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

beer together

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,

that tower

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,

however horribly,

It would mow down our empty place,

not us.

Because it’s us or It. Because each

excludes the other in time and space:

thus preached

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,

simultaneously

we’d be gone

– ŕ Dieux!

THE PERSECUTED

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,

startled,

gamelike, you cock your ears.

The old landscape is a wolf’s den. 

Trembling, you steal yourself

through this doubly soundless night –

What waits?

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

presents itself:

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,

approving bashfully.

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.

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