New Poem: “Living Hades”

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Living Hades

Diana Senechal

She closed before him like a woolen drape.
He tried to draw her open with his words.
“Of course,” he said, “if I had known on time—
didn’t we see a play on that same theme,
that rainy day when you wore those red boots
that went up almost to your knees, and we
ducked under my umbrella … afterwards
you didn’t want to go home right away,
so we went to Bob’s Burgers, and your eyes
reflecting in the window looked like cars,
so we talked about places we had been,
and the next morning I woke up in awe
and thought, I have found it, this is the world
as it is meant to be, the dream is real—
which was true, but reality breaks down
like pages, sponge, or pavement over time;
being real is no bulwark against change
and loss; we’re made of stage and loss and time
and”—from the curtains came a sharp “Shut up!–
I know all this! Why do you have to preach?
You’re not making it better!” He tried three
times to reach through the cloth, but all three times
she moved away, leaving his hands to grasp
just warp and woof and the uncounted shift
of air, the shift that gulls us every time.

The Immensity of Language

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While the Varga graduates of 2019 are off to their university orientations, we teachers are having orientations of our own: meeting new colleagues, participating in meetings, and getting ready for the school year, which starts on Monday. As I contemplate the coming year, take part in meetings in Hungarian where I really understand what is being said (not just in general, but in detail), and recover from a few recent language embarrassments and mishaps (where I misunderstood what was being said and responded accordingly), I think about the immensity of language.

You can study a language for a decade, study it well, study it with vigor and openness and play, and still not reach fluency in it. That’s what makes it worthwhile! Languages would be dull if they could be mastered in a year. Learning a language takes patience, not only with the language, but with others and the self. Especially the self. Supposedly young people learn languages faster than older people, but even for them, it is not easy.

After our year in Moscow (when I was fourteen), and even in college three years later, some people called me fluent in Russian. I was not fluent. I had good pronunciation. I could read Dostoevsky without a dictionary (and with only a few lapses in understanding). I could speak confidently (albeit with mistakes) on familiar topics. But put me in an unfamiliar situation, and I might not know what to say at all. This came clear in graduate school, when I had to take a proficiency test. I reached a level that qualified me to teach the language, but the last task stumped me completely. I was given a situation: “You come home to your apartment but find that your doorknob is broken. You have to go to the neighbor to ask for some tools to fix it.” I didn’t know the words for this–or rather, I knew them, but didn’t know to use them here. A basic situation that left me speechless!

Remembering this–and this was after I had majored in Russian in college–I can forgive my level of Hungarian right now. I am making lots of progress, but there is a huge amount to learn, and I still get stumped sometimes in basic situations.

The reason is this: A language is life, history, thought, and art. It is not simply a set of words and structures, although those are essential; many other things can affect your expression and understanding. First, the more you know of the context–the background information, the situation at hand–the better you will fare. Second, in the early stages there’s a good deal of luck. A single word you don’t know, or a grammatical construction that you don’t immediately grasp, can throw you off. It takes time to get beyond that uncertain stage. Even then, there are nuances that you might miss. Third, even when you border on fluency, you make mistakes. Mistakes are part of it all; they bring out not only the differences between languages, but language complexity in general.

Isn’t this part of the reason to learn a language in the first place? To go into that immensity–not only the grammar and vocabulary, not only the countless variations, but also the literature, songs, plays, and films? These would not exist if language were a simple, compact matter. If we made no mistakes, there would be no poetry either.

Given all of this, how does one go about improving? A language, being a combination, demands one too. I have to be immersed in the language–with no one translating for me, no one stopping me from listening, listening, listening. I attend literary events and take in as much as I can. I speak the language whenever I can, with colleagues, friends, and strangers, even making mistakes, because that is how I learn. I have wonderful “language exchanges” where we meet regularly and speak first entirely in English (for the other person’s practice) and then entirely in Hungarian (for mine). I also read every day, sometimes without looking anything up, sometimes slowly, with a dictionary. I write, too, and learn songs and poems.

Systematic study is also necessary. Recently I have started a vocabulary log, since vocabulary is my main obstacle right now. I watch and listen especially for words that I hear often but don’t know, or words that I really like for some reason. I look them up and write them down(or vice versa). That helps a lot. The grammar is in better shape; I understand how much of it works and am getting more adept at using it. Hungarian grammar is thrilling; once you start using the -hoz, -ként, and other cases with ease, you can say all sorts of things. And don’t get me started on the translative case, my favorite of them all!

If someone were to ask my advice on how to learn a language, I would say: do it all. Listen, speak, read, write, sing, learn vocabulary, study the rules, take in as much literature as possible, listen to songs. Do these last two for their own sake; they will bring the language with them. Beyond all of this, don’t be afraid of the difficulty, don’t be afraid of things you don’t yet understand. And above all, don’t be afraid of mistakes.

Song Series #6: American Epic Sadness

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Many American songwriters compose an epic song at some point. By “epic” I don’t just mean “long” or “momentous”; I draw on Louise Cowan’s definitions of epic: for instance, as something that “displays on a panoramic scale an entire way of life—caught, it is true, at a moment of radical change, and yet, viewed from an omni-dimensional standpoint, in that very act transfigured and preserved.” (Louise Cowan, “The Epic as Cosmopoiesis,” introduction to The Epic Cosmos, p. 3.) Here I want to bring up not American epic in general, but American epic sadness in song. The examples–Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos”–all give a sweeping sense of American loss.

How can a country famed for its prosperity be also a country of loss? Every country has its undersides and contradictions, and America (by which I mean the United States here–I use “America” because of its tones) may be foremost among them. The prosperity never came to everyone, and it always came at a cost. Moreover, those to whom it came were not necessarily happier; the very pressure to find happiness could make them miserable. But the songs also point to changing times–things rumbling underfoot that the characters cannot identify. If you know these songs, you understand something about the United States. It’s almost like visiting the country.

This time I won’t include the lyrics, except for a few quotes–since they’re long, and you can find them easily. But it’s better just to listen to the songs and let the lyrics come to you on their own. I’ll start with Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a longstanding hit and then a classic. When I was in college, people would play it on guitar at coffeehouses, and we would sing along in the chorus:

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

The chorus is always preceded by the phrase “the day the music died,” which at one level refers to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. At another level, it refers to the end of an era. McLean said, “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.” Here’s the 1971 recording.

This song still gives me the shivers–not only the lyrics, but the piano touches, the changes of tempo, the way he explodes into rock in the second verse.

Joni Mitchell is most widely known for her gorgeous contemplative folk songs (like “Both Sides Now”), but her album Hejira changed my ideas about what a song could be. My friend Steve introduced me to it in college. He considered Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen songwriting geniuses; he would quote form their songs and then say, “Yeahh!!” (He did that with “Coyote,” in fact.) I came to know what he meant about the Hejira album. Jaco Pastorius’s bass, the dreamy guitar, the wandering voice all talk together about a relationship that cannot be, because of “different sets of circumstance” and long distance.

Here’s the first verse:

No regrets Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I’m up all night in the studios
And you’re up early on your ranch
You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail
While the sun is ascending
And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
You’re not a hit and run driver, no, no
Racing away
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

And the recording:

Now for Dylan’s “Hurricane“–the first song on his album Desire, which has a few of my Dylan favorites, including this. The song is about the imprisonment of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who in 1967 was accused of triple murder, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to double murder. (Almost twenty years later, he was released.)

The song (recorded in 1975 and 1976) is so fresh that it must be playing right now on hundreds of guitars, recordplayers, CD players, computers, and phones around the world. Here’s the refrain:

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world

I am moving along rather quickly, since I think the songs speak for themselves. Here’s Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” from her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. Listen to the stories in these songs, the stories of women of color, and the refrain, “What do they call me?” then “My name is,” and then a name that tells a life. But just wait until the end; it tears open the whole song. Here’s the first verse:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah, Aunt Sarah

And now for the last song, Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos.” This is one of my favorites of her songs; like “American Pie,” but even more intensely, it goes through vast changes and takes you across the land. Just wait till you get to this part–and afterwards:

Just like all my dreams they’re all tossed and scattered.
Where it seems that I lost what mattered.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
I’d take it.

By golly, I think this is one of the great American songs. It blew me away all over again. I will end here.

Image credit: Robin Hutton (1919-2017), North American desert landscape (pastel)

For the previous installments in the song series, go here, here, here, here, and here.

A Great Afternoon in Törökszentmiklós

IMG_9234I went to Törökszentmiklós today for the first time ever (I have passed through it by train but have never set foot in it until now). The occasion? A band contest, AZTaQ, hosted by the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ (Ipolyi Cultural Center) and featuring 1LIFE and others. The contest–one of many taking place around the country–is specifically for amateur bands: that is, those whose music is not commercially available (through big record labels, distributors, etc.). In addition, they must perform only their own music. The bands are judged on the basis of their playing (that is, how well they know their instruments), lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture.

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I learned in advance: each band would play only a short set, and the exact timing was uncertain. That is exactly how it was; the sequence was not announced in advance (at least not to the audience members), and each band had a thorough sound check before performing. This, in a way, made it even more fun; there was time to relax into it. I was only worried that if it went very late, and if 1LIFE ended up being the last band, I wouldn’t get to hear them at all, since I would have to catch the last train, which was to leave Törökszentmiklós at 8:56. But this didn’t happen; they played fifth, and after the sixth band the event came to a close.

I have never been to an official band competition. Festivals, yes; concerts, yes; but no competition with judges and points. The bands who played today had been selected out of a pool of applicants. What surprised me was the relaxed, friendly atmosphere; the people running the event were there for the love of it and seemed to be enjoying themselves all the way through. They helped with setup, breakdown, and soundcheck; took many photos; and tapped their feet during the songs. I have to go back to this place.

I went primarily to hear 1LIFE (and Dana & the Dreamcatchers, who, as it turned out, did not play today), but I was curious to hear the others too: Lélegzet, Dorchipelago, SteelO, Caephis, Perfect Pill, and Nest of Plagues (Nest of Plagues didn’t play today either). Exciting things are happening in Hungarian rock music. Bands upon bands are forming, writing new songs, trying out new sounds and forms. The six bands that played today differed sharply from each other, not only in their styles, which ranged from heavy metal to something R&B-like, but in their entire approach to music.

I do not want to describe the performances, since the contest is still underway. This much I can say: I now know of more bands that I would like to hear again, and 1LIFE was fantastic, hands down. Their sound was glorious, they played with full commitment and presence, and you could feel the audience loving the songs. They finished with a ripping, passionate performance of “Maradok ember.” That in itself made the trip worthwhile.

As for Törökszentmiklós, I look forward to visiting it again.

Update: 1LIFE won first place! Congratulations!!!

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I took all three photos in Törökszentmiklós. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

An Early Answer to a Difficult Question

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Friends, acquaintances, and strangers in the U.S. often ask me, “How much anti-Semitism is there in Hungary today?” To answer, I would need much more knowledge than I have right now. I would need to be fluent in Hungarian to understand the many layers of conversation around me. I would need to know Hungary’s history; my knowledge right now is elementary and spotty at best. Beyond that, I would need to speak with a range of people, of different backgrounds and walks of life. Here I will try to convey (much too briefly) what I understand as of now: that Jews in Hungary have a rich and painful history, as does Hungary itself, and that my personal experiences so far have been of profound kindness.

First, for those who do not know it, a little about my ancestry. My mother is Jewish (of Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian origins); my father is not (his ancestors came from France, Norway, Ireland, Holland, and elsewhere). I consider myself fully Jewish but not only Jewish; I am heritage, experiences, education, choices, practices, languages, and the millions of things that make up a person. I was not brought up Jewish; how I came to it six years ago is a longer (and wonderful) story, possibly for a much later time. But yes, I am a Jew, by lineage and practice–not strict practice, but practice nonetheless.

From what I understand, Jews in Hungary date back at least to the Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Jews had assimilated into Hungarian life, occupying a range of professions and trades, attending school with non-Jews, and intermarrying. At the same time, undercurrents of anti-Semitism could erupt in violence at any time. I don’t know what drove my great-grandfather’s family to leave Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia) in 1890–but their lives may have been affected by the Tiszaeszlár Affair–the blood libel of 1882–and its repercussions.

The Hungarian Holocaust was swift and brutal, but with long antecedents. Jews and non-Jews–or many, anyway–are now grappling with what happened during those years. There are memorials, commemorations, studies, but also efforts to forget or to deflect responsibility–and bitter controversies over the way history is portrayed or apportioned. There are new beginnings, too. At Szim Salom (my synagogue in Budapest) we sometimes have newcomers who are looking into their heritage, or exploring their Judaism, for the first time; some are Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, while others may have just discovered that a parent or grandparent was Jewish.

But what about anti-Semitism today? Is it strong? I have heard varying responses to this, from Jews and non-Jews alike. I have met only one person who said anything anti-Semitic in my presence: an old man in the village of Pácin, who was standing with me under the eaves of a grocery store, waiting for the downpour to stop. He began ranting about Jews and the Holocaust until he realized I was Jewish. His theory (if I understood it correctly–this was all in Hungarian, and his speech was slurred) was that Jews didn’t really die in the Holocaust, and that Viktor Orbán was now bringing them back.

Orbán is contradictory, for that matter, as is his milieu; his anti-Soros posters have obvious anti-Semitic tropes, as do some of his anti-liberal statements. Yet he also supports Israel (in some way) and Jewish life in Budapest (in some way). Jewish life in Budapest is thriving–with about 22 active synagogues, kosher stores, Jewish festivals, Jewish schools, and more. It may be one of the safest places in Europe, or even in the world, for Jews today.

But Orbán’s policies and statements do not account for everything; there are also rules, spoken and unspoken, in workplaces and elsewhere, with long histories of their own. Some people have told me that they never bring up being Jewish, except among other Jews or others they especially trust. There is still a fear of abrupt loss, or subtle ostracism and exclusion. It is also rude, I am told, to ask people whether they are Jewish (or Roma, or any other Hungarian minority); if they are, it’s up to them to decide whom to tell. Many people keep their heritage under wraps, from what I understand.

Compared to Hungarian Jews, I am in a fairly secure position; as a foreigner, I am already different, and as a teacher of English, I am needed and appreciated. So far I have felt genuinely respected for who I am and what I do. In Szolnok as well as in Budapest, I have been open about my Jewishness, and here are some things I have seen.

My colleagues–and other adults I know–show respect for Jews and Jewish history in their words and actions. On the day of the Holocaust commemoration, two colleagues arranged for a chorus of students to sing at the main event at the gallery (the former synagogue, shown in the picture above). Another colleague told me about the Holocaust memorial run at the end of that day; we both joined the run, along with another colleague. Two more colleagues introduced me to the people in charge of the gallery so that I could discuss the possibility of holding an event there. The event took place, and it was beautiful. I have colleagues who wish me well at the time of the Jewish holidays–and the school has allowed me, every year so far, to take a day off each for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Around me I hear people discussing Judaism, Jewish writers, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and more–and the discussion is thoughtful and searching. There are people who readily admit–with shame and pain–not only to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, but to Szolnok’s as well.

As for students, I am reluctant to repeat their words on this blog, especially on sensitive subjects–but they often bring up Jewish writers, films, and musicians, as well as Jewish history. They are curious about Judaism as well; they ask questions about it and read about it on their own. Several students cited Miklós Radnóti’s “Nem tudhatom” (“I cannot know”) as a favorite poem; one recited it from memory. I later memorized it too and recited it for one of my classes one day; a student said, “That was amazing. But do you know what it means? Do you know what it means?” I began to explain what I thought it meant, and I saw the vague nods, meaning, yes, yes, but there is much more.

Jews and non-Jews are not entirely separate or separable here; as I mentioned before, many non-Jews have someone Jewish in their family, and the synagogues–many of them now used as galleries, concert halls, libraries, museums–stand side by side with the churches. During the Holocaust, some courageous Hungarian gentiles risked their lives to save Jews; Zsuzsanna Ozsváth describes one such person in her memoir When the Danube Ran Red. In addition, Hungarians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have suffered sieges, wars, relocations, regime changes, impoverishment; it is a lot to put together in the mind and heart. One should not relativize history–the suffering of Jews and other Holocaust victims cannot be likened to anything else–but Hungarians are familiar with trauma. An outsider comes to understand it in glimpses; a story, a saying, or even a bitter joke lets you see, for a split second, what people here have gone through.

I will not be surprised if I eventually encounter negative attitudes toward Jews, even coming from people I like. In the U.S. I have met people who are resentful of certain Jews’ money and power, or baffled by certain Orthodox practices, or critical of certain Israeli government policies. The dangerous error here–as with all prejudices–lies in turning a particular criticism, dislike, or misunderstanding into a judgment of an entire people, or even an entire person. Criticism has its place, but generalized criticism loses the very faculty of discernment and becomes tragically uncritical.

Here in Hungary people have told me, again and again, how much they appreciate my open-mindedness–and have shown me kindness and openness too. But how people treat me is just a fragment of what I want to learn and understand. The experience in a country is inevitably personal, but it can also be more–not through abandonment of the personal aspect, which is there no matter what, but through attention to things outside the self. Give me a few years. I will come back to the question that started off this piece, perhaps with more of an answer.

I took the photo of the Szolnok gallery (formerly the synagogue) on Friday.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Radio

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The radio joins mystery with clarity. We take it for granted today, with all the alternatives out there, but I remember the awe that came from rotating the dial in and out of sound and fuzz, sometimes even tuning in to stations in foreign countries, with broadcasts in French, Spanish, German… Also, from a young age I thought of the radio as something you could make at home, and even broadcast on from home. My various electronics kits allowed me to make basic crystal radios and to broadcast signals, even voice. (Once the neighbors came over to complain because my signals were being picked up by their TV.)

My paternal grandfather, who died when I was six or so, had a ham radio station in the basement of their house in Chicago. My one memory of him is from there: he was in his radio broadcasting room, fiddling around with things and singing along.

We actually didn’t listen to radio much at home; my parents listened to classical music and were content to stick to their record collection and informal musical gatherings with friends. In fact, radio listening stood out through its absence. Once I was home with a fever, and my cousin (who was living with us at the time) put the radio in my room. I heard two songs I had never heard before: Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” They played at least twice that day, maybe more. I would hear those songs many more times over the years; today they are popular classics.

Many years later, when I lived (for about seven months) in Tucson, I signed up to be a volunteer DJ at KXCI, Tucson’s community radio station. There I learned how DJs get to be DJs, what the various rules are, and how to set up a good sequence of songs, with announcements in between. I learned, also, that people will tell you if they like what you’re doing (and if they don’t). My time there was so short that I didn’t get my own slot, but I filled in for people a few times. Twice, I think, I took on the early-morning show “Breakfast Cafe.” I thought some of my favorite songs would be perfect for it, but about twenty minutes in, the phone rang, and someone asked in an aggrieved voice, “Could you play something that isn’t so depressing?” But then another time, when filling in for someone in a prime time slot (around 11 a.m.), I confused the “heavy” and “medium” rotation categories–and thus ended playing songs that people don’t hear very often (and that I happened to like). I got an excited phone call: “This is great! Can we have more music like this?” The thing is, during prime time you are supposed to play mostly “heavy rotation” songs–that is, songs that are already being played all the time. A smaller portion of the time goes to “medium rotation,” and only a tiny portion to “low rotation.” To me, that’s backwards–but anyway, I got it wrong, had a great time, and received no complaints from anyone.

But back to radio itself and what it can be. People used to gather around it for news, radio theatre, songs, talk shows, and more; it was through the radio that people heard the breaking news in the world. Sometimes those broadcasts changed lives. I have brought some recordings of old radio broadcasts to my students here in Hungary; we listened to a few episodes of the Aldrich Family, as well as one of the broadcasts when John F. Kennedy was shot. A radio broadcast about Kennedy (John or Robert) is the opening event of Gyula Jenei’s poem “Rádió” (which I translated and which we will include in the Dallas events). Listening to old radio shows, I am brought into a time when this device was an opening to the world, or else a tiny world of its own. (In Jenei’s poem, a version of which can be found here, the child imagines little people in the box.)

One of the great traditions of radio is the “call-in” show or the phone request. It was something exciting to find yourself on the air, even for a few seconds, to request a song, ask a question, or enter a contest. For some, this was (and still is) a way of life; Irving Feldman conveys this trenchantly in his poem “Interrupted Prayers,” which begins:

The sun goes, So long, so long, see you around.
And zone by zone by zone across America
the all-night coast-to-coast ghost café lights up.
Millions of dots of darkness—the loners,
the losers, the half alive—twitch awake
under the cold electronic coverlet,
and tune in their radios’ cracked insomnia.

Today radio has distanced itself from us, through streamlining and corporatization; there are fewer request and call-in programs, fewer independent stations, fewer people taking up broadcasting with a passion. Or maybe that’s my imagination–maybe there are more than ever, but they have to be sought out. There’s a lot of controversy about whether radio is dying; some say yes, others say no. To a great extent it is giving way to Spotify, YouTube, etc. But there are still radio shows and DJs discovering, uncovering, loving, broadcasting music. Art of Flying’s new album Escort Mission is getting all sorts of radio play; that right there attests to the vitality of the medium.

Why am I fond of radio sometimes? Is it just nostalgia? I don’t think so. With radio, first of all, you’re focused on sound; there are no visuals, and so you can get caught up in the listening. Second, it’s there to bring you something you don’t already know, like, or have. Sure, you hope your favorite songs will get played, but in between them, something else catches your ear. Your trusted DJs will bring you things worth hearing. And even news broadcasts seem more intimate than TV; the updates are less polished, more spontaneous, and since you don’t have to see the reporters in suits, with layers of makeup, they seem closer at hand somehow.

I say “sometimes” because I am not always fond of radio; sometimes all the available broadcasts are mediocre, or sometimes I want something that doesn’t skip so quickly from song to song, topic to topic. Giving the choice between listening to a full album and listening to the radio, I will usually go for the former. But the radio has many delights.

It fascinates me when I am taking the cab to the airport (in NYC) and the cab driver has a classical radio station on. And the driver himself is very quiet, listening. Classical music (a broad category, and a misnomer) can give people something to stay their minds on and be staid, to paraphrase Robert Frost. But it’s also full of adventures–twists and turns of melody, many shades of chord. Many people listen to popular music in this way too: who treat it not as background music, but as the center of attention, something worth listening to again and again.

I listened to radio (KXT 91.7 FM) sometimes when driving in Dallas. I enjoy that station; everything I heard on it was interesting, and I intend to keep on listening to it. Just before returning to Hungary, I mailed a copy of 1LIFE’s CD Nincsen Kérdés to KXT 91.7 FM in Dallas. “Maradok ember” is the 8th track. Dallas readers, if you would like to hear the song played on KXT, here’s the online request form. The form allows for three requests–so you can ask for other songs too! It would be great to hear “Maradok ember” on KXT, not only because it’s a great song, but because the song already has a presence in Dallas. I’m not trying to organize a request blitz, since that would go against the whole purpose of requests: to bring hosts and listeners closer together. But if you listen to KXT and would like to hear the song there, you can help bring this about.

That, to me, is part of the fun and meaning of radio: hoping that a particular song will be played, requesting to have it played, listening to hear whether they play it, and in the meantime, getting surprised by things you haven’t heard before.

Image credit: Courtesy of Plymouth Voice (Michigan).

New Poem: “Too Serious”

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Too Serious

Diana Senechal

They took their baby to the oracle
down by the river bank, under the bridge,
who said, “Your daughter is too serious,
well, not too serious, but serious,
which in the world’s eyes is too serious.”
They tore their hair and sank their frantic souls
and savings into schools and counselors.
She learned the daintihoods of lady-lite:
to curl her certainties with “I don’t know,”
to bounce her questions on a lilt of tongue,
to add a smiley to each thank-you note.
They laughed to see their fear fizzle away.

One day she fell into a brouhaha
at the train station, with a stranger—well,
what of it? No one heard or saw the scene
except her tutor, who penned down her shouts
in some blue diary, filled otherwise
with canny formulas and apothegms.
She shook it off as she had learned to do,
travelled to her exam, which she had meant
to pass just barely, but excelled upon,
a thing to laugh about, to dine over,
to raise a raucous glass to, as the glint
fizzles into the deep encaving fear.

Years later, months of quest carried her to
the oracle, who took her in his arms,
invited her to stay the afternoon,
and then fell mum. There on the table lay
a pencil and a sharpener. She took
and worked them in her hands, amazed by the
ringlets of falling wood. She saw sideways
his own eyes fixed upon the gleaming point
that grew more starry with each shave of dross,
which fell and fell. Snapping out of his daze,
he swallowed twice, as if about to speak,
but she had risen to the truth and gone.

Stretches of Time

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It is good to have these stretches of time–to work on projects, go out on the bike, play cello, think about things. It is often said that humans are social beings. This is true, but we are solitary too; each of us has a different combination of the two, and in each of us, the combination changes. Somehow we are led to believe that we aren’t supposed to be alone–but certain projects, even ways of thinking, require a good bit of aloneness. This isn’t the same as being isolated or detached; it can lead to better company, since you have done your work (or part of it) and can enter clear and rich conversation.

Thanks to the streches of time this past week, I have been able to accomplish a few things. I finished the entire first draft of the translation of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok, the first draft of a review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game, and the first draft of a translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei–the tenth that I have translated so far of his poems. I intend to revise all of these and translate two more poems in the next week–and then, by the end of the month, write the paper that I will present at the ALSCW Conference. There will be lots else to do this month–getting ready for teaching, going on a faculty trip to Serbia, etc., but all of this will be possible now. The projects have been enjoyable in themselves, and the focus only made them more so.

The fall is full of commitments and projects–including teaching, serving as vice form teacher–not the official form teacher, but rather the support person–for the incoming ninth grade bilingual class, leading services (about once a month, in addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) at Szim Salom, participating in the ALSCW conference, going with my colleagues Gyula Jenei and Marianna Fekete to Dallas at the end of October (see the event descriptions here), and translating some poems by Tomas Venclova, whose work I translated in the past. In addition to that, I want to take some new steps with my writing and music–and bring my Hungarian to a much higher level.

And to ride the bike, too; the fall is my favorite time for that. Last week I bicycled to Besenyszög–not an especially long ride, but long enough in the heat. (Tonight and tomorrow’s rains should bring the temperatures down; there’s already a vigorous breeze.) I took the photos on the road. In the sunset photo, I like the way the grass picks up a tinge of the pink and orange of the sky. The farm machines are beautiful too. How much work gets done, and how many ways there are to do it, beyond anyone’s individual knowledge? Work of the mind, work of the fields, work of the stage, work of the bakery–wherever we go, there is some work that requires someone’s work; much of the time, we have only a fragmented idea of it, if even that much.

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Song Series #5: Verging on Nonsense

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Two things to make clear right off the bat. First, I mean “nonsense” as a compliment; what is a good song without at least a touch of it? More about that in a minute. Second, I love this particular topic and have a hard time choosing just a few songs for this post. That said, here we go.

It might be impossible to write a completely nonsensical song, because the music holds the words together and gives them some kind of sense. Also, songs always verge on wordlessness (that is, you can hum them). Songs with nonsense words, or semi-nonsensical words, come even closer to a hummed state; the words act as instruments, playing out their sounds and associations.

For the first example, I choose “Hell in a Handbasket” by 20 Minute Loop, a favorite and beloved band, and my friends moreover. I originally chose “Jubilation” (and considered a few others too, including “Cora May“) but then changed to this–since the recording is so glorious, and this is one of the first of their songs I ever heard. I heard it while Greg Giles was still working out the lyrics; we were playing music together then, and he would change the words a little each time. I remember cracking up over “Northern Northern.” Over time this song took on a meaning and moved a little away from nonsense; it could be about a suicide or disappearance, yet the eruptive phrases keep you from settling on a story. “Spun the mud like fabric,” “took the Northern Northern” keep me delightedly unsure of what this all is.

Here is the full recording (from the album Songs Praising the Mutant Race), with Greg Giles (vocals, guitar), Kelly Atkins (vocals, flute), Kevin Seal (piano, rhodes, vocals), and Darren Johnston (trumpet). Here is the teaser video; the lyrics appear below it.

Backed across that bastard,
Spun the mud like fabric,
Tires lifting dropping,
The shining river blinds me…

One false stitch is all it takes,
Just throw your fist across your face and split a lip.
What a thrill to hurt yourself without a thing to blame
for all the suffering.
Serves us right, the violent types,
a word is flipped inside your mind until it’s… shit.

Lost, all lost…

There’s no crazy crush when
The thought is lost in
All the confusion,
The current swept it off…

Back across the byway,
Took the Northern Northern,
Spinal cord and muscle,
I’m strong as hell, I’m open…

Hollow rock beside an estuary bank
of mud and slime where a boat sank.
Clothing stretched across a stone,
cold cigarettes and chicken bones are all he left.
Stinking tide reminds a rat of better times and all
the bread he left behind.
All of the crumbs and gristled fat
he threw at birds who nagged and snapped
and cursed his eyes.

The next song is “Velouria” by the Pixies (from their Bossanova album). Why this song, and not a different one? I don’t know; many songs could serve as an opening into their music, and this is one. The video here is about as anti-music-video as they come; throughout it, they’re walking across a quarry.

Hold my head, we’ll trampoline
Finally through the roof onto somewhere near and far in time
Velouria, her covering, traveling career
She can really move, oh, Velveteen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

Say to me, where have you been?
Finally through the roof
And how does lemur skin reflect the sea?
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the tides of the summer, every summer
Every my Velouria, my Velouria

Forevergreen, I know she’s here in California
I can see the tears of Shasta sheen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

There’s something romantic about the song, and something nostalgic too, but beyond that, I don’t know what it means, and that does not bother me. What does lemur skin have to do with it all? Or Shasta sheen? According to some, these are references to the fabled lost land of Lemuria–but what this has to do with the adored Velouria, who can know? Those apparent non sequiturs keep this from being a typical love song. But you don’t even have to look that far; even the word “even” (“Even I’ll adore you”) raises questions. They don’t have to be answered; they just linger.

The next is Laurie Anderson’s “Monkey’s Paw” (from her Strange Angels album) all about dreams and limitations, but also about nothing, nothing at all, and glorious in its beats and sounds. I love the sliding beween singing and speech, the funny voice dipping and soaring and cooing, the playful intensity of it all.

Well I stopped in at the Body Shop
Said to the guy:
I want stereo FM installed in my teeth
And take this mole off my back
and put it on my cheek.
And uh… while I’m here, why don’t you give me
some of those high-heeled feet?
And he said: Listen there’s no guarantee
Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
but listen look out for the monkey’s paw
And I said: Whaaat? He said:

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s sayin: Haw haw!
It’s saying Gimme five!
It’s sayin: Bye bye!

I know a man he lost his head
He said: The way I feel I’d be better off dead.
He said: I got everything I ever wanted
Now I can’t give it up
It’s a trap, just my luck!

The gift of life it’s a leap of faith
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
You better Stop!
Look around!
Listen!

You- could- be- an- oca- rina- salesman-
going- from- door- to- door.
Or- would- you- like- to- swing- on- a- star-
and- carry- moon- beams- home?
Or- next- time- around- you- could- be-
a- small- bug-
Or- would- you- like- to- be- a- fish?

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
it’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s singin’: Gimme Five!
It’s singin’: Bye Bye!

The last one I’d like to include today is Virgil Shaw’s (and Dieselhed’s) “Carving Soap.” It isn’t nonsense at all, but it pushes again and again toward nothing, and it has been one of my favorite songs for over twenty years. Here’s the recording from his solo album Quad Cities (the song also appears on the Dieselhed album Shallow Water Blackout).

I pull that knife towards my thumb
in the most delicate demeanor
the blade kisses my thumb
but it does not bleed ‘er
flecks fell to my feet
where I stood there on the street
and strips they fell away
in the most usual way, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

Every time I carve the soap
I try to make out something
Every time I carve the soap
well I always end up with nothing
sometimes I’m a sailor
and I’m engraving scrimshaw on the sea
and sometimes I’m a hunter
and I’m carving a big hunk of ivory, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

I fold that knife towards my palm
in the most delicate demeanor
it’s been three weeks
since I last felt cleaner
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

The song is full of sadness and whimsy; one can easily say that it’s about wasting your life in some way, maybe–but the subtleties tell a different story, maybe about art and its hidden emptiness. Every piece of art risks being nothing, it risks being flecks of soap, as the imagined carving disappears before the eyes. Any artist risks being the one on the street, carving and carving away. But there’s also an addiction of sorts; “it feels good, just like chopping wood.” There’s some waste and loss here, and some beauty too, and something that cannot be told, except through song itself.

That concludes the fifth installment of the series. About nonsense I have said nothing at all, but I hope these songs have said something, or nothing, or a mixture of the two.

Photo credit: Back in 2016, I took the photo in the Northern Boulevard station (in Queens) and adjusted it later to say “Northern Northern,” in honor of 20 Minute Loop.

I revised this post substantially; for the 20 Minute Loop selection, I first chose “Jubilation,” then began to switch to “Cora May” (and posted an in-between draft by mistake) and then finally landed on (or in) “Hell in a Handbasket.” I made other revisions and additions as well.

For the earlier posts in the song series, go here, here, here, and here.

Verging on Home

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I was exhausted and thrilled to arrive in Szolnok, take a taxi home, enter the apartment, greet the cat (not the one pictured here), run down to the river, walk across the river to the SPAR, go back home, take a long nap, then walk around town in the wind, under the pressing clouds. I have said “home” three times so far, but for me Szolnok is a home in the making. I have lots to do before I can fully call this home. The plans are getting clearer and clearer.

In November 2020, when I will have been here three years, I intend to apply for permanent residency. Around that time–maybe sooner, maybe later–I will try to purchase an apartment. The prices for downtown apartments are now high (by Hungarian standards and my own), but it’s possible to find something roomy and inexpensive on the outskirts: for instance, near the old sugar factory, which would allow for a daily bike ride along the Tisza to school.

Assuming I can work something out with my school for the longer term, I would plan to teach for another 10 years–no more than that, since I want to retire with some force left in me. Upon retiring, I would devote myself to writing, music, Szolnok culture, biking, translation, and Jewish study and practice.

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Also, while I won’t become fully fluent in Hungarian within the next year–fluency takes years–I hope, in this coming year, to read much more Hungarian literature and to speak comfortably on everyday subjects. I want to continue translating.

I hope that it will be possible to continue teaching at the Dallas Institute in July and to visit the East Coast before and afterward. This would be good not only for the known reasons, but for unknown and surprising ones too.

Any pieces of this could change. Emergencies come up; plans get thwarted or diverted. But these plans have been steady for a while. I look forward to seeing at least some of them take shape. In the meantime–particularly in the next few weeks–I have lots to do:

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1. Finish at least a draft of a translation of Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok. I have translated the first scene and intend to translate the whole play by August 15. That will leave time for revisions and adjustments–first on my own, and then in consultation with the author and others.

2. Write a review of John Wall Barger’s book of poetry The Mean Game. I hope to complete it by August 15.

3. Translate a few more of Gyula Jenei’s poems (by August 20 or so).

4. Prepare for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s 2019 Education Forum, presented by the Dallas Institute’s Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education.

5. Write the paper that I will be presenting at the 2019 ALSCW Conference (on Frederick Douglass and Robert Hayden, in Ishion Hutchinson’s seminar)–by the end of August.

6. Plan the seminar that I will be leading at the ALSCW Conference (on the nature of great literature).

7. Translate at least one of Tomas Venclova’s more recent poems, and then translate more over the coming months.

8. Read books in Hungarian, beginning with the books I have received as gifts or begun reading on my own.

9. Take bike rides, including long ones.

10. Go with my colleagues to Serbia for three days.

11. Get ready for the school year.

12. Write sketches for the next book.

13. Write some other things.

14. Play cello. (This appears in 14th place but should go higher.)

15. Learn Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” (Thank you, Tonya Fisher!) This should go higher too.

16. See friends, answer emails, make a few phone calls.

That’s just a start.

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I took all four pictures in Szolnok on Tuesday, August 6.