A Selection of Poems by Gyula Illyés, Translated by Bruce Berlind
The gardens are afloat in water, the small village
a peninsula now. And the deluge increases.
We’ve done what it’s possible for man to do.
It’s black as pitch outside, not a star shines through.
Whatever’s to be done must be left to God to do.
In a stinking oil lamp’s smog in the old schoolroom
the congregation signs the Anthem, then
the Psalm, then finally ‘In Thy will
we trusted!…”Caps and hats in hand,
the veins in necks and bald heads swell,
forelocks and ducktails flap in their zeal.
Abruptly a young girl’s bell-tongued voice
breaks out of the gloom like a knell.
And the vicar sings, and the priest sings,
and the priest’s gaunt wife with her ten children,
and soot and the stench of thick boots rise
and the yellow tongue of the lamp falters
and the whole world has become an ocean,
and fiercer and fiercer with every minute the skies
pour down their winter rain on the dark waters.
Bodroghalász, 24 January, 1948
NOTHINGNESS IS NEARING
In the Sunday afternoon
so-to-speak breezeless village silence:
a repeated succession of bangs.
Still, not, after all, of guns.
They’re playing skittles in Schmidek’s inn.
From sixty years back. This thus old familiar – that is,
the noise appeasing the subconscious –
is more familiar still when it cuts out:
now, and there too, the two competing teams are drinking
from the kitty collected in the tin plate.
The timeless frame of silence
grows prodigally pitted with human rustling,
in every village, obviously everywhere.”Short-supply item”:
the awkward phrase’s analogue, “short supply of noise,”
can be bracingly assimilated by the conscious.
The continually receding tiny rustlings
gradually saturate it, so that – gradually empty
earth and sky to such a degree of noiselessness,
that – take a breath! –
Nothingness is the nearest.
(HOW SHALL I END?)
How shall I end? I do not know. No matter…
I know the farewell word:
I order that you outlive me,
that each of your steps be blest,
that the sin you judge you live unconscious of –
21-25 February, 1983
HOPE IN THE AIR
The swallows, the storks, have returned:
and circling, seeking their vanished nests,
for fleeting seconds erect and reerect
the church tower toppled to the ground.
And the rectory’s chimney too
(on Christmas Eve
the bombs hurled it – to the earth? (a heave
straight into the blue!)
Why delicate airy stuff it’s made of,
built by the swallows’ love!
Nor for an hour
will I forget the chimney
built anew by two storks’ memory!
UNDER THE ICE-BRIGHT MOON
All the sentry boxes in place.
Wooden kiosks at the barracks corners.
The castle rampart for walking guard with bayonet.
A wooden tower for ambushing – not game – men.
One-man stone niches for spying:
notches to shoot from. Isolated concrete
bunkers. All of them exist,
empty under the ice-bright moon.
But the discrepancy between awareness of danger
and acquiescence in it has thus far stretched
the ears taut. The sacred cause is gone, but
avoidability and inevitability
don’t want to mix. When every rustle
– in the sties too – dies down, the noise of battle
has all the earmarks (fearmarks) of coming not
from behind the hill but from among the stars.
THE SALVATION OF THE DAMNED
Happiness has happened. Yes, this. We may marvel at it.
And light a cigarette.
We have become mortal again.
We may exchange our observations,
our policies pro tem
on this and that, and also on “we shall die!”
on what the future hides, namely.
The still cannibal
heart is …well, well…gentle –
spies out from its beast’s den.
So we may even get to know each other a little,
as long as some residual
substance from Eden’s primeval factory
continues to function quietly
in the sinless recesses of our bodies.
As long as the hormones fabricate
a little of that divine proclivity
for letting our bodies devour each other,
we may ascend to heaven for another moment.
TO THOSE WHO DREAD WAR
What is the one
medication for death?
The human intellect long ago hit on it!
The danger is purely imaginary.
Because if It, the Monster, got here,
It would mow down our empty place,
Because it’s us or It. Because each
excludes the other in time and space:
the highest Lord, the ancient logician,
the order of the Beginning and the End.
And today the new God-brained
Science may preach the dispersal of gloom:
how could war break in on
us – perceptibly?
The moment it entered our planet-home,
we’d be gone
– ŕ Dieux!
No streetlights. From a row of blind buildings
through a suddenly opened door, the light,
with a pointed dagger’s
rage, stabs at you.
Also from there, the Morse code blips
of a light-signal’s speech: there’s – where’s – humanity?
Because of an ambush-issued noise,
gamelike, you cock your ears.
The old landscape is a wolf’s den.
Trembling, you steal yourself
through this doubly soundless night –
To the blind the world is narrow.
And wide as the firmament.
According to whether they know who you are.
And how the indictment varies.
Heart-boggling, how relief
chain-breaking escape artist, you may throw off
all the fetters of honor.
ON A PRIVATE GOLGOTHA
Now my shadow alone
is crucified from behind
and cast ahead by the sun.
I stalk it without success.
The light is merciless:
you’re not the only one.
YOU URGED ME ON
You urged me on as
the bright mountain peaks above me.
You praised me as
the fertile parti-colored plains beneath me.
The mouth-curves of the river,
And you stood opposite
and handed over a child,
a key to shut the past,
a key to open the future.
Day by day you crowned me
more visibly than the dawn
as a born hero, and after
my army’s daily rout
you rescued me into your island.
Not dream and oblivion:
you rescued me evening by evening.