Légszomj (diary-poems by Gyula Jenei, art by György Verebes)

Légszomj (Shortness of Breath), a pandemic diary of verse by Gyula Jenei and graphics by György Verebes, came out in mid-December, but since I was finishing up the manuscript of poetry translations and reading a couple of other books,it took me a little while to begin reading. When I did, it took me in with its humor, deadpan truth, terse comments on human nature and death, and details and places, many of them familiar to me. I loved it and read it in a few sittings, looking up only a few words in the dictionary. The art is dreamy (in a nightmarish sort of way) and dancelike.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, while this book is topical and timely to some extent, I believe it will outlive the pandemic, assuming the latter fades away. It’s about what we are going through now, but it is full of grim, matter-of-fact, resilient humor. It doesn’t leave the mind easily, and I am confident that it will continue to be pulled out of the bookshelf over the years. Along these lines, I think someone, or many people, should translate it into other languages. Not in a rush, but in good time, with care.

The first entry, “Day 1 / March 11” begins, “azon nevettek a feleségével, meséli ismerősöm, / hogy tegnap este a bevásárlóközpontban / miképp óvatoskodtak az emberek.” (“My acqaintance tells me that he and his wife laughed / over how, last night at the mall, / the people were so cautious around each other.”) The acquaintance goes on to describe how, if one person blew his nose, the faces of those around him would purse up; the mouths would get narrow. And the narrator laughs too, imagining these people, and imagining himself too; and then, at the end of the poem, the three of them (acquaintance, acquaintance’s wife, narrator) are laughing with self-abandon, to the point where they no longer know who is imagining whom, just that “lepkeként verdes bennünk / a szorongás” (“anxiety is beating inside us / in the manner of a moth”).

The fifth entry, “Day 6 / March 16,” describes a faculty meeting that I also attended. I remember exactly the scene described; a few people in the room were coughing, and you could sense others looking nervously around. In the poem, someone starts to say, “we will begin our next meeting with….” and the narrator whispers to his neighbor, “standing in a moment of silence,” and then, in the poem, compares this to the moment at a burial when the priest calls on the people to pray for our brother who will be next to go, and then he (the narrator) wonders who they will stand in memory of at the next meeting; and what if he is the one?

I have a few favorite poems in the book, including the two above; “Day 27 / April 6,” a winding reflection on how power and vulnerability change people, but not down to the essence; how humans remain more or less the same, and the vulnerable are not more virtuous than the powerful; and “Day 31 / April 10,” about the profusion of videos of quarantine poetry readings on the internet, and how the narrator really doesn’t enjoy them, doesn’t enjoy readings in person either, except for a few, and how he makes a video himself at the library’s request, after quite a bit of trial and error. But the last and longest entry, that of November 2, is my favorite of all, I think, with its allusion to Sophocles’s “Ode To Man” (in Antigone) and its commentary on Covid vogues:

az elején sokan mondogatták, divat volt mondogatni:
a járvány után nemcsak más,
de jobb lesz a világ.
emberibb.
mintha lehetne mérni a jóságot mérlegen vagy centivel.
pedig a görögöktől is tudhatjuk, az ember nem jó,
csak csodálatos.
más fordításban: a sok szörnyű csodafajzat között
a legszörnyebb.

In informal translation:

in the beginning many people kept saying, it was in vogue to say:
after the pandemic, the world will be
not just different, but better.
more humane.
as though you could measure goodness on a scale or with a ruler.
but we can know from the greeks that a human is not good,
just wondrous.
in a different translation: among the many terrible wonders
the most terrible.

The art is integral to this volume; the figures–humans, lungs, gestures?–can be seen breathing, imagining, playing, huddling, extending an oversized hand, lying down. Look closely, and the relations between the pictures and the poems start to come through. One can read and enjoy the book in many ways: in sequence or not, quickly or slowly, silently or out loud, with or without a mask. But however read, it will provoke recognition of one kind or another.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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