Remembering Concerts

I don’t want to go to so many concerts and literary events that they start blending into each other or splintering into oblivion, but so far that hasn’t been a danger. Each one has stood out in a particular way. A few details can bring the whole evening back. Last night’s event (pictured to the left) at the MITZI café was one of my favorites here in Hungary so far. The event, hosted by the Juhász Anna Literary Salon, focused on the Partért kiáltó lyrics book but took this in many directions. Anna Juhász related it to Pilinszky (and led the discussion overall); Ákos Győrffy and Csaba Szendrői gave their thoughts, both about the book and music and about questions of language, creation, and more; Gyöngyi Hegedűs, Gergő’s mother, spoke about being a poet, doctor, and mother, and read one of her poems; and Gergely Balla played three songs and spoke about his music, influences, quests.

One of the most interesting ideas for me was the distinction between passzió (strong enthusiasm) and passió (holy passion, which is bound up in suffering). Another was Gergő’s story about how someone had said, after Partért kiáltó was released, that he didn’t think Gergő had quite found his voice yet. Gergő’s response was that he had no interest in finding his voice; to the contrary, he has been reaching for something beyond the “I.” Still another favorite part was when Ákos Győrffy told the story about how some of the lyrics of Partért kiáltó described exactly a dream that he had had, and Gergő read aloud Győrffy’s description of the dream. And Gyöngyi Hegedűs’s comments, humor, and poem. And Gergő’s exceptional humility toward the others: for instance, his deeply appreciative praise of Elefánt (Csaba Szendrői’s band). And Anna Juhász’s comment on the shortest song on the Partért kiáltó album, “Fagyott csontok,” and how its lyrics have the true density of poetry. There was much more that came up—and the music itself at the beginning and end said what the discussion could not. All of this took place in front of a hushed and densely seated audience. I had lots to think about on the train ride back home.

As for other recent concerts: Just last week, though it seems longer ago than that, I went to a terrific Cataflamingo show at the Szimpla Kert, a labyrinthine venue with colorful lamps, dark passageways, open-air places, wooden steps, mirrors, and at least two enclosed performance halls. This was only my third time hearing them in concert; this time I was blown away by their musicianship, the beauty of the songs, the transformations inside them. The audience reflected the excitement: listening intently, dancing along, somertimes singing along (there’s a song where the audience takes over the singing at one point), cheering at the end. Here is a video of one of the songs from the concert, “Nevess.”

The week before that, I went to two concerts: Cz.K. Sebő at the A38 Hajó, and then, the following day, Galaxisok at Budapest Park. The Cz.K. Sebő concert was a little difficult for me at first because of the noisy crowd (I think this has something to do with the acoustics of that particular hall at the A38); also, they played some of the songs slightly faster than I hear them in my mind. But the concert grew more and more beautiful and absorbing as it went along. I can still hear the sounds of “Interlude II” in my mind; “Fox in the Holt,” “Pure Sense,” “Keveset olvasok,” and “Papermache Dreams” were also highlights for me, and there was a new song too, which I am eager to hear again. It has been almost exactly a year since I first heard Cz.K. Sebő in concert, and I look forward to at least two more concerts in the next couple of months (one at Fishing on Orfű and one in the middle of July in Budapest). I am eager to see and hear how his capsule boy project develops; he is releasing a new song, “Fázom, ha nézel,” the first capsule boy non-remix single, this weekend!

As for Galaxisok, I hadn’t heard them in a while and was excited to hear them at Budapest Park, where they were playing for the first time. The sound was rich, the songs already familiar and evocative for me, the performance thrilling. It’s quite hard to describe them, because their songs take different directions without becoming a hodgepodge at all. There’s a whimsical coherence to them, a kind of worldly-wise melancholy mixed with zest. The best description I have seen so far is their own (for the upcoming concert at Müpa):

The singer-songwriter Benedek Szabó, who you may also recognise from his earlier band Zombie Girlfriend, founded the Galaxisok in 2013 under the name Szabó Benedek és a Galaxisok (Benedek Szabó and the Galaxies). They have released six major albums to date, ranging from chord-strumming hits inspired by Tamás Cseh to catchy guitar pop, end-of-the-world ballads on the piano and South American and African-influenced songs, creating a daring, ever-changing, unpredictable whole. What kind of music do they play? ‘Well-being polbeat’? Jangly guitar pop? Dreamlike piano ballads? The band, which is approaching its tenth birthday, has a meandering repertoire that means something different to every individual, depending on what age, place or given moment they hear it for the first time. But what is the essence of the Galaxisok, which has such a strong relationship with the public? Maybe the frontman has a radically different picture of the band from the guitarist, while the drummer thinks in another way entirely – and who knows what alternative production the bassist might have imagined? All our questions will be answered on the Müpa Budapest stage, as the Galaxisok play their favourite tunes.

Some of my favorites from the concert were “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” their new song “Ez a nyár,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal,” “Mondo Bizarro,” and “Középsulis szerelmes szám,” but the one playing in my mind right now, “Sandy View,” stands out among them all. In any case, I think Galaxisok will be the subject of my next “Listen Up” post, because there’s so much there to listen to and reflect on.

To take in a concert fully, I need to not go to concerts now and then. Especially with the train rides from Szolnok, I would wear myself out if I went to them all. Also, I have large ongoing projects and a need for sustained quiet time. So, for instance, I am not going to the Platon Karataev duo concert this evening, although I would have loved to, since I am attending the Grand Bleu/Cappuccino projekt concert tomorrow and a Platon Karataev (Gergely Balla) discussion and brunch on Sunday. The upcoming weeks are dense; I have to check my calendar frequently to make sure I’m not forgetting something.

But that’s the gift of it: holding back from concerts just enough that when I do go, it’s with full joy. Joy not in the sense of glee and cheer, necessarily; there’s melancholic and sad joy too. But treasuring the notes as they fly by, wrapping myself in them, carrying them for days and weeks and sometimes much longer. Even when the memories of the concerts fade, they have made some kind of mark on my life, and though I can’t pinpoint it and don’t need to, I know it’s there. There’s a new resonance in the air.

First photo (of last night’s event) by Kriszta Lettner; more photos here. Second photo (of the May 12 Cz.K. Sebő concert) by me.

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

Five Songs Chosen for a Birthday

All right, I told myself, get up and choose five Hungarian songs for your birthday! Don’t give it much thought; just choose five that you especially love and that are calling you right now. (Why Hungarian songs? Because they are in my ears, thoughts, and life, and if I had to choose songs in English, it would be a much harder task, with decades of favorites, and different kinds of favorites, to consider.)

These are the five. With minimal commentary. A way of marking not only a day, but something that cuts through time.

First, “Felzizeg” (“It buzzes/rustles forth”) by Cz.K. Sebő, from his 2021 album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, one of my favorite albums of any time. I wrote about it and the whole album in the essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech,” published recently in the online version of The Continental Literary Magazine. The song title is better understood through the first line of the lyrics, “Felzizeg a szaradó levelű juhar” (approximately: “The maple tree with its drying leaves is rustling”); but alone the word suggests a rustling, buzzing, rattling sound that bursts gently out of the silence.

Next, “Éjfél” (Midnight) by Galaxisok, from their gorgeous 2017 album Focipályákon sétálsz át éjszaka (You walk across the football fields at night). I love the lyrics, the pace, and the atmosphere.

Next, “Lassú madár” (“Slow bird”) from Platon Karataev’s 2022 album Partért kiáltó. It has been playing in my head recently; I am eager to hear it and their whole concert this Thursday. It evolved slowly from one of Cz.K. Sebő’s early songs, “Fear from passing” (from his 2015 EP The masked undressed); the lyrics are by Gergely Balla.

Next, “Gyertyaláng” (“Candle flame”) by Dávid Szesztay, from his album Iderejtem a ház kulcsát (I am hiding the house key here). I couldn’t attend his concert on Friday—though I had bought a ticket and was looking forward to it—since I had the Shakespeare festival all day long and then had to finish preparing the Torah verses that I was going to chant at the Szim Salom service on Saturday. (All of this went well.) I imagine that this was one of the songs he played.

Finally, a song and an album very new to me (thanks to Cz.K. Sebő for recommending it): Grand Bleu’s “Öreg halász” (Old fisherman), from their 2022 album Gyalog a tengerig (On foot to the sea). Just listen to where this song goes. I will be listening to this album a lot and expect to devote a blog piece to it soon.

There are other songs I could have included as well, but these are great choices, and they came together early in the morning on this lovely-cloudy April 25.

Image credit: Partért kiáltó lyrics book, published by Prae Kiadó. Lyrics by Gergely Balla; illustrations and text layout by Emőke Dobos.

“Mert elhagyatnak akkor mindenek.”

With Pilinszky, you can spend hours on a single line, even a single word, of one of his poems. Yesterday I was thinking about the opening line of “Apokrif,” “Mert elhagyatnak akkor mindenek.” It means, approximately, “Because everything will be forsaken then.” But what are these forms? I looked into it and found out that the verb “elhagyat” is an old passive form (of “elhagy”) that no longer exists in Hungarian; “mindenek” (the plural of “minden”), likewise, is archaic. So this first line has an ancient Biblical ring to it. That’s just the beginning; I could walk through “Apokrif” here, but that would take hours and hours, and I wouldn’t be satisfied with my words.

Another way to spend time with Pilinszky’s poetry is to set it to music. This morning I recorded my musical rendition of Pilinszky’s “Metronóm” (which I performed at the Eső-est in December). It starts out with a pizzicato, then a rather dirty bowed cello underneath the poem (which I recite rather than sing). But almost by mistake, I decided to add another plucking track, under the bowed track, which would be like the metronome itself, keeping a different time from ours. Another thing that happened almost by accident is that the last word, “ígéretét” (“promise”) occurs just as the bowing fades, so it’s on its own. This is a draft of a recording I plan to make later, but even so, I think it brought something out of the poem. The video I shot along the Zagyva in February.

You can read the poem and N. Ullrich Katalin’s translation here; it’s hard to translate this poem into English, because the word order has to change, and along with it, the emphases. The word at the end of each line has special emphasis. If I were to translate it, it would read somewhat like this (but this is just a tentative draft):

Measure time,
but not the time that is ours,
the splinters’ motionless present,
the drawbridge’s degrees,
the winter scaffold’s snow,
the silence of paths and clearings,
in the mounting of the fragment
the promise of God the Father.

Yes, another way to focus on Pilinszky’s poetry is to translate, another is to listen and read, and another is to memorize. All of these I have been doing, slowly, at this point not so much to prepare for the event (I’m probably about as prepared as I will be), but because the event itself is a beginning.

Speaking of the event and absorption just today Platon Karataev released a video of Gergő and Sebő performing “Lombkoronaszint,” the last song on the album Partért kiáltó (and one of my favorites, if I have a favorite at all). This is part of their Grain Session recording; the motion picture is by Géza Vadas and the sound recording by Ábel Zwickl. It is worth dropping everything for.

The photo of Pilinszky at the top was one that I found on Magyar Kurír. I don’t know its origin.

Past the bourn, and a translation of “Tágul”

This morning I woke up with a different idea for my translation of Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (which I wrote about earlier, and which will be part of the program at the Pilinszky event next Sunday). I had been bothered by the tenth and twelfth lines (“He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast” and “And yet a breakless ocean booms it back”). “Far and fast” seemed padded; the “fast” seemed extraneous, even though I liked its subtler meanings. But the real problem lay in the last line: a “breakless” ocean seems like an ocean without waves, rather than a whole ocean. Also, the iambic pentameter was a little too regular and placid compared to the Hungarian (also regular iambic pentameter, but with a little bit of friction at “egy egész tenger”). Those problems, though, seemed worthwhile for the sake of the whole. Then I thought of a different way of doing it. Here’s the last stanza as it was before.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a breakless ocean booms it back.

Here’s the new version:

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

The word “bourn” (“limit”) evokes Hamlet’s soliloquy (“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”) in an appropriate way, in that the action of throwing the stone is irrevocable. Neither the stone nor the throwing can return. That striking line “Nem szabadul már soha többé tőle” (“Never again will he get rid of it”) puzzles the mind at first; you might expect “Never will he get rid of it” or even “Never again will he find it.” But there’s a singularity to the very act of throwing the stone away. As for the last line, I like how “whole” and “sea” struggle against each other slightly, each one claiming rhythmic stress. And “booms it in return” brings out the paradox of noise in the voicelessness. Also, you can hear a parallel between “mute breach” and “whole sea.”

So the whole translation reads as follows:

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

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

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

I started thinking about catharsis in this poem. There is a purification in the throwing of the stone. The verb “szabadul” (“to be freed of, get rid of”) is very close in meaning to “rid,” which derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *reudh-, “to clear land.” The stone becomes too much, I think; it has to be thrown. But this will come up at the event, so I won’t say more here.

What I will do now, though, on a somewhat different subject, is provide a loose translation of “Tágul” from Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó.” The song is indirectly related to the poem; the two juxtaposed say something to each other. “Tágul” has so much of what I love about Platon Karataev: lyrics, sounds, the duet of Sebő and Gergő, atmosphere, eternity. I have heard this song played by the whole band and by Sebő and Gergő in acoustic concert. Each version brings out something different. I think a cello cover would be beautiful; I will keep that in mind for the future.

While my translation is mostly literal, more so than my translation of “Partért kiáltó,” I took some liberties to convey the rhythm and richness of the words. I translated “elmém egy hangyaboly” as “this my mind is an anthill” to keep the stress on the first syllable of the line, since this is so important to the music.

I initially translated “tágul az űr belül” as “spreading within, the void” to convey both the rhythm and the continual motion. I think there’s supposed to be some ambiguity about what is spreading: the void itself, the moment, the shadow, the self, the non-self? But then I changed my mind, and changed it to “the void expands within.” (“Spreading within, the void,” requires the commas, but those can’t be heard. So the meaning was too unclear.)

I translated “ez a pillanat most minden pillanat” as “this moment is now each moment of all time,” for the sake of emphasis (that is, both a strong final beat and a strong statement).

The translation as a whole is imperfect (what translation isn’t?), and I might see reason to revise it later, but I think it conveys the essence and could work with the rhythm of the music.

az égbolt köldöke a Hold
elvágom a köldökzsinórt

az éjjel szitálja az énem
nem-énem kitárja, elérem

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

talpam alatt már szűkül az árnyék
lépek, mintha vízen járnék

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat
the heavens’ navel is the Moon
I sever the umbilical cord

the night dissipates my self
pours forth my non-self, I touch it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

beneath my soles the shadow thins
I step as though walking on water

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

I made a few changes to the translation of “Tágul” after posting this piece (most recently on March 23).

Art credit: Cloudy Day (1871) by Alfred Thompson Bricher.

Getting There on Time

This week, among war worries and other things, I was figuring out whether and how I could get to the Platon Karataev duo concert at the Várkert Bazár on time. We have been administering oral entrance exams at school, going past 4:00; the last test yesterday was scheduled for 4 (but actually began a few minutes later, because we were running slightly behind schedule). To get to the concert, which started at 7, I would have to catch the 4:45 train, transfer in Cegléd, arrive at the Nyugati station around 6:09, and then get out to the concert hall as quickly as possible.

Not only did it work out, but I managed to do it without cutting any corners. After finishing our last exam, I said goodbye to my colleagues, ran out the building (had to run back for something, but then ran out again), bicycled like mad to the train station (getting there within ten minutes), and boarded the train just two minutes before its departure. Everything went well with the train trip and the transfer. Once I got to Budapest, I took a cab to the concert hall, not wanting to take any risks. I got there about ten minutes before seven and found a perfect seat in the fourth row.

I love the pre-concert picture at the top; it might be my favorite pre-concert picture that I have taken. It conveys the anticipation, the warmth of the hall, even the acoustics (which were phenomenal).

And the concert was so beautiful. Entirely in Hungarian. They played songs from the album, newer songs, some of which will be on the fourth album, and in the encores, “Égboltba zárt madár,” “Felzizeg” (from Cz.K. Sebő’s new album) and a cover of Galaxisok’s “Galaxisok” (which in turn evokes Kaláka for me). They played with such awareness of each other that the tiny imperfections, when they happened, only made things richer. We were with them at every fraction of a moment, listening together, keeping the hush, applauding with full heart at the end.

After the concert I hurried out to catch the 9:28 train from the Nyugati station back to Szolnok. The station was filled with refugees who had just gotten off a train—and volunteers offering to help in English and Russian. Many were Ukrainian, many were not.

But now, speaking of getting there on time, I have to run, because the new day, filled with oral examinations, is soon to begin. I enjoy interviewing the prospective students—hearing about their interests, thoughts, and lives—but it’s quite intense, with hardly a break. So that is all for now.

Things to Look Forward To

With war in Ukraine and worries across the border, there is much to cherish and attend. A glimpse of the next week:

Tomorrow in Budapest I am leading a Szim Salom service with Rabbi Kelemen. I still have to practice my leyning but am confident about it.

Next week we have oral entrance exams—three packed days—for students applying to our bilingual program. That will be intense and packed but enjoyable too.

On or around March 1, the Winter 2022 issue of Literary Matters will come out—with my translations of two of Csenger Kertai’s poems, along with many other interesting and beautiful things. (I have seen the proof.)

On March 2, if I finish with the oral exams early enough, I will hurry out to Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev duo concert (Gergő and Sebő).

On Friday, March 4, I will go to the Idea record release show.

On Saturday, March 5, I will head off to Pécs to hear both Dávid Szesztay and Cz.K. Sebő in concert. Any reader of this blog knows what this means to me, or has some sense of it. I will stay overnight in Pécs and come back to Szolnok in the morning.

Then various things over the following weeks, including a visit to the Sipos Orbán vocational high school for Women’s Day. And then the Pilinszky event on March 20.

This seems like just a list, but there is more to it than a list. There are sounds, thoughts, memories, hopes, works, drafts, anticipations, departures.

The photo at the top is from an event I attended last night at the Nyitott Műhely, a place I hope to visit again many times. Csenger Kertai, accompanied by Lóránt Péch on piano, read from his novel-in-progress. Then Péch performed solo.

I added to this piece after posting it.

Translating Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the song)

I have translated many poems in my life—from Hungarian, Lithuanian, and Russian—and see many more coming. It is an extraordinary, beautiful challenge: the translation will be imperfect no matter what you do, but you can still find ways to convey the essence of the original. Should you preserve the original form, or approximate it? Should you take liberties with words and syntax? The answer will change from poem to poem, poet to poet, time to time.

Translating song lyrics is even more difficult in some ways, because of the interdependence between the lyrics and the music. You could provide a “literal” translation (a surprisingly complex concept—it isn’t at all obvious what “literal” is), but in doing so, you might lose even more than you would with a poem. Such a translation could serve a limited purpose (conveying some basic sense of the song’s theme) but no more.

A little over a month ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea of how to translate Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the title song of their recently released third LP). I got up and wrote down a few lines. I went back to sleep, woke up early, and translated the rest. This was my first artistic translation of a song: the first one that tried to capture some of the meanings, sounds, and rhythms together. I have translated a song or two before—mostly on this blog—but very roughly, and often just an excerpt.

The translation takes some liberties, and like any translation, it is imperfect. What I like, though, is that I can hear the music behind it and in it. Also, to make the rhymes and rhythms possible (the original song has just two basic rhyme sounds, which would be impossible or extremely strained in English), I varied the syntax. This continual turning and variation reminds me of the sounds of the instruments, rotating in and out of darkness and light. I am presenting the translation below, side by side with the original, with the permission of Gergely Balla.

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
kérlek, magamra hagyjatok

nem nyílnak befelé ablakok
kérlek, magamra hagyjatok

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
a mélybe lehúznak vad habok

nem nyílnak kifelé ablakok
már nálad van, mit adhatok

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
nincs már, hol átérjek gyalog

az űrbe tátogok, vak vagyok
de sötétet ásnak a csillagok

kérlek, magamra hagyjatok
nem eső ez, csak a tenger dadog

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

ezért a mondatért jöttem
ezért a mondatért
ezért az emberért jöttem
ezért az emberért
water shouting for shore am i
i beg you, leave me with my cry
the windows won’t open inwards, why
won’t you leave me alone i cry
water shouting for shore i am
dragged down deep by the savage foam
the windows won’t open outwards, see,
you already have what could come from me
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
water i am, shouting for the beach
there’s nothing left for my feet to reach
i gape blind into the void and yet
the stars dig into the lack of light
leave me i beg you, that’s not the rain
stuttering, but the sea again
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
this is the sentence i came here for
this is the sentence here 
this is the person i came here for
this is the person here

The most difficult line to translate is the one I pondered for hours when the song first came out: “siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél.” It means, approximately, “The one who is faster than the forest, hurries,” or “He hurries who goes faster than the forest.” It has an ancient or Biblical ring to it; the structure is similar to that of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (“Áldott ki jön az Úr nevében”). I translated it loosely as “folly to race with the hallowed woods,” which I think conveys something of the ancient, adage-like tone.

Try listening to the song by itself, without reading any text, then while reading the Hungarian lyrics, then while reading the English translation, and then once again without reading text. Those four listenings will bring out different aspects of the song. There’s no telling which ones; that will also depend on you. And for a fifth listen, here’s a live duo performance by Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly.

And if you enjoyed this, I recommend not only the whole album, but the accompanying lyrics book, with its striking and inspiring illustrations and text layout (by Emőke Dobos). Even without knowing Hungarian, you can glean meaning and sound from the pages.

I translated the song because there’s so much to hear in it.

A Few Thoughts about János Pilinszky’s “Straight Labyrinth” (“Egyenes labirintus”)

I am not going to say much here about “Egyenes labirintus,” because we will be discussing it at the Pilinszky event in March. These are just a few preliminary thougths, along with a translation. The poem is a brief masterpiece; to see why, it is necessary to pay attention to every word and the relationships between them.

First of all, what is a straight labyrinth? The title confronts us with an ancient paradox. Directness may inhere in the labyrinth. Many of us know the experience of pondering a math problem, for instance, looking at it from every possible angle, trying this, trying that, and suddenly having the solution flash in our heads, a solution which, once it arrives, seems both obvious and elegant. But when it comes to life itself, such an insight is cataclysmic, or can be. I think of Oedipus realizing that he is the source of the plague. I think of Rilke’s “You must change your life.” I think of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light.  What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.”

Pilinszky creates a labyrinth in the poem itself.

Milyen lesz az a visszaröpülés,
amiről csak hasonlatok beszélnek,

he begins, which I have translated, “What will it be like, that return flight / that only similes speak of?” Here the puzzling element is the “visszaröpülés,” the “return flight” or “flying back,” which one would take to be a metaphor, except that Pilinszky treats it as the reality, in that “only similes” can speak of it. If there is a “visszaröpülés,” what is the original flight, the “röpülés”?

The next four lines bring up the similes that might describe the flying back; then comes a renewed question, “what will it be like at last, what will it be like,” and then a return to the image of flight, with new intensity:

olyanfélék, hogy oltár, szentély,
kézfogás, visszatérés, ölelés,
fűben, fák alatt megterített asztal,
hol nincs első és nincs utolsó vendég,
végül is milyen lesz, milyen lesz
e nyitott szárnyú emelkedő zuhanás,
visszahullás a fókusz lángoló
közös fészkébe?

In my translation: “Words like altar, sanctuary, / handshake, homecoming, embrace, / a spread table in the grass, under the trees, / where there is no first and no last guest, / what will it be like at last, what will it be like, / this wide-open-winged ascending dive, / this falling back into the focus, the flaming common nest?”

The similes seem like isolated attempts, distinct from each other (though pointing to the same thing); then the poem picks up tempo, asks the question again, and swoops back into flight, a falling and soaring at once. Then comes a turning point, something like a sonnet’s volta, though this is no sonnet: “—Nem tudom,” “—I do not know,” and then a shift of focus to the “röpülés” itself, which was hiding here all along:

és mégis, hogyha valamit tudok,
hát ezt tudom, e forró folyosót,
e nyílegyenes labirintust, melyben
mind tömöttebb és mind tömöttebb
és egyre szabadabb a tény, hogy röpülünk.

(“and yet, if there is something that I know, / well, this is it: this burning corridor, / this labyrinth straight as an arrow, where / thicker and thicker, freer and freer / falls the fact that we are flying.”)

The word “tény” is the key to the whole poem: “the fact that we are flying” means that this is no metaphor, but reality—which, like the flying back, may be untouchable by language. Perhaps the ways we describe our lives, the things we take for reality, are in fact approximations and similes—that is, the “röpülés,” like the “visszarópülés” is something “amiről csak hasonlatok beszélnek.” So that when we start to recognize that we are in flight (towards death? towards the point of turning around?), when it becomes thicker and thicker, it also becomes freer; we no longer have to take it for anything else.

In my translation I especially wanted to draw attention to the relation between the flying back and the flying, the beginning and end of the poem. Here it is in full below; you can also read the translations of N. Ullrich Katalin, Géza Simon, Ted Hughes, and Virág Natália Szűcs. Each translation brings out something different. I think that of the three, mine is closest to Hughes’s, but I am also haunted by Simon’s (and by the way that each translation can “speak of” the original only in approximations).

What will it be like, that return flight
that only similes speak of?
Words like altar, sanctuary,
handshake, homecoming, embrace,
a spread table in the grass, under the trees,
where there is no first and no last guest,
what will it be like at last, what will it be like,
this wide-open-winged ascending dive,
this falling back into the focus, the flaming
common nest? I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something that I know,
well, this is it: this burning corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow, where
thicker and thicker, freer and freer
falls the fact that we are flying.

When Pilinszky reads this poem aloud on a recording, the intensity comes to a breaking point with the very word “tény” near the end. It tells a lot about the poem.

This was the first Pilinszky poem that I fell in love with. The first one I ever read and memorized, on a student’s recommendation, was “Egy szenvedély margójára”; it was important to me at the time, but I didn’t go on to read more Pilinszky, partly because I was still more or less a beginner in Hungarian and read very slowly. But when I came upon “Egyenes labirintus” through Cz.K. Sebő’s 2014 rendition, I kept coming back to it, then to “Egy szép napon,” then to more and more. I started hearing Pilinszky allusions in Platon Karataev’s songs, and hints of Pilinszky’s influence in Csenger Kertai’s poems. I started reading Pilinszky collections cover to cover, memorizing more poems, reciting them when alone, and attending Pilinszky events. The idea for the event—now less than six weeks away—started taking shape. And all of this is still a beginning.

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

“Lassú madár is gyorsabb az égboltnál”

I got up early to listen to Platon Karataev’s Partért kiáltó and read the lyrics book.

There’s a cathartic moment in “Lassú madár” where the whole album comes together: the lyrics “lassú madár is gyorsabb az égboltnál” (“[even/also] the slow bird is faster than the heavens”) echo the “siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél” (“the one who is faster than the forest, hurries”) of the title song, and the keyboard melody in the background resembles that of “Vízből van.” It feels like a slow, private thunderclap. From there, it’s a perfect transition into “Elmerül” and the rest of the album, which just lifts and lifts.

There is so much to hear and listen for in this album: the songs on their own and in conversation with each other, the music in conversation with other music, the lyrics with literature. Then the book in conversation with the album.

I had some kind of dream about the album, but I can’t remember it. But yesterday’s rainbow sighting from my window (see the picture above) seems to go with it somehow, especially with the final song, “Lombkoronaszint.” The rainbow lasted less than a minute. I noticed it because the clouds kept shifting and forming, and a tree in the background burst into glow. I started focusing on the tree. Then I saw the rainbow coming up and out of it, took the picture quickly—and just a few seconds later, the skies were dark and the rainbow had gone away.

But had it gone away? Or had it always been there, waiting for that instant of perception?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto the Margin of a Passion

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

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

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

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

Painting: Pebble Beach by Kathy Ferguson.

I made a few edits to the translation after posting it (most recently on March 13, 2022). This translation is not entirely literal; I take a few liberties for the sake of the larger sense, internal correspondences, and rhythm.

I also made a few minor edits to the post itself.

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    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.


    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.


    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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