Letters from a Doll (Sestina)

A girl had lost her doll; to help her through,
Kafka wrote letters—from the doll—that told
where she had been, what she had learned, and what
learning, if not what lessons, lie in loss.
Later the girl found one more in a crack:
Love will come back, but in a different form.

Loss let us first define as ruptured form.
Everything comes from it; it bellows through
the vaults of dark and stars, shaking a crack
in light itself, untelling what was told
and starting a new story: I am loss;
in me there is no who, where, why, or what.

I did not know my winding words were what
wore out your own, or that I broke a form;
I thought I could not be a source of loss.
But loss lies in all things, soaking them through,
down to the dearest, down to what we told
ourselves was firm, down to the plastered crack.

Late in the attic, looking through the crack
in the pine wall, I think I make out what
could be your afterlight. A singer told
me once that certain songs attain their form
from being listened to, and even through
full stoppage can be heard. So with your loss,

so with the fading of the light, the loss
of stuff and all its traps, the faithful crack
in hoped-for shapes, the senses dimming through
lowest degrees, down into who knows what,
the hints of weather marks and final form,
hushing to null, in what the pinewood told.

Yes, the beloved story comes untold
through being heard; nothing without its loss,
it casts me out of what I thought was form.
I rotate this black box, trying to crack
its terse domain, to learn, if lucky, what
keeps it from falling open, being through.

Instead I hear a form of letter. Told
through a new face, cast in new sound, the loss
becomes a pause, a crack, a question, what?

I wrote this sestina today. It was inspired partly by two separate pieces I read recently about Kafka and the doll, partly by Loren Eiseley’s poem “Say that the Gift was Given” (thanks to Thomas for introducing it to me yesterday), and partly by who knows what.

Getting Others Wrong

IMG_6914 I write this from the air, aftet an overnight stopover in London. (The picture to the left is from Szolnok, though.) I have been thinking more about how people get others wrong–how they pass incorrect (but self-assured) judgment on each other. To the person being judged, this can be bewildering: What ever led this person to this incorrect conclusion (and to the surety)? The problem lies, I think, in the surety itself, the idea that one can know who another is.

One of my favorite stories is Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” which has everything to do with this. When the characters find themselves wrong, something opens up for them, something that allows them to bear what has happened.

Even the people we have known for years cannot be contained in our knowledge; there is more to them, and less to our knowledge, than we tend to realize.

This does not mean that we must all like each other, befriend each other, or speak each other’s praises. But even in criticism, even in distance, there can be recognition of the unknown.

I have said this, or something like it, many times before. It comes back again and again because of the language of derision that has been taking over (on the internet, in political life, and elsewhere). It is one thing to criticize a person’s specific actions or work (certain kinds of criticism can help people see their own and others’ work more clearly); it us another to claim to sum a person up.

Then, when groups gather together to sum others up, when they belittle others together, they make such belittlement the norm, the starting point. It gets more dangerous from there.

Now, actions are a different matter; often these have to be judged. In court, a defendant is found guilty or not guilty (with respect to an alleged crime); the truth may be more complicated than the judgment, but the judgment must take place. The people involved must be willing to take all the testimony and evidence into account yet still arrive at a decision. I once served on the jury for a murder trial and took this as a serious responsibility. I think we arrived at a fair verdict.

But when it comes to judging a person, any judgment, no matter how fine-tuned, will be at least slightly wrong. The human walks away from the summary. I can’t summarize a cat; how am I to wrap up a human in pronouncements?

 IMG_6922

I took the first photo in Szolnok and the second in London. Also, I made a few edits to this piece after posting it. This is in part a response to the shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh–more responses still to come–but the overall topic has been on my mind for years.

 

What Happened to Liberty?

I read just now about the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue–which happened yesterday, during Shabbat services–and while I am in a rush, about to go to the U.S. for a week, I have to say a few things about it. First, it is sickening. The lives are gone, and so is everyone’s safety; no place, not even a house of worship, is safe. I am so sad for everyone who was there and for their families and friends.

Second, something strange is going on in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world–but the U.S. seems to take the lead in massacres). Many have blamed Trump’s rhetoric and recklessness, and the stridency of his followers. Yes, there is plenty of basis for that explanation, but it is far from complete.

There seems to be a growing attitude in the U.S. that if someone or something makes you uncomfortable, you have the right to eliminate it–by ignoring, dismissing, or, at the outer extreme, killing the offending entity. There is a loss of willingness to be uncomfortable, to take in things that challenge one’s assumptions.

This may have to do with the increasing personalization (or appearance of personalization) on social media; the emphasis, in schools and elsewhere, on personal opinion, even opinion without grounding; and a belief, in many walks of life, that the most important thing is to be surrounded with people and things that agree with you. Take that to extremes, and you have hate groups and murderers–but far short of that, I sense an assumption, in milder places, that one of the goals of life is to be reflected and affirmed by others.

It may also have to do with a lack of listening, the lack of a practice of listening. In the name of “engagement,” people are asked, all over the place, for their quick reactions–to a play, movie, book, or anything else–and if you expect yourself and others to react so fast, you don’t have room to take things in.

I don’t know how to begin combating this. Some of it has to happen in education; teachers have to help students understand views and ways of speaking that differ from their own. News and other  publications have to do more to encourage thoughtful comments; I have seen too many good writers put down by readers who refuse to read.

I have often been put down for sounding a little old-fashioned; my diction is not typically American, and I sometimes get carried away with expressions that don’t help what I want to say. I am aware of this flaw in my writing–but some people write me and my work off on account of it. They refuse to read further, instead of considering that I have a slightly different language on account of years lived abroad, years spent with languages other than English, and a distance from much of popular culture.

I do not have any big solutions, but one of the first steps must be to revive the idea of liberty as expressed by John Stuart Mill and others: the idea that we have something to learn from those different from us, from opinions that we find wrong, and from expressions that we find troubling. By “troubling” I don’t mean dangerous; I don’t mean that anyone has to extend an olive branch to a murderer. I mean that in our midst there are many things, many people, that we can either shut out or consider–and while no one can take in everything or everyone, we can make our selections with some doubt, some acknowledgment that there is more in the world than what we understand, like, and accept. And let people worship in peace.

I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it. There is no picture this time.

 

“Beautiful in its time”

IMG_6859

I love and return to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) for its rhythms, loss, and joy; its searching and yearning; its ways of doubt.

I have written about the opening verses before, but lately I keep coming back to the third chapter, especially the ninth through thirteenth verses, and the eleventh in particular:

ט          מַה-יִּתְרוֹן, הָעוֹשֶׂה, בַּאֲשֶׁר, הוּא עָמֵל. 9 {S} What profit hath he that worketh in that he laboureth?
י  רָאִיתִי אֶת-הָעִנְיָן, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לִבְנֵי הָאָדָם–לַעֲנוֹת בּוֹ. 10 I have seen the task which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith.
יא  אֶת-הַכֹּל עָשָׂה, יָפֶה בְעִתּוֹ; גַּם אֶת-הָעֹלָם, נָתַן בְּלִבָּם–מִבְּלִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִמְצָא הָאָדָם אֶת-הַמַּעֲשֶׂה אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה הָאֱלֹהִים, מֵרֹאשׁ וְעַד-סוֹף. 11 He hath made every thing beautiful in its time; also He hath set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.
יב  יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אֵין טוֹב בָּם–כִּי אִם-לִשְׂמוֹחַ, וְלַעֲשׂוֹת טוֹב בְּחַיָּיו. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them, than to rejoice, and to get pleasure so long as they live.
יג  וְגַם כָּל-הָאָדָם שֶׁיֹּאכַל וְשָׁתָה, וְרָאָה טוֹב בְּכָל-עֲמָלוֹ–מַתַּת אֱלֹהִים, הִיא. 13 But also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy pleasure for all his labour, is the gift of God.

 

What does it mean that “He hath set the world (et-haolam) in their heart (belibam), yet so that man cannot find out the work (asher lo-yimtza ha-adam et-hama’asei) that God hath done from the beginning even to the end (merosh ad suf)”?

The word “olam,” as it appears in the the Hebrew Bible, does not usually mean “world”; it means something more like “perpetuity,” “the distant past,” “infinity,” or “the distant future.” It has to do more with time than place, or so I think. Here it does seem to mean “world,” but there could be other meanings as well.

So the verse might suggest that humans have to contend not only with the infinity of the world around them, but also with the infinity inside themselves. If they cannot know themselves from beginning to end, how can they possibly know the world?

Some people find this verse discouraging; I see it as hopeful, since in each of us, for the duration of our lives and even afterward, there is more than we know. There is more in others, too, than any of us can ever grasp or sum up.

What, then, explains the transition to the next verse, the declaration that there is nothing better than to rejoice and get pleasure?

I want to leave that verse alone, without clamping an interpretation on it, since the idea of pleasure in Kohelet is especially complex. But the next verse turns things around by suggesting that these enjoyments are gifts of God (and maybe part of the “olam” inside our hearts). The phrase “la’asot tov” does not mean “to get pleasure” in a modern sense. Some have translated it as “to see or experience good.”

The first part of verse 11 (“et hakol asa yafe beito”) adds yet another clue to the meaning.  If God has made everything beautiful in its time, then pleasure has something to do with being there when the beauty appears; seeing it, rejoicing in it. That is not always easy. Pleasure of this kind is not an escape, but a responsibility, a way of carrying oneself.

This afternoon, teachers, students, friends, and family went to the funeral of our colleague who died on October 6. It is not something to describe in a blog, but I am left thinking of her kindness. She was the first person in Hungary who invited me over. I wish I had returned the gesture in some way.

I don’t know whether I believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in human good, not only its possibility, but its existence. Hers will stay with me. And I hope she rests in peace.

 

The Hebrew text and 1917 JPS translation are courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

Introducing “Megfogalmazások”

IMG_6649

I have decided to start a new blog–in Hungarian–and have named it Megfogalmazások, which means “draftings,” “wordings,” or “formulations.” The blog will serve at least two purposes: it will allow me to practice writing in Hungarian, on topics of my choosing, and it will be separate from this blog, whose readers are used to finding something in English (with forays into other languages now and then). I cross-posted this morning’s post in Megfogalmazások and will proceed from there. The current blog, the one you are reading right now, will continue as before. I will say things here about Hungarian language and literature–but when I write a post in Hungarian (or my attempts at Hungarian), it will go on the other blog.

The Megfogalmazások posts will not be correct at first. There will be mistakes, disarrays, non-colloquial expressions. But one day, I hope, the language will lift off.

 

I took the above photo in August, not far from Szolnok.

Némelyik kép

IMG_6849

Míg várom, hogy a könyveim megérkezzenek (néhány másolásokot a vámügyek feldolgoznak, mások pedig csütörtökig érkeznek), azt gondoltam, hogy írhatok az első magyar nyelvű blogbejegyzésemet. Rövid, mert néhány perc múlva iskolába járok, de ezek a képek a legutóbbi biciklizésemről meghosszabbítják a történetet.

IMG_6845

Attainment and Transition

IMG_6835

I have been thinking about attainment and transition in writing: how, when you complete a work–a poem, essay, book–and then later, when you publish it, you both reach a point and push beyond it. Sometimes the very act of publishing takes you to a new perspective; if you were to rewrite the work at this point, you might make some changes (or do something different entirely). The proportion of attainment to transition varies from situation to situation; some works are primarily attainments, others transitions or openings. Neither one is superior to the other; the work that reaches finality is not necessarily more perfect or more worthwhile than the one that opens up changes and new considerations. To the contrary: sometimes the more restless work has the greater liveliness.

Regarding this topic, I sense a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary. In the U.S. there is great emphasis on treating your published work as final and perfect; who ever goes back and revises a TED talk, for instance? For a work of nonfiction especially, you are supposed to isolate your “talking points” and say them again and again, in interview after interview. It is uncommon to hear someone say, “My thoughts on this subject have changed,” or “I have altered the wording since the book was published.” Yes, you fix mistakes, but you are otherwise expected to stick to your points. With poetry and fiction, the situation is similar: publishers do not typically want to consider works that have appeared before, even if the author has since revised them. (Part of this has to do with copyright law and economy: publishers compete for “first rights.”)

Here in Hungary I sense something different. My impressions are early and incomplete–I have a lot to learn and take in–but so far I see much less emphasis on finality and newness and much more on seeking, rethinking, and reworking. At least this is what I have found so far. Maybe I found it because I was alert to it. It is all too easy to generalize about a country or to mistake one’s early impressions for the whole. Still, the fragments themselves are promising.

IMG_6834

The poet, playwright, screenwriter, and prose author János Térey (whom I heard twice on Thursday) said in an interview in 2016, “Jó társaság átírni mindig verseinket. Úgy fogom fel, hogy ameddig élek, az utolsó kézvonás joga az enyém.” I would translate this approximately as follows: “It is good fellowship to rewrite our poems continually. As I understand it, as long as I live, the right to the last penstroke is mine.” “Kézvonás,” as I understand it, means a pulling of the hand (i.e., with a pen, over paper), so I translated it as “penstroke” (since “handstroke” has a different meaning); another possibility might be “move,” as in a chess move. I am not sure that I translated the first sentence correctly, but if I did, the meaning may be as follows: revision is fellowship (or company, or society) in itself, since it keeps you in dialogue with your work. It also allows for fellowship with others.

Large revisions are not always more important than small ones; sometimes an adjusted line, a single word change along with an altered word order, can recast an entire poem. Why should a person hold back from trying such changes, if they start growing in the mind?

Some might say that if you are allowed to revise a work as many times as you wish, you never have to take responsibility for your words. This would be true, I think, if, after revising, you erased every trace of the previous versions. But if the previous versions still stand, if they remain in published form, you are still responsible for them in some way, perhaps even more than if you did not change them at all. If you think it is wrong to revise published work, then in essence you relinquish it (“it’s done, it’s out there; what can I do but move on?”). But if you continue to revise your work even after publication, then you extend your responsibility; you not only live with your words but continue to work with them.

I consider Mind over Memes (to be released tomorrow) a better book, but also a more transitional one, than Republic of Noise. It brought me to a different place in my thinking and writing. If I were to revise Republic of Noise, I would make some changes but keep most of the text intact. If I were to rework Mind over Memes, it might become an entirely different book–either that, or it would lead to another one. That does not count against it; rather, it’s part of the book’s meaning. It was meant to open up into questions, and it did, for me at least. It remains to be seen what others think of it.

Probably many will see the actual book before I do; my copies have been held up in customs. I hope they arrive soon. Customs here can be tricky; I have yet to receive a scarf (my own scarf, not an ordered item) for which I completed and returned the customs form several weeks ago. The books may take even longer. The ones held up now are my own copies, but I ordered about thirty more copies for book events. I now more fully understand the meaning of “suspense”–not fully, that is, but more fully than before.

 

I took both pictures in Szolnok this past week. The second one reminds me of several lines from a poem; more about that, possibly, another time. Also, I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok”

IMG_6671

Over a year ago, before coming to Hungary, I began reading, thinking about, and learning Endre Ady poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm.” Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and finished memorizing it at last. It took time in part because of the complex phrases (“Boldog szimatolásaimban, / Gyöngéd simogatásaimban”) and in part because I had to memorize each syllable, since when I began I knew none of the grammar. Last night I realized that I understood its grammar and nearly all of the words; the parts I knew and the parts I hadn’t yet learned came together. But there was another reason, I think, that it came together all of a sudden: yesterday afternoon I attended a lecture on Ady’s poetry by the writer János Térey (poet, playwright, screenwriter, author of prose), who visited our school. The lecture did not touch on this poem; he focused on Ady’s Christmas-related poems, such as “Harang csendül“–but as I listened, I started to put things together in my mind. Even with my limited Hungarian, I came out of the lecture with a different understanding and with new poems I wanted to read (new for me, that is). From there, it took only a few minutes to finish memorizing the poem.

I don’t think there is anything magical about this. Memorizing involves interpretation; to know what comes next in a poem, you must understand its structure, motion, rhythm, tones, meanings; to do that, you must think about each word and the relationships between them. A lecture, by offering an interpretation, gives your mind a working structure; even if it’s on a slightly different topic, it helps you with the structure at hand. If it’s on an interesting subject, by someone with exceptional insight, it does even more. Beyond that, I concentrate so hard when listening to Hungarian that the focus persists afterward. In any case, I now can carry “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm” and traces of other Ady poems in my mind. It is the third Hungarian poem that I have memorized, and I hope for many more. Each book opens up to more places, and the memorizing is just the beginning.

Memorizing a poem in another language can also open up aspects of one’s own. The Ady poem has the lines “Köszönöm a kétséget, a hitet, / A csókot és a betegséget.” (roughly, “I thank You for the doubt, the belief, / The kisses and the infirmity”). The word “kétség” means “doubt” but could literally be translated as “twoness” or “being of two minds” (since “két” means “two,” and the suffix –ség turns the word into an abstract noun). I began to suspect that “doubt” also had something to do with “two,” and so it does, according to my handiest etymological dictionary at this time. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c. 1200, douten, duten, “to dread, fear, be afraid” (a sense now obsolete), from Old French doter“doubt, be doubtful; be afraid,” from Latin dubitare “to doubt, question, hesitate, waver in opinion” (related to dubius “uncertain”), from duo “two” (from PIE root *dwo- “two”), with a sense of “of two minds, undecided between two things.” Compare dubious. Etymologically, “to have to choose between two things.”

I could (and should) have realized this long ago, but learning a poem makes me more alert to such things. Learn a book of such poems inside out, and you come close to learning a language. There will be much more to learn after that, but you will start to hear the language from the inside.

Speaking of books, mine comes out in three days. The Dallas Institute posted a Q&A; another one is coming any day on the Book Culture blog. I will have a reading in Budapest, at Massolit Books & Cafe, on Sunday, November 18; I hope to have one in Szolnok too, possibly at the library, which I visited for the first time yesterday when I went to hear János Térey read from his own work. It’s a beautiful library, and I hope to visit often, whether for events or for reading.

 

I took the photo after a concert in September. Also, I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Update: Here is a short video of János Térey‘s visit to our school. Thanks to Gyula Jenei for posting the link–and to Gyula and everyone else who made these events possible.

Where the Rivers Meet

IMG_4518

I learned today that one of my colleagues here in Szolnok died on Saturday after a long struggle with cancer. I don’t want to go into details here, since that would break privacy–but the photo above of the Zagyva and Tisza is dedicated to her memory. I took it in November 2017 and showed it to her (the next day, I think). She told me that that very place where the two rivers meet had special meaning for her.

Immediately after I learned the sad news today–I read it in a memorial display in the hallway and did not believe it until I went back to my desk, picked up the dictionary, and looked up one word, the one word whose meaning I did not know, and which confirmed everything–I had to go upstairs to teach a class. Most of the students were missing; they were taking a “class exam” for a different subject. So I talked a little with the students who were there, and we sat quietly for a while. Later in the afternoon I picked up spirits and taught the philosophy elective; we began the first chapter of Plato’s Republic.

Sometimes it seems difficult to put together happiness and sadness, but they are not really that disparate; they both come from things that matter. More about the happy things another day.

Along the Dirt Road

IMG_6789
In the late afternoon I got on the bike, pedaled north on the Zagyva walkway, crossed the railroad tracks, and continued onto the dirt road, which goes on and on. Here and there, with long stretches in between, I came across walkers (including one of my students), runners, bikers, and a slow jeep–as well as horses, sheep, cows, chickens, and cats.

IMG_E6813

I saw swans for the first time this fall; approaching them, I saw someone sitting by the water, absorbed in thought. (That person does not appear in the picture.)

IMG_6812

Earlier on, before the swans, I dipped my foot in the Zagyva for the first time; here is the ripple.

IMG_6793

Soon I will have been here for a year. My two favorite seasons here are late spring (when the sour cherries spill over the crates) and the entire fall, from start to finish. There’s still a good bit of fall left, and while I will be away for part of it, I still hope for some hearty bike rides.

More soon on other things. I meant this post to be about books, but the dirt road had its own say. Speaking of say, here are some sounds from the bike ride.