I Made a Feeble Show by Miklós Radnóti

translated from the Hungarian & edited

by Thomas Ország-Land (September 2016)

Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944), probably the greatest among the world’s Holocaust poets. He was virtually unknown when he was murdered as a Jew by the Hungarian Army at the close of WW2. His best poems recovered from a mass grave were found on his body.

 

1.

WALK ABOUT, CONDEMNED TO DIE

 

Just walk about, condemned to die!

A cat screams from the gale-torn shrubs,

a tumbling avenue of trees

confronts you and the roadway arches

its back in fear: its dust turns pale.

 

Just shrivel up, you autumn leaves!

and shrivel up, you dreadful world!

The cold falls hissing from the sky,

the passing wild geese drop their shadows

across the stiffened, rusty grass.

 

Oh poet, now you must be pure

like those who dwell on vast and windswept

snow-capped peaks, and innocent,

as innocent as babies pictured

in pious paintings of the past

 

… and endure, like bleeding, wounded

wolves that trek through hostile grounds.

 


Berlin, 1945

 

2.

OLD PRISONS

 

The stillness of old prisons, true, sublime

   old fashioned suffering and noble death,

poetic death… heroic, lofty view,

   composed and measured talk and due attention –

How far you are! Oblivion receives

   one who still dares to move. The fog descends.

Reality has lost its form and content,

   and, like a shattered pot, its strews about

its shards: untrue, incoherent perceptions.

 

What will become of you who would discuss,

while still allowed to live, reality

in formal terms, and teach the art of judgment?

 

I would still teach, though all has burst asunder.

I sit. I stare. No more is left to do.

 


Budapest, 1944

 

3.

THE FIFTH ECLOGUE

                              –In memoriam György Bálint*

 

 

                              A Fragment

 

My dear friend, how I shuddered and shivered from the chill

of this poem, how I dreaded the news about you… How I fled from it!

I scribbled only broken lines.

                                                And I tried to write

on other themes once more: but in vain! this frightful, secretive

night commands: You must speak of him.

                                                                  I flinch, but the voice

goes silent again like the slain in the pastures of Ukraine.

You’re missing.

                          And even this autumn has brought no news

                                                                                               of you.

Grimly, the winter whispers its prophecy out in the woods.

Heavy clouds are drawn across the sky. They halt, full of snow.

You’re maybe alive, who knows? –

                                                           I do not now,

                                                                                 and I rage

no longer when people shrug and cover their faces in pain.

No-one can tell.

                          But… are you alive? Or, might you be wounded,

walking the forest floor in the heady fragrance of mud,

or have you become but a scent?...

                                                        Snowflakes light on the fields.

Missing. This news: what a blow!

                                                       My heart beats a numb response.

Between my two ribs arises a throbbing pain at such times

when I recall your words, heard long ago, with such sharpness,

and I sense your physical substance with such precision as though

you were dead –

                            And even today… I still cannot write about you!

==============================================

* György Báint (1906-1943) writer, translator & critic, enlisted in a slave-labour battalion attached to the Hungarian invasion force in Ukraine, listed missing in 1943.


Budapest, 1945

4.

SHALL I THUS WONDER…?

 

          I lived… although I made a feeble show of life,

and I assumed that I’d be buried here in time

as clods of earth and rocks and years piled high above,

that while the maggot-eaten flesh disintegrates

the blind and naked bones must shiver in the dark…

I understood all that – yet hoped that, in the light,

a scuttling distant future would leaf through my lines

despite my dust still sinking deeper in the ground.

I knew. But tell me! Has the work, the work survived?
 

____________________________________________

 

THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes for New English Review on Europe and the Middle East. His last book was Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust (Smokestack, 2014) and his last E-chapbook, Reading for Rush Hour: A Pamphlet in Praise of Passion (Snakeskin, 2016), both in England. His work appears also in current issues of Acumen, Standpoint and The Transnational.

 

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