A Musical Breakthrough: Cz.K. Sebő’s “Kesze-kusza nyár”

For about two years now I have loved Cz.K. Sebő’s music (and written about it here and elsewhere). But his new EP Kesze-kusza (Topsy-Turvy), especially the first song (“Kesze-kusza nyár,” or “Topsy-Turvy Summer”), has new depth for me in terms of musicianship alone. The guitar is meditative and rich—he way it lets the pauses ring, the way the notes come forward and retreat. This quality was there before, but it has reached a new level. The acoustic tone (he borrowed an exceptional guitar for this) is so beautiful that I can listen to the whole EP, again and again, for the sake of that sound. You can hear not only wood, strings, and air, but wordless thoughts. On the first song, the accompaniment by Soma Bradák (drums, percussion) and Benedek Szabó (bass) is so subtle that you might not even hear them enter. And then, when you listen to what they are doing, this adds to the wonder.

The lyrics are dreamy and evocative, the syllables so well timed that they sing themselves. This time the words are not hidden. I love the sometimes muffled singing on How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? (and with that, the ambivalence over words), but this is pure and bare.

The melody may sound familiar; this song inspired Platon Karataev’s “Létra,” the magnificent theme song of the film Magasságok és mélységek (Heights and Depths).

The album is just under fifteen minutes long; it sustains its mood and beauty from start to finish. Three of the other songs on the EP are instrumental (solo guitar, with some effects); the third song, “Értelmet,” also has lyrics. I think the last song, “1012,” is another favorite along with the first. It surprises quietly; it explores and finds its way.

Fruzsina Balogh’s wonderful cover art evokes not only the songs but the experience of listening to the EP.

I don’t think this will be a final musical destination or anything close; his capsule boy album, now in progress, will take different directions. But it touches on infinity.

The EP (and especially the first song) inspired a poem yesterday. The poem isn’t “about” the EP or the song, but this music was a source. If anything, the poem is about holding back from an instant reaction to music, giving myself a chance to take it in. The fourth stanza alludes to the last paragraph on p. 67 of Zàn Coaskòrd’s book A Valóság, Hit és léleK rejtett csodája; the last stanza hints at Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” So I’ll end here with the poem.

Listening

Diana Senechal

Today I tried something new
(Or old in a new way):
Saying nothing.

True, many stints of null
Had marked my days before,
But this nothing had

A pluck to it.
Tuning, muting
Its strings, gearing

Up for the miracle
(As anything that comes
From zero is miracle),

It befriended the oval.
Later I thought of how
The hush had given me time

To hear space sing,
To see the clouds converge,
Break up, glitter, and

Spatter the long sands,
Daring me into a brief
Collapse of words.

The words resurged,
But with the glint of return
From a private voyage:

“Later I looked up the name
Of that beach whose waves
Rough-sang the sky.”

Listening (new poem)

Listening

Diana Senechal

Today I tried something new
(Or old in a new way):
Saying nothing.

True, many stints of null
Had marked my days before,
But this nothing had

A pluck to it.
Tuning, muting
Its strings, gearing

Up for the miracle
(As anything that comes
From zero is miracle),

It befriended the oval.
Later I thought of how
The hush had given me time

To hear space sing,
To see the clouds converge,
Break up, glitter, and

Spatter the long sands,
Daring me into a brief
Collapse of words.

The words resurged,
But with the glint of return
From a private voyage:

“Later I looked up the name
Of that beach whose waves
Rough-sang the sky.”

Art credit: Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Composition in Oval with Color Planes 1 (1914), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art.

Mark Baczoni’s translation of Karinthy’s The Tragedy of Mannikins, a satire of Madách’s The Tragedy of Man

In October 2022, the AALITRA Review published a special issue, “Enriching the Global Literary Canvas: Celebrating Less Translated Languages.” (AALITRA stands for The Australian Association for Literary Translation.) There’s a lot to explore and enjoy in this issue, but one piece in particular caught my eye: Mark Baczoni’s translation of Frigyes Karinthy’s The Tragedy of Mannikins (Az emberke tragédiája), a satire on Imre Madách’s verse drama The Tragedy of Man (Az ember tragédiája), a beloved classic, part of the high school curriculum, but sadly, as Baczoni points out, little known abroad. (It has been translated several times into English, most recently by George Szirtes.)

Even less known is Karinthy’s satire in verse, published posthumously in 1946, and untranslated into English until now. (I was completely unaware of its existence.) Baczoni writes in his introduction about everything he took into account: the meter, the archaic language, the wordplay, the references not only to Madách’s work but to historical events, literary tendencies, and more. He consulted with a number of people, rethought and revised the translation, and concludes his introduction by saying that he hopes that “the text’s journey does not end here.” I share the hope!

What I love about this translation is its sense of fun and play, combined with attention to nuances, allusions, layers of meaning. The original is perhaps a hundred years old, archaic in tone and funny as all get out. Not something that people are translating because it’s hot off the shelves. It’s a bold endeavor too: translating a treasure that makes fun of a classic (neither of which is widely known outside of Hungary). The translator has a good ear. He takes liberties to convey the essence, and I think he hits the right notes.

In the AALITRA Review, the translation appears side by side with the original. It isn’t very long; you can read it in a sitting and then reread it. Here’s just one stanza from the first part:

Utcu Lajcsi, hopsza Lenke,
Volt egyszer egy jó Istenke,
Azt gondolja magában:
Mit ülök itt hiában?
Megteremtem a világot,
Hogy olyat még kend nem látott.
Hogy ha látod, szádat tátod,
Mesterségem megcsodálod.
Hello children, how d’you do?
Once there was a Lordy-pooh:
“I should not sit around like this,
When it’s time for Genesis!
I’ll make a world just like a dream,
The likes of which you’ve never seen.
When you do, your eyes will pop,
Praising me you’ll never stop.”

I have never met Mark Baczoni (or even heard of him until this). His bio in the AALITRA Review reads as follows: “Mark Baczoni was born in Budapest and raised in London. He studied at Cambridge and translates from Hungarian. His work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, The White Review, Cordite, and Exchanges (Iowa). He is the translator of two novels for Corvina in Budapest, Alexander Lénárd’s Stories of Rome and Jenő Rejtő’s The Fourteen Carat Car. His first UK novel-length translation, János Székely’s Temptation was published by Pushkin Press in the UK and NYRB in the US.” I also see that he is a former editor of Hungarian Literature Online. Best wishes to Mr. Baczoni—and to this translation in particular!

New Year Poem

A Quietly Extraordinary Year (2022)

I don’t think I’ll do any of those countdowns or “Top 10” lists. In a future post I’ll talk about some favorite concerts, recordings, readings from this year. But in terms of projects alone, this has been one of the most exciting years of my life, even though it all seems so quiet now.

There was the online Pilinszky event in March. Months of planning and preparation went into it, and then it was just so beautiful. The audience (from the U.S., Hungary, and elsewhere) took interest, and the conversation and performances came together in a magical way.

A few weeks later, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más was published by Deep Vellum. I am very proud of these translations and love the original poems. The collection went largely ignored, unfortunately, aside from some wonderful Amazon reviews—but the one official review it received was a review to dream of. Also, one of the poems, “Scissors,” won honorable mention in the 2022 Jules Chametzky Prize. (This particular translation was first published in The Massachusetts Review.)

A couple of weeks later, we had the Shakespeare festival, the first of its kind, a joint event hosted by the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library on Kossuth Square in Szolnok) and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. The day was filled with performances (of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs), as well as workshops, games, and lectures. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this and helped to bring it about. We will hold the second Shakespeare Festival in April 2023.

After that, I was concentrating almost exclusively (outside of teaching) on the upcoming trip to the U.S. in October, for the ALSCW Conference at Yale. The three featured guests from the Pilinszky event—Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, and Gergely Balla—were all to take part, along with three other Hungarians and twelve panelists from the U.S., in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” The planning was intense, continuous, and detailed, with several bumps along the way that added to the suspense but that all got worked out. I am still amazed at how it all came together and how joyous and interesting it was. One of my favorite parts was the visit to Dwight Chapel, where Gergő and Sebő played a few songs on guitars they had borrowed from friends of mine in New Haven.

There was also Folyosó (the spring and fall 2022 issues), a mini-concert I organized at Varga, and lots of translating. Eight of my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems were published (two apiece) in Literary Imagination, Literary Matters, Asymptote, and Modern Poetry in Translation; two more will be published soon in the online version of the Continental Literary Magazine.

All this on top of “regular” teaching and daily life (and another big translation project that is complete but in limbo). And here I was thinking I had been lazy this year!

And yet it all returns to quiet. It all becomes part of something else. In the larger world, with a war and other serious crises on the one hand, and, on the other, heaps of commotion over things that don’t matter much, there are probably few who care that any of this happened. There are those who do. There are those who were part of it, who experienced it along with me, who attended it. Who know that this wasn’t just some quaint pastime.

But mattering and attracting crowds are not the same thing. Deserved recognition comes to some, but most of the time, you have to be willing to accept the quiet, because the alternative is ugly: scrambling and fighting for attention, making it all about you. Or, if you’re rich, paying people to pull strings for you.

The quiet has its hidden scrolls and sounds. Those who come upon them will know what they have found. Those who pass on by them will not know what they have missed. That is how the world’s clamor deceives, again and again: it proclaims its own importance and offers its loudness as proof. Quiet, on the whole, can be trusted more. But loudness and quiet can contain each other, and there the matter gets complicated, as most things do.

“Time drives the flocks from field to fold….”

Thinking back on the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar, I hear Alyse O’Hara’s song rendition of Sir Walter Ralegh’s poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” which in turn responds to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Today I noticed the pacing and time she gives to the line “Time drives the flocks from field to fold.” You can listen to the song here.

The song’s major key makes room for melancholy. At the seminar, someone brought up the elasticity and capaciousness of music; this seemed like a good example. The melody might be considered “happy” in another context, but here it sounds wistful, with a twist of pain. To me, the repetitions (e.g. “to live, to live, to live with thee, and be, and be, and be thy love”) have a kind of weary knowledge to them. The nymph sees all too well what it would be like to trust the shepherd’s promises and take part in a dying eternity.

In Marlowe’s poem, the shepherd makes promises like the following:

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

In Ralegh’s poem, the nymph responds, detail by detail:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

O’Hara’s song seens true to the poem and to life; you can imagine the nymph down by the water, on the rocks, reflecting on the shepherd’s words and seeing through them. The last verse, in which she imagines what it would be like if things were otherwise (“But could youth last, and love still breed, / Had joys no date, nor age no need….”), has pauses between the utterances, and you can hear so much in those pauses.

Many of the presenters gave me permission to post at least some of their materials; we now have a web page dedicated to the seminar.

In terms of music alone, much has happened since my return: a brilliant Galaxisok concert at the A38 Hajó (with the opening band Laiho, whom I loved); Kolibri’s new song “Gleccser“; Cz.K. Sebő’s “Értelmet“; a video of “Záporozó” by Henri Gonzo és a Papírsárkányok; and more.

Keeping up with the music is less important than taking time with it. Two different relationships to time: both important, neither one perfectible. You can never keep up with the music, nor can you take as much time with it as it deserves. So you find your pace, mixture, limitations, and whimsy. In that imbalance of things, it’s fine to fall behind for the sake of a song.

There is more to say. Another time or times. (But I added a bit to thie piece after posting it.)

We did it! (A short summary of the trip)

Most of us are back in Hungary now. It will take a long time to assemble thoughts about this extraordinary trip—to Yale for the ALSCW conference, and to NYC for music, wandering, and visits—but it happened and was beautiful.

A brief rundown: We went to the U.S. primarily for the literature conference but also for a few days in NYC. (This trip had been in the planning since March.) Several members of the group arrived in NYC a few days before the rest of us. (The group consisted of seven Hungarian adults, a baby, and me; six of them presented in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.”) We all met at Grand Central Station on October 19, had dinner there, and took the train together to New Haven. I walked with them to their AirBnB apartment—a spacious, sunlit first floor of a house near Wooster Square—and headed off to my own lodgings. The next morning, I came by for breakfast, and then we headed off to campus to look around. We visited the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library with its translucent marble walls and its map exhibit.

Then we took different directions for a while (I had lunch with my friend Ron) and met later outside the Humanities Quadrangle, where the conference was to take place. An old friend of mine, Jenn, came by to lend Gergő and Sebő her husband’s guitar. Another friend would lend a second guitar the next day. The Platon Karataev duo concerts we had scheduled in New Haven and NYC had to be cancelled, because they are not permitted under a tourist visa or ESTA waiver, but we had scheduled a private session at Yale’s Dwight Chapel, and they were also to record in a studio in Brooklyn. We then entered the quadrangle for a genial, tasty reception and an evening of readings. (More about all of this later.) Afterwards I went with my friend Claudia (from Dallas) to the former Viva Zapata, now VivaZ Cantina.

The next morning, I attended a panel on Eliot’s The Waste Land, then headed into our seminar room to set up for the first session of “Setting Poetry to Music.” We had a fairly large audience (for a seminar), an inspiring round of presentations, and a lively, too-short discussion. (Again, more about this later.) Then we headed out to the courtyard for lunch. During our lunch, Tim came by with his guitar and cheer. In the afternoon, I presented in the seminar on “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.” Then darted out the door and rushed to Dwight Chapel.

About a week before our trip, I had written to the Yale chaplain, Sharon Kugler, to ask whether we could visit the chapel, which holds many memories for me, and whether Gergő and Sebő could play music there. She not only welcomed us but put us in touch with Dwight Hall staff to work out the details. This was an unannounced, informal, unofficial session, completely acoustic, with only the group members and a few others in the audience. The sound filled the space.

The video I shot (of them playing “Ki viszi?” is visually grainy, with a few clumsy filming moments (particularly when I was walking backward), but the sound approximates what this was like. Many, many thanks to Chaplain Sharon Kugler, the Dwight Hall staff (especially Debra Rohr and Alexine Casanova), Tim, Jenn, and Tony, and of course Sebő and Gergő.

In the evening we had dinner at a pizzeria of well-earned fame (which offered vegan pizza, among other delights). We were joined by my friend Lara Allen, who would be presenting the following day in the second session of “Setting Poetry to Music.” Delicious pizza, lively conversation and laughter. After an hour or so, I left the group to attend the ALSCW readings—but was so tired that I fell asleep in the auditorium and woke up only when the readings were all over.

The next day was packed again: an outstanding Shakespeare panel, coffee with Martha, lunch in the courtyard, the second “Setting Poetry to Music” session, a panel on Japanese literature, and then an elegant, rousing banquet in the dining hall of the Yale Divinity School. To top off the night, some of us went to hear the Algerian band Imarhan at Cafe Nine. They were fanatastic; the room swayed and danced.

The next morning, I took part in the ALSCW Council meeting, then met up with the group at the train station.

Before I forget, I should say that the foliage was almost peaking. October is my favorite New England season, especially in New Haven. I love it not only for the leaves, but for the tones of light.

The New York part of the trip was just as momentous and moment-filled, but since it was more personal in nature, I’ll tell, just briefly, about my own part. We all stayed, for different lengths of time (some for one night, some for two, some for four) on the top floor of a legendary old stone home in Queens (known as “The Castle”). On October 24, Sebő and Gergő recorded at Leesta Vall Sound Recordings; I had the joy of listening to the session. Then I brought the guitars back to New Haven (my first chance in days to sit back and let my thoughts roam) and returned them to Tim and Jenn. In the evening some of us got together at an Irish pub with good music playing through the speakers. Long conversations, both jovial and serious. Then we more or less went our different ways, except that a few of us stayed at the “Castle” until Thursday, and I took a walk with them on Wednesday.

On Tuesday I saw my friend Tara, who came down from Troy (New York) to see me. On Wednesday I walked around a lot and had coffee with my friend Lizzie. On Thursday I moved to an apartment in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn; I also saw Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle) at Film Forum and had dinner with my friend Sharon (who was my freshman-year roommate at Yale and plays violin in the New York Philharmonic). On Friday I did laundry in the morning (I miss laundromats, of all things), then had lunch in Chinatown with a former colleague. In the afternoon I headed up to my storage space in Washington Heights and managed, in just two hours, to move my things into a smaller and cheaper unit. From there I headed to Queens for a lovely gathering at my friend Liz’s. On Saturday morning I attended the Shabbat service at B’nai Jeshurun and talked to a few people afterwards. Then I bounded off to Williamsburg, where I heard Hannah Marcus (also an friend of many years) play and sing in her Cajun band The Red Aces. A great end to the trip. From there I sped back to the place in Flatbush, gathered my things, and took a cab to the airport. The plane took off close to midnight.

Such a stretch of time in NYC is an unpaid luxury for me. It happened because I originally assumed we would have autumn break in the last week of October, as we usually do. In addition, I originally wanted to leave some room for a possible literary/musical event that we would hold in NYC. (The event didn’t come together, which is just as well, given that it might have led to visa problems for members of the group. But it is an idea and possibility for the future.)

Then it turned out that our fall break would be in the first week of November, beginning on October 31. It seemed that I could leave NYC no sooner than October 26, arriving in Szolnok on the 27th—so I figured, why not call it a week and stay a few more days, into the fall break? But even that changed; it was later decided that we would have no autumn break at all, just a long weekend—so I changed my return flight and came back a few days earlier than previously planned, just so that I wouldn’t be absent an additional Wednesday, which is my longest teaching day of the week. Still, these extra days gave the whole trip a sense of time and lingering, even though it all went by fast. I have much more in my memories than I have laid out here. Also, the friends I saw, both in New Haven and NYC, are some of my dearest friends anywhere, so there was a fullness to it all.

Next time I will describe the content of the conference itself. For now, a few more pictures—and a special thanks to Zalán and Marianna, who took care of Sziszi and Dominó while I was away.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

An October of Octobers Ahead

October is my favorite month and has been for decades. It has the foliage, the songs, the jumbled sounds. Bells clanging. A coat wrapped around the body. An urge to walk uphill. To dance against the wayward wind, thrilling in strength. Mourning a little.

But this will be an October of Octobers. First, this school year has started off especially well. I am starting my sixth year at Varga, but it feels in a way like a new arrival. The students are thoughtful, funny, very bright. I have a lot planned. Normally, under these circumstances, I would not want to be absent for eight school days in a row. If someone were trying to send me off to some special program, I’d say, no, no, I have too much to do here. But this October is different.

As I mentioned before, eight adults and a baby are traveling together to the U.S. for the ALSCW Conference. The basic details and any important updates can be found here. Still, such details do not come close to summing up what this has been and will be. We have been planning this for six months straight, almost every day, but all the planning in the world doesn’t tell you what it will be like.

There will be New Haven in autumn: for me, memories upon memories, and for them (and me too), something rather new. There will be the conference itself, full of interesting things, and within it, my double-session “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar, which is turning out even richer than I expected. (See the lineup at the bottom of this post.)

Here’s the seminar lineup. You can read the full conference program here.


Setting Poetry to Music: Session 1 (Friday, October 21, 10:30-12:30 a.m.)

Gergely Balla, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “It Cannot Answer: A Platon Karataev Song Inspired by the Oeuvre of Sándor Csoóri”

Claudia Gary, Independent Writer/Artist, “Song as Conversation”

Emily Grace, Catholic University of America, “A Study of the Interpretive Potential of Two Settings of John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart'”

Todd Hearon, Phillips Exeter Academy, “‘Caliban in After-Life’: Reimagining Shakespeare’s Monster in Words and Music”

Kata Heller, Eötvös Loránd University, “Rap as a New Type of Poetry? A Discussion of the Genre within the Scope of Holi’s ‘Roadmovie’ (‘Sírok és nevetek’)”

Anna Maria Hong, Mount Holyoke College, “H & G: From Novella to Opera”

Csenger Kertai, Independent Writer, “Kaláka’s Musical Interpretation of Attila József’s ‘Tudod, hogy nincs bocsánat’ (‘Mercy Denied Forever’)”

Alyse O’Hara, University of Connecticut,“Performing on the Theme of Consent in Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’”

Setting Poetry to Music: Session 2 (Saturday, October 22, 1:45-3:45 p.m.)

Lara Allen, Independent Artist, “And All Round Me Spirits: Invoking Harry Partch”

Fruzsina Balogh,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, and Panna Kocsis,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design,  “Music and Poetry in the Language of Contemporary Hungarian Visual Art”

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “Accompaniment or Song: Two Musical Approaches to János Pilinszky”

Piotr Gwiazda, University of Pittsburgh, “Listening to Grzegorz Wróblewski on YouTube”

Mary Maxwell, Independent Scholar, “Setting Sulpicia’s Songs”

Jennifer Davis Michael, Sewanee: The University of the South, and Nathan Davis, The New School College of Performing Arts, “Bell of Silence”

Kimberly Soby, University of Connecticut, “Examining Word Painting in the Vocal Works of Earl Kim”

Iris Zheng, Independent Scholar, “Composition as Criticism and Creation” 


Art credit: Leonid Afremov, October Park.

Two Reviews of “Always Different”

When Gyula Jenei’s Always Different came out (my first Hungarian-English translation in book form), I was surprised at first by the silence. How could there be no response? But I remember, again and again, that these things take time. Serious reading, any kind of reading, takes time. Writing thoughts about a poetry collection takes time. So I am honored that two wonderful reviews have appeared so far.

The first, written by Claudia MacMillan (Allums) and posted on Amazon, brings out something of the essence of the collection in just a few words.

There is an urgency pulsing under each of Jenei’s poems here, something compelling one forward into the volume. Simple, unflinching words that are also somehow tender create a tone of wistful hopefulness that never fully reconciles itself into hope, although it is far from despair. I love this book of clear-sighted descriptions, lyrical musings that invite one in with a medias res feeling, the “forty years” refrain providing a lens from which to consider befores and afters strange yet familiar to us all. Jenei’s use of unpretentious language and his dogged attention to small details, people, and things remind me that a poet notices what the rest of us do not, until he show us. The title is a little poem itself. Thank you Gyula and Diana, for this lyrical retreat!

The second review, written by Christie Goodwin and published yesterday in Hungarian Literature Online, weaves through the volume with humble, brilliant insight. As I read it, I thought at moments that I was dreaming. Thank you. I quote from the end:

“Homeroom Teacher” seems to offer a metaphoric key to understanding the poet’s unraveling sense of memory and identity. He looks through the old photographs and notices “and only a few pictures identify me / as the one who took the reel”. He says that “as for the view, / i try to edit it. to the extent possible”. He does the same in his poems – presenting a picture, a shifting and “vague” one, punctuated by emotion and sharp imagistic moments. The poet seems to accept the discrepancy between the child and adult voice – his own unreliability – “i still imagine a future that will not come to pass. but forty years later the lack of it will no longer trouble me – slowly i get used to myself.” This fractured, heartbreaking collection makes us consider what and how we remember. Perhaps, as Jenei says in his poem “Passageways to God” we will encounter memory in a similar way:  “afraid of the depths” and yet unable to get our “fill of / the view”. 

Update: A wonderful review by T.M. has appeared on Amazon.

Always Different by Gyula Jenei, translated from Hungarian into English by Diana Senechal, offers a form of time travel. The speaker has more life behind him than ahead, yet he relates his childhood not as someone looking back so much as someone who has reentered the time before and now marches forward again through the years, with the dual consciousness of child and adult. The descriptions are rich with sensory detail, first making the mundane come alive—we are fully on the street with him, and in the barn, and at school—and then, in piercing flashes, revealing the turbulent emotional depths below. Children, experiencing so many dynamics for the first time, often don’t know how to interpret what happens to and around them. The adult comes back and, with careful attention, can sift through “last year’s leaf layer, the one before last year,/ the thick, fat litterfall may show its year-rings like/ an archaeological find, but below it the earth may stay/ slimy, wet and cold, with disgusting crawlers, worms,/ earthworms, cocooned lives, deaths.” The verb tenses are often future or conditional, leaving the reader at the precipice—in digging through the past, some outcomes will surely happen again, but changes are also possible; the meaning we make each time we touch a memory is always different.

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

Twice in my life (so far) have I received a translation prize. The first was when I won the Scott Prize in Russian upon graduating from Yale. The prize was in recognition of my senior thesis, which consisted of translations of contemporary Russian poets and commentary. The second came just the other day: an Honorable Mention in the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize, for “Scissors,” my translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Olló.” This Honorable Mention was even more honorable than it may appear; usually this prize has only one winner, and this honorable mention comes with a cash award and an interview. But beyond that, the poem is one of my favorites in Gyula Jenei’s work, and I am fond of the translation too. I am honored that the MR editors and judges loved this poem.

“my grandmother will have other scissors too:”—the poem begins—”smaller, larger, / sharper—but most of all i will love the pair that has, below / the rings, on the wide-opening, ornate handle-necks, / the likeness of a man and woman embossed.” You can no longer make out the faces, but the grandmother claims that they belong to Franz Joseph and Sisi. The poem continues with the grandmother contemplating the two heads through her “one-templed spectacles” and telling stories: of the boy’s own family, of the coronation of Charles and Zita, “heaps / of tales she happily tells.” While she is telling her tales, the boy cuts something or other with the scissors, and the faces come close without actually touching.

only the rings make
a metal clap, and the blades scrape, and then the past
dissolves into the future, and then they bury my grandmother,
and i forget her stories, all i remember about them is their
having been, and only the scissors have remained, and
the sewing box with the thimble, then the thimble got lost too.

It goes on from there to my favorite part, which I won’t quote here, since you can read it. The poem is full of surprising gestures. Here’s a physical object that has remained over the years: the scissors (which I have actually held in my hands, yes, the scissors of this poem)—but they are about as vague as memory itself, since the faces have been worn and polished over time. But through this wearing down, some essence comes through: a statement, a retraction of sorts, and a final image and truth. The poem has tenderness, memory, forgetting, a sweep of history, and a pair of scissors whose clapping and scraping you can hear even if you never get to hold them.

I remember translating the first draft of this poem during a long break in my school day on a Wednesday morning (I think it was a Wednesday, in the fall of 2018). I remember thinking: How do I go back into the world after this? But I did, and it worked out well.

So, that’s what I wanted to say about the award and the poem. As for the two concerts, yesterday I had an exceptional evening. First I went to hear the Platon Karataev duo at the Esernyős in Buda. What a beautiful concert it was, and what an attentive audience. Several times they mentioned how much they appreciated the audience’s quiet attention. Here’s a photo taken by the venue’s photographers, I think.

Sebő then had to rush across the Duna (and southeastward a bit) to the Akvárium’s Petőfi Terasz, where he gave a wonderful Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert. Many of us likewise went, as audience members, from the first concert to the next. There I did take a picture. But much better pictures and videos were being taken (see below); if the official video ends up on YouTube, I’ll include it here too. I loved hearing the songs and sounds find their way: a song he wrote that morning, some songs that are changing over time, some songs still in the works, songs ceding to sound and sound to songs, songs leading into songs, all together forming something joyous, thoughtful, and melancholic that I could get swept into alertly.

At that concert, the (very large) audience was listening closely for the most part, but there were a few loud people as well. Two young women planted themselves in front of me—when they could have stood to the right of me, blocking no one’s view—and proceeded to talk and gesticulate. The woman sitting next to me (around my age or a little younger, and intensely listening too) motioned that I could sit closer to her and see. I was grateful for that. The Petőfi Terasz, being outdoors and free, draws a mixed crowd, some there for the concert, others for entertainment and drinks. The music and listening won out; it was a beautiful show. But I don’t understand people who talk loudly without even bothering to move to the side or the back. (Update: From the photos I later realized that one member of the noisy pair is the lead singer of a band whom I have never heard live but three of whose albums I have. That’s even more disappointing. In the future I’ll just ask noisy people to move or be quiet, whoever they may be.)

So this leaves me with the thought that attention—in the form of reading, listening, conversation, or something else—isn’t just one of the best things to give or receive; it’s also essential. Where would any of us be without it? Isn’t despair the sense that no one is paying (or receiving) attention? And if we can’t give attention to everything (at least I can’t), isn’t it good to have a few people, things, and occasions to devote it to?

I added a little to this piece after posting it. The last picture is by Dávid Bodnár, courtesy of the Akvárium Klub Official. You can see the whole album here.

Update: Here’s the video of my Chametzky Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, a summer intern at The Massachusetts Review.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • 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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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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