“Majdnemország” and Political Songs

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

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

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

The song begins,

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

A rough translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictures of a Concert

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

Here are some pictures from before the concert:

And a few from the concert itself:

And a few taken afterward:

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

How to Deal with the Void

Views of space reveal anything but a void—there’s more out there than we will ever come close to knowing—but the void I’m about to discuss is not outer space. It’s a void closer to home: the void that anyone has felt who has “put something out there” (on the internet or anywhere) and gotten no response at all. This can happen to anyone, regardless of their degree of fame. Or at least some version of it can happen. Maybe a famous person always gets responses of some kind, but some of them feel much more real than others. That, at times, can be more depressing than getting no response at all. Anyway, the void, from one angle, makes no sense. Out of the billions of people in the world, and the many millions who could potentially respond to this thing, why would no one bother to do so? What is going on? Is it the sheer overload of stuff that everyone’s expected to take in? Is it a habit of indifference? Lack of interest? Lack of time?

But the first question to ask is: Is it really a void? Most of the time, if we think about it, we realize that people have been responding to what we do, what we make, what we post. Maybe not in huge numbers, but those who do respond, do so genuinely. Waxing overdramatic and telling ourselves that “we’re talking to a void” will just reinforce the solipsism that hurts. There is often someone listening, or reading, or looking.

True, but sometimes it still feels like a void. That is fine. But aside from improving your own work and finding ways to reach more people with it, there’s only one way to respond: by cracking the void yourself, by taking in others’ work, by reading, listening, watching. Every time you do this, you give a work, and the person behind it, an audience. And in doing so, you and the work together create something other than a void.

The void does not get erased, though. It isn’t the internet, though the internet exacerbates the anxiety. On the one hand, it’s fate, and on the other, a fundamental feeling. The fate is everyone’s. We all die one day, and whether or not our own works and actions survive us, we descend into nothingness of some kind. That is true even if you believe in an afterlife. The afterlife transcends the nothingness, but the nothingness is still there. We will never come back.

The feeling is real too: no matter how full our lives are, we’re always dealing with the abyss in some way: maybe up close, maybe from a distance, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously. We know that what we do matters intensely, and we also know that it does not; it will all be gone one day, and we’re just one speck in the human population, which in turn is a speck in space. The void is not just the silence from the world. The void is inside us, at the center of our knowledge and intuition.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “First Snow,” one of my favorites, has something to do with this theme, so I recommend it here, both for that reason and for itself.

So a second response, which can accompany the first, is to acknowledge the void. Instead of trying to get rid of it, laugh and cry into it, say whatever you want to it, sing into it.

And there the fun begins. Because the void is there, but it’s not the only thing there. Music exists alongside it. Maybe that’s what heaven is: the music that gleams on the edge of the void and admits anyone who hears it.

Image credit: Hubble Extreme Deep Field NASA/ESA, courtesy of Vox.

The Penny Truth: May the Mischief Continue!

Receiving The Penny Truth in the mail is one of my postal highlights of 2021 so far. I have two pieces in it, a story and an essay, and won’t talk about those; instead, I’ll comment on what makes this bilingual literary journal exciting for a first-time reader.

Oh, and before I begin: the editors are holding a magazine release party in Budapest tomorrow at 8 P.M., on the Budapest Garden Fröccs Térász. Join them if you can! Because of prior commitments, I can’t go, but I hope a lot of people show up, and I hope to be at the next one.

This is the inaugural issue, over a year in the making. The editors, Will Collins and Kristen Herbert, borrowed the journal’s title from Jaguar, a 1914 novella by Jenő Heltai. In their words, “The story follows the adventures of a newspaper called The Penny Truth, staffed by (among others) an unfrocked priest masquerading as a society columnist and a penniless hussar. We have no clerics or cavalry officers on our masthead, but we hope to revive the spirit of Heltai’s paper.”

Through The Penny Truth: Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine, the editors seek to revive the spirit of the old Budapest cafes, particularly their intellectual ferment and adventure. By bringing together, in print, a lively selection of pieces in Hungarian and English, they also hope to bring writers and true readers together. “Reading a magazine,” they write, “requires a degree of focus that is increasingly scarce in our Internet-addled age.” They offer readers a reprieve from Internet distractions, through a journal that follows Heltai’s blueprint: “An interesting, fresh, lively paper, above all inexpensive … and it would always have to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.” This means mischief, because truth is frequently mischievous, especially when it goes into writing.

And then it came: big, gorgeous in its layout, enticing. I carried it around with me with hopes of reading it on trains, but the reading began in earnest when I sat down with it at home.

I didn’t start with the first story, by Scott Beauchamp; it caught my eye with its title (“Budapest, New Mexico”) and the character Babits, but for whatever reason I skipped ahead. Now it’s one of my favorite pieces in the journal, possibly my very favorite. It’s brilliant, dark, and off-guard-catching. “Babits” appears in two forms: as a character in the story and as a quotation from the poet Mihály Babits (known for his brooding, ecstatic work, his linguistic adventurousness, his religious themes.) The quotation, from Babits’s “Jonah’s Prayer” in the translation of Peter Zollman, appears on the screens of Billy’s cargo container studio, and ultimately projects onto his skin. But wait, who is Billy? He’s the protagonist of the story, a young software developer who believes he has discovered the secret of advertising. The story begins with him pitching it to Babits, not the poet Babits, but another Babits, who has a blue whale tattoo “surfacing from the depths of his collar and beaching itself on his pock-marked cheek.” I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but the connections start to project onto you, and then you start getting it in flashes and convulsions. A great start to the journal.

Some of the stories and poems in the journal appear in both Hungarian and English; that means one treat after another for those interested in languages and literary translation. I do find myself disputing the translations, in places, in my head, but that’s part of the spirit of it all, I think. If they get you to think about language, they are doing their work. One of my favorite bilingual pieces is the poem “Ars Poetica” by Ádám Nádasdy, translated by Anna Bentley; another is Ottó Tolnai’s poem “Az a kő olyan keserű volt” (“A bitter stone it was,” translated by Miriam Grunwald). Still another is the story “Hús” (“Meat”) by Attila Mucha, translated by Timea Balogh, about generational conflict and the slaughter of a rabbit.

There’s a lot to learn from these pages, too; one of the editors, Will Collins, contributed a fascinating essay on the minaret of Eger, “the most visible reminder of Eger’s cosmopolitan history.” There are also two travelogues: “A Beginner’s Guide to Ukraine” by Paul Brian, which got more and more absorbing as I continued reading it, and “Mindig. Örökre – Dél” by Péter L. Varga (“Always. Forever – South,” translated by Kristen Herbert. (Both Will and Kristen have stories in the issue as well; I look forward to reading them soon.)

I love what the journal is doing and hope that it continues into a second issue and more. The editors devoted hundreds of hours to it before it came out, and the work—now distribution, publicity, fundraising—goes on and on; someone has to bring copies to bookstores, for instance. Now numerous Budapest bookstores carry it, and several cafes have reading copies. A partial listing can be found at the end of the review by Hungarian Literature Online. But while the work must be exhausting at times, I sense that they are having great fun with it. The mischievous art on the front cover, Alex Collins’s adaptation of a painting by Zalán Kertai (who, as it turns out, is Csenger Kertai‘s father!), shows a hussar wearing a Covid-suggestive mask and riding a wild-eyed horse. May the mischief continue!

Update: International readers can order a copy of The Penny Truth by contacting the Budapest bookstore Booksellers directly.

A Few Brief Thoughts After the Concert

I don’t want to describe every concert I go to, because sometimes the thoughts I have aren’t verbal or structured. Sometimes I have lots to say, sometimes little or nothing. This piece is somewhere in between; I will just mention a few things that come to mind.

First, I love these boat concerts at the A38 Hajó and the TRIP Hajó. It’s great to get there early, enjoy the setting, and wait for the music to start. And to be quiet without talking, and to talk with people, both of which I got to do. And then listen to the music.

Cz.K. Sebő and his band played a rather short set. It was the first time I heard them play together in concert. I admire Soma Bradák, the drummer (also the drummer of Platon Karataev and Galaxisok) for his way of creating any kind of texture, and changing textures in the middle of a song. I loved the sound of the mallets. Some songs that stood out for me were “First Snow,” “Papermache Dreams” (which has become a favorite), “Chamomile,” “Someday,” and a very new song whose name I don’t know.

Felső Tízezer was just plain fun. The songs are punchy, wry, and tuneful; the crowd was dancing and singing, roaring out their favorite lyrics as they came along. This music is not what Sebő’s is for me, and will never be; it has a different spirit and imagination, a different view of the world. But it brings so much cheer, and there’s a lot to the lyrics, which I am starting to get to know. They remind me that many of life’s woes can be approached with humor and spunk. And they take many different directions, without inhibition. There’s a bounding (leaping) boundlessness to them.

I saw Zsuzsanna and Atti, and met their three children, who seemed to be having a great time. I saw Mesi too. Soon after Felső Tízezer finished, I took off so that I could catch the 10:50 train back to Szolnok.

Afterwards I was thinking about how versatile life is, and music too, how many different directions they can take, even in one room, even in the same person. The musicians last night all play more than one kind of music; their members overlap with Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Somersault Boy, and they have other projects too. I came home late, stayed up even later, got up in the morning, and worked on the new translation project, the first draft of which is now done. No one has to be limited: that is, we all have limitations of time, energy, ability, thought, but we don’t have to say, “Because I do X, I can’t do Y,” or “Because I listen to A, I can’t listen to B.” The world has more wiggle room than that, as does the soul.

Thoughts on Privilege

Any discussion of privilege has to make room for three contrasting truths. Every society, every economy, every political system favors some groups over others in unjustified and sometimes brutal ways. It is essential to examine and address this without flinching. At the same time, the picture is more complicated than we may realize; groups are not internally uniform, nor is their external treatment; neither of these can be understood properly without a careful study of history. Beyond that, no one knows the sum total of another person. We have little idea what those around us have gone through, good, bad, or mixed. Nor are they obliged to tell us. Any discussion of privilege must respect privacy and the unknown.

Everyone’s life contains a mixture of advantages and setbacks. There is no way to calculate the sum total. That doesn’t mean group privilege, such as privilege resulting from one’s race, class, or sex, should be ignored. It can just be approached discerningly.

Privilege comes in many different forms. Some of it is accorded to us, or withheld from us, on account of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, or even looks or mannerisms. (David Brooks has a compelling opinion piece on “lookism.”) Some of it comes to us in response to things we do. Some responds to how we see the world. It’s hard to isolate the things that we received passively, through no work of our own, from the ones we and those around us had a hand in. One of the biggest complications here is that parents tend to want every privilege in the world for their children. Even if they try to make their children aware of the privilege, they would not want to take it away.

What some people call privilege, others call blessings; yet the two words have profoundly different connotations. Blessings come from God or from unnamed sources; they may be earned or unearned, but a person is supposed to see them, give thanks for them, rejoice in them. Privilege, on the other hand, is a distinctly secular concept. It comes from the world, not from God, and while one can feel grateful for privilege, it’s generally considered wrong to rejoice in it, because it comes at someone else’s expense. The goal of at least some discussions of privilege is to change the system of distribution.

But privilege is only partly objective. Two people in near-identical circumstances can have opposite views of their fortune, and their views can change considerably over time. This does not erase the circumstances themselves, buf it adds a twist to them.

Once you have identified some privileges and inequalities, what then? Efforts to rectify the latter can have terrible (or, at best, mixed) consequences. Social justice movements can be myopic, ignoring some of the injustices in their midst. Take, for example, the teaching profession in the U.S. In many parts of the country, teachers and their unions have succeeded, over time, in securing higher salaries. But in return for these raises and new salary scales, they have agreed to do additional work, such as daily meetings, hall and cafeteria monitoring, regular parental contact, detailed documentation of everything. The job can be so exhausting and packed that it leaves little time for what should be at its heart: thinking about the subject matter and considering how to teach it. The privilege of the higher salary comes at the expense of contemplation. Here in Hungary I have a drastically lower salary than I would in the U.S., but I have considerable freedom and flexibility (as well as a curriculum, mind you), which allow me to do my work better. I would not exchange that for more money. Teachers should be paid more here, much more, but we should be careful about what we agree to give in return.

Discussions of privilege should involve the following questions: What do we mean by privilege? How might our view of it be limited or distorted? How much do we know of another person’s privilege or lack thereof, or even our own? What are we hoping to accomplish? What might be some unintended consequences of our efforts? Who is “we” here? Such questions, if taken up boldly and thoughtfully, would deepen the discussion and action.

My cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure”

In April I started working on this cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Out of pressure” from his 2015 EP The masked undressed. I love the song and wanted to learn it from the inside. The video below is the coffee (i.e., the fruit) of this project.

I kept it in the original key, which meant singing near the bottom of my range; there were days when I couldn’t go down there at all, and days when it came easily. Also, it took me a long time to get the “seeeek” the way I wanted it; it wasn’t going to be the way Sebő sings it, but it had to work here. Finally it did. The cello melody isn’t part of the original, but it came out of the song as I played it. The guitar part here is minimal, just providing a frame; in the original it is rhythmic and full of subtle melody.

Out of the hundred or more takes, four recordings emerged. The fourth one I set to a simple video that I made at home. With Sebő’s permission, I shared it on YouTube and beyond.

Through working on this, I found that the song held something of my own life, and of many other lives too. It expresses a contradiction of boredom and yearning, desire for solitude and desire for relation. The lyrics and the music convey this together. The song could be played in hundreds of different ways and moods, by people of different ages and walks of life. If I had tried to make the cover exactly like the original, it wouldn’t have worked; this version came from me, and it’s just one take of one possibility.

You can hear the original song here:

I am not the only person who has covered Sebő’s songs. Ivett Kovács created a beautiful cover of his “Disguise” (also from The masked undressed):

There may be others still. I look forward to hearing them.

I updated this piece after posting it. Also, I re-recorded the vocals and re-posted the video. The version shown here is the new one.

On Being a Woman in Hungary

First of all, I’ll get this out of the way: I don’t think women necessarily have a harder time than men, here or anywhere else. Nor do the difficulties I am bringing up apply to Hungary alone; they exist in some form everywhere. Being alive is an awkward matter. Everyone, in some way, has times of feeling out of place, feeling plunked in the wrong era, and so forth. No two people have the same kind of aloneness, the same kind of alienation; if they did, they wouldn’t be alienated any more. So, as with most things, the picture is more complicated than can be conveyed in a blog piece. Still, Hungarian society can be hard on girls and women who do not conform to standard expectations of appearance, behavior, and roles. Being pretty (during youth, at least) often means being skinny with long, straight, sleek hair and perfect skin; being acceptable often comes down to keeping yourself within size, doing things well but being delicate, not threatening, about it. As for the roles, women are still expected to raise children and do nearly all of the housework (often on top of full-time jobs and careers). Though this is slowly changing, it will stay as is, more or less, for a long time, partly because of the incentives, partly because of the intrinsic and social rewards. The government offers generous maternity and family benefits. You can have a child, take two years off from work, receive a partial salary, and still have your job waiting for you.

Some of this is laudable. I would have loved to have children, but for many combined reasons, this didn’t happen. One of many factors was growing up in a generation in which we were encouraged to wait: not just to get children, but to get married, make a commitment to another person, and so on. As a result, in the U.S., a kind of superficiality took over dating; relationships were emptied of responsibility, not across the board, but palpably. If you were a woman and mentioned wanting to have a child, you could scare a man away. People strove to appear casual, even if they weren’t. From what I hear from friends, social media has made the situation even worse. So it’s refreshing to find, in Hungary, a basic understanding that relationships involve commitment, and that one of the primary duties and joys in life is to raise children.

But life takes many paths, and not everyone has to follow this particular one. Nor is it given to everyone to do so, or to follow the standard timing. That’s where it gets difficult; I sense that women here who diverge from the norm have to contend with feelings of failure, at the very least. I remember last year when a girl asked, in class, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not in a relationship yet?” (It was the beginning of the year, and I was asking them about issues that were on their minds.) That’s a common teenage worry, but I think it was profound in this case.

Also, many young people, women and men, feel intense, informed anxiety about global warming. Not only do they hesitate to bring children into a world that might not be livable much longer, but they also see massive indifference, passivity, and paralysis around them. They distrust a system that encourages them to have babies but fails to make the world more habitable. They look around and see hardly anyone doing anything, even in their peer group. For women, this can lead to a kind of split consciousness: a wish to have children, but a distrust of the pressure to do so.

In addition, women face dilemmas over higher education. At the school where I teach, the girls outnumber the boys significantly; I have been told that this is generally the case at the gimnáziums, the high schools that prepare students for university. Boys tend to choose trade schools, as these lead more directly to jobs. So I assume that girls outnumber boys at the universities as well, at least by a little. But the picture changes when it comes to doctoral programs and professorships. There men are still in the majority and have, on the whole, the more demanding and prestigious positions. This suggests that women are highly encouraged, and encourage themselves, to pursue education and a career, but then turn to something that can accommodate their domestic responsibilities. (From what I have seen, women work extremely hard.)

I have met many young women who dislike the pressure to conform and who dream of studying or working abroad. It isn’t just economic opportunity that attracts them to other countries; it’s the belief that they could lead their lives there, and be themselves. (“Being yourself” is more of an American concept than a Hungarian one; it gets taken to silly extremes in the U.S., but there’s something to be said for it. Hungarians often think and speak more in terms of “we” than “I”; this, too, has its beauty and pitfalls.)

I do not feel judged for being different—but I definitely feel different, not just as a foreigner, but as someone who has taken an unconventional path in more ways than one. (This is true in the U.S. too.) On the other hand, I am warmly accepted and appreciated here, and am at a point in life where I don’t care so much what others think of me, except when it’s based on something important. So it would be completely wrong to say that I have faced discrimination or rejection here; the opposite is true. But I do sense people wondering, once in a while (to the extent that they think of it at all), why I go to concerts and films alone, for instance. I sense that women especially are expected to be with someone. Going to a restaurant alone is almost unheard-of. In the U.S., it is much more acceptable, especially in cities, to attend events alone as a woman.

Why does this matter? Because, for one thing, there’s a joy in attending an event alone. You can focus on it, but more than that, you’re there for the event itself, not for a social image. You don’t have to have someone with you to take in what is happening. I also enjoy being at events with others—it’s good to share things like this, and it can be lots of fun—but being alone can be great too.

Going to events alone also means that you are allowed to exist in yourself, that you don’t need someone else to make you acceptable—in general, not only at events. I am open to having a relationship in the future. I think it’s possible that someone might come along who really gets me, and whom I understand as well, and with whom I would like to build something. But it’s also possible that it won’t happen, and in that case, I am still (to quote from a friend’s unpublished humorous piece) “a perfectly legitimate human being” with a full life.

It’s a bit easier for men to go to events alone. True, this depends somewhat on the nature of the event; at a classical concert or a literary reading, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or man, alone or with others. But on the whole, I think, men are more likely than women to appear somewhere by themselves, and even to be silent and solitary, whereas women not only show up with others, but also act sociable. (On a tangent: I don’t remember ever seeing a fisherwoman in Hungary, though they must exist. It is typically men who sit silently on the banks of the rivers, waiting for the fish to bite.)

This idea, I believe, has yet to find its way into Hungarian public consciousness: that women exist in themselves: that while we all need others in our lives, we don’t need them for legitimacy’s sake, for basic human status. We can step into the world on our own, without embarrassment or shame, and the relationships, when they form, will be the better for that.

I made a few minor changes to the piece, in several stages, after posting it. It is still just a fraction of what I could say on the subject, which in turn is an even smaller fraction of what could be said.

A Great Idea Concert

Many people had been looking forward to this for a while: Idea’s acoustic concert, their first show after this year’s quarantine, out on the terrace of the Tisza Mozi, which was to take place last night. Well, it was moved indoors because of the impending rain (which did come), and then moved back a bit later in the evening, because other concerts were happening as well. So when we finally entered the hall, the excitement could not be contained.

It was moving to see how they had transformed into young men over the past few years, how their music had deepened and matured, even their oldest songs, and among those, even the ones they played mostly the same as before. They had added touches to various songs, but more than that, they had relaxed into them, gained new perspective on what was in them, and written new songs too. It was that mixture of relaxation and utter liveliness that made this concert exceptional—and the cheering, clapping, singing audience, and their guest vocalist, Janka Végh. She sang with them on “Kopog a Szív” and “Táncolunk a végtelenben,” and what she brought was so beautiful, joyous, and spunky, I hope they bring her back. More about her in a minute.

So yes, they played some of my very favorites, including “Maradok ember,” and some newer songs, and one or two very new ones. The concert was acoustic in that Marcell Bajnai was playing an acoustic guitar (with pickup), he and the bassist were sitting down, and the songs were slightly slower and softer than at their electric shows. I have heard them play acoustic in this way before, two years ago, at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. Both kinds of concerts are fun to attend, but the acoustic ones give me a chance to take in the lyrics and the different sounds, even with songs that are unfamiliar to me. So I was enjoying every detail—for instance, the pauses they inserted in “És.”

Janka Végh is a member of the indie folk rock duo, Pandóra Projekt, along with Dóra Major. They met just last fall, I believe, at university, and became friends, and started working on the musical project, which has already won my heart, it’s so beautiful and full of character. Here’s their debut video of their song “Aki érdekel,” which (in my understanding) comments wryly on the difficulty of finding someone who is right for you in the weird world of dating and relationships. I love the song and video and can’t wait for more.

So just imagine what it was like to have Marcell Bajnai and Janka Végh singing “Kopog a szív” (below), each of them singing half of each verse, and then coming in together in harmony for each chorus.

A great and happy occasion! Coming back together after all this time, and hearing the band at a new level, with a new sense of who they were, and taking part in the general joy. Thanks to Idea, their families and friends, the Tisza Mozi, Janka Végh, and everyone who was there. I walked home along the Tisza, thinking back on the song “Álmok a parton,” “A Tisza-parton éjszaka / Ülnek az álmok, / Ülnek a gáton….”

Day of Rage (new poem)

kandinsky glass painting with the sun

Day of Rage

Diana Senechal

From the first morning tremor of my toes,
I recognized this as the day of rage,
so I arose at dawn to choose the cloth
to wear up to the highest nearby hill
with hopes of being heard by the bored sky.

A red dress? No, that would knock the wind
out of my words, and I meant to be heard.
The deep blue one was of the essence now,
the one the sky had dropped on me by chance.
That was to be the vestment of my rage.

As for shoes, sneakers would have to do.
Who cares how the feet look when their role
is just to take me up the mount of rage?
There it’s the mouth that matters; pure ire
has no release except through syllable,

so I brushed my teeth and guzzled half a liter
of sparkling water to lubricate my thoughts.
Time to set out. The hill I chose was some
twenty kilometers away. I took the bike,
even at risk of burning off some spleen,

and pedaled up it, proud to have arrived
at the place in life where I can finally say
exactly what I mean, unsanded by
shame or apology, just the words
that fall loose from the craters of the mind.

But what came out wasn’t at all like rage.
First, nothing. I looked around the droopy
still-waking fields and thought it might be rude
to rush their rhythms all for the sake of my
sloppy paean to problems shared by none.

Then, when I kicked away that sham excuse
(what do the fields care?) and began to sing,
I saw that there were other hills nearby,
each of them topped with someone a bit like me,
staking their day on a hope of being heard,

and then I knew. Even now, even
with every ounce of ire my will could cast
into a form of sound, whatever, whoever
it was that hadn’t answered me before
wouldn’t be shaken into answering.

Worse still, I wasn’t mad. Nor were the others
who cried on dots of hills from sea to sea.
This is where music comes from, the unanswered
prayer, text message, private turn of thought,
this cry into the vault that turns away.

Had our hills been closer, our eyes might possibly
have met. We might have spent the day together:
skies to each other, forests interleaving,
words interchanging, tempered in their timing,
finding their harmony in joined rage.

“But you just said there was no rage!” No,
I said I wasn’t mad. That’s not the same.
The rage is everywhere. I’m going home,
but tomorrow I’ll get up early again,
put on a different dress, head for the hill,

and thrill up there with all the holy gadflies,
and maybe, one blind day, the rage will sing
such thunder that the sky will clap and smile,
and I will do the same, knowing at last
that I, too, am the vault that turns away.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, Glass Painting with the Sun (Small Pleasures), 1910.

I made a few changes to the poem after posting it. Thanks to Jon Awbrey (see comments below) for the “holy gadflies” in the final stanza.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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