am glad Gyula chose this poem for re-printing in Hungarian Review. Rereading it I was once again impressed by its grainy power. Gyula made a very good choice in selecting this Juhász poem for our little Hungarian anthology to be made for Sulfur #21 in 1987.
Juhász’s extraordinary poem about his mother’s life is layered with fugalesque repetitions, folkloric and exact descriptive touches, and metaphoric extensions that I associate with the grotesque realism of Rabelais. I do not know of anything like it in American or western European poetry, although its descriptive precision at times evokes Allen Ginsberg’s concrete presentations of his own mother’s distress (as well as the street life of the horribly suffering destitute in his Indian Journals). I find the passages by Juhász on his mother’s childhood blindness to be particularly moving. Something about the discord and compassion in the poem also recalls late Baudelaire.
NOTE: the words “removal” and “list” refer either to the forced removal to Germany of ethnic German peasants after 1945, because of their assumed complicity with Nazism, or the forced removalintheearly1950s,theStalinistperiod,ofclassalienstolabourcamps.Amongthese, so-called “kulák” families were also removed on extremely unfounded grounds (if there were any grounds for the whole process at all). “List” is the so-called “Kulák list” which every village council kept on record for the regular retaliations, confiscations, and extra taxes that the more well-off farmers were subjected to. The villagers screaming “Her son is a Communist” in the poem refer to the Revolution of October 1956 when in some cases people sought revenge on Communist neighbours for Stalinist practices.