“Onto the Margin of a Passion” (translation of Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára”)

It is quite likely that we will be discussing Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szenvedély margójára” at the Pilinszky event in March. I have been thinking about this poem day after day, with new understandings. It tells a brief story of a boy who walks along the beach and always finds a favorite stone, one that has been his since the beginning of time and could never be anyone else’s. He grips it tightly, in a moment of solitude, and then hurls it far away. No sound comes out of the gesture, but an ocean murmurs in reply.

But it does much more than tell a story. Something happens there in the pivot, the throwing of the stone. Through going back and forth over the poem, you can start to glean what it is. I had a new understanding in the middle of the night.

I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but in an interesting way, Platon Karataev’s new album, Partért kiáltó, gave me an insight into the poem, a way of hearing it that brings all the parts and details together. I had been thinking about how the Hungarian words “egy” (one) and “egész” (whole) have entirely distinct etymologies; they are not etymologically related at all. The poem is filled with words that have “egy” as their root: “egy” itself (three times, including in the title), “egyetlen” (unique), and “egyedül” (alone); “egész” occurs twice. As long as the boy possesses the stone, he is in a state of singleness, aloneness; as soon as he releases it, he becomes part of the universal. But as with so much of Pilinszky, these opposites are aspects of the same thing.

In November I brought this poem to my classes. One student became very quiet when reading it. Then he looked up. “Pilinszky must have suffered greatly,” he said.

This morning I translated the poem. Here is my translation, followed by the original Hungarian text. Normally I would save this and submit it for publication, but in this case I want a few translations to be available for the Pilinszky event, and it can take a long time to hear back from a journal and then to be published after that. So here it is. You can find the original text, and a translation by N. Ullrich Katalin, on the Magyarul Bábelben site.

Onto the Margin of a Passion

(Translation of “Egy szenvedély margójára” by János Pilinszky)

A boy who likes to walk along the beach
always finds one among the many pebbles
that has been his for all infinity
and never could become anyone else’s.

He grips unlosability itself!
His whole heart is throbbing in his palm,
the stone’s so one-and-only in his hand,
and with it he has grown so alone.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it into nothing.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
but in retort a whole ocean rumbles.

Painting: Pebble Beach by Kathy Ferguson.

I made a small edit to the translation after posting it.

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.

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.

Is Music “Entertainment”?

In Book V of the Odyssey, Odysseus, shipwrecked, bereft, and alone in the sea, ends up swimming to the island of the Phaiakians. After meeting Nausikaa and being welcomed into the palace of Alkinoös (now already in Book VIII), he is treated to a musical performance by “the inspired singer Demodokos” (θεῖον ἀοιδὸν / Δημόδοκον), in whose singing and lute-playing the Phaiakians delight. But when Demodokos sings of the origins of the Trojan war, Odysseus starts to shed tears. No one notices but Alkinoös, who decides to cut off the music and bring everyone outside for contests. Later, after the contests, celebration (with music—again by Demodokos), gifts, and a bath, and feasting, Odysseus asks Demodokos to sing a third time: this time about the wooden horse that Odysseus filled with men. He sings, and Odysseus weeps like a woman “lying over the body of her dear husband.” Finally Alkinoös brings himself to ask the stranger who he is; Odysseus’s answer fills the next four books of the Odyssey.

When listening to music, we all have some combination of the Phaiakians and Odysseus in us. We delight in it for its beauty, we receive it as entertainment, but also, to some degree, we want it to confront us with a truth. We want to face ourselves, or the world, or death, or the divine in it. The kinds of entertainment and truth are many and layered, and people differ in the proportions they want. Some go to music primarily for entertainment, others primarily for confrontation. But somehow both elements have to be there, if the music is good and if we are listening closely.

The word “entertainment” is richer than it may seem on the surface. It comes from the French, and before that, the Latin inter- (“between, among”) and tenir (“to hold”), the latter of which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ten- (“to stretch”). To be entertained is to be held for a time. In contrast, the Hungarian word for entertainment, “szórokozás,” has the root szór, “to sprinkle, scatter”; it’s a calque of the German zich zerstreuen. But maybe, if you scatter yourself into something, you can be taken up by it. But what kind of taking up do you want? When I listen to Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? I am taken up and even scattered; I dissolve into it for a while. I love the sound itself and the many changes it undergoes; I look forward to hundreds of moments. But the album also carries me into a new sense of life.

To an extent, differences in musical tastes come down to this: what are we seeking in the music? What do we find in it? Music is not a “customer satisfaction” project, thank God, so there will always be a discrepancy between what we seek and what we hear, and that is good. The music will even change what we are seeking. But we go to music with a longing of some kind; our differences of longing lead us to different kinds of music and different encounters with it. Still, sometimes there’s a sense of musicians and audience coming together, being there in the same moment for the same thing. “Ezért a mondatért jöttem, ezért a mondatért….” (At the Csoóri event last Saturday, Gergely Balla told us about the origin of these lyrics.)

Last night I went to hear Jazzékiel. The concert was glorious. I especially loved the early set, in which they played their 2011 album Téli mesék (Winter Tales). There was so much subtlety, playfulness, and dark humor to it. The later set had bigger, rapturous sound. I marveled at the keyboard player and each of the musicians, the way they were so fully committed. I left just before the encore, since I had to catch the 10:45 train back to Szolnok, but was happy about having come out for this.

The other band (who played in between Jazzékiel’s sets) didn’t agree with me at all. I am not naming them here, because I don’t wish to put them down. They had a very enthusiastic crowd, so they are clearly appreciated. But it was so far from what I like and love in music that I had to go to the back of the room, sit down, and think about what was going on. Jazzékiel seemed to like this band a lot; they had promoted them enthusiastically in the days leading up to the concert, and I see that Péter Jakab (Jazzékiel’s lead singer) directed at least one of their videos.

I think it was partly that they tilted a bit too far in the “entertainment” direction for me. But that wasn’t necessarily so. I go back and listen to one of their songs now, and I hear more going on in it than entertainment alone. For some, their songs might be transcendent. I think it has more to do with their heavy metal sound. It shuts me out, for the most part, instead of bringing me in. There are exceptions. It isn’t that I need or want music to be pretty all the time. I love a good dirty sound in the right places. This is all difficult to define; it depends on how it’s done.

Sometimes the entertainment is so intense that it becomes something else, something otherworldly or utterly in-the-worldly. I feel that when listening to Pandóra Projekt. They have a light touch to them, both musically and lyrically; they’re having so much fun when they perform. But their voices, rhythms, creative song forms, and passion come together into something profoundly human. To me it’s miraculous that they have accomplished all of this in the one year that they have been playing together. (They formed a duo, then a band, in the beginning of 2021.)

The “entertainment” aspect of music cannot be boxed up and separated from the rest; at its best, it leads into the rest. Musicians have to be able to sweep the listener up. Into what? That will depend on what they themselves bring, what the listeners are willing to receive, and what else is at work in the air.

Image credit: Demodocus playing the harp in an illustration of Homer’s Odyssey by John Flaxman (1810).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it. I could add more and more; the subject is vast. But I’ll leave it at this.

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.

“Ez lesz”: Playing Cello at the Eső Evening

About two weeks ago, Gyula Jenei invited me to take part in an event for the Eső literary magazine, of which he is the founder and editor in chief. Eső has been important to me since the fall of 2018, when I first became aware of it; I have many of the issues and have learned about many Hungarian writers by reading it and attending the events. He wanted me to play cello between the pieces, and a thought came to mind: what about playing a few Pilinszky miniatures—that is, Pilinszky poems set to cello? I hadn’t chosen the poems yet, or worked out the cello and singing parts, but I knew I could pull this together.

Gyula put me in touch with the event organizer, the kind and ebullient István Turczi, who had a grander plan: there should be five short Pilinszky pieces and a longer classical piece at the end. I had my work cut out for me for the next ten days or so.

I was going to play everything from memory, but for the classical piece, I needed to practice from sheet music at first, and that narrowed the choices considerably. I chose the first movement of Bach’s third cello suite, with some trepidation, because the piece is relentless and I don’t know that I have ever performed it. In addition, I had barely touched the cello all fall, because I have been working on two translation projects, one of which, the Jászberényi, is now done (a draft, that is).

So, on the days when I could, I practiced two to four hours. For the Pilinszky, I would hum and play rough drafts until something took hold. The five poems I chose were “A tengerpartra,” “Akár a föld,” “Amiként kezdtem,” “Metronóm,” and “Ez lesz.” The melodies and atmospheres did in fact take shape; once I had them in my mind, the real practicing began. Here’s a recording of one of them (it isn’t perfect, and I intend to make a better recording of all five, but it gives a basic idea).

As for the Bach, the challenge was different and in some ways much greater, since there was the piece, written centuries ago, and there were my fingers, not quite up to it. I worked on it from different angles and heard it getting better day by day, but didn’t know if it would be anywhere close to ready by Monday. On Sunday I felt a kind of panic and was tempted to contact István and cancel the Bach. But i didn’t.

Then came the event. Such a warm and interesting occasion, in the lovely Szigligeti Kanapé, a performance space with raked audience seats (sloping upward, so everyone can see), a carpeted stage (great for the cello, no chance that the peg will slip out of place), a great program, and the greatest audience in the world: Varga students, a few Varga teachers, and a few others. István Turczi interviewed the writers (Gyula Jenei, Magor Molnár, and Ahmed Amran), and each of them read from their work; at certain transition points, I played a piece. The Pilinszky went over beautifully, even better than I had hoped; it miraculously worked. I tried to relax in between the pieces and listen to the readings, but this was only partly possible; I was making sure in my mind that I remembered the upcoming piece. At one point I thought I had forgotten the third line of “Metronóm.” What was it? What could it be? Then it came back: “a szálkák mozdulatlan jelenét.” As it turned out, “Metronóm” may have been the best of all the pieces. But two pieces later, Ahmed Amran (a Yemeni author who has been living in Szolnok for about twenty-five years and writes in Hungarian) read his story “A földdombok,” which I had read a few times before, and I was surprised to realize that the very ending was going to connect perfectly with the Pilinszky piece that followed.

Azok a földdombok ereszkednek le hozzá, amelyek mellkasukat nyítottak neki, hogy meglelje gyermekkori örömét és a halal végtelen csendjét.

(Those hills descending down toward him are the ones that bared their breasts to him so that he could land upon childhood happiness and the infinite quiet of death.)

And then, immediately afterwards, and closing the Pilinszky series, “Ez lesz”:

Ez lesz

Oszlás-foszlás, vánkosok csendje,
békéje annak, ami kihűlt, hideg lett,
mindennél egyszerűbb csend, ez lesz.

(That Is to Be

Dithering-withering, the quiet of pillows,
the peace of a thing now chilled, gone cold,
a quiet simpler than everything: that is to be.)

And then, after some closing remarks and memories of Eső contributors who had passed away, it was time to finish up with the Bach. “What will be, will be,” I thought, and plunged in. It went a lot better than I had feared. It wasn’t perfect—mostly because I wasn’t anywhere close to perfect in my playing, but also because the cello needed new strings and a higher bridge, which I didn’t undertake before the evening because of all the adjustments involved (not to mention the necessary trip to Budapest). But I played it all the way through without breaking down or losing momentum, and there were some nice moments along the way. In retrospect, I see that I could have chosen something shorter and simpler. But I didn’t know that at the time. I think it was important to do this anyway, because every bit of practicing helped, and it helped the Pilinszky too.

People loved the evening: the readings, discussion, music, and whole atmosphere. Afterwards a few of us went out to a restaurant to talk for a little while. Someone suggested that I record the Pilinszky pieces. I had already thought of doing it, but now I am thinking of doing something other than a home recording, so that it really comes out well. We talked about this and that for at least an hour, and then Marianna and Gyula took me home. I am grateful that Gyula and István invited me to be part of this, and that Marianna took so many photos. And that we had such a good audience. In some way I feel part of Eső now, and the cello has been yanked back into my life in the happiest of ways.

P.S. Speaking of Pilinszky, do come to the online Pilinszky event (hosted by the ALSCW, and featuring special guests Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Csenger Kertai, and Gergely Balla, with me as interviewer and moderator) on March 20! Here’s the informational website, and here’s the Facebook event page.

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.

Mark Your Calendars for March 20!

This announcement comes long in advance, so that I can begin inviting people, and so that you can mark your calendars and spread the word! On March 20, 2022, at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. Hungary time), in an ALSCW Zoom event, I will interview the poet Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev), and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő) about the poet Janos Pilinszky and his influence on their work and thought. This will be combined with recitations of his poems and performances of the artists’ own work. The Zoom information will be published as soon as it is available; in the meantime, you can stay updated through the Facebook event page.

Here is the official event description:

Straight Labyrinth: János Pilinskzy in the Poetry, Music, and Thought of Three Hungarian Artists (Zoom event)

Sunday, March 20, 2022, 3:00 p.m. EDT

Please join the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), our host Diana Senechal, and our three featured guests for an online discussion, recitation, and performance honoring the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky (1921-1981). Pilinszky is known around the world for his intensity and brevity of word, his grief over the Holocaust, his solitude and longing for home, his combination of Christian faith and despair, and the translations of his work into English by Ted Hughes, Géza Simon, and others. But his poetry goes beyond these descriptors. It stands bare and alone.

Diana Senechal will interview the poet Csenger Kertai and the musicians/songwriters Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev) and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő) about Pilinszky’s role in their art and thought. We will combine this discussion with recitations of several Pilinszky poems (including “Straight Labyrinth”) and performances of the guests’ own work. There will be time at the end for a few questions and comments.

The event will be in English and Hungarian; no knowledge of Hungarian is required. We cordially welcome anyone interested in poetry, literary translation, songs and songwriting, Hungarian language and literature, or Pilinszky himself. The event is free and open to the public via Zoom. The Zoom information will be included here as soon as it becomes available.

Pilinszky image credit: Pilinszky János, Szép versek 1971 (published 1972). Photo # 44.

Photo of Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly by Pál Czirják, published in Kortárs Online.


Additional comments: The event is appropriate for people of high school age on up. We will focus on a few Pilinszky poems, considering and responding to them from different angles; thus those new to Pilinszky (and to Hungarian) and those well versed in his work will find something of interest. Discussion, poetry, and music will intertwine.

What you can do now: Mark your calendars, click “Interested” or “Going” on the event page, bookmark the website, and spread the word! And read Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”) in the translation of Géza Simon or in the original Hungarian.

  • “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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