Dancing Through the Galaxies

Musicians here in Hungary are playing their hearts out, and their audiences dancing, exulting, and cheering past the end. It is so good to be able to play and listen again, and so uncertain what will happen in the fall. In the U.S., the mood is different: with cases of the Delta variant rising, many are urging caution, and some clubs require masks as well as proof of vaccination. But here, while we have this respite, I am all for making the most of it (while taking the necessary precautions—for instance, many of these events are in the open air, and you need to show proof of vaccination to get in).* So it has been exhilarating to attend concerts by some of my favorite musicians, including new favorites, the wonderful Galaxisok.

How to describe Galaxisok? Let’s start with their announcement of the show (which took place last night at the KOBUCI, Kert):

A Galaxisok végre cakkumpakk bemutatja tavaly októberben megjelent főművét, a gyerekkori emlékek félfiktív álomvilágában játszódó Történetek mások életéből című duplalemezt. A twee pop, a bossa nova, a tropicália, a soukous, a perui folk, a shoegaze és a pszichedelikus rock kontinenseken, évtizedeken és életeken átutazó karneváljának szereplői közt ezúttal a lemezen szereplő vendégzenészek egyike-másika is felbukkan, miközben Gyuri elmegy otthonról, Dóráért nem jön el a szerelme, Janó és Dzsó a tetőn dolgoznak, Diána nem lesz már öregebb, és egyszer mindennek vége van.

In rough translation:

Galaxisok is finally presenting, lock, stock, and barrel, the masterpiece released last October: the double album Stories from the Lives of Others, which takes place in the semi-fictional dreamworld of childhood memories. From the characters in this carnival of twee pop, bossa nova, tropicalia, soukous, Peruvian folk, shoegaze and psychedelic rock that travels through continents, decades, and lives, one guest musician or another from the record will pop up, while Gyuri leaves home, Dora’s love doesn’t come for her, Janó and Joe work on the roof, Diana won’t get any older, and at one point everything is over.

What do you make of this? It’s all true, it all happened, but the music is anything but a hodgepodge. Even with all its different styles, it flies as a single body, a single spirit. It’s some of the happiest melancholic music I’ve ever heard. It’s melancholic from start to finish, but the music has so much joy, the musicians so much heart and talent (Soma Bradák, the drummer, looks like he’s dancing sometimes), and the lead singer and songwriter, Benedek Szabó, has a way of filling the crowd with love. There’s a generosity and gentle eccentricity to him; you feel swept into a glorious and familiar weirdness, a place where everything’s different together.

He was speaking rather fast when introducing the guests, and this was my first Galaxisok show, so I may have some of this wrong. But I think his parents joined for one of the songs, and his godfather for another. And the saxaphonist Marcell Tóth came up several times. The crowd was ecstatic. And I felt so happy to be there. The song “Janó és Dzsó” (both of whom were there at the concert, if I understood correctly) captures some of the feeling that was there last night:

És boldogok, mert hosszú a nyár,
és boldogok, mert fiatalok,
és véget értek a hetvenes évek,
és ki tudja, mit hoznak a nyolcvanasok.

(And they’re happy because summer is long,
and happy because they are young,
and the seventies come to an end,
and who knows what the eighties will bring.)

For those just entering the Galaxisok cosmos, I recommend just listening to Történetek mások életéből from beginning to end, without interruptions, and taking the songs in. They are all in Hungarian, but you can get a limited, flawed idea of them from Google Translate. That, along with the music, is enough of a start to take you into the album. Who knows: the lyrics may get translated one day.

Galaxisok and Platon Karataev are closely related in membership and maybe (slightly) in terms of music too. There’s a lot of history here that I don’t know, but the rosters themselves tell a story. The current members of Galaxisok are Benedek Szabó (singing, guitar, keyboards, etc.), László Sallai (bass and keyboards), Soma Bradák (drums), and Ákos Günsberger (guitar and maybe another instrument or two). Sallai and Bradák are also the bassist and drummer, respectively, of Platon Karataev. But it doesn’t end there: Sallai is also the frontman of Felső Tízezer, and Szabó and Bradák are Cz.K. Sebő’s band members (besides Sebő himself). This is particularly interesting because of the differences between the bands. No matter how you describe Platon Karataev, you probably won’t say “bossa nova” or “Peruvian folk” in reference to them. Nor are the lyrics similar; Szabó’s songs are stories, slices of life, whereas Platon Karataev goes inward, asks questions, cries out. Sebő’s music is different still, and Felső Tízezer’s too.

They have something in common, only it’s difficult to pinpoint. They play so well and tap into some kind of truth, different kinds in each case, a truth that can only be reached through music and lyrics, yet something we know in ourselves. The listeners may gravitate toward one band or musician more than another. That is natural, and probably good; a relationship to music is personal and intimate and doesn’t spread evenly. But listen to them all, and something new starts to build, a different kind of imagination, a larger world (or a smaller one, depending on your perspective). There are moments of dancing through the galaxies.

So I am grateful that these concerts are happening now, and thrilled about last night, which throbbed with such sweetness and life. The audience roared for more and more. We got a five-song encore and then roared again. But that was the end—of the music, that is, but not of the evening or the aftersounds. After the concert I stayed for a little while, then took the late Bucharest-bound train home.

*There are people in Hungary who find it unfair that they can’t attend events unless they get vaccinated. In some ways I sympathize. But for these events to take place at all, there have to be some protections in place. Weighing everything, this seems like the best of solutions: better than cancelling the events, requiring tests, enforcing strict social distancing rules, or taking a reckless approach. I am grateful that the events can take place.

Time, Time, Time

Getting older (and older and older) is a strange thing; when you’re young, you don’t necessarily know that you’re young (I didn’t, in my twenties and thirties), and then later you see that twenty years went by, just like that, and now you don’t feel old, but for most facts and purposes, and in the eyes of the world, you are. That doesn’t get in the way of much, at least not until the body and mind start to break down, but you know now that you have limited time to work with. That said, a lot can happen during these years: for most of my life I have lived with urgency, but now I do better things with it than before.

But four years go by in what feels like a few months. Four years ago today, and in the two preceding days, I decided to come to Szolnok to teach. I first learned about the opportunity on August 4, 2017—and wrote immediately to Mary Rose, the director of the Central European Teaching Program. In the few days that followed, I looked into it and made up my mind to do it. (I was pretty sure of it that very day, but it was definite, at least in my mind, by August 6.) I had no idea of all the things that would happen over these four years: the teaching, translating, writing, bike rides, music, friendship. What happy years these have been—and they seem like the beginning of much more.

Even twenty years don’t seem so long. Twenty years ago (not exactly, but more or less) I recorded my EP O Octopus at the wonderful analog studio Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. I didn’t release it, because I still had so many CDs from my earlier (homemade) release that I didn’t want to end up with even more boxes. Twenty years later, I think it was actually pretty good; I have uploaded it to YouTube and Bandcamp. All the pressure is off; I don’t have to promote it, but people can listen to it if they like.

Getting older is sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. The easy part is that I have grown stronger over time, with a much clearer sense of what I am doing in the world, and a basic joy in it. The difficult part is that I wish I had at least some of this a few decades ago. I had a terrible lack of confidence—not intellectually, but in other areas of my life, from simple interactions to musical endeavors. Now the confidence has grown, but years have gone by.

This happens to everyone to some degree, but I think my lack of confidence was a bit more than the usual. To others who suffer from that, I can only say: confidence comes from something other than self-affirmation or external praise. It comes from some willingness to be one of billions of people, doing your best and knowing it won’t be perfect: knowing that despite our illusions and fantasies, everyone is filled with imperfections, no one has the answers, and it’s on each of us to do what we can with what we have. But those are rational words, and confidence comes from something else, from daily walking and building. Could it have come to me sooner? Maybe, if I had known what it was.

Not that a person has to be overtly or inwardly confident all the time; there are times of self-doubt, self-criticism, wavering, guilt, regret, shyness. But you don’t have to condemn yourself for these things. That’s really what confidence is about: letting all these things have their place, without mistaking them for the whole. Taking life’s different textures.

I think of the end of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I have quoted here before:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Publications, Honors, and Things

Sometimes I forget that this has been a prolific time. But it has been, and there’s a lot more coming this year and next, I hope. Along these lines, a few updates:

I have the honor of being invited to speak as a guest lecturer on October 26, 2021, in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series. The other sessions are led by Frederick Turner (July 27), Sarah Cortez (August 31), and Dana Gioia (September 28). These sessions are open to the public (with registration in advance); the fee for each session is $10. I will be reciting and speaking about my poetry, the poetry of others, and a translation or two.

My translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Scissors” was published in the Summer 2021 issue (Volume 62, Issue 2) of The Massachusetts Review; this particular issue is devoted to poetry, and it’s beautiful! You can order a copy here.

My essay “Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dissenting Opinion in the Classroom” will be published by Literary Imagination in the fall and is already available online (to those who have access). This is part of a special issue, which you can order with a subscription to Literary Imagination (which includes membership in the ALSCW). I think it will also be available later as a single issue.

And now for a few reminders:

Gyula Jenei’s collection Always Different: Poems of Memory, in my English translation, will be published by Deep Vellum in February 2022—not so far away any more! You can pre-order a copy.

My poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist in June. Read it all the way through, if you do read it; it’s saying something different from what it might seem to be saying at first. A reader wrote, “That’s really good. It takes seven unapologetic verses to get to the bottom of the event.” Another reader wrote, “F***ing gorgeous. Loved it.” And another: “Well, that is brilliant.”

My story “Immemorial” and my essay “I Signed to Protest the Blurring” are published in the wonderful inaugural issue of The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság, Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine. You can pick up a copy in Budapest or order one from Booksellers (just call them up).

A long, long heads-up: If all works out, in the spring of 2022 I will be hosting an online ALSCW event devoted to the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky and featuring two guests: the poet Csenger Kertai and the songwriter and musician Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly). I will interview them about Pilinszky, and then they will perform, from their own work, pieces that relate to Pilinszky in some way.

And speaking of Cz.K. Sebő, I learned a lot from recording a cello cover of his song “Out of Pressure” (from his 2015 EP The masked undressed). On July 29 I re-recorded the vocals; you can find the new video here. The Hungarian word for “cover” (in this context) is “feldolgozás,” which also means “working up,” “converting.” I think of musical covers as translations of a sort. If they sound just like the original, that can be impressive, but uninteresting. For me, the interesting part of covering someone’s music is seeing what it turns into, which reveals something about what it already is.

Speaking of musical covers, I have wonderful memories of covering Marcell Bajnai’s (and his band 1LIFE’s/Idea’s) song “Maradok Ember” on cello at Varga and at the Summer Institute in Dallas two years ago. And I have started working on a musical rendition of a Sándor Weöres sonnet.

Speaking of music, I put my unreleased 2001 EP O Octopus on Bandcamp and YouTube. Soon I expect to have it on Spotify as well.

And two new translation projects are underway: of poems by Csenger Kertai and stories by Sándor Jászberényi. More about these in good time!

With all of that, I am glad to have a few more weeks of summer break but am also looking forward to the new school year. There are so many things I want to do with my classes. I hope that we will have classes in person all year long, but no matter what happens, there will be a lot to do.

Song Series #16: Songs as Experience

This is true about poems too, and other works of literature and art, but today I am focusing on songs. Songs do not give us direct messages about how to live. Or sometimes they do, but those are not usually the best ones. Songs change us by being the experience itself: maybe reminding us of other things we have seen and lived, but also taking their place among them. I will give a few examples of this today.

The first is a song I have mentioned a few times before: Cz.K. Sebő’sLight as the Breeze,” from his 2018 EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze. I return to it again and again, and to the whole EP. The song has to do with those moments, when you are getting over someone, when a lightness actually breaks through and you actually feel better and see the world differently. It doesn’t last long; you may go right back to longing for the person, or feeling bad about the situation. But it comes back. And with each return, it brings a brief illumination: you know a different way of living, feeling, and thinking, and you know that this is true. The song does this not only through the lyrics, but through the guitars (which feature Cappuccino Project as guest musician), the rhythms, the textures.

The song has an important role in my life. For a long time I was struggling to get over, or come to terms with, a particular relationship (not a romantic relationship, but a friendship of sorts, or what I hoped would be a friendship), and was discouraged to find the pain and regrets coming back again and again. But these light moments had started happening too, and when I first heard the song, I recognized a light moment like the ones I had already experienced, but new. And every time I listened to the song, it was another light moment, and they built and built and keep on doing so. The song does not describe an end state; none of Sebő’s songs do. As I hear them, they are all songs of seeking and changing. But that is part of why they move me and take up a place in my life.

Before I go on, here is a gorgeous recording of Sebő playing in concert in 2020 on the A38 Hajó. If you want a sense of his performances, this is a place to start. The first two songs are wordless, with guitar only, and from then on he sings.

The next song I want to bring up is “Előszoba” by Kolibri (the stage/project name of Bandi Bognár), whom I got to hear at the KOBUCI last Wednesday, and whom I will hear again at the Kolorádó Fesztivál. It might be my favorite of his songs so far. It describes a quiet evening, when he is all alone in the living room, no one is around, there are dirty dishes in the sink, but only he could have left them there; there is mess in general, everything has fallen down. But it is beautiful:

Nem magány, de nagyon szép
Hogy csendéletté válik a hétköznapi lét
A hétköznapi lét
Sárga fény az előszobámban ég
Olyan szép
Olyan szép

A rough translation:

(It isn’t loneliness, but it’s beautiful
That weekday existence becomes a still life
weekday existence
A yellow light burns in my foyer
So lovely
So lovely)

It’s hard to translate, because “magány” means “solitude,” “loneliness,” “isolation,” which are different things. “Hétköznapi” means “weekday” or “ordinary.” The title word, “előszoba,” means “foyer,” “anteroom,” “antechamber”; it has a specific image in Hungary, where many apartments have them. But the meaning also lies in the melody, the pace, the rhythm, the repeated phrases, and the soaring voice. So here is the song.

In this case, the song not only describes but becomes an evening like many I have known over so many years. I listen to it and am there in the room, taking in this quiet time of evening or night, taking in the light and shadows, even the dishes I have left in the sink.

The next song is one of my favorites by Art of Flying, “What the Magpie Said,” from their album asifyouwerethesea. The lyrics are exceptional and should be read in full. Verses and chorus become one and the same, in a way; the actual chorus is this:

& all the horses of the moon
drag both night & day
& as the clouds of eyes awoke
I heard the magpie say:

but it goes right into what the magpie said, which has several variations. This one is the first:

that “everyone talks of love
ever since yr tale began
why can’t you face the fact
it’s never going to be perfect
little miracle little miracle
tell Annie to come over
I’m like…’the snow is falling
the beautiful is not forgotten.'”

I love how the real and the magical come together here: “Tell Annie to come over” and the colloquial “I’m like” come right from everyday life with all its imperfections, but there’s the falling snow, too. The song proceeds with its reflection and living of beauty and failure.


It is hard to explain what kind of experience this song is, but it is everything at once: “the horses of the moon” dragging “both night and day,” the pool of tears, the moment of telling someone to tell someone to come over to watch the snow, the heartbreak over the world. And it proceeds so slowly and subtly; the music lets you take it in syllable by syllable.

The next one, quite different in pace and mood, is “Ring My Bell,” from New Day With New Possibilities, the latest album by Sonny & the Sunsets (led by Sonny Smith, whose music I have loved for over two decades now, and many of whose stories I published in my erstwhile literary journal Señor). It’s a lighthearted song, but it has something to do with the contradiction of wanting to shut the world out and also hoping someone will just show up and ring the doorbell. That surprise and excitement of hearing the bell, that secret openness to new friendships and relationships. I listen to it and am right in it, hearing the doorbell ring. The video is delightful.

And now finally, a band I haven’t mentioned before except in passing, Galaxisok, whom I will get to hear at the KOBUCI this Saturday and then later this month at the Kolorádó Fesztivál, along with Kolibri, Platon Karataev, and others. Out of their most recent album Történetek mások életéből (Stories from the Lives of Others), there are many songs to choose, but this one, “Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble” (title in French, song in Hungarian), stands out because of the story it tells: of a person who loves music and loves to talk about it, loves film, loves to read, cracks jokes, doesn’t yell when he’s nervous but instead steps out for a cigarette—and one evening, before going to bed, tells his friend that he feels sometimes as though everything were dark inside him. I know that person (not literally, but through the song), I have been with that person, I have been that person too. The music has a bounce to it, with a mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds, but there’s a part that gets suddenly sparse. It’s a cheery-sounding song that brings a lump to my throat.

And that wraps up this installment of the Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.

Update: Sonny & the Sunsets’ New Day With New Possibilities is Bandcamp’s Album of the Day!

Success and Its Contradictions

I have thought and written about success over the years, but right now I am focusing on its inherent contradiction. Most of us want to do good work by our own standards, in some area of life. But we also want this work to be recognized and rewarded. For a while these desires go hand in hand. But at some point they come into conflict: something you consider your best work falls flat with others, or the things you need to do for recognition seem like a waste of time and spirit. Then you have to choose which way to go.

This conflict also affects how you perceive and present yourself. Many musicians, writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, take pride in an indie (independent) identity. But if you want some kind of financial remuneration, you have to give up at least a sliver of your indie-ness. Some people get so afraid of this that they sabotage themselves, lashing out at their supporters and proclaiming the falseness of the world. Others try to play by the rules at least somewhat, for the sake of the art. The question is serious: how far you can go in others’ eyes before you end up selling your soul. But there’s no formulaic answer.

Basic principles can bring some clarity. The work has to be good. There’s no way around that. If it isn’t, it may have a brief heyday, but who cares? It’s more embarrassing, in the end, to come up with a big hit that fizzles, than to create something lasting that fails to catch on. If your work is good, you have a stronghold in it.

But what does it mean for work to be good? We keep trying to make it better and better. At some point we bring it out to the world. That, too, has to be done. But it’s a kind of parting. There’s an understanding that once you publish it, it’s “done.” Nothing is ever done, but at the same time it has to be.

In the end, success is like carrying an umbrella (I had to bring in the photo somehow). You want to stay dry, but you also hope it rains. At least two systems of elements meet each other, and probably three: your own, your work’s, and the world’s. What comes of the meeting is up to chance, dedication, the human beings around you, and earth, air, water, fire.

A Day, a Night, and a Morning

It turned out that the day after returning to Hungary, I needed to spend a full day in Budapest, because I had a doctor’s appointment there in the morning, was attending a Platon Karataev/Kolibri concert in the evening, and saw no point in returning to Szolnok in between. But as it turned out, I also got to meet with a writer whose work I am translating, and in the remaining in-between time I walked around Buda and visited a thermal bath. Here are a few pictures and thoughts from the day.

After the (uneventful) doctor’s appointment, I walked over to the Három Szerb Kávéház, where I heard Csenger Kertai in an interview and reading in June. No, it was not Csenger I met with yesterday, though I am translating a few of his poems–more about that later! Anyway, the meeting was interesting and enjoyable (more about this project later too), and it was good to revisit the Három Szerb Kávéház and its terrace. I was left with about four or five hours of afternoon before the concert. So I crossed the Liberty Bridge and started walking along Gellért Hill. It was there that I came upon the waterfall.

I stood and watched it for a little while, feeling some of its spray, and then headed up the stone steps to see more. But it was a very hot day, and I decided not to go up to the top of the hill. Instead, I continued onward toward the Lukács thermal bath, and saw ferns, trees, shady parks along the way. I came to a park with a large lopped-off tree whose leaves were casting shadows on the trunk. I also stopped inside an enticing antique bookstore, the Krisztina Antikvárium, and bought a volume of Sándor Weöres and another of Mihály Vörösmarty (the latter in part because my street is named after him).

I was looking forward to the sauna at the Lukács thermal bath, where I had never been before, since I was already sweating a lot and figured a sauna and shower would be refreshing and restful. I was not disappointed, and I hope to return sometime.

Then it was already time to head over to the concert. I walked part of the way, took the train the rest of the way, and had about half an hour to sit back with a beer on Szentlélek tér before going into the KOBUCI Kert, a large outdoor concert venue that was soon to be packed.

The concert was the sort of thing that words won’t reach, at least not these words. A loving, wildly enthusiastic crowd that sang along (beautifully) to most of the songs and roared at the end for more and more. A passionate, spot-on performance by both Kolibri (Bandi Bognár) and Platon Karataev. A feeling of togetherness. These guys are rock stars but also brilliant songwriters and musicians; the music is deep and lasting. I felt that I knew the audience just a little bit, even the strangers, because it was so obvious why we were here. We sang along, danced along, hushed along; we waited for favorite moments and took in the new. I can’t wait for the new Platon Karataev album, which will be all in Hungarian; they played some astonishing songs from it.

I am so happy that I will get to hear both Kolibri and Platon Karataev again this summer: both of them at the Kolorádó festival, and Platon also at Fishing on Orfű and (the Platon duo of Gergő and Sebő) in Veszprém. They are playing many more festivals, one after another; these are the ones I can attend, and I am grateful for them. Fishing on Orfű is separate from MiniFishing, though part of the same festival; the latter took place in June, whereas the former will be in August. I can go for only one day and night, because of the school year starting up again, but I can’t wait to go, with bike, tent, and sleeping bag, just as in June. I will get to hear Dávid Szesztay as well, and others too.

At the very end of the concert, I spoke briefly with Ivett Kovács, whom I hadn’t met before but whom I recognized because of her beautiful cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Disguise.” I complimented her on the cover, then said goodbye to Zsuzsanna, Atti, Mesi, et al. and headed to the train station.

It was a long ride home, but I wasn’t tired yet; so many thoughts from the day and evening came back. Walking from the train station to my apartment at around 1:30 a.m., I saw hedgehogs in the grass. At home, I stayed up a little longer, then went happily to sleep. In the morning, feeling out of pressure, I was inspired to re-record the vocals of my cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure.” I like the new recording much better; my voice is more relaxed, and it blends better with the cello. Everything else is unchanged.

I must run now. But here is a picture of the ferns, since I mentioned them and since they capture something of the day.

From Home to Home

What is home? For some, it’s a particular place, full of objects and memories, maybe the place where they grew up, or went through upheavals, or settled down later. For others, it’s trickier; home might be manifold, or it may have to do more with a state of mind than with physical surroundings.

I came back home to Szolnok today, and this is definitely home. But throughout the trip to the U.S., I had different senses of home in different places. I could not have wished for a richer ten-day trip.

I will not go into details about the personal parts of it, but in short: I visited my mother and stepfather in Northampton, Massachusetts, and celebrated my mom’s birthday there. Then went up to New Hampshire to visit my father and stepmother; we spent the better part of one of those days in Maine, which has years of memories for me and which brings to mind Cz.K. Sebő’s extraordinary song “Maine.” We went up a mountain (Agamenticus) and down into the water.

Then came the New York part: I saw dear friends, moved some things out of storage (and moved the rest into a smaller storage space), attended B’nai Jeshurun on Shabbat, took part in the wonderful service, and chanted Torah, walked around in Fort Tryon Park (bottom photo) and elsewhere, ate some delicious food, picked up an important document from former neighbors in Brooklyn, and state at the sweet and comfortable Hotel Newton, where I hope to return.

The hours in the storage space were surprisingly moving (in multiple senses of the word); I went through CDs and books, got rid of some things, and packed some beloved items to bring back. I also mailed two boxes of CDs; that was enough for now, since shipping is expensive. Now my shelves already have many things that I had been missing, and when the shipments arrive, there will be still more.

But when you’re traveling like this, even without rush, even with so much welcome and warmth, you’re still somewhat on the run. I longed to come back to Szolnok and sit at the desk, as I am doing now, and let the thoughts roll out. I was raring to get back to the writing and translation projects, to the music.

Home isn’t just the desk, though; it’s the place you can start out from. Tomorrow I go to Budapest for a full day: a doctor’s appointment, then lunch with a writer whose work I am translating, then some wandering around, then a Kolibri and Platon Karataev concert over on the Buda side, then a train ride back home. But home is in those things too.

And then the cats. I am so grateful to my colleagues Marianna and Gyula and to their son Zalán, who fed the cats while I was gone (and kindly vacuumed, and filled my fridge with fruits and vegetables so that I would not be hungry when I came back). That made the trip possible and brightened the homecoming. Sziszi and Dominó were healthy and cheerful when I returned, and Dominó gave me a big, long hug (the way cats can do). They played, sat in the window, sat on my lap, walked hither and thither, and then resumed their feline kvetching.

So back to the question of home: maybe it is a place that you rely on as an origin, a place you can set out from. That means there will be lots of homes, like fractals, each one an origin. The other side of home, though, is the return: you take off, but you long to come back. Which of these returns is the real one? Is there necessarily one real one? Or does it come down to a longing, as in János Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day”)? Here is Géza Simon’s brilliant translation of the poem:

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.
Always, as always
I wished to be back.

And here is Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition, which introduced this poem to me, and which you may get to hear live at an ALSCW Zoom event next spring. More about this later as it takes shape, but in short, according to hopes and plans: I will be interviewing Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly and Csenger Kertai about Pilinszky, and then, after the interview, they will perform selections from their own work. Mark your calendars; we haven’t set the date yet, but you can highlight, circle, shade, or memorize the spring of 2022 in general until the details roll in.

Looking forward to things is a kind of home too! But that’s a subject for another time.

The photos are of kayaking in New Hampshire, the Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, pine trees along the trail up Mount Agamenticus in Maine, Sziszi and Domino at home, and me in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Two-Week Roundup

A lot has happened in the past two weeks. In two weeks from now, I will already be on my way back from the U.S. (I head out there on Friday). I am not bringing the laptop, so any updates during those two weeks are likely to be brief (though you never know).

So, a roundup:

The school year ended, and the faculty went on a trip to the village of Demjén. We visited a winery and thermal bath. It was a beautiful day.

I went to three concerts over the past two weeks: Cz.K. Sebő and Felső Tízezer (at the A38 Hajó), then a performance by Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai (at the Szolnoki Művésztelep), then the Platon Karataev duo at the TRIP Hajó. In addition, I attended two literary events at the Szolnoki Művésztelep (at the ARTjáró Összművészeti Fesztivál): one featuring the literary journal Eső, and one featuring Légszomj, Gyula Jenei’s Covid diary in verse with György Verebes’s art. I also attended an online event featuring the poet and translator George Szirtes. All of this is enough to fill the mind and soul for a long time.

As far as writing goes, the inaugural issue of The Penny Truth is out and about, My long semi-satirical poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist, and my newest poem, “Day of Rage,” received some nice comments here on this blog. I am working on two translation projects (poetry and short stories), both of which are an honor for me. I will say more about them later.

Two weeks ago, I posted my cover (with cello, guitar, and voice, and a homemade video) of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure.” I learned a lot from playing the song.

Radio also figured prominently in these past two weeks. I have been enjoying WFMU”s Continental Subway, and also listened to Marcell Bajnai’s interview on Megafon.

Speaking of songs, I have a few to recommend. Two have come up on this blog already, but that’s all the more reason to mention them again.

The first is Cz.K. Sebő’s “First Snow.” Listen to the whole song, the lyrics, the drums. This song sounded especially beautiful at the concert at the A38 Hajó; I have been hearing it in my mind ever since.

The second is Felső Tízezer’s “Majdnemország,” about which I have written here.

The third is Lázár tesók’s (the Lázár Brothers’) new video, “Olyan egyszerű” (“So simple”). The song is from their debut album, Hullámtörés. If you just listen to the melody and watch the video, you might think it’s about how nice it is to be out on Lake Balaton together. But the song is not nearly so cheery, and that’s part of what makes it beautiful: the combination of moods and colors. And that they composed and performed it so well.

And then, to wrap it up, Marcell Bajnai’s most recent song, “legjobb metaforám,” which I have heard in three forms so far: as a recording, in live performance, and read aloud as a poem (during the radio interview; the interviewer, Marci Lombos, read it aloud, and Marcell read “Forróság környékez” by Norbert Siket. This might be my favorite of Marcell’s solo songs; it is certainly one of them.

And that is a good way to end the day.

“Majdnemország” and Political Songs

Should songs be political? There’s no “should” about it. No one has to insert political content in a song. However, if a songwriter has something to say that could be taken as political, but holds back from doing so out of fear or apprehension, that’s a loss to the musician and the music. Try things out, say what you want to say in the form that suits it best.

But know that others might not take well even to your lighthearted endeavors.

On May 10, Felső Tízezer (Upper Ten Thousand, or Upper Class) released a new song, “Majdnemország,” about how we don’t live out our true beliefs and desires but instead give in to the forces at hand. As a result of this passivity, the song sings, we live in a “majdnemország,” which could be translated as “Almost-Country,” or “Republic of Not Quite” or something along those lines. It could also be a pun on “Majomország” (Monkey-Country), a poem by Sándor Weöres that appears on the Sebő-együttes’s 1986 album Cimbora, a collection of children’s songs and poems.

The song begins,

Majdnemországban élni, ahol nem köszönnek vissza,
ahol az ajtóban megállnak, aztán se jobbra, se balra.
Majdnemországban élni, ahol azt mondják, hogy mindegy,
úgyse tudod megcsinálni, inkább azt csináld, amire kérnek.

A rough translation:

To live in Almost-country, where they don’t return your greeting,
where they halt in the doorway, then go neither right nor left.
To live in Almost-country, where they say it doesn’t matter,
that you can’t do it anyway, so do instead what they ask.

Within a day or so of the song’s appearance on YouTube, nasty comments started pouring in. One after another–from people who didn’t seem to have listened to the song but assumed it was an attack on the country or government. That was what struck me: that the comments were not about the song, and that there were so many of them. A familiar scenario! (Since then, the irrelevant comments have been removed, but the comments about the song itself, including negative comments, have remained.)

I saw no point in responding to those commenters, so I posted an independent comment, in which I praised the bracing quality of the song and suggested that it could apply to many countries, not only Hungary: that it was speaking about the tendency to give in to political, personal, and social systems and orders.

It seems that this comment was on target, because it came up in an interview in ContextUs with two of the band’s members, László Sallai (the band’s frontman and songwriter) and Gallus Balogh (the bassist). The interviewer quoted it, and Sallai said that it came closest to an understanding of the song. (Yes, I am honored! But that is not the point here.)

In the interview they talked about how they like to take different directions with their music instead of always repeating the same thing. Their second album, Majd lesz valahogy, is about relationships, but they went on from there, with A bonyolult világ, to sing about complexities of life more broadly.

When the discussion moved toward political songs, the two had somewhat different things to say. Balogh said that he doesn’t bring politics into his music because for him, music is intimate. But he saw “Majdnemország” as only slightly political and was startled by the reactions. Sallai said that a person should not be afraid of writing about political themes, but he doesn’t blame those who don’t, if it’s not what interests them. He went on to say that the climate today is prohibitive, that musicians lose audiences even because of something they have said outside of the music. Later he spoke of how the large news portals have been giving less and less attention to culture.

It’s a fascinating interview because of the frankness, the ideas, the take on political music and Hungarian life. I agree with Sallai: I don’t think musicians have to be political at all, if it isn’t how they see the world. There’s much more to life and music than politics. But if it is part of what they want to do and say, then they shouldn’t be punished for that. Saying, writing, or singing what you think, even tentatively and playfully, deserves room and more. Until recently, I thought that music in Hungary was a great domain of freedom. Now I see some of the restrictions and censure that musicians face. I am glad that there are people speaking about it.

I added to this piece after posting it and made slight corrections to the translation of the lyrics as well.

Pictures of a Concert

I am not going to describe last night’s concert, except to say that the place was all hushed, listening to this beautiful performance by the Platon Karataev duo of Gergő Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly on the TRIP Terasz. I was grateful to be there, to be able to listen too, along with Zsuzsanna, Mesi, and so many others. It was a full house, the concert was sold out, and no one chatted during it; under the music, you could hear the waves and the breeze. Here are some pictures. The first is from the beginning of the concert, when they started to play “Elevator.”

Here are some pictures from before the concert:

And a few from the concert itself:

And a few taken afterward:

This is one of the great happinesses of life: to listen to a concert like this, knowing that there is no concert like this, just this one, moment by moment.

  • “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

  • 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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