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2006 Contemporary Hungarian Poets

Excerpts from Winter 2006 Contemporary Hungarian Poets

A Nation's Poetry as Language, History, and Selfhood by Enikő Bollobás

If there were to be a national vote among Hungarians as to what part of their culture (if anything) they are most proud, their difficult language, their tragic history, and the grim pessimism of the Hungarian character would surely be among the top-ranking objects of national pride.

Joking aside, somewhere in these possible self-images would lie, I suggest, the centrality for Hungarian culture, of literature, and of poetry in particular. For it is a culture that both reflects and is produced by a history peppered with oppression, failed revolutions, and a strange (Finno-Ugric) language related only to Finnish and Estonian in Europe, hopelessly difficult for speakers of Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages (just about everyone else in Europe). Its psychological disposition to hopelessness is evinced in its consistently top rank in the world's suicide's rates.

In spite of the successive waves of "modernization" or "Westernization" this Central-European country has gone through in the past century, poetry is still a highly respected intellectual enterprise, with poets whose word seems to count even when they are not writing poetry. People still read poems just for fun, and they still go to bookstores to browse through poetry sections and then to buy the books that caught their attention. Of course, the world would be a better place with less television and more poetry in Hungary too, but I'm afraid this is yet a moment in history we will be nostalgic about later. Like the "average year" for a Hungarian: worse than the previous one, but better than the one coming after . . .

The poetry gathered in this volume was by no means intended as representative of contemporary Hungarian poetry. Major anthologies have brought together representative collections, for example George Gömöri's The Colonnade of Teeth (1996) and Ádám Makkai's In Quest of the 'Miracle Stag' (2000, 2003), to name just two of the most recent ones. Within this limited space we have only tried to provide a glimpse into the variety that so characterizes contemporary poetic writing -- of men and women, formalists and experimentalists, realists and surrealists, Roma poets and "minority poets" (Hungarian poets living as minorities in countries surrounding Hungary), those preoccupied with space and those preoccupied with time. The reader will find poems of a region devastated by ethnic wars (Ladik), animal brutality (Balla), loveless relationships and unmotherly mothers (Garaczi); Roma poetry reminiscent of the naive murals of Mexican surrealists (Balogh, Horváth); Eliot-like still lives of routine sex and other forms of gendered aggression (Bódis); tributes (Blue Beard's) to the past gone forever as embodied by women once loved (Csoóri); lyric pieces on feelings described as blood never clotting (Falcsik), musings on such semantic coincidences as those between Garibaldi as biscuit, shirt, and revolutionary hero and other coincidences between mother's name and maternity hospital's name (Gömöri); memorable images of quotidian bird death (Gyukics) and nightmares of total immobility (Jász); a desire for certainties, for a clear difference between good and evil, loss and gain, life force and death wish (Gyurkovics); a Hungarian's perspectives on New York (Kántor); satire on what history would have been like had the use of "small languages" been banned or limited (like Hungarian was/is) by Romanian authorities (Kányádi); celebrations of being anchored in the world and of ways of taking in the world (Kodolányi); attempts at walking the fine line between involvement and detachment (Ladik again); gentle New Year's greetings side by side with graphic descriptions of suicide and death (Nyilas); contemplations on very literal objects of women's history and recreations of supposedly canonical dramatic texts never written (Petrőczi); an objective assessment of man’s obvious limits when put next to a hawk (Prágai); two grand versions for a female epistemology of time: one on the more/less and knowing/time (left) paradox and the beauty of aging love (Falcsik again, in her best [Denise] Levertovian mood) and the other where the past is present in its every detail, the world is populated with the dead, past loves, other memories, dreams, and fears (such as the recurring Bradstreet-like image of the flaming house that once held it all) (Rakovszky); perceptions of everyday coincidences (when the eternally loved ones of some [eternally famous] Hungarian poets accidentally meet in a pharmacy) and of the impulse to find the mysteries of life, absurd as they may be, even when one is under surveillance in a tormenting police state (Szőcs); self-effacing and easily distracted meditations on friendship, loss, ambivalent feelings, and a world invaded by everyday banalities (Várady); fantasies on nonhuman existence, when one is the evening or a sanatorium in ruins (Végh); as well as possibilities of withdrawal and stepping aside (Zsille).

Hungarians, remarked the London emigré critic László Cs. Szabó [1], believed that the only fatherland "worthy of human habitation" was the one "that sparked inside poetry" (1079). For a people who find themselves all alone in Europe in terms of language, who have been dealt a rather difficult history, and who see themselves most alive when hit by a black Irish mood, it is no wonder that they turn to poetry, where language, history and mood can all interact. Indeed, this "nation / is nothing but poetry ..."[2]

* I am grateful to the editors of To Topos, Joseph Ohmann-Krause and Eric Wayne Dickey, for generously welcoming Hungarian poetry into this issue. I also want to thank all the poets and translators for submitting their poems. Lastly, I want to thank the Petőfi Literary Museum and pimmedia for their permission to use Thomas Cooper's translations of the Rakovszky poems posted on

[1] "A Nation and Its Poetry." In Quest of the 'Miracle Stag': The Poetry of Hungary. Ed. Ádám Makkai. Vol. 1. Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur (2000): 1051-1122.

[2] Charles Olson, A Nation of Nothing But Poetry. Santa Rose: Black Sparrow Press, 1989: 151.  


Oltszem Castle
by Zsofia Balla

A Children's Psychiatric Clinic

Children's heads, bladder moons,
fox-eyed, freakish, superfluous faces,
rejects born of wasted labor, angel wrecks, pressed into life.

Ten mirrors are bleeding on the wall.  Outside
bears lean over open wells.
Ten-ton steps in the raspberry patch.
Drowned in pails, loud chewing lights up red.
The raspberry-red blood of pigs flashes across the road.
Fingernail marks waste-deep in the fresco.
Tiny hands claw the wall above the iron beds.
The ruins of a reflection in the drained swimming pool.
And the scattered garden, the Roman stones!
A pigsty lines the horizon in the vanishing
perspective of bladder-green fruit trees.
The hoof prints of stallions in front of the castle,
a date carved into the cornerstone.

I grope for the spine of history
before it finally buckles and falls.
And for the indifferent weeds of decline.
A sour smell pours through the walls.

Time clocks itself here in terms of rot.

translated from Hungarian
by Paul Sohar

Balkan Express
by Katalin Ladik

The returning worlds!
as they turn with jagged edge
around a no-matter-how
falling minute that has to perish without me.

(Dezső Tandori)

  Now I am farther from you than an ocean liner on the maize fields.
The telegraph post
rushing by are black masts.
I am too far to be torn like a victorious sail,
and I'll be still farther when I arrive.

 Here there's thirst and a doleful voice from the deep.
The whole is but a dream -- I whisper inspired.
An angel crashed here yesterday.

Now everyone writes a diary, they multiply history.
In the door a swan and a machine gun embrace.
The engine man has an ash-colored face and hollow pits for eyes.

Farther and farther from you as I am nearing you
a sparrow hits the window pane.
Big black stove-pipes start howling in me,
where are you? Here there's darkness and astonishment
if this is history then I won't touch you,
don't wait for me at my arrival. 

translated from Hungarian
by István Tótfalusi

Song on Time
by Zsuzsa Rakovszky

   A wristwatch under water, in the dirt a comb,
a bird's corpse lying in the snow...
There in the drawer that was hit by a bomb
a Christmas card from a century ago.
A buncle of photos, someone who's now no more
leans down towards a child beside a river's shore,
dark hair fluttering in a summer's gust.
Slivers from beneath the ruins of a home
that in the fires of time has burnt to dust.

The flashlight strives with its pale fading glow
to salvage something from the dark of night,
kindle into borrowed life what is no
more.  Decades of the past, now ash, gleam bright
in the jagged shards of the shattered looking-glass.
As foam over the rocks in the stream will amass,
as ripples in calm water rise, then fall,
in the end a wrinkleless nothing remains, quite
as if there'd never been anything there at all.

translated from Hungarian
by Thomas Cooper

See also Excerpts from 2005 North African Voices