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.

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