Zoltán Zelk, “Dorosic Nightfall, 1943”

The original Hungarian text of this poem by Zoltán Zelk has been published many times: most recently, with carefully corrected title, in the literary journal Eső (Winter 2018), where I first encountered it. To my knowledge, the only translation into English is my own, which I present here, in honor of the international Holocaust Remembrance Day. I hope that showing it here on my blog will not stand in the way of its publication elsewhere one day. The poem deserves to be known around the world.

I read this translation aloud at a special private lucheon held by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and its Cowan Center for Education in the fall of 2019; Gyula Jenei (poet and founding editor of Eső), Marianna Fekete, and I were the featured guests of the Cowan Center’s 2019 Education Forum, of which the luncheon was the closing event. At this luncheon we met Will Evans, founder and publisher of Deep Vellum, who will be publishing my translation of Jenei’s collection Mindig más in February 2022. We also had the honor of meeting the poet Frederick Turner, who has collaborated with the scholar, writer, and Holocaust survivor Zsuzsanna Ozsváth on numerous translations. It was a sincere and momentous occasion, worthy of long memory. We are so grateful for the hospitality of Claudia MacMillan, Larry Allums, all the staff, and everyone who attended the luncheon and other events.

For the Hungarian text (“Dorosici alkony, 1943”), please go here.

Dorosic Nightfall, 1943

Zoltán Zelk

Translated by Diana Senechal

Thirty-three have perished in the pit.
The thirty-fourth collapsed before our eyes.
How many we have buried in two weeks!
we could have stacked the bodies to the skies.

And then we did! The dreadful grey tower!
Too much to bear, even in the sky;
staggering down the tower’s countless stairs,
beside the grave appeared Adonai.

And then he wailed an upward-swelling prayer,
its melody the tint of smoke and char—
and trembling they whirled below the earth,
the typhus-decimated legs and arms.

He tore his chest apart, burned all his rags,
fell to the ground, and soaked himself in mud;
cursing the Sixth Day of his creation,
he called back the Darkness and the Void.

My terrified companions might have whispered:
“An unhinged cantor… burying his brother…”
but I knew well that this was: Adonai!
and each one fallen in the pit, his brother.

Everything here is his brother, child, and sin,
everything that he long ago released:
the fire, the lice, the plague, and the infected
summer nightfall with its sour green taste.

Pounding his forehead into root and stone,
this is why he bows before Affliction,
this is why he moans with barren lip;
he is as speechless as before Creation.

Only the smoke of his terrible song came out,
and even it got stuck on top of a thin
branch, and in the sudden lack of sound,
we felt raw terror freezing on our skin.

And once again the curses and the blows,
—our numbed guards snapped back into their mien—
again the movement throbbing to the bone,
the failing muscles’ lousy dance again.

Always one and the same insensate rhythm.
But our shovels kept on tossing, tossing high,
and clods of earth rained down upon the heavens,
and in this way we buried Adonai.

On Listening to Poetry in Unfamiliar Languages

I have some upcoming posts about TED and what it could do to improve. My TEDx talk may appear on YouTube any day now, so I speak from an inside-like place. (TED refers to TEDx events as “TED-like,” so I suppose the inside of a TEDx event is “inside-like.”)

But right now I have something different on my mind: poetry in unfamiliar languages. Last night I went to the wonderful Uncle Vanya Cafe (quiet, cozy atmosphere, delicious food) to hear three poets: Tomas Venclova (whose poetry I have translated), Valzhyna Mort, and Vasyl Makhno. All three were superb in my ears. Mort and Makhno read some of their poems in Belarusian and Ukrainian, respectively; although I do not know those languages, I enjoyed listening as carefully as I could, picking up not only on familiar words (that is, words that had similar-sounding counterparts in Russian), but on cadences, repetitions, rhythms.

In some strange way it is possible, when listening to a poem in an unfamiliar language, to tell whether it is good. You can sense a mastery of orchestration. Something about the momentum and structure will come across strongly. For this reason and others, I love the exercise. Also, when you listen with that intensity, you remember the poem later.

Two of Mort’s poems stand out in my memory. One was titled “Psalm 18” (I think). She read it in Belarusian and English. There was a magnificent passage with curtains opening and closing, opening and closing. I can’t find it online, but I hope to track it down.

Another one, “Belarusian I” (which she read only in Belarusian, I think) had a progression that I immediately grasped. I didn’t understand the words at the very end, but I understood what led up to them. You can read the poem in Belarusian and English, listen to an audio recording, and watch a video here. (For the first four minutes of the video, she speaks about her work and background; then she reads the poem.)

In the video, she explains that she came to poetry through music. In childhood, she studied music with the intention of becoming a professional musician. When she started writing poetry, she thought of it as music too; she used words she didn’t understand, just for the sound of them. Something of this quality has stayed in her poetry; this partly explains why I could listen with such involvement. Her  poetry, reaching the listeners, returns in some way to its beginnings. At the same time, I need to take time with it to understand it better. Someone who understands nothing in a poem may still understand something (nonverbally); someone who understands something, a little more, and so on. Understanding a poem is a long and layered feat.

 

Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

 

  • “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

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • 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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