Poems of Hungary
We arrived in Budapest for a year’s stay on the day Princess Diana died, 1997, so these poems speak for an earlier era, then recently post-communist. The eleven poems the Editor has selected, six in this issue and ﬁve in the next, were written as part of a plan to learn Hungarian people, history, places, writing, language, everything, experiencing one country illimitably. Rainer Maria Rilke, I knew, had said he experienced Spain illimitably, and I wanted that with Hungary. My method was to be called The Search of Appearance, in the belief that with informed search what you perceive is what you get. In a non-dualism, learned from philosophers of science Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, the reality-appearance opposition is not useful. Words that guided me then are from American poet Wallace Stevens’s essay, The Relations between Poetry and Painting: “[What’s needed is] a prodigious search of appearance, as if to ﬁnd a way of saying and of establishing that all things, whether below or above experience, are one and that it is only through reality, in which they are reﬂected or, it may be, joined together, that we can reach them. Under such stress, reality changes from substance to subtlety.” Stevens (who died in 1955) had never left Connecticut except to vacation in Florida, but if he were in Hungary now, I asked, how would his sensibility, like mine that of a landscapist, be turned toward history and civil society? Seeing and hearing would need to be sharpened, trusted for heavy registration, and I had to take advice on what to read.
Imaginary Stevens accompanied me on my search as I taught American Literature at Eötvös Loránd University, talked with friends by a bust of Lukács in the coffee shop, borrowed a Magyar ﬁlm each week from the Hungarian Film Archive, attended two months of language classes in the autumn learning about heavy sufﬁxing and ﬁrst-syllable stress, made side-trips to Pécs, Sárospatak, Tokaj, Szeged, Debrecen, Szentendre, Vác, watched collared ﬂycatchers in the Pilis Hills and snipe on the Great Plain, paddled a few feet freezing in Balaton only to be told that in his era the great Paul Dirac would every morning swim to the other side and back. Stevens had written An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, a long poem, and I determined to do a diary called Evening, Budapest in his iambic pentameter, three-line stanza, marking things noticed during the whole year. Stevens’s poem had 30 sections, mine 31, two of which (Balaton and Erdély) are here. Though I kept to the Stevens form, part of my search was to update the meaning of “ordinary”, which has post-communist values Stevens could never have imagined in the year of his poem, 1949. (Students in my classes in ’97, in their thirties today but eighteen in 1989 when modern history broke in half, were only lightly burdened with knowledge of the eras of Rákosi and Kádár.)
Fluff. I have broken my own rule (one learned from Stevens), never to use a word like “epistemological”, and here the only excuse is the small joke that a seven- syllable word nearly ﬁlls an entire line.
A Stone from Delphi. No one should take even a pinch of dust from Delphi, and a lady from Canada saw me pick up that stone – she has forgotten it, but these lines continue to remind me of my guilt.
The Reburial of Nagy Imre. Here I most diverge from the cautious control of Stevens, in order to tell a story I learned from an American instructor at the University who had written a doctoral thesis on the sad end of Nagy – the afterlife of his corpse. I have lost this scholar’s name, but all details are from talks with him, including the term “piacular rites”. Near the beginning I mention seeing but not meeting Hungarian refugees at Harvard in the autumn of 1956, when I was a freshman; I ﬁnally met one of the ’56 refugees at the ﬁftieth reunion of my college class: Charles Fenyvesi, author of books and plays on Hungary, and organizer of the website Bigotry Monitor which tracks anti-Semitism in Russia and surrounding countries.
Recently I ﬁnished reading Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) beautiful book Out of Africa, where she speaks of having to sell her Kenyan farm by the Ngong Hills, never to return, and what she says there may stand for what I experienced in the ﬁnal months of free roving in Budapest – regret for each passing moment, a feeling of anticipated nostalgia. “When I look back upon my last months in Africa, it seems to me that the lifeless things were aware of my departure a long time before I was so myself. The hills, the forests, plains and rivers, the wind, all knew that we were to part… Now the country disengaged itself from me, in order that I should see it clearly and as a whole.” She continues: “I have before seen other countries, in the same manner give themselves to you when you are about to leave them, but I had forgotten what it meant. I only thought that I had never seen the country so lovely as if the contemplation of it would in itself be enough to make you happy all your life.” Out of Hungary: for me it was like being a mad person among sane persons, grateful for the privilege/duty to capture every physical and moral-historical perception.
Cottonwoods, in the Park,
pump minerals to extremities
of trunk, branch, twig, leaf, bud,
80 feet up. Pods burst, then
the trees send themselves
across the city in the form
of fluff, detaching strings
of pinhead seeds each with its
parachute of cellulose. This
is mid-May, all over Pest
the tree-snow blowing up or
across intersecting rain
coming down; or entering
flats and offices as single
floaters, drawn into nose
of sleeping Zsuzsa; fluff-time
full of ozone, allergy,
excitement of the world
visibly reproducing itself,
prodigal, prodigious yet
only at the edges of the mind,
quick phase, gone in June.
As in Turner’s Italian
paintings where humid air’s
between us and Vesuvius,
fluff’s one of nature’s
aesthetic media, an atmosphere.
We know not of Magyar
but English takes fluff
as synonym of frivolous,
because it’s evanescent and
it floats, and yes it’s pesky,
but fluff’s figural, too,
epistemological: fluff’s tough,
a screen before appearance
that is itself appearance.
Seen from a window in streams
sideways in violent gusts
making the wind visible, or
between wings of buildings fluff
ascends in thousands up between
the falling rain drops, like a
refutation of Lucretius’ book
about the world as falling atoms.
Seen from the street fluff’s
proof we’re surrounded by air,
changeable, impure, material,
spatially deep for penetration.
In its millions this is weighty
substance we wade through unwet
Now and now, when it flecks
mind through eye, just where
simulacrum joins appearance, fluff’s
the stuff of the thought world.
All Budapest or nearly all the middle class
will swim and disco at Lake Balaton
each summer; even Ministry of Defence
and universities have rooms and boats.
The train from Budapest to Balaton
has wives and kids, while dads will stay behind
with mistresses. Stop at Székesfehérvár;
July sunﬂowers to horizon, each
a Magyar but inseparably massed;
then the kilometre of stripped-clean barracks,
abandoned, ochre, unremarkable:
what once was Russian now is ordinary.
On the north shore at Balatonkenese
the twilight ritual has Nelly, beagle, running
for her green ring, she spots it, bites it,
yelps 5 times, runs in circles, feigning not
to see it, she returns it to the thrower.
Athletic Baghira the big black lab
ﬁelds his hard ball, then dunks it in a water-
bowl, lies in mud and laps the water. Dogs
are doggy, humans doggy, evening doggy.
Attila József: “freedom is the norm”;
“the bargain’s off – let me be happy”. Still
in Transylvania, Attila’s place if as
he also said, his “mother was half Székler,
[his] father half Romanian, or entire”,
the era of social engineering has
kicked over the norm of ordinariness,
and nearly everything is read politically.
Csutak slightly trembles when he sees
a uniform. Americans, he said,
will never understand how people are
deﬁned by their religions, Orthodox
complicit with the state, and Protestant
and Catholic dissident here: so that’s the last
identity to scrub clean to have a total
state, and authority must jail priests,
discredit Rev. Tôkés. Csutak István
gave us no normal stories that pink evening.
A Stone from Delphi
Around Parnassus, it looks like California!
Past Lebadia with its own Oracle and history
as town of Laius father of Oedipus,
our bus ascended through the arid hills,
where we saw red poppies on green grass on limestone,
where I thought Parnassus was a bossy shieldlike mound,
but that was just a foothill. Ascend we did
through Arachova, town of weavers and hunters.
Then I saw true Parnassus with certain paths
zigzagging up the side, but one path went straight
the steepest part, stopped far from the top
which the book lists as 2459 metres.
My own path, I suppose, if I had one,
would be a squiggle near the base,
a break for some of the middle mountain obscuring
the continuous line,
then another squiggle, these poems, on the lower slope.
Ascend we did on foot with mobs of teenagers
from Calabria, from Greece dragged here on school trips,
but the worst spoke a Slavic-seeming tongue
and looked only at each other not the ancient stones
and stripped shirts and left plastic bottles,
though they too might after years relive a Delphi day,
birded, tree-blown, script on stone, polygonic wall,
Castalian Spring, mystic centre of the actual world.
A SCENT IS NOT ALLOWED: let’s read that sign twice,
on Temple of Apollo, roped off from our crowds…
we’d like a scent of earthgas from your ﬁssure,
Delphi, we’d chew laurel leaves too, and sing obscurely,
Nem valék erôs meghalni, mikor halnom lehetett:
Nem vagyok erôs hurcolni e rámszakadt életet.
Ki veszi le vállaimról…? de megálljunk, ne, – ne még!
Súlyos a teher, de imhol egy sugár elôttem ég.1
Arany János, this poem’s to and for you,
so it might as well be by you, and better that
for oracular speech than, say, some language writer’s
word-salad, Bruce’s scattered sexual nouns.
Let the scented speech of Arany János ascend
through remaining pillars of the Temple of Apollo,
past eagle at point of the Parnassus cypress,
above the valley crossroad where Oedipus killed Laius.
Descend we did on Malév between a pink cloud cover
and a white rainstorm over Budapest, just when we skimmed
the white cloud we turned and banked our wing hard left,
goodbye Greece, in my luggage in the hold’s
a caramel-coloured stone I plucked from the striated porch
of Temple of Apollo, outside but near the ﬁssure
where Pythia sat, chewed leaves, breathed and sung volcanic.
Earth settled and that ﬁssure now is closed.
I lost a week of Budapest in Greece, the trees
are now a shade darker and rain has washed
what dogs do off the walks, but Springtime girls
in purple-dyed hair still plunge forward here
on 6” rubber soles attached to sneaker tops,
and now I’ve turned the corner into Kerepesi
cemetery automatically, I realize it’s a route:
Arany, seems I’m the only one who visits you.
Sitting at a bench I notice three things,
a red insect on bent legs making half-inch sprints,
an alley of chestnuts now in bloom with upstanding
candles with knobs that will be nuts, and across
the road, facing your tomb to see the chestnut alley,
ten feet up a recumbent marble lady on a monument,
knees bent and separated, marble feet bare of marble cerements,
hand crooked holding her head to see your grave forever.
Time to do this. Against your tomb I throw the stone.
It hits the bronze in front and strikes a triple sound
(say szerelem, Magyar love, translates the triple)
and bounces among the little furry faces of the pansies
where any prosy gardener might remove it.
I’ve made delivery, Delphi by air to Budapest,
from one centre of the actual world to here,
in tri-location with that quintuple, California.
The First Stanza of Toldi
(Arany János, 1846; by Zukofsky method)
I’ve minted this pastoral with ice, egg, and cocoa,
Messing around in a low bog ten pusztas ago:
Toldi Miklós, keep yourself ugly in the low bog naked,
I’ve made and killed your embers till I’m also red and shaken.
Epic! Mint it late. I’m terminal as a movie set,
A puszta too ecstatic whose alfalfa eye, let’s forget,
Holds Vietnam, Tuborg, New York, and in it hangs
My kit for keeping zeal, net, stengun, and harangues.
The Reburial of Nagy Imre
If you were born after 1958,
year of the judicial murder
of Nagy Imre, your life does
not overlap with his but I
was in my third year of college
in that year and had, earlier
in Fall 56, washed glasses
in the kitchens of the Harvard
Union with two sturdy lads
from Hungary who’d just
escaped and spoke no English.
I had contempt for politics then.
I could say nothing to those lads.
These many years later I still
say nothing to them, to Nagy,
to Hungary, for I have nothing
adequate to what was suffered.
This comes from and to a solitude.
Nagy advanced toward his murder
in October 56 when he supported,
with the force of his high
ofﬁce, independent Hungary,
resisting Soviet military intervention.
Owl-round face, glasses bouncing back
light, this communist saw beyond
that moment to another Hungary
they could not permit to be,
the treacherous ones in Moscow
and their other man in Budapest,
the one now himself buried with some
honour in the communist end of Kerepesi.
Nagy stayed in the Yugoslav
embassy, the rounded palace facing
Heroes’ Square, Kádár János and others
talked him out, took him to Romania,
then brought him back for death.
He was hung with four men,
whose names I give: Losonczy Géza,
Gimes Miklós, Maléter Pál, and Szilágyi
József. The body was dug in beneath the
prison gallows, with no burial mound,
and his bones were mixed, so I have it,
with giraffe bones from the zoo.
The place was trampled by horses.
The ﬁrst reburial was in a plot near
that prison, in an unmarked grave, and
Nagy’s body was set in face down.
These were precise signs of disrespect.
This was the communist way to
turn one of their own into a thing
of no honour, no memory, and not only
him, but those who would honour and
remember him were especially deprived,
and themselves punished if they
searched for the grave of Nagy.
The family then the nation were
deprived. This was the making
nothing of a someone, done with
most extreme intended violence
of negation: overdetermined
we’d now say, by a state’s fears
of its own people, and by conventions
of mourning consciously being reversed.
The celebration of sadness in Hungary
must be performed, both to honour
the one dead and to allow those grieving
to remember and act in remembrance.
The body is revealed; the priest claims
the body; the casket is covered;
a funeral oration is given; wreaths
are placed; the body is blessed; clods
of dirt are thrown on the casket in grave,
the grave is mounded up; the mound
is shaped and decorated; and in a panic
of sorrow with animal sounds of keening
protest, mourning follows. By these means
the symbols of rebirth in memory are
set forth in public, the community
is reunited in hope, the cemetery becomes
a civic city, a grave plot made large
in the image of a nation where
one may speak of the dead. Preventing
he celebration of sadness, hiding
the time of death and keeping the body,
Kádár took the symbolic image of Nagy,
making the state enemy of its people.
The terror was not to have the body.
This is a political poem, but unhappy
in its motives, unbeautiful in sound
and the reverse of eulogy, so now
the fact I learnt from Tôkés: Nagy’s
executioners acted on the legal guidelines
signed by Nagy himself in secret decree
1105 in 1954, ordering political
prisoners’ remains not be surrendered
to relatives. Four years before his murder,
he denied his own piacular rites!
Budapest now is not as it was then,
the ironies and sadness are ﬂatter,
more American, but many now walking
boulevards in jaunty berets murdered
others in the 50s, or were complicit,
or tortured college students in Vác
prison, or were complicit,
and do they deserve forgiveness?
Not for Americans to say; but most
certainly Nagy is dead, 450 others
were executed for political crimes,
and 100s of thousands left the country.
As one public expression of an interparty
struggle, Nagy was reburied
a second time, now on live TV, June 16,
1989. The ceremony in Heroes’ Square –
across from the Dózsa-corner embassy
where Nagy had ﬂed, from which he’d
look out unironically on that expanse
of his own funeral – was attended by 250
thousand persons: 6 cofﬁns, Nagy
and the 4 men named, and one cofﬁn
representing all other victims of 56.
Orbán Viktor said: only way to avoid
belated funerals is to “see to it that
the ruling party can never again use
force against us”. Others had been
reburied in Hungary: Kossuth, Horthy,
Bartók, Rajk, now most recently Leó
Szilárd, but Nagy is different both
in the withholding of rites as insult
and in the national, historical
scope of reinstatement when the body
was placed facing up, clods thrown,
grave mounded, wreaths piled with
their typical written-on ribbons,
family left to mourn a man
and Hungary left imagining through
and after the reburial of Nagy
the reinvention of civil society.
1 Arany János, Visszatekintés (1852): I was not strong enough to die when I could have, I am not strong enough to carry / haul this life sentenced on me. Who shall take it off my shoulders…? / But wait, no – not yet! The load is heavy, but here a way burns ahead of me.