Different Kinds of Depth

The phrase “a deep person” makes me wary. Everyone is infinitely deep. Some people choose to escape from it, while others look it right in the face. Some keep it to themselves, while some share it with others. Some find their way to it through music and other art; others pound their feet on it when running long distance. Some find it when life socks them in the stomach. Some find it through jokes. Some don’t find it at all but are found with it somehow.

There is no point in judging oneself or others as “deep” or “shallow.” Such judgments usually break down. We don’t know what’s going on in another person, and are in no position to measure it. As for ourselves, who are we to call ourselves “deep,” when we have no basis for comparison? Deep in relation to what? What we think we see in others? What we see and what’s going on are two different things, or maybe three or more.

Still, depth does exist, and it takes different forms. There is music that plunges right away, and music that starts out on the lighter side but takes you deeper and deeper. And music that stays near the surface or flies upward.

Beginning with Atoms—their first album, For Her, is a little different in this regard—Platon Karataev’s music starts out deep with “Ex Nihilo” and goes deeper and deeper from there (if there’s such a thing as deeper than nothing). I can’t wait to hear the whole Partért kiáltó album, which will be coming out soon. Listening to the title song many times, I realize that the best way to approach it is on its own terms: not to squeeze it into existing frames and thoughts, but to take it as it is. It speaks as water, it speaks a language of water, all the layers moving and sparkling and darkening.

Cz.K. Sebő’s music, in contrast, sometimes starts out on the lighter side but then surprises and disarms you as it continues. For instance, “Someday” begins like a casual, melancholic conversation or letter, but each repetition of the sentence “you’ll be alone someday” changes and tilts the tone and sense slightly, until the listener receives these words directly and has to confront their meaning. That each of us will be alone someday, no matter how lucky or unlucky we are, no matter what we do.

One of my favorite songs by Galaxisok, “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” seems entirely lighthearted until you suddenly hear what is going on. It’s a dreamy song about falling asleep at Ikea, and waking up when it’s already dark, and running into an old girlfriend, Diána, who also, as it happens, fell asleep at Ikea. And they walk and talk together, and bring up memories of how one summer, when they were taking a make-up math exam, Peti broke his arm and had to wear a cast the whole time. Later that same summer he learns of another accident, and realizes Diána was in it, but then rejoins, “de felejtsd el, inkább hagyjuk ezt” (“but forget it, let’s drop this”). And then, “Én nem leszek fiatalabb, / te nem leszel öregebb,” “I’m not getting any younger, / You’re not getting any older,” which tells you, when it hits you, that Diána is dead and this dream took place after her death. But the music is so gentle and playful-sounding that you might miss this the first time around. (I missed it the first few times, but I think that’s because I am not a native speaker of Hungarian.) This is only a brief summary of the song; it has beautifully murky and surreal motions and images, such as crawling under the leaves of the indoor palms in the plant department.

No one has to be deep all the time; it can’t be forced. Depth happens when we let ourselves go into something. We know better than anyone else does when this happens and when it doesn’t. But sometimes, in the moment, the word “deep” doesn’t even come to mind. The thing itself draws us in, and only afterwards, in memory or reflection, does it seem profound. At other times, the profundity jumps out at us right away.

Going deep can be important as a practice, for those who want better self-knowledge, or who want to reckon with their actions, or who want to create something. But such practice often takes place in private, through meditation, prayer, or quiet thought. Sometimes it can happen in a long conversation, the kind where the conversants forget the time. Sometimes it can happen when doing something with others: for instance, playing music. But I don’t think it’s social, for the most part.

This does not mean that introversion is necessarily deeper than extraversion; introversion and extraversion can take all sorts of forms. There are people who like to spend evenings alone at home browsing random YouTube videos. There are people who go out in the world and strike up conversations with people out of genuine desire to know them better. Things aren’t what they seem on the surface.

Language, after all, takes you deeper into meanings, if you pay attention to it; there are many ways, quiet and lively, to do so. Yesterday I came upon a poem by Dezső Kosztolányi, “Szeptemberi áhítat” (“September Piety”) that I realized was one of the most beautiful poems I had read in Hungarian. But what does it mean to read it? I have read it silently and out loud; I have listened to the recording of János Pilinszky reading it. But this is just the beginning; I need to take much more time with it, maybe memorize it, maybe translate it (George Szirtes’s translation is good, but I want to go about it differently), maybe even set it to music, with cello. And then come back to reading it in silence, reciting it in my mind.

So where is all of this going? Depth is not something to claim as a title; it can be found through practice, but it also comes to you by surprise, and it’s open to all. Of all the ways we have of judging and writing off others, this is one of the worst; calling someone “deep” or “shallow” is just lying, because we are always undulating and trembling between levels, and have no idea where others (or even we ourselves) will go next.

On (Not) Taking Pictures at Concerts

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I attended a concert without taking any pictures. (It was Cz.K. Sebő with his band—a good though short show.) While I still expect to take pictures at concerts now and then, it was a relief this time not to do so. I didn’t have to worry about anything; I could just listen.

Pictures taken at concerts don’t always come out well. That’s why bands and venues have their own photographers, who go up close, shoot from different angles, etc. In contrast, if you’re in the audience, you want the photo-taking to be as brief and unobtrusive as possible, so you take out the camera (phone), shoot a few, and then put it away again. It’s a bit of a gamble.

Beyond that, when taking a picture, you’re trying to freeze or capture something that isn’t supposed to be captured. One reason for going to concerts is to hear a performance that will never be repeated in that exact same way. The moments are going by, you know they will never come back, and you want to meet them as they pass. A photograph can bring back a memory of a concert, but it can’t bring back the concert itself, and if it could, the concert would lose its meaning.

That touches on another problem: the distraction. Even if you take just one picture during a show, you’re distracting yourself slightly, and maybe others too. Never mind videos. When people hold their phones up in the air to get a video of their favorite song in the set, or just to get a video, period, they block others’ view and insert tiny screens into the picture.

And what about privacy? Yes, a concert counts as a public event, but even public events have a private aspect. Musicians don’t necessarily want their every move to be captured on phones, even on stage. It’s unnerving. And offstage they shouldn’t be subject to unsolicited photo shoots at all. But once people are in photo-clicking mode, they often clickity-clack into the night without restraint.

Last night a woman (in her forties or fifties) was taking repeated pictures of the Platon Karataev members as they talked with each other after the show. (Everyone from Platon Karataev was there.) She might have been a family member, in which case it’s understandable. But I thought she was a stranger, and my blood started to pound. Why couldn’t she leave them alone in their downtime?

Oh, but in this era of ubiquitous photo-clicking, there is no downtime, not even for audience members. Someone included me in a video last night. At many events, people have pointed their cameras my way, and I have seen the not-so-flattering results online a day or two later. You can’t attend an event anonymously any more. Your presence and reactions get recorded. And when people bring their phones and take pictures too, they make this more acceptable, when it shouldn’t be. Granted, sometimes the photos come out well, and sometimes it’s nice to have them. But I am uneasy with the trend.

The picture above (taken on Thursday evening) has nothing to do with this post except for the anonymity of the figures in it. It’s one of the best pictures I have ever taken; I had arrived at the Keleti station in Budapest and saw the shadows and light. So I quickly shot a photo. It has more people than most of my photos do, but no one would be able to identify them except perhaps the woman on the right. I find the silhouettes and shadows soothing.

What would it be like to have no picture- or video-shooting at concerts at all, except by designated photographers? It’s not going to happen, probably—but it would change the atmosphere for the better. In the absence of such a rule or agreement, it’s on each person to consider whether this incessant shooting really brings anything to the occasion. I will probably continue to take pictures here and there, but will keep the phone stowed away for the most part. I have some beautiful photos and don’t need that many more. And how great it is to attend a concert with full spirit and walk away with just the sounds and images in my mind, no token, no souvenir.

On the Mixtures of Happiness and Sadness

I remember coming upon Lucky Curtains, the last of Granfaloon Bus’s albums, in a record store and seizing it in its gleaming wrapping. I purchased it, took it home, and for weeks listened to nothing else. It opened up something raw; my editing job (at a company that published career guides) went against who I was, and I knew it was time for a change. It was around then that I decided to become a teacher, and it took another year to make this happen. The music, this album, was part of the catalyst. Why? It’s hard to define and delimit these things, especially after all these years. But listening to the songs now, I hear not only the sadness that hit me then, but a happiness mixed in too, a kind of tentative, mitigated hope or at least ease.

Any mood, any emotion, is more than one thing at once; we are under pressure to name it one thing or another, to give it one emoticon or another, but it usually comes along with its opposite. Often when I am angry, I also see past the anger; often when worried I feel calm. Likewise, happiness and sadness go together so strongly that to separate them means to lose both.

On the Lucky Curtains album, the song “House” has all kinds of emotions together: happiness and sadness, security and tentativeness, expansiveness and enclosedness. Not only opposites, but gradations and hints, something outside of the polarities.

Whenever I mention being sad, there are those who jump in and try to fix it. Don’t! It is part of the happiness; it makes happiness possible. The dreariest thing on earth is one-sidedness. No one has to fall for it.

There are specific, obvious things to be sad about (climate change, the spreading Delta variant, hurricanes and floods, the disaster in Afghanistan, personal losses), but beyond that, sadness is a current in life; loss of some kind is always present. In János Pilinszky’s poetry I find an exceptional compression of happiness and sadness: a seemingly tranquil scene can contain endless grief. An example is his poem “Kegyelem” (“Grace”):

Bogarak szántják a sötétet
és csillagok az éjszakát.
Van időnk hosszan üldögélni
az asztalon pihenő lámpafényben.
Megadatott a kegyelem:
miközben minden áll és hallgat,
egyedül az öröklét működik.

In rough translation:

(Beetles plow through the dark
and stars the night.
We have time for long lingering
at the table in leisurely lamplight.
Grace has become possible:
while everything stops and listens,
eternity works all alone.)

The pivotal word here is “megadatott,” which is not the same as “megadott” (“it is given”). “Megadatott” expresses a tentative possibility. Grace is not certain; it just becomes possible in these still moments, which themselves are rare. The poem holds this rarity.

Last night I was listening again to Cz.K. Sebő’s “kétezerhúsz” (“2020”), a truly sad song. But if there’s a happiness in it, it has to do with being able to sing the sadness as it is, being at peace with it in some way. I think that is a kind of happiness, but not a cheery kind. I understand much more of the song than I did before; not just the literal meaning of the lyrics, but their tones too.

It’s hard to explain that happiness and sadness go together; lots of people know and understand this, but our current vocabulary doesn’t make much room for it. There’s so much pressure to be on the up-and-up, always doing better, feeling better. But literature and music (and other arts) make room for something else.

What is the mood of Dávid Szesztay’s “Késő” (“Late”), for instance? It starts out mournful, but then it lifts up into a kind of exhilaration. The word “but” here is misleading; the one mood follows from the other.

It isn’t just that different moods coexist. Rather, there’s something more important than mood. We (around the world, but particularly in the U.S.) place too much emphasis on being happy, being fulfilled, as though such a thing could be attained and frozen in place, and as though it were more important than the things we do and receive. I don’t mean that mood is unimportant, but it’s a background color, changing and blending and fading, a wash of sky.

Dancing Through the Galaxies

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

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

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

In rough translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publications, Honors, and Things

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

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

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

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

And now for a few reminders:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song Series #16: Songs as Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rough translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A Day, a Night, and a Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Home to Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two-Week Roundup

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

So, a roundup:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is a good way to end the day.

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.

  • “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

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  • 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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