Poems of Hungary, Second Selection

A Note on the Poems

The Editor’s first set of selections, in the previous issue, emphasized social-political themes. This second set emphasizes art-making intention: hearing and seeing, perceptions shaped into poems, paintings. The earlier set made reference to Wallace Stevens, but this set looks more to the example of William Carlos Williams: the democracy of things seen, importance of feeling-tone of place, the three-tier line Williams developed in books of the forties and fifties – based on the coincidence and non-coincidence of intonational phrases with the step-down line.
Looking Away
: On not-seeing, and on perception that occurs before cognition in the image of the University cat.
Uses of an Abandoned Church: On hearing, as a resolution to or dodging away from seeing.

To Susan Howe: An implicit criticism of a fine writer delivered to her directly, followed by a vulnerable admission.

There is a new translation of Dezsô Kosztolányi’s novel, Kornél Esti, full of references to districts, streets, shop names, means of transport in Budapest, and I found I could visualize every scene. To resonate with the aesthetic intention of this second set of poems, I will give a list of just those memories of the city that come immediately to mind after an absence of several years: let us celebrate the beauty of the word for “goodbye”, with its luscious and and its five lingering syllables; the yellow awning at the Hotel Normafa in the Buda Hills, which tints all faces on a summer day; the electricians who gladly took a glass of Vilmos for goodbye gift, and who then overcharged by 70,000 forints; the zöld küllô bird in Kerepesi Cemetery that has the colours of the Hungarian flag; the male scholars who wear their sport jackets over their shoulders, style found only here; the fare-police in the Metro who slap on Velcro armbands after boarding a train; the sounds of the organ playing Albinoni at St Matthias Church in the Vár, drilling down to the animal brain; the perfect pairing of coffee with Sauerkraut pogácsa; $100 stolen from an open purse on the #7 bus; the man sleeping with his head on a bed of dill at the Garai Market; teachers dressed as St. Nicholas (Mikulás) and as a devil, who came to our language class on 6 December to give us mock-presents to encourage us; the cimbalom-player in a cellar restaurant who, angling for tips, would play Gershwin songs when the Americans came down the stairs.

Looking Away

Greeks said: look
at some

thing you rip

the surface off it. We:


huge swaths off Budapest!

In a new place

hunt for sense,

but some things simply
don’t fit,

as with sidewalk walking at

a Magyar veering left
when he veers

right, near collision,

that never happens

USA, so

is here backwards,

no, we’re in a

other universe.

The visual hunt to
make Pest

familiar won’t work

so long as they say


so frustration keeps

up the eagerness
of sheer seeing,
except: except

when in Keleti
station there

are legless beggars sliding

on their hands on

of wood; or when in

the park or on the street
the long calf

emerges from a woman’s

skirt, ankled, booted,

the leg and above, the eye-

beams moving frankly
as if not

attached to the bare leg

walking out the
slit skirt.

Then we look away.

We say we skim-glance
and then

look elsewhere, to spare

embarrassment the beggar or
the woman,

but we do know how self-

serving that excuse,
we want to

revel in another’s pain

or touch another’s
perfect leg,

so vision’s cowardly

in reticence, cannot

everywhere. Vision’s not

helpless or complete but

to that professor

behind the

Inordinately in March


full of legless beggars

and women with legs,

for looking away

and for rich evocation
of visual

guilt. How easy

then to see five slant stripes
of tart red-purple neon

a quarter-mile away through

clear evening air, the

Paprika restaurant

lit for supper, or to see

spiky white fur below
the neck of

the University cat

as he looks up

at a falling leaf.

Uses of an Abandoned Church

Tho I’m no Catholic
Williams’ line as I

redivide his To Elsie
measure), I

admire you, my parish

church, though now you
have no name

of Saint, no plaque, and

the leaves pile up

before the locked door

facing Thököly út,
corner Cházár

András út, heart of Pest

across from where, cold night,
we saw, last

fall, the woman

in white short skirt
traffic, married

Americans saying Do
you think?

and yes, it was a whore,

one does not see them

out men’s eyes in La Jolla.

You rise away from her,
from us,

in purple brick reaching

100 feet before you narrow
to a steeple

with the nave-roof behind,

points and finials, stripes
and jags of

gray-stone trim, copper cone

turned green, at very top
a cross. Bi-

located,I see church roof, steeple from

my kitchen window, and behind
them Népstadion,

behind these the dawn with

flights from Ferihegy

con-trails over the band of pink.

What we

be nothing without the church,

nothing for the moon
to anchor to

or that woman to stand below,

unjudged. Tuesday nights
at 7,

or here 19, the church

sends out brief sounds
in bells,

not rung in tremendous

40-minute plunging
changes like

those English Colchester

evenings but still, a harsh

unmusical thin disturbance

on the air between steeple
and here,

whose meaning’s hardly

Catholic or Hungarian,
but has their

traces, marking dinner

hour, marking dark,
sound as

sound, a reality from outside.


Wrote his initials with two Rs
one backfacing

one forward using same vertical

bar in the middle, connecting

pointing R-feet in a semicircle.

Said Here I soon
saw everything

in colour, and the intensive

blue of the sea deterred
me from

my former intentions, and

if you want fiery
, press

tube to canvas, no mixing

on the canvas; and paint
everything, whatever

its size without intermission or,

as painters say, at
a single

sitting. Could the poem

also keep every part
at equal stage,

so all finishes same time?

Could language yield
so pure

a colourist, do what

Rippl-Rónai did when
he returned

from years in Paris to

Kaposvár, create genre-
scenes not

narrative, where jolly reds

and greens are the story,
or where he knew

to paint a mirror’s surface blue

to a little from the top,
then grey?

His pastels and tapestries

are not the point,
but rather how

he knew in Portrait of

Mrs Pataki, 1892,
a starshape

fluteburst of thinnest

doodling pencil

was her closed eyelash.

To Susan Howe

You show a lyric steeped in thought
about America, our history, silenced
women, original intensities, the lyric
of learning. Search of appearance

performed through ellipse and breaking off,
unexpected redundancies, footnotes, non-
punctuation, nouns laid in like stripes

of colour, the material word. Defenestration

of Prague’s your daring title, but

the material word’s not there,

making prodigy-prodigal search of what’s
material in Prague, it’s not a writing

of Prague by an arguing eye, though
you can claim a reading of America
across a violent Czech allusion.
Prague’s not there for you, won’t be
historical, discursive, every-

day, what Budapest is for me.

You have more ideas in fewer words!
Your music’s sparse; mine’s talky.

If only I could delete as much!

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