Translations Published in Asymptote, and More

This is one of those glistening days. First of all, a milestone and an honor: Asymptote is the first to publish my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems. “Redemption” and “I,”, as well as the original poems and a recording, appear in the January 2022 issue, which came out today. I am thrilled, not only because these are the first published English translations of Kertai’s poems, not only because I started this translation project last July and have been enjoying every bit of it, but also because Asymptote is a journal I admire and avidly read. The January 2022 issue is full of enticing pieces, including an interview with George Szirtes!

(How can a milestone glisten? you may ask. Well, it can. Suppose it has been raining. Then the sun comes out. All sorts of stones glisten then, not only milestones. But milestones glisten symbolically too, in the mind.)

Csenger Kertai will be one of the featured guests at the March 20 Pilinszky event, which is not so far away now. I have enhanced and updated the website and spend much of my time thinking about the poems we will discuss. One of these is Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”). I will write some thoughts about it here soon.

I am at a café in Budapest, catching up on things before heading to the Turbina to hear Pandóra Projekt. (I can’t stay for Damara; I have to head back to Szolnok before it gets too late.) Before heading over to Turbina, I am going to tune in to WFMU’s Continental Subway. (Update: David Dichelle, the DJ of Continental Subway, played Platon Karataev’s “Elmerül”!)

Tonight at midnight Platon Karataev’s third album, Partért kiáltó, is coming out! Along with the album, the band is releasing an illustrated lyrics book (pictured and linked here on the left). They will have their record release show on the 28th; I will be staying over in Budapest so that I don’t have to worry about catching a late-night train back to Szolnok afterwards.

This is just a fraction of the things happening in my life, which in turn is a tiny sliver of lives and deeds in the world. But as far as slivers go, this is pretty good.

I added a little to this piece after posting it. And an update: Partért kiáltó is out!

What is Pilinszky’s “korlát”?

I have been thinking about Pilinszky’s poem “Trapéz és korlát” and how the word “korlát” should be translated. Ted Hughes and János Csokits translated the title as “Trapeze and Parallel Bars” and the word “korlátain” in the penultimate line as “parallel bars” too. I am not convinced that this is right; “korlát” can also mean “railing,” “limit,” and more. In bringing this up, I do not mean to disparage the translators, neither of whom is alive today. Inaccuracies and imprecisions are part of any translation, and this particular one has raw, vibrant beauty.

The poem describes a playful but tormented love relationship, up in the skies, that neither person can resolve or escape. There’s laughter, hitting, weaving, plunging, chasing. Flying on the trapeze, plunging. Falling into the net of stars. The “korlát” (apparently) does not come up at first. But in the second stanza, there is a ridge or ledge: the “sugárzó párkány” (“radiant ledge”) that the two run along. I associate this with the “korlát”—but more about that in a moment.

The last stanza contemplates the state of things:

Most kényszerítlek, válaszolj,
mióta tart e hajsza?
Megalvadt szememben az éj.
Ki kezdte és akarta?
Mi lesz velem, s mi lesz veled?
Vigasztalan szeretlek!
Ülünk az ég korlátain,
mint elitélt fegyencek.

Hughes and Csokits translate this as follows:

Now I force you to answer:
when did this hunt begin?
Night has clotted in my eyes.
Who started it? Who wanted it? What
will happen to me? What will happen to you?
I love you unconsoled.
We crouch on the sky’s parallel bars –
like convicts condemned.

The problem with “parallel bars” is quintuple. First, it changes the picture of the acrobatics in the poem. If there are parallel bars, then supposedly the two lovers are swinging around them at some point, in addition to running on the ridge and flying on the trapeze. But there’s no suggestion of this earlier in the poem, and it’s a bit difficult to picture.

Second, convicts don’t typically sit on parallel bars. The image is jarring to me. That in itself doesn’t mean it’s wrong—Pilinszky’s poems have surprising images—but I think a different translation would bring out the weight of the ending.

Third, the phrase has too many syllables. It crowds both the poem’s title and its penultimate line.

Fourth, “ridges,” “railings,” or “limits” would be much more fitting, as it would suggest that the lovers are outcasts, unable to reconcile with themselves or find a place in the world. It’s curious that “korlát” is singular in the title but plural at the end. But there are possible reasons for this too.

Fifth, “korlát” has many definitions and associations; “parallel bars” is so specific that it shuts some of the other possible meanings out. Parallel bars are associated strictly with gymnastics.

I brought this question to my students; I was curious to find out what they would think, since they are all native speakers of Hungarian. Some of them took this up eagerly. One class agreed with me that “parallel bars” was wrong. The other class more or less agreed as well, but made a few additional observations. One student said he found “parallel bars” awkward but understood why Hughes and Csokits had chosen it. Parallel bars look like prison bars, he explained, if you rotate them ninety degrees. The convicts, being condemned, would be found behind bars. All the same, he found the phrase unnecessarily cumbersome; “bars” would have been adequate.

Regarding the relation between the “párkány” (ledge) and the “korlátok,” another student suggested that these convicts were sitting not only on the edges of the sky, but on the edges of reality. That comes close to my understanding of the poem and brings even more out of it. It is not only about tormented love that has no resolution. It has to do with taking part in something that bewilders you: not knowing what is going on, just knowing that it is. That in itself is the “korlát.”

In other words, the “korlát,” as I understand it, has at least a double meaning: a railing or physical boundary on the one hand, and an existential limit on the other. What I do not see is parallel bars.

That in turn reminds me of the ending of “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”):

nem tudom,
és mégis, hogyha valamit tudok,
hát ezt tudom, e forró folyosót,
e nyílegyenes labirintust, melyben
mind tömöttebb és mind tömöttebb
és egyre szabadabb a tény, hogy röpülünk.

In Géza Simon’s translation (which also opens up many questions):

I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something I know,
I know this blazing corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow,
the heavier and heavier,
exhilarating fact of our fall.

Painting: Trapeze by H. James Hoff.

I made an addition to this piece after posting it.

“Vayhi yadav emuna ad bo hashames”

Today I chanted Chapter 17 of Exodus. This is where the children of Israel rail against Moses because there is no water, Moses asks God what to do, and God commands him to smite the rock in Horeb. (This contrasts markedly with a different episode in which Moses is commanded to speak to a rock but hits it instead.) Moses obeys the command, and we are led to assume that water comes out of the rock.

Then the focus shifts to Amalek, who fights against the Israelites in Rephidim. Here Moses commands Joshua to go and fight Amalek while he, Moses, stands with Aaron and Hur at the top of the hill. The chapter ends with the famous verses in which God commands Moses to “write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” Much has been said and asked about this apparent paradox of remembrance and obliteration.

And I imagine that much has been said about what I am going to bring up. I see many parallels between the two stories. In both, there is a conflict: first, between the people of Israel and Moses (and God), and second, between Amalek and the people of Israel.

In both, there is a command: in the first, God commands Moses, and in the second, Moses commands Joshua.

In both, the rod plays a key role: in the first, Moses smites the rock with the rod, and in the second, Moses holds the rod up (to the best of his ability).

In both, the place is given a name in commemoration of the struggle. In the first case, “the name of the place was called Massah, and Meribah, because of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tried the LORD, saying: ‘Is the LORD among us, or not?'” In the second, “Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi. And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of the LORD: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.'”

But then come the differences. First, the difference of enemy. Amalek is an absolute enemy; there is nothing to be done with him but to defeat and obliterate him, and to inscribe the memorial in the book. The people of Israel, in contrast, are not the enemy; only their stubbornness and impatience is. Their question ‘Is the LORD among us, or not?’ is still asked to this day. Anyone can sympathize with it.

The other difference lies in the one giving the commands. In the first case, it is God; in the second, Moses. As it turns out, Moses needs not only the help of God, but the help of other humans. My favorite verse in the entire chapter is verse 12:

יב  וִידֵי מֹשֶׁה כְּבֵדִים, וַיִּקְחוּ-אֶבֶן וַיָּשִׂימוּ תַחְתָּיו וַיֵּשֶׁב עָלֶיהָ; וְאַהֲרֹן וְחוּר תָּמְכוּ בְיָדָיו, מִזֶּה אֶחָד וּמִזֶּה אֶחָד, וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה, עַד-בֹּא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.12 But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.

The word for “steady” here is “emuna,” which also means “faith,” “trust.” (It is a noun, but here it takes on an adjectival sense.) Moses needs help to keep the rod up in the air, but with that help, he has all the steadiness, all the faith and trust, that he needs.

I imagine that someone, somewhere, has interpreted Moses’s faltering hands as faltering faith. In that case, there’s an even deeper parallel in the chapter: between the Israelites in the first story and Moses in the second. The meaning might be that everyone falters, everyone needs help. But that feels a little too pat. Moses is giving everything he can; the Israelites, presumably, are not. What I understand from this chapter is that even the greatest get tired, even the greatest falter, but they allow themselves to be lifted. Maybe that’s part of greatness: letting yourself be lifted.

Hebrew text and translation courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

Painting: John Everett Millais, Victory O Lord! (1871)

Keeping Time

The winter break was close to ideal. I had two warm invitations to homes, spent lots of time reading, writing, preparing for the Pilinszky event, listening to music, playing cello, resting, and thinking, and went to three concerts (Jazzékiel, Kolibri, and Idegen/Esti Kornél). There were stretches of quiet time with nowhere to rush to, no deadlines to meet except for my own. Many Hungarians assume that a life like this must be lonely. But no, I thrive in these conditions: for instance, right now. I got up at 4:30, and the sun has not come up yet. Two hours, so far, of quiet and dark. I love company too, in good measure.

I came upon the above painting by chance (by Sally Sharp, a painter I had never heard of before) when looking for something else. It reminds me of Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Got Lost” (the first of three interludes on his album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?). I have listened to the album many times now and keep looking forward to the next time. There’s so much more I want to listen to, too, but this is how I tend to read and listen: over and over, and then slowly making my way to other things.

On December 31 I re-recorded the first of my five Pilinszky cello covers. This is the third attempt and the best of the three. I intend to record them all—whether by myself, at home, or with someone else’s assistance. But I like how this came out in terms of tone and mood.

Tomorrow school resumes. I will try to keep some of this restfulness, but the next few months will be fairly intense. I am planning a Shakespeare festival, scheduled for April 22, with the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library). We don’t know for sure whether it will be possible to hold it, but given that it will be fairly small, we should be able to work it out, unless we enter a new Covid lockdown. The most important thing is to help my students prepare Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs. If we have the content (which won’t be wasted in any case), the rest will come together.

And a month before that, the Pilinszky event will take place! Lots of people have shown interest on Facebook, but there’s no telling until the event itself how many people will attend. In any case, now is the time for me to step up the invitations, in addition to continuing with the preparations. You, too, can invite people. We welcome anyone interested in poetry, songs and songwriting, translation, languages, Hungarian, and Pilinszky himself.

That’s in addition to regular teaching, Folyosó, translations, writing, and much more. On April 12, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más will appear! (Publication was originally scheduled for February, but there were some delays.) Also, very soon, six poems by Csenger Kertai, in my English translation, will appear (two apiece) in Asymptote, Literary Imagination, and Literary Matters.

Now the sun is up, though dimly. Time for me to go on to other things. First of all, because it’s on my mind, and because I might not have time or presence of mind for this over the coming weeks, I want to watch the first of Laurie Anderson’s Norton Lectures. A friend has been recommending them for months, but I kept missing them while they were going on. Now they can all be watched online. Happy New Year to all!

Art credit: Sally Sharp, “Walkin Out” (oil/cold wax).

“My eyes, / two eyes, bounce: my salvation”

I have been spending a lot of time with Pilinszky over the break: reading several poems carefully each day, reading his prose, reading about him, reading the poet Tara Bergin’s wonderful doctoral thesis, Ted Hughes and the Literal: A study of the relationship between Ted Hughes’s translations of Pilinszky and his intentions for Crow (Newcastle University, 2013). One question that puzzles me is: why did Hughes believe he knew what the “literal” actually was? Bergin explains that he means something different by “literal” than many do; for him, a literal translation is one that is naked, foreign-sounding, unadorned, as well as accurate. But when it comes to Pilinszky, your interpretation of a single word (which may have multiple possible meanings) will affect your entire understanding of what is happening in the poem.

I was pondering and pondering the last stanza of his magnificent poem “Kráter”:

Úgy érint elutasításod,
ez a parázna, kőbeírott suhintás,
hogy tekintetem – két kavics –
azóta is csak gurul és gurul
egy hófehér kráterben. Két szemem,
két szem pattog: az üdvösségem.

Katalin N. Ullrich translates the stanza as follows:

I feel your rejection,
this wanton swishing set in stone so
that my eyes – like two pebbles –
have been rolling ever since
in a white crater.  My eyes,
two eyes snap: my salvation.

Here’s Ted Hughes’s rendition:

Your rejection has affected me,
this adultery slash inscribed in stone,
so that ever since
my look—two pebbles—
rolls and rolls
in a snow-white crater. My eyes,
two eyes, bounce: my salvation.

I like the first translation better for the first two lines, and Hughes better for the rest, but to figure this out, I first had to figure out what was going on with the rolling pebbles, especially the “snap” or “bounce.” The verb “pattog” can mean “snap, bounce, crackle, sputter, sparkle.” But when does this “pattog” happen? During the rolling, afterwards, or sometime in the future? Both translators leave out the word “csak,” “just,” which to me seems very important: the image of the pebbles just rolling and rolling (“csak gurul és gurul”). So the bounce, snap, or sputter must happen at a different point. When is this?

Another important word here is “két” (two), which occurs three times in the stanza and is thus emphatic. The gaze or glance, “tekintetem,” is singular, but then we have “két kavics” (two pebbles), “két szemem” (my two eyes), and “két szem” (two eyes). “Szem” can also mean a speck or grain of sand; this would help explain the near-repetition of “két szemem” and “két szem.” Basically these two eyes, pebbles, or specks are rolling down.

I somehow wended my way to the physics of marbles in a cone—black hole simulations, in fact—and there it was! The marbles roll and roll as they go down, but then, at the narrowest part, they start to collide with each other, and snap, and bounce, and crackle. This video brought tears to my eyes; I thought, this must be it!

So the last stanza describes a kind of feverish descent of the soul down a funnel-like crater (maybe a volcanic crater), where the gaze is so lost after the other person’s rejection that it just rolls and rolls, until it hits such a low and narrow point that a collision happens; this collision, this instantaneous break, becomes salvation. Antal Kuklay, a retired canon of the Archidiocese of Eger and a scholar of Pilinszky’s work, sees something similar—he likens the downward rolling to a state of spiritual darkness—but in his interpretation, the “snap” marks the beginning of a rolling back upward, toward salvation. I don’t think there’s any upward rolling; I don’t think the salvation is any longer than a sliver of a second. It’s the snap, the bounce, no more. But that is enough.

Image courtesy of Scientific American.

The Right to Be Astonished

Lazy days do not come often for me, but I love them when they come. A time for slow movement and stillness. A time to look at the paintings on my wall. A time to think things over. A time to listen to music without having to rush anywhere afterward. A time to go on a longer run than usual. I do have a few things to do today, but with the exception of one assignment I need to create for my students, there’s no immediate deadline. And the winter break (short but substantial) is around the corner.

Thoughts pass through my mind, weaving around each other. I think about an essay that a student wrote about human abilities. The essay concludes (I am quoting with the student’s permission): “In the end we shouldn’t forget that to be amazed by something or give an opinion on it is also an ability. Day after day we keep getting impressed by others. We should keep going like this, and affect the future, who will also have the right to be astonished.”

The right to be astonished! I was astonished by the phrase itself. Astonishment is often put down as naive. People hesitate to show it or even feel it. What a shame and loss. People hold back from astonishment because they don’t want to be embarrassed or look like fools. But the world would be better with such fools. Awe and astonishment are indeed abilities, and they are real. They mean that something reached you, some kind of beauty or meaning, and that you were able to receive it. No single person receives it everywhere, but each of us takes part in a larger perception.

If we hold back out of shame or self-consciousness, the student suggests, we are not only denying our own astonishment, our own ability, but affecting the future too. To say (in words or otherwise) that “this is beautiful” is to allow such things to be said.

A few things have astonished me in the past week, including Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, the Torah portion that I chanted yesterday (Genesis 50:15-26), the Sándor Csoóri event that I attended yesterday (a discussion, held at the Petőfi Literary Museum, between Miklós Vecsei and Gergely Balla, with music by Balla—a song he wrote that draws on nine Csoóri poems), a video premiere of the Platon Karataev duo performing “Partért kiáltó,” and passages in Hamlet, which my eleventh-grade students are close to finishing now.

Then last night I came upon something that topped it all off. A student had posted a new photo of herself on Facebook. (Here it is common for teachers and students to be “friends” on Facebook and even to use Facebook for classroom-related communication, so I see these updates from time to time.) Another student commented, “you caught my eyes just like the pirates caught Hamlet.” (We had just read the scene where Hamlet tells Horatio in a letter about having been captured, and thereby rescued, by pirates.) What a beautiful Hamlet reference! That’s why it’s possible to read Hamlet again and again; there’s no end to what it can evoke, what associations it can form in different minds, lives, stages of life.

Oh, and I forgot one other thing. After the Csoóri event, I had a little time before my train back to Szolnok, so I walked to the Keleti station and had two slices of pizza at a nearby chain restaurant. It isn’t always easy to find good pizza in Hungary (by which I mean pizza with a crackling thin crust and light, fresh toppings), but this place has them, and this time they had plain (tomato sauce and cheese) slices. And those slices were so delicate and delicious that I could have eaten two more, but by then it was time to catch the train, which was just as well, because I also had chicken soup waiting for me at home.

So yes, I claim my right to be astonished, and I will not give it up.

The photo is of three paintings by Cz.K. Sebő. Instead of selling physical CDs, he is selling a series of tiny mood-paintings, which come with download codes (so that they include the full album as well as two forthcoming demo songs). I bought this series of three and intended to give two away as gifts—but love what they give to the room and will not part with them.

Folyosó, Translations, Cello, and More

The Autumn 2021 issue of Folyosó came out last week, and it is stunning. Take some time with the contest winners, which address the question, “Life is full of contradictions, but how well can you express this through a story, poem, dialogue, essay, or other written form?” The depth, and range or these pieces will bring color to your late autumn and far beyond. I wish I could introduce Roza Kaplan’s “Raindrops in the Darkness” (the story itself) to Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the song itself). I think they would have a lot to say to each other. But the contest is only part of the issue; there are essays, stories, absurdist plays, and an extraordinary long poem with such intricate layout that we embedded it as a PDF (the first time we have done this).

One thing that made this issue unusual was the care and thought that the students put into the writing over time. Several students kept revising their pieces on their own initiative and sending me new drafts. One piece didn’t go in to the fall issue, because it needs some more time, but it’s so remarkable that I will be working with the author and featuring it in the winter issue.

Beyond Folyosó, a lot is happening over here. Asymptote has accepted two of my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems for their January 2022 issue. Two more translations of Kertai’s poems will be appearing in a forthcoming issue (maybe the March 2022 issue?) of Literary Imagination. (Update: Literary Matters accepted two as well—so six of the translations will be appearing in the coming months!)

On other translation fronts, I have finished the full first draft of my translation of Sándor Jászberényi’s story collection A varjúkirály. Now there will be revisions, but that will be easier, since the manuscript now exists. Translating this book in the summer and fall, on top of teaching and other things, made for a rather intense stretch. Now I am turning to some other things that have been waiting.

One of these is music. On December 13, I will play cello at a literary evening hosted by the literary journal Eső. whose editor-in-chief is Gyula Jenei (whose collection Mindig más will be published in my English translation in February 2022, by Deep Vellum in Dallas). At the Eső event, according to the current plan (which might change), I will play five cello/voice renditions of Pilinszky poems, in between the main readings. I am very excited but also anxious, since there are two days this week when I will not be able to practice (I have to go to Budapest on Tuesday afternoon for passport renewal, and on Wednesday afternoon for a doctor’s appointment). But I think the practice time will be just enough. (Speaking of Pilinszky, there has been great interest in the March 20 event! Stay tuned for updates in January.)

This morning something special is happening: I have been invited to visit the Sipos Orbán high school to speak English with the students, who have never met a native speaker before. I am looking forward to that very much.

And concerts abound: On December 16, I will be going to hear the Cz.K. Sebő band play their record release show. This is Sebő’s first full-length solo (or rather, solo-with-band) album, after years of singles and EPs (and along with Platon Karataev recordings). Noémi Barkóczi, whose new album I love, will be opening. I can’t wait. Later in the month I will get to hear Jazzékiel (December 23) and Esti Kornél and Felső Tízezer (December 30). Then, on January 28, Platon Karataev will play their record release show for their third album. I had the honor of attending the record listening party on Saturday. It is an incredible album; I think it will move people around the world. Language will not be a barrier, because it goes beyond language. (It’s their first album in Hungarian; the earlier ones were in English, with the exception of a bonus track.)

We are closing in to the winter break; on December 21, my students in the eleventh grade will give the traditional caroling performance. Although they will not be singing (it isn’t possible under current Covid rules), they recorded themselves in advance and will play this recording as they perform their skit. They have been going about this with ingenuity and cheer.

This is all that I have time to talk about; I must get ready. I have a feeling that I’m leaving something out, but if so, it will come up another time.

A Listening Dream Come True and Beyond

Back in February 2021, when Platon Karataev announced their fundraising campaign for the third album, they included an “album listening party with the band” as one of the perks. Those who selected this perk (in return for a modest donation) would be invited to listen to their third album about a month before its release. There were other perks too, but this was the one I wanted most, besides the album itself, which I was going to purchase anyway. Still, I was terrified of the idea, and it took me a few more months to bring myself to select it. Why? I think that when you listen to music, you show something of yourself. At a show or concert, no one really sees you; you’re facing forward, and the musicians themselves only rarely see the audience (they might close their eyes, look down, face each other, or gaze outward without seeing specific faces). Even in a big crowd, you can feel private and enclosed. But when you’re in a room with others, listening to music together, the barriers come down. Never mind that I would be in a room with the very creators of the music.

I used to listen to music with others, usually just one other person; we would put on an album and listen from it from start to finish without talking. I miss that so much. This album listening event brought all of that back but took it somewhere else. The album is disarming and dazzling. We all listened silently. There was no chatter while it was playing (except for a conversation upstairs, which seeped through amusingly here and there). The atmosphere was warm and friendly in the silence, in Gergő Balla’s introductory and closing words, and the conversations before and afterward. Afterwards I couldn’t say anything, but I wasn’t alone; my friends Zsuzsanna and Mesi were also speechless, and we gave each other hugs. And even though I didn’t say a word to the band except for hello and goodbye, I know that we had this listening together. I lingered for a little while and then headed back to Szolnok wrapped in joy. But joy isn’t even the right word, since so much was mixed in with it, things that words don’t land on.

The weekend was full of listening. I had come in to Budapest on Friday afternoon, since I was going to lead the online Szim Salom services on Friday night and Saturday morning, and would not have been able to make it to the listening party afterward unless I were already in Budapest. So I stepped out of the Keleti train station and saw colors rolling in the sky and people rushing every which way.

I stayed at a lovely apartment hotel near Batthyány tér. If I were to live in Budapest, that neighborhood would be one of my choices. In the spacious, dreamy room, I easily set up shop for the Zoom services (with laptop, external microphone, siddurs, tallit, candles, and all). On Friday evening, the service was combined with a Hanukkah party, which two others joyously led. So I got to listen as well as sing.

On Saturday morning, we had a number of guests: a few students from a Protestant (Református) university program who were interested in learning about a Jewish service, and a dear friend in Berlin, along with a friend of hers who was visiting her. Both she and her friend are deaf but can read lips and sense music.

Neither of them knows Hebrew or Hungarian. But as I led the service, I saw them intently, intensely listening; I saw one of them nod along to melodies she recognized, and the other responding with her eyes. It seemed to me that they were listening in ways unknown to the hearing crowd, or maybe known but rarely touched upon. I don’t mean to trivialize the difficulties of being deaf. It is difficult in more ways than I can know. But it does not mean the end of listening; for some it might take listening to another level.

As I saw them listening, I had a new sense of what I was doing and what we were there for. There was something being communicated, not through language alone but through something else too. This came back later in a different form at the album listening event.

In Hungarian, “hallgatás” means both “silence” and “listening to something” (in addition to a few other things, such as taking a course and keeping a secret). The word suggests a relation between silence and listening. Yes, even to listen to yourself, you have to be silent in a certain way. There is a place where listening and silence are one and the same, not even dependent on each other, but identical: a meeting point where the two meanings dissolve into one. I think this is the case in Pilinszky’s “Amiként kezdtem“:

Amiként kezdtem, végig az maradtam.
Ahogyan kezdtem, mindvégig azt csinálom.
Mint a fegyenc, ki visszatérve
falujába, továbbra is csak hallgat,
szótlanul űl pohár bora előtt.

Here is my translation (in which I take a few liberties on purpose):

As I began, I have remained to the end.
The way I began, I keep all the way.
Like the convict who, returning
to his village, keeps silent, listening.
Wordless he sits before a glass of wine.

After the album listening, I came back to the hotel, picked up my packed bags, and headed off to the train. The sun had set. Some twenty-seven hours had gone by since I set out from Szolnok. And what happened in those twenty-seven hours will unfold over the rest of my life.

The Pilinszky Walk

Yesterday I did something I had wanted to do for months: go on one of the Pilinszky walks hosted by the Petőfi Literary Museum and the Anna Juhász Literary Salon. I think they have been happening monthly, alongside hundreds of events commemorating the centennial of János Pilinszky’s birth. I didn’t have time to do this (especially since it involved going to Budapest); I have several deadlines and am under a lot of pressure. But it was more important than the pressure or deadlines. And it was one of the highlights of my four years so far in Hungary.

Anna Juhász and the actor Zalán Makranczi led the walk. We each received an audio transmittor and earphone, so that we could hear them easily as we walked along. Since the earphone went in just one ear, we could also hear the sounds around us. What a difference that made! I didn’t have to strain to hear them, or try to stay up close; I could just walk along in the crowd and still hear every word. The amazing thing to me was that I could follow every bit of it; I knew what they were talking about and was familiar with most of the poems they quoted. They also emphasized the importance of Pilinszky’s prose; Makranczi read many passages of it.

As we walked along slowly-slowly on this golden autumn day, they showed us different places where Pilinszky had lived, where he had gone to school, a café where he and other writers spent lots of time; they spoke of the different times of Pilinszky’s life, of his family, his love of family, his solitude, his grief over the war, his religious faith, and his continual longing for home. Juhász spoke at length about “Apokrif,” which is central to his work. Makranczi read the first part of it aloud.

At the end of the two-hour walk, where we saw Pilinszky’s last residence, Juhász quoted his words that a person is not complete until death: that life and death, rather than being opposites, actually form a unity together: “Életet és halált lehetetlen nem egybelátni. Élet és halál nem más, mint kettétört öröklét, meghasonlott valóság. Egyik nem több a másikánál, csak aki élt és meghalt közülünk, örökkévaló. Hogy kik vagyunk ezek a mi, ezt nem tudom. Életünket mi csak halálunkkal egészíthetjük ki. Egyik a másik nélkül végleges töredék marad.” (“It is impossible not to see life and death as one. Life and death are nothing other than eternity split, reality divided. Neither one is more than the other; but whoever among us has lived and died is everlasting. Who we actually are, I don’t know. We realize our lives only with death. One without the other remains a fragment forever.”)

Pilinszky is beloved in Hungary, but not in a “popular” sort of way. The poems demand privacy. Once one of them reaches you, then Pilinszky enters your life for good. And, I believe, your death.

I first read Pilinszky several years ago at a student’s urging (thank you, Isti!). He recommended his favorite poem, “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”), which I memorized and recited for the class. But only two years or so later did I read “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”), thanks to Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition. That opened everything up. I have memorized it too and recite it every day. Here you can hear Pilinszky himself reciting it.

And here is an extraordinary translation by Géza Simon:

The Straight Labyrinth
(Egyenes labirintus)

What will it be like, this return flight
that only similes can describe,
like sanctuary, altar,
homecoming, handshake, hug,
under the trees, garden feast,
where there is no first and last guest,
what will it be like in the end,
this free-fall on open wings,
this flight into the fiery
focus, the communal nest? – I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something I know,
I know this blazing corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow,
the heavier and heavier,
exhilarating fact of our fall.

As I have mentioned before, Platon Karataev’s “Wide Eyes” alludes to “Straight Labyrinth”; Pilinszky can be felt in a number of their songs (and is especially important to their main songwriter, Gergely Balla, as well as to the other members). Their “Bitter Steps” (maybe my favorite song on their Atoms album) quotes from Ted Hughes’s translation of “Apokrif”: “[And] this is why I learned to walk! For these belated bitter steps.”

So this October walk, for which I am grateful, brought many things together in one. These are continually opening up into more.

I am planning an ALSCW Zoom event dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence; it will take place on March 20 at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. in Hungary). I will be inviting everyone I can think of: in addition to friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues, all the Hungarian language and literature departments I can find in the U.S. (they exist—at Columbia University, for instance), songwriting programs, radio hosts, writers, and others. The featured guests will be Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő), and Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev)! The event page is here; stay tuned for official announcements, an event page and dedicated website, and more. In the meantime, mark it in your calendars, indicate interest (if you like), and invite everyone! It is free, open to the public, and appropriate for all ages from high school on up.

Speaking of Csenger Kertai, my translations of two of his poems, “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness,” will be published in the next issue of Literary Imagination!

But speaking of translations, I have deadlines for a different project, so that will be all for now.

Upcoming Events

This is the busiest fall I can remember in years, and there have been quite a few busy ones. Teaching is in full swing, with all kinds of interesting things: Hamlet, utopia projects (my students read a few chapters of Thomas More’s Utopia and are now creating utopias of their own), The Glass Menagerie, songs, grammar, lively discussions, test practice, the usual textbook stuff, and more.

Outside of school, just as much is going on: translations, writing, events. Speaking of events, I have two to announce.

On October 15, I will be one of the panelists in an ALSCW Zoom event titled “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture,” which will feature an array of speakers, as well as poetry readings by Edward Hirsch and Yusef Komunyakaa. It should be terrific. The full event description and Zoom information can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.

On October 26, I will be the fourth featured guest in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series (open to the public for an entrance fee of $10.00; please register in advance). The previous guests were Fred Turner, Sarah Cortez, and Dana Gioia. I will be reciting and talking about poetry and translation (both my own and others’). One of the poems I plan to recite is Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight labyrinth”), both in the original and in the wonderful translation of Géza Simon. To anyone in Hungary: you are welcome to attend, but please know that it starts at 1 a.m. on October 27 here! Fortunately we will be on spring break, so I can sleep in afterwards.

Speaking of Pilinszky, I should have some news, fairly soon, about an ALSCW Zoom event I intend to host in the spring, dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence. Details are still being worked out, so I will say more when there is more to say.

Also, if all goes well, we (my school and the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library in Szolnok) will hold a Shakespeare festival on April 22! We had hoped to do this last year, but Covid got in the way. This day-long festival will feature lectures, workshops, and student performances (in Hungarian and English) of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs.

Before that, this fall and winter, there will be two new issues of Folyosó. Submissions are now open for the autumn issue; the international contest focuses on the topic of contradictions in life. I look forward to seeing what pieces come in (I have already read a few) and what shape this issue takes!

At Szim Salom, I am leading four services this month. One took place on Friday; the other three will be this Friday, this Saturday, and Saturday the 23rd. In my case, leading the services means singing all the musical parts, all the melodic liturgy, leyning Torah, and leading the congregation through the parts of the service. When I co-lead with the rabbi (on Saturdays), she leads the spoken parts and usually gives a dróse (a D’var Torah, or sermon). This month, the Saturday services will take place in person, at Bálint Ház in Budapest.

There’s a lot more going on, but I think that’s enough. As for other people’s events, this afternoon I am going to Budapest to hear Csenger Kertai (whose poems I am translating) and several other poets: Krisztián Peer, Katalin Szlukovényi, Dávid Börzsei, and Bálint Borsi. Like the event at the A38 Hajó, but differently, this event will combine poetry with music and visual art.

Also, there’s a concert I’d like to hear on Thursday—a double CD release party for Noémi Barkóczi and Mayberian Sanskülotts—but for various reasons I don’t think I can go. I will listen to their music at home, and if it turns out that I can go, I will.

Other things, other concerts are happening this month, but this is enough for now.

The photo is of the Aranytoll (Golden Pen), a pen and stationery shop here in Szolnok. (At least I think that’s what it is; I haven’t been inside yet.)

  • “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

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • 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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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