Funeral Song by Ágnes Gergely

Translated from the Hungarian by Thomas Ország-Land (November 2010)

Ágnes Gergely (b. 1933), poet, novelist, scholar. A proud descendant of generations of rabbis and men of letters, she was one of the first major Hungarian writers to explore in public print during the Soviet era the long-suppressed experience of East European Holocaust survivors. She is a recipient of the prestigious Kossuth Literary Prize.
The road turns by the press-house and a white
mud village greets me huddling to the right,

blue winding polished hill road that I see
with an intruder's curiosity

with not a soul just trees and tidy lines
of modest homes with aerials and vines

past wine vaults and beneath Pannonia's sky
a grey prophet -- a little donkey -- ambles by

she waves back with a mother-of-pearl ear --
the prosperous plebeian class dwelled here

when carts of travelling merchants left a track
along these gentle hills five centuries back:

calm bakers of brown loaves and honey-bread
they watched above the mounting thunderhead

behind them a castle resounded with music and dance
of the Renaissance with Italian elegance

and roads took root wherever their carts would ply
their trundling trade beneath Pannonia's sky --

in his brown caftan tightly wrapped, one day
my own forefather might have come this way

and where I stand he might have glanced and slowed
his pace to preach with caution by the road

perhaps that other one, more sober, plain
made fancy saffian footwear by the lane

as his wife with amber eyes surveyed the ground
and kept her guard against a hostile hound

and a toddler played about her gathering
herbs from these very slopes and she would sing --

their psalms and their tanned leathers' scent would fill
the air and travel far beyond the hill

surviving winters, with the gales they flew
and from the maggots' entrails rose anew...

these lands caress them softly like a shroud
they came unasked and graceful like a cloud

they were, as I protect and hold to my
own soil, protected by Pannonia's sky:

both ways the road winds blue beyond your span
so leave this land and run, run... if you can.


In memoriam my father

I do not cherish memories
and even those I hold I do not safeguard.
I do not seek forgotten graveyards.
Organic chemistry does not move me.

Yet, at times like this, towards November
as fog-damped windows seal this room
and I gasp for air and relief, I am surprised
-- not knowing where your body lies --
when I'm confronted by your odd gestures
arising through the waters of my mind.

I feel your long and nervous fingers as they
arrange a Thermos flask and a pocket knife
with an old can opener in the gaping knapsack,
and also warm underclothes and a prayer-book
and under the weightless load you still can carry
I share the creaking surprise of your back.
I sense your departure. Elegant tramp, you set out,
you'd never leave the house, you only set out,
and look back laughing, aged just 38 years,
and you nod and you gesture, I'll soon be back
-- your birthday should have been the next day --
though you whimper inwards like a Medny?nszky portrait
and you wave -- and how and how you wave!

Sign on my doorjamb, you've remained:
and Ferdinand Bridge, the sludgy march, the bars,
the fatal empty weakness, the gorging of grass --
forget these freak inventions of the mind.
For I have lied: I see you often
beneath the stifling, low November sky...
You're setting out with me, breathing within me.
I'm letting your tears go dribbling down my throat
and above, where it has no business, that thin
Memphis cigarette... struck from your mouth
is burning through the skin of a star.

THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent based in Budapest.

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