Reminders for Future Ages by Miklós Radnóti
Translated from the Hungarian & Edited by Thomas Ország-Land (July 2015)
Miklós Radnóti and his wife, Fifi
Hitherto, I lived the throbbing life of a youthful bull
bored in the noonday heat among pregnant cows in the field,
running around in unending circles declaring his powers
and waving amid his game a foaming flag of saliva.
He shakes his head and turns with the splitting, thick air on his horns
and behind his stamping hooves the tormented grass and earth
spatters widely about the terrified green pasture.
And still I live like a bull, but a bull that suddenly stops
in the heart of the meadow singing with crickets, stops nostrils lifted
and sniffing the air. For he senses that far in the mountain forests
the roebuck too stops and listens and lightly flees with the wind,
the hissing wind that carries the stench of a distant wolf pack –
thus the bull snorts, but he will not escape like the deer
and considers that when his time is to come, he will fight and fall
and his bones will be scattered about in the district by the horde –
and slowly and sadly the bull bellows through the fat air.
Thus I will struggle and thus I will fall when the hour is come,
and the district will treasure my bones for reminders to future ages.
THE THIRD ECLOGUE
My pastoral muse! Accompany me to this sleepy coffeehouse
away from your light-drenched, misty riverbank and its loosely
erected molehills, its sightless moles and your sunburnt fishermen
of noble proportions and white and healthy teeth, stretched out
asleep in their slippery barges after the morning catch!
My pastoral muse, accompany me to this urban district –
Those seven carousing travelling salesmen should not deter you:
pathetic losers, they cannot resist the pressures of business...
nor should those doctors of law to the right: not one of whom can
still master a simple flute... but look: how they suck their cigars!
Accompany me! I’m a teacher and, between classes, I’ve chosen
this place for a moment’s peace in the smoke to muse on affection.
A tweet from a bird can revive the juices of an old poplar.
A call from a woman has flung me high to the distant peaks
of wild, adolescent desire... that bygone terrain of youth.
My pastoral muse, assist me! Today, the triumphant trumpets
of dawn resounded in praise of the love she bestows upon me,
the fleeting flash of her smile, and the joyful, dancing rhythm
of sighs that escape her lips, and the fragrance, feel and form
and heat and cool of her flesh, and the way it reflects the moon...
My pastoral muse, assist me! Allow me to ponder on passion
despite my vast and nagging sadness, despite the unending
despair that hounds me through this world. I know I shall perish.
The trees grow twisted in my dreams and mine pits collapse
and I can hear the scream of the very bricks in the walls.
My pastoral muse, assist me – for even the sky is falling!
The poets dying in droves. No mounds will guard our dust, nor
such graceful urns as back in the classical past – only random,
surviving fragments of verse. How then can I serenade life?
However... her body is calling. Assist me, my pastoral muse!
THE SEVENTH ECLOGUE
Evening approaches the barracks, and the ferocious oak fence
braided with barbed wire, look, dissolves in the twilight.
Slowly the eye thus abandons the bounds of our captivity
and only the mind, the mind is aware of the wire’s tension.
Even fantasy finds no other path towards freedom.
Look, my beloved, dream, that lovely liberator,
releases our aching bodies. The captives set out for home.
Clad in rags and snoring, with shaven heads, the prisoners
fly from Serbia’s blinded peaks to their fugitive homelands.
Fugitive homeland! Oh – is there still such a place?
still unharmed by bombs? as on the day we enlisted?
And will the groaning men to my right and my left return safely?
And is there a home where hexameters are appreciated?
Dimly groping line after line without punctuation,
here I write this poem as I live in the twilight, inching
like a bleary-eyed caterpillar, my way on the paper –
everything, torches and books, all has been seized by the Lager
guard, our mail has stopped and the barracks are muffled by fog.
Riddled with insects and rumours, Frenchmen, Poles, loud Italians,
separatist Serbs and dreamy Jews live here in the mountains –
fevered, a dismembered body, we lead a single existence,
waiting for news, a sweet word from a woman, and decency, freedom,
guessing the end still obscured by the darkness, dreaming of miracles.
Lying on boards, I am a captive beast among vermin,
the fleas renew their siege but the flies have at last retired.
Evening has come; my captivity, behold, is curtailed
by a day and so is my life. The camp is asleep. The moonshine
lights up the land and highlights the taut barbed wire fence,
it draws the shadow of armed prison guards, seen through the window,
walking, projected on walls, as they spy the night’s early noises.
Swish go the dreams, behold my beloved, the camp is asleep,
the odd man who wakes with a snort turns about in his little space
and resumes his sleep at once, with a glowing face. Alone
I sit up awake with the lingering taste of a cigarette butt
in my mouth instead of your kiss, and I get no merciful sleep,
for neither can I live nor die without you, my love, any longer.
À LA RECHERCHE...
Gentle past evenings, you too are ennobled through recollection!
Brilliant table adorned by poets and their young women,
where have you slid in the mud of the memory? where is the night
when the exuberant friends still merrily drank the native
wine of the land from slender glasses that sparkled their glances?
Lines of poetry swam around the glow of the lamps
and bright green adjectives swayed on the foaming crest of the metre
and still the dead were alive, the prisoners home, and the dear
vanished friends wrote verse, those fallen long ago whose hearts
lie under the soil of Spain and Flanders and Ukraine.
Some of them charged forward gritting their teeth in the fire and fought
only because there was nothing they could do to avoid it,
and while their company fitfully slept around them under
the soiled shelter of night, they remembered their rooms of the past,
calm caves and islands, their retreat from this society.
Some of them travelled helpless in sealed cattle trucks to places,
some stood numbly waiting unarmed in freezing minefields,
some also went voluntarily, silent with guns in their hands
for clearly they saw their personal place and role in the fighting –
now the angel of freedom guards their great dreams in the night.
Some... doesn’t matter. Where have the wise, winy evenings vanished?
Swift swarmed the draftnotes and swift multiplied the poetic fragments
as did the wrinkles around the lips and eyes of the wives
with enchanting smiles. The elf-footed girls grew dull
and heavy in loneliness over the silent and endless war years.
Where is the night, the tavern and, under the lime trees, that table?
Where are the living and where are the others trampled in battle?
Still, my heart hears their voices, my hand still holds their handshakes,
thus I quote their works and behold their proportions and stature,
silent prisoner myself in Serbia’s wailing mountains.
Where is the night? Such a night perhaps may never recur, for death
gives always a different perspective to all that has vanished.
They still sit at the table, they hide in the smiles of the women,
and they will sip from our glasses, the friends still unburied and waiting,
lying in distant forests, asleep in foreign pastures.
Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944), a victim and probably the greatest poet of the Holocaust. More of his poetry in Thomas Land’s English translation appears in Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust (Smokestack Books, England, 2014).
Thomas Ország-Land (b. 1938), a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent based in London and his native Budapest, who contributes to the New English Review as well as The Jewish Quarterly, The London Magazine and Stand.
(Author Photo by Hajnalka Friebert)
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