A Book in the Making

Almost a year ago, in October 2019, Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I travelled to Dallas to give poetry readings and hold discussions for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s annual Education Forum. I think back on those bright, brisk days: the events, with their lively discussions; the walks all around Dallas, the visit to the Terrell Academy in Fort Worth; and the many conversations and meetings. At a luncheon we met Will Evans, Executive Director and Publisher of Deep Vellum, who expressed interest in publishing a book of my translations of Gyula’s poems.

Yesterday the contracts were executed; the book, Always Different: Poems of Memory, by Gyula Jenei, translated by Diana Senechal, will be released sometime in 2021.

I have translated much poetry in my life, but this is the first large project that I have initiated. Others came to me through invitation; this one I sought out, and then later a publisher sought the fruits of it. It stands out in that way and in many others: it also brings together my life in Hungary and my long and rich relationship with the Dallas Institute. Beyond that, the poems are great, and people love them in English as well as in Hungarian. One of my favorites, “Scissors” (“Olló”) will be published in The Massachusetts Review, probably this spring, and most likely before the book comes out.

In retrospect, the timing of all of this seems perfect and improbable. If our trip to Dallas had been scheduled for the spring instead of the fall, the pandemic would have prevented it from happening. It not only worked out, but worked out as perfectly as a human thing can. Not only did nothing go wrong, but an abundance of things went right. And there we were together, talking about poetry, reading and hearing poetry.

The title of the Education Forum was “Poetry as Education.” This was not about pedagogy at all, though pedagogy came up here and there in the discussions. The event–like the Institute’s work in general–was based on the premise that good education requires attention to the essential subjects themselves. Poetry is not an afterthought or an extracurricular activity. It underlies each day.

Finishing the manuscript by the end of 2020 will take intense focus, but that is nothing new for me; I am used to meeting deadlines, and it can be done. I thrive on such focus; it counterbalances the multiplicity. This year is about as full for me as a year can get, but I would not give up any of it. With that in mind, I must run.

Both photos in this post are by James Edward, courtesy of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. The full Flickr slideshow can be found here.

Dear Beck: I Draw You a Circle

circleDear Beck,

Don’t worry, I’m not writing to you about divorce, shapeshifting, or Scientology. This isn’t even about your music, although it might inadvertently touch on a song or two. If you’ve ever had a summer afternoon when, finding your soul sucked dry, you head down to your rowboat to splash your oars for a while and pay no mind to the fakery of politics and love, the painted eyelids, the accusations, and Lord only knows what other dead melodies; if, even when rowing, you find yourself trapped in a broken train of thought, so you pull back up to shore, get out, walk a little ways, and sit down by the side of the road, only to see an ambulance taking an emergency exit onto a sidestreet a few feet from you, missing your outstretched arm by a hair; when you remember you had promised to call a friend, and you reach into your pocket, only to discover that your cellphone’s dead and you’re condemned to rely on yourself, a necessary evil for which you will stay unforgiven by your own soul until sunrise; when you walk to the town park, sit down on a bench, and stay up all night trying to see through the dark places both inside and outside yourself—when all of this and more has occurred, you may just happen to be ready for what I am about to tell you: things could be worse, better, or in between.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that things could be worse. And indeed they could. Take any mishap and multiply it by two, five, or ten. Throw in some unexpected bullshit. Mix it all with a rotten mood. And that’s only the beginning. There are many other roads toward worsening, which I won’t bring up right now because that would be depressing, and I’m about to switch to the next point: things could be better.

Yes, things could be better. Everyone has something that they wish they had more of, or less of, or that they wish they could care more about, or less about. More is not always better, and less is more, so less is not always better either. That right there is the problem. When trying to make things better (because they could be better), we often don’t know whether to aim for more or less, and of what in particular. If we knew exactly how to make things better, we would probably go for it. But oftentimes, when trying, we get it wrong, causing new problems in the process.

So far, all of this is fairly intuitive. I’m sure you have not only followed my logic, but arrived at it on your own long ago. But now we’re coming to the jawdropper, the dazzler, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Things could also be somewhere in between better and worse—that is, sort of as they are, but with a few gives and takes. It’s a bracing possibility. Think about it. When hoping for things to get better, many of us fear that they actually won’t. This fear holds some truth; life does have its letdowns. Likewise, when fearing that things will get worse, many of us hope that they won’t. This hope, too, has a connection to reality; bad things don’t always happen. So basically a person could live, all the time, in some combination of hope and fear. But in that middle place, you don’t really need either one. There’s nothing to hope for, because it already is. There’s nothing to fear, because it has already happened.

That middle place is the worst of all, you might say. It’s limbo, apathy, indecision, rot. Well, it might be. But if that’s the case—and I believe you are right, if that’s what you believe—then the hopes and fears aren’t so bad after all. They have something to do with being alive.

So let’s backtrack from the park bench. While sitting there, you saw lightning, and it kind of freaked you out, but not much, because in the moment that you cried out for your dear life, you realized that life was in fact dear to you, and that illumination cheered you up. So now it’s morning, and even though you’re feeling a tad youthless after a night of no sleep, you have no complaints, since old age has its wisdoms and oblivions. As Yeats wrote, “There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.” Hell yes. So you go round the bend, back to the road you were sitting beside before—it’s a beautiful way—and you stop to marvel at the lazy flies zigging and zagging without any sense of rush. This is happiness minus the most important component—but now you know you’re getting there. You see water ahead. You walk to it. You figure, “time to get in the boat and steal my body home.” But the boat is gone—someone stole it in the night—and you feel like you’ve got one foot in the grave. But then you realize, whoa! That means I’ve got feelings! And then it turns out that you had just taken the wrong path to the river. You see your boat tied up where you left it, a little farther along, past some brambles. Even the oars are there. So you get in the boat and paddle it back to the beginning. Or maybe somewhere else entirely.

Sincerely,

Diana Senechal

This fictional piece (which alludes to thirty songs from Beck’s fourteen studio albums) received a complimentary, non-form-letter rejection from a publication that I have enjoyed and respected (and at times railed at) for many years. So I publish it here.

Productivity

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When I bemoan the little I have done
from dawn to dusk—the promises unkept,
story unfinished, kitchen floor unswept
panning my conscience like a pantheon;
when, looking for some task to seize upon
and nail, only to find each one adept
at leaping from my hands (the laundry crept
away, I chased it, and it split and won),
I only have to listen to one song—
go ahead, call me lazy, call me lame—
to know the day repaid a thousand loans,
because all songs need listeners; their fame
occurs in quiet, and whatever wrong
occasioned them, one pair of ears atones.

A Premise of Generosity

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It has taken me most of my life to understand that it’s not only reasonable but necessary to expect a basic generosity in everyday relationships. That is, I now expect that people will not condemn each other for a simple mistake, or look for fault in each other, or reject those with whom they disagree. This does not mean that everyone has to be friends or that people must surround themselves with “positivity.” You can have people around you who offer criticism at times, who go through their ups and downs, and who are not always there for you in a literal sense. But just as they have their own limits and imperfections, they will allow for limits and imperfections in others. Most important of all, they will let the relationship–be it a work relationship, friendship, family relationship, or romantic relationship–continue over the long term, unless it comes to a true impasse.

In my early adulthood, and here and there later on, I lived with intense fear that people would reject or leave me, especially people within my general age range. (I was much more confident, say, in my rapport with professors and teachers.) There were various sources of this fear, but there was a blind spot too. What I didn’t understand was that I could set a standard of basic generosity, both for others’ treatment of me and for my treatment of others. That is, if someone were to reject me out of hand, for a small mistake or for something in my personality, then that relationship would not meet the standard and did not deserve my focus anyway. This doesn’t mean that the other person was unworthy. Rather, the relationship was.

Rejections and fallouts will still happen, even with a premise of generosity. Some people do not click. Some are so persistent with their destructive habits that they drive others past their patience. But a basic generosity allows you to get to know a person, to tolerate a range of personalities and quirks, and to be tolerated as well. There is a mutuality to it.

How strange that, now that I understand this fully, I see us moving into a culture of condemnation: where a teenager’s college admission can be revoked because of an obnoxious tweet, where someone can lose a top editorial position for publishing a poem deemed offensive, where people dig up dirt from others’ pasts just to ruin their reputations, or, short of all of this, where people just assume and post the worst about each other. Why are people so eager to hurt each other and so sure of their justification for doing so?

Part of this has to do with a rejection of contradictions. People are not allowed to have internal conflicts; if their words and actions don’t all line up, they get blasted as hypocrites. But contradictions make people interesting. At times (not always), they go deeper than consistencies, since there are questions, uncertainties, and discrepancies that we wrestle with–or neglect to wrestle with–our entire lives. Sometimes there’s even a larger consistency holding the seeming inconsistency together.

This morning I finished a new translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei. It’s the sixteenth of his poems that I have translated so far. It tells the story of one afternoon in elementary school when the principal visits the class–the one and only time she does so. She’s a rather grotesque figure–short, pudgy, old, with lipstick smearing onto her front teeth–and she begins by asking the children a question and turning it into a silly pun with a consonant change. But even as the children smile, and then laugh, they sense, with slight anxiety, that the principal has the freedom to do whatever she pleases: she can joke, smile, yell, anything. Poem-time passes by; the narrator tells us that he later teases his children with the same joke, and the thoughts about this lead into a surprising ending. I don’t want to say more about it, because it is better as a poem, and I don’t want to quote it just yet. But I thought about the narrator’s perception in this poem: how he sees his changing roles in time, how the poem’s mild villain, the principal (not really a villain, but a little bit scary all the same), could be any of us.

That is the contradiction that people don’t want to accept: that each of us is capable of being–or perhaps already is–many of the things we fear and reject. Not across the board, but enough to give a person pause. And if I am those things, I can allow them in others too.

I took the photo in Budapest on Thursday evening. Also, I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

 

The Idea of Vacation

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First of all, welcome to Dominó (also known as Mézes), the new member of the household! I had been realizing for a few weeks that Sziszi needed a feline friend, and I knew that Mézes needed a home. The Mimóza Macskamentő Alapítvány, a cat rescue service, was taking care of him. I had to wait a couple of weeks for him to be medically cleared (he was being treated for giardia), but once the tests came back negative, I went to pick him up. As soon we arrived home and I opened the box, the two of them started playing. They have been playing and resting ever since.

That brings us to the subject of vacation. Without making grand cultural generalizations, I can say that I have seen different views of vacation in the U.S. and here. In the U.S., many people rate their vacations in terms of how productive they were. Even travels are supposed to be productive–you go to many places, see a lot, etc. (“I got a lot done” is what you might hear afterward, and what I have often said, or not.) Here in Hungary, by contrast, the people I know expect vacation to be restful. “Jó pihenést” (Have a good rest) is what we wish each other. Now, this is already oversimplified: many Americans relax during their time off, and many Hungarians use their vacations to get things done or to learn something new. But there’s a different view of what should happen.

It is hard to get rid of the sense that I am not being productive enough. This summer, so far, I have translated three poems (two from Hungarian and one from Lithuanian) and a story, written an essay for an incipient Hungarian-English literary journal, Krajcáros Igazság / The Penny Truth, written six of seven parts of a long poem, settled into–and set up–my new place, adopted two kittens, and gone on runs and bike rides. Also, I have dealt with numerous situations, entirely in Hungarian–an apparent problem with my washing machine (easily fixed), furniture orders and delivery, doctor’s appointments, a condominium association meeting, and much more. All in all, I would say that isn’t too bad. But sometimes I catch myself thinking that I should have done more.

On the other hand, there are Hungarians who would consider this far too work-like for a vacation. Why haven’t I gone to Lake Balaton? (I will, just not in the peak of summer, since I have to be careful in the sun.) Why haven’t I gone on more day trips, socialized more, etc.? I do look forward to a day trip or two, with the bike or maybe a bike/train combination. But it’s hard to explain that I enjoy working on my projects during vacation. Not only that, but it’s important for me; it’s the rare time when I have stretches of time. And it has felt very relaxed; I have done things without rush, and each morning has a leisurely beginning (with the NYT mini crossword puzzle, the Spelling Bee game, the Letter Boxed game, etc.).

So the differences really come down to the “shoulds”: people’s idea of what a vacation is supposed to be. In any culture, there is more than one “should” happening at once. Sometimes they even contradict each other. But you can feel the relative pull of one “should” or another. To some extent, “shoulds” are a nuisance and an impediment. Do what you want, for crying out loud! But they will always be there, even dimly, and sometimes they can do good.

So far, I have considered what people do during vacation. The other big question is “with whom.” In the U.S., at least among the people I know, it is considered normal to spend vacation alone. In fact, many relish the idea of having some time to themselves. In Hungary, it’s largely unheard of (and somewhat frowned upon). Some people understand how it’s possible to enjoy time alone, but overall this is accepted less than in the U.S.

On the other hand, in the U.S. there’s a great fear of having time alone to think. There’s an old belief, going back to Puritan times or farther, that too much thinking will get you in trouble. That in turn justifies productivity: if you keep yourself busy, you have less time for thinking, and that is a Good Thing. I haven’t encountered that fear of thinking in Hungary, at least not to the same extent. This may have something to do with my surroundings–I teach at a school full of thinkers–but I think it goes beyond that.

Vacations say a lot about a culture, but the teachings are complex. How people spend their free time–when it actually exists–is no trivial matter; to have a good vacation, you have to be a bit of a rebel–down with the shoulds!–and a bit of a traditionalist (some shoulds are worth having after all).

In any case, Gertrude Stein said it best in “A Light in the Moon“:

A LIGHT in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even withstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.

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Those Sixteen Measures

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It was in graduate school that I fell in love with Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění). I read it again and again, and then later, over the years, returned to the book and my favorite passages in it. This (and everything leading up to it) is my favorite passage of all:

It is no wonder, then, that the variation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who (like Tamina and like me) knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we have loved–those sixteen measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities.

The narrator is speaking of Beethoven’s Opus 111, the last of his piano sonatas. I listened to this piece over and over as a high school student, listened to again over the years, and am returning to it now. It breaks ground no matter where you are in your musical and life experience and how many times you have listened to it.

Loss takes its own form, direction, and time. The world tells you to set goals; you go around and around. The world tells you to move on; you don’t. But then you realize that the world isn’t telling you anything. You have to figure out for yourself what to make of it all and what to do.

The lingering and the circling have their own reasons. They don’t just repeat themselves haplessly. They have variations and digressions. Over time you start to see things in a new way, or at least you start to know what it was you were seeing.

We usually grieve more than one thing at once: along with a person, a part of ourselves, a part of the world, a way of life, a belief in something. A piece of existence falls away forever; with that piece, a person close to us, or someone important to us, and in that person, cavern after cavern, light after light. This is true even if the person does not die. A lost friendship, a breakup, a falling out can bring up this same grief.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” comes to mind:

Spring and Fall

                         to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Marcell Bajnai’s new song “Dühöngő” (“Raging”) has something to do with all of this. It circles around and around a loss, but always in a different way, and the loss takes on different forms and meanings each time. It could be a loss of a person, a loss of faith, or a loss of something in the self, or all of these combined. The song’s refrain has several variations, one of which is this:

nem hibák, csak végzetek,
feltámadás után halni meg
ordító némaság,
hitetlen, dühöngő gyávaság

(Approximately: “Not mistakes, just destinies, to die after resurrection, roaring silence, faithless, raging cowardice.”)

 

The words play against the other words in the song; variation plays against variation. Images and possibilities intertwine with the melody. When I listen to it, I change a little bit.

Grief of this kind is not the most accepted emotion, or mixture of emotions, in the world, nor can it be laid out in flat prose. It requires art and is one of the reasons for art. This very blog post points to art again and again. Without art, we would be limited to the slogan, the goal, the game plan–all those things that urge certainty of action. Those are essential too. I would not have my new apartment without a series of actions and words. But those certainties are limited by the very language that expresses them. There, words serve a specific purpose and are no longer needed, except for the record, once the purpose is accomplished. I do not find myself rereading contracts and manuals, except to find specific information in them.

But art brings you back to find more–in the work, in yourself, in the world. Grief is a plunge into the hidden regions of life–lonely and frightening at first, but then surprising, then brilliant, then so much at once that you have to lay it out in time, in form, and pass through its infinite possibilities.

Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Meet Sisi/Sziszi (also known as Füsti)

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Yesterday I went on an expedition to the twenty-third district of Budapest to pick up Sziszi, the kitten I was to adopt. Why go so far? I had tried twice to adopt a local cat or kitten, but each time, I called or wrote too late; the cat had already found a home. When I saw Füsti’s pictures and found that she was still waiting for a home, I knew the distance did not matter. I could get there and bring her back.

I named her Sisi after Queen Elisabeth (Sisi, spelled Sziszi in Hungarian), Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, who went to masquerades and wrote poems singing of her fictional adventures there. One of the poems, “A sárga dominó dala” (“Song of the Yellow Domino”) has these lines:

Az arcomat fedte az éjszinü maszk.
– De rég volt, de rég volt, de rég! –
A lelkemet nem fedte, láttad te azt!
– És hidd el, az többet is ért! –

My translation (with liberties taken for rhythm and rhyme):

A night-colored mask enshrouded my face.
– But long ago, long, long ago!
My soul it left bared, you were witness to this!
– And that was worth more, you should know! –

Sisi the kitten looks like she is wearing a mask–but a white one or a black one? Either way is possible.

Sisi also appears in Gyula Jenei’s poem “Olló” (“Scissors”), my translation of which will appear in The Massachusetts Review sometime in the coming year. (The quote below is as the text appears in Jenei’s 2018 collection Mindig Más; a slightly different version can be found here.)

vonásaikat már nem lehet rendesen kivenni,
egyébként is aprók a portrék, de nagyanyám állítja,
hogy az ferenc józsef és sziszi. ő persze erzsébet
királynénak fogja mondani, s a félszárú pápaszem
mögül elnézi nagyon öreg szemével a megkopott
vonású fejeket, amiket még tovább koptatok,
ahányszor smirglivel kifényesítem őket.

Back to the kitten. When I arrived to pick her up, the whole family was standing outside and waiting for me: the two parents, the two boys, the little girl, who was holding Füsti (“Smokey”), and the dog, who ran to greet me. The girl was crestfallen about giving up the kitten. The mother cat had had seven little ones, and Füsti was the last to be given away. (The family kept the mom, who was recovering from her spaying operation.)

They asked me to send them pictures; I did so last night and will send them more. Because they were so kind, and because the little girl was so sad to lose her, Sisi is keeping the name Füsti too. She will be Sziszi Füsti, or whichever name I call her at a given moment.

At first she meowed in the cat carrier, but on the train ride home, she settled down and started playing with the toys. She slept a bit too.

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When we got home, she immediately started exploring–running here and there, hiding, darting out of hiding and running back again. Then the temptation to play grew too much for her, and we played for a long time.

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Then she flopped down on the rug and slept.

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But that was only the beginning. By nighttime, she had discovered the bed, decided that she liked it, and revealed her cuddly, purring side. Now she is completely at ease. She jumps and leaps around, then curls up and basks in the quiet. She loves it when I cuddle with her. She has figured out everything in the apartment: she knows where her food is, where the litter box is (and, fortunately, how to use it), where the toys are, where the comfortable places are, and where to find me. She knows how to stretch out and curl up, how to wiggle her paws. Tomorrow her cat tree will arrive; once she can climb to the top, she will be able to look out the window. (Update: it is here.)

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How does a little kitten know how to do all of this? How did she make herself at home so quickly? I think she had a great start in her original home–but I think cats also have a sense of home in their souls, especially if they are born into a home and not on the street. Each cat does this in a different way, and in changing ways over time, but they get to know a place, run and leap in it, and fall asleep in it too. I think of the ending of Edward Hirch’s “Wild Gratitude” (and of the beginning, too, and the middle):

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

Typing Backwards (Sestina)

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Typing Backwards (Sestina)

Diana Senechal

Now is the time to talk. I don’t mean
dipping my bread into your clipped glyphs
and gobbling like a tramp, or stirring shock
and awe into our first long-distance tea.
I mean the simple conference. The back
and forth that all the world has come to miss.

What I have never known, how can I miss?
Without matter, how can I find a mean?
I too have walked my mind and fingers back
to our first meeting, where your hymnous glyphs
woke me from ancient sleep. Instead of tea,
I drank the beauty of the limpid shock.

Later, I only partly meant to shock
you and others; most of that swing-and-miss
came from my gait. A sitting down for tea
would have made you and me a bit less mean.
Instead I racked my mind over my glyphs,
wishing I could reshape them, roll them back

across the border. Yet the taking back
would be just a mirage. My fingers shock
the keys, and they shock back; the stoic glyphs
have long known these erasures. “You will miss
our mark,” they say. But cuts mark too (I mean
the million times I backspaced on a T).

You think I’m playing with infinity?
Last year, maybe. Not now. No going back
to that old cant. Sometimes I was a mean
mortality protester. I would shock
the rosy wellness-hawkers with my mis-
creant letters, my ever-stretching glyphs.

Now it’s all one. The river thrums my glyphs
into the easelessness. A spill of tea
lifts ink from the old diaries. I miss
missing itself, the feeling, far far back
in the blue past, that words of truth and shock
would become flesh. At least conjure your mien.

Now I see what I missed: your cryptic glyph
speaks its own mean. “To keep your dignity,
hold something back.” So I delete the shock.

 

I wrote this sestina over the past week and completed it this morning.

Old School in Hungary: Part 8

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Somehow we finished Old School just before the Hungarian schools closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t get to have the last discussion I had planned, a discussion of the book as a whole, but the students wrote about it, and I have been taking in their responses all evening.

On Friday, when the second section finished the book, I asked whether Makepeace had the right to kick himself out of the school, whether he could possibly be a fair judge of himself (and whether in general people can judge themselves accurately), and whether it was the right decision for him.

Regarding the question of rights, one student said that no, he didn’t have the right to kick himself out, because he had responsibilities toward others. Another asked whether anyone else besides him was in a position to expel him. That’s a trickier question than may seem, because the headmaster, while technically entitled to fire a teacher, would probably not do so except under extreme circumstances. A matter of conscience like this would probably not have made the cut.

(In the other section, students overwhelmingly agreed that he had the right to kick himself out. But one student pointed out that that didn’t make it a good decision.)

Then the question of whether he could judge himself fairly: a student said that since he was elderly, he was likely to be too hard on himself. Young people up to age 30, he explained, rely on others’ judgments; people in their 30s and 40s (I think) realize that the world doesn’t care about them, and older people tend to judge themselves. This observation helped us see Makepeace in time; his age makes a difference here. We talked a bit about how people can judge themselves too harshly (or, in some cases, too lightly).

We spent some time on Makepeace’s regrets, and what he missed about teaching; and then we made our way to his return, which a student read aloud. Then I asked what this ending was about–they picked up on the Prodigal Son reference right away–and what it had to do with the narrator.

A student suggested that it had something to do with the epigraph at the beginning (from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for my Father”).

Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.

She explained that the narrator, by ending the story with Makepeace, was telling his own truth through a “lie”–that is, through a fiction about someone other than himself. I then passed out a longer excerpt of the poem–I had meant to hand it out on Monday, but now seemed the time–and read the first two parts aloud. The same student commented, “He answers each question in two ways. The first answer is factual, and the second is from the soul.”

Then she continued: “The narrator is doing the opposite of what he did before, when he copied ‘Summer Dance.’ There he copied someone else’s story and submitted it as his own. Here he is telling his own story, but making it into someone else’s.” (Her words were slightly different, but this was her point.)

Students recognized that not only Makepeace but the narrator had come home, and that this ending was about coming home, really coming home, and being welcomed  and forgiven.

But it isn’t pat. A student in the other section, who didn’t like the book, said, “It isn’t a happy ending.” He was right. There is sadness in the ending, and there are those who don’t like the book, even though they argued with it, thought about it, and carried bright insights into it.

The sadness is maybe this: that the homecoming required a great loss. The final image has a heartbreaking aspect: “Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch was lame and had white hairs coming out of his ears and white stubble all over his face….” Although the “though” is typically the weaker part of the sentence, the “concession,” here you feel its weight.

I won’t quote students’ written responses here. Later, I might ask permission to quote a few, but only after some time has gone by. Responses are still coming in. So far I admire their genuineness, their fresh language, their differences from one another. There’s nothing generic about them. They are downright beautiful.

I didn’t know that this would be the end of class discussions for a while. But having built something, we can let it stand for a little while. It won’t come apart, and meanwhile we will work on other things. As in the book, though, how suddenly a cherished part of daily life can pause, change, or end.

 

This is the eighth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here. There will probably be one more post in this series.

I made some additions to this piece after posting it.