Saturday, March 11, 2006


Gyorgy Petri

Gyorgy Petri (1943 -- 2000) was the leading Hungarian poet of his generation. Educated at the Lornd Eotvos University in literature and philosophy, he was strongly influenced as well (as were most Eastern European intellectuals) by the Czechoslovakian "Prague Spring" of 1968, the attempt to reform Communism into a more legitimate workers' state, as well as the crushing of that intention by the Soviet military backed by other Warsaw Pact countries in August of that year. Consequently, his work reveals a great deal of cynicism, bitterness, and harsh irony. Although his early work was published by state-controlled publishers in the early 70's, when they wanted to heavily censor his work beginning with his third collection, he refused to allow its publication through those publishers and turned to underground samizdat publication instead, risking state censure and worse. Finally, after the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980's, he could publish his work openly, and he became enormously popular, winning a number of prestigious literary awards during the 1990's, as well as travelling abroad. He died at the age of 57 in 2000 of throat cancer.

"Electra" is a poem typical of his political work; Mycenae is clearly the Hungary of the communist dictator Janos Kadar (who governed Hungary from 1956 to 1988) and Aegisthus is unquestionably Kadar:


What they think is it's the twists and turns of politics
that keep me ticking; they think it's Mycenae's fate.
Take my little sister, cute sensitive Chrysosthemis --
to me the poor thing attributes a surfeit of moral passion,
believing I'm unable to get over
the issue of our father's twisted death.
What do I care for the gross geyser of spunk
who murdered his own daughter! The steps into the bath
were slippery with soap -- and the axe's edge too sharp.
But that this Aegisthus, with his trainee-barber's face,
should swagger about and hold sway in this wretched town,
and that our mother, like a venerably double-chinned old whore,
should dally with him simpering -- everybody pretending
not to see, not to know anything. even the Sun
glitters above, like a lie forged of pure gold,
the false coin of the gods!
Well, that's why! That's why! Because of disgust, because it all sticks in my craw,
revenge has become my dream and my daily bread.
And this revulsion is stronger than the gods.
I already see how mold is creeping across Mycenae,
which is the mold of madness and destruction.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

One of his best-known poems is the epigrammatic couplet "To Be Said Over and Over Again":

I glance down at my shoe and -- there's the lace!
This can't be gaol then, can it, in that case.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

In "Night Song of the Personal Shadow," Petri gives a voice to one of the numerous government agents who were set to follow and spy on him:

The rain is pissing down,
you scum.
And you, you are asleep
in your nice warm room --
that or stuffing the bird.
Me? Till six in the morning
I rot in the slackening rain.
I must wait for my relief, I've got to wait
till you crawl out of your hole,
get up from beside your old woman.
So the dope can be passed on
as to where you've flown.
You are flying, spreading your wings.
Don't you get into my hands --
I'll pluck you while you're in flight.
This sodding rain
is something I won't forget,
my raincoat swelling
double its normal weight
and the soles of my shoes.
While you
were arsing around
in the warm room.

The time will come
when I feed you to fish in the Danube.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

One of Petri's best poems, I think, is "Christmas 1956"; it is at one level a persoanl recollection of the last Christmas Petri would have experienced as a child, but the piece is made more complex by the fact that that year -- 1956 -- was also the year the "Hungarian Revolution" occurred, a revolution in which the Hungarian people called for the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the institution of a more genuinely socialistic government, and the Soviets responded by sending in the military to crush the nascent rebellion (just as would happen again in Czechoslovakia in 1968). Petri draws implicit parallels between his personal situation and the political environment which is just beginning to take root, the much more harsh and repressive dictatorship of Kadar; there is strong irony in the fact that he receives as his gift a Monopoly game which no one can play, among other elements in this complex work:

"Christmas 1956"

On the twentieth, at a certain moment
(6:45 A. M.), I, a child of ill omen,
born between Joe S. and Jesus,
become thirteen. It's my last year
Of Christmas being a holiday. There's
plenty to eat: the economy of scarcity
was to my Gran as the Red Sea: she crossed over
with dry feet and a turkey. There's a present too --
for me: I control the market still -- my one
cousin a mere girl, only four, and I
the last male of the line
(for the time being). Wine-soup, fish, there's everything,
considering we've just come up from the shelter --
where G. F. kept flashing a tommy-gun
with no magazine ("Get away, Gabe," he was told,
"d'you want the Russkies after us?").
Gabe (he won't be hanged till it's lilac-time)
comes in wishing us merry Christmas, there's no
midnight mass because of the curfew;
I concentrate on Monopoly, my present --
my aunt got it privately, the toyshops
not having much worth buying. My aunt has come,
in a way, to say goodbye: she's getting
out via Yugoslavia, but at the border (alas)
she'll be left behind, and so (in a dozen years
about) she will have to die of cancer of the spine.
Nobody knows how to play Monopoly, so
I start twiddling the knob on our Orion,
our wireless set, and gradually tune in
to London and America, like Mum in '44,
only louder: it's no longer forbidden -- yet.
The christmas-tree decorations, known by heart,
affect me now rather as many years on
a woman will, one loved for many years.
In the morning, barefoot, I'm still to be found
rummaging through the Monoply cards, inhaling
the smell of fir-tree and candles. I bring in
a plateful of brawn from outside, Gran
is already cooking, she squeezes a lemon,
slices bread to my brawn. I crouch on a stool
in pyjamas. There's a smell of sleep and holiday.
Grandad's coughing is what was the servant's room,
his accountant's body, toothpick-thin,
thrown by a fit of it from under the quilt,
Mother's about too, the kitchen is filling up
with family, and it's just as an observer
dropped in the wrong place that I am here:
small, alien, and gone cold.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

The bitterness and darkness which is found in these works is present in Petri's other works, as well, and extends to his attitudes towards the kinds of relationships that can exist between individuals:

"To S. V."

The bus was taking me
over the bridge and I looked
on into the tunnel. At
the far end of that pipe
padded with shadows, there were
vehicles hanging about --
in an unreachably distant
sandy sun-strip.

A long time since
we were last watching together --
looking out for occasions
to enrich our occasional
poetry with occasions of pain.
Filing away at lyric skeleton-keys
we gauge by sight
for a small circle of friends.

I amble on alone --
the prisoner of a dondition it's be
going too far to call loneliness
and deceiving myself to call independence -- on
among parched sights.
I walk down to the embankment looking for shade.
In glass-melting heat
the bus I have just got off
is crawling away somewhere.

An airless tent of chestnuts. But up there
already, the infant stars, as yet
tenderly spiked, herald the autumn.
The water's putrescent slate.
But at least it gets broken up
by a boat putting out from here.
A sight, a view: I've no one
to share it with.
Summer's fruits have ripened
in me and they taste soapy.

I could already tell we were in for a bad year
the morning after New Year's Eve.
In a city of iron shutters, all pulled down,
we slithered about on insidious snow
looking for soak-up soup or hair-of-the-dog.
We ended up drinking iodine-yellow beer
in a surgically tiled café. And time we stepped outside,
the street was wearing eyesore white.

Our weak brains stopped working.
Sailors on ships that are locked in ice,
as is well-known, will devour each other.
Just like the modern Theatre of Provocatiion --
it all degenerates, banter
into argument, teasing
into insult. Till finally the background
cracks the backbone of the situation.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

Love, too, has its limitations, although there are moments when it may offer more than other relationships, but even that is limited to some extent by the constant awareness of the separateness of individuals:


The idiotic silence of state holidays
is no different
from that of Catholic Sundays.
People in collective idleness
are even more repellent
than they are when purpose has harnessed them.

Today I will not
in my old ungrateful way
let gratuitous love decay in me.
In the vacuum of streets
what helps me to escape
is the memory of your face and thighs,
your warmth,
the fish-death smell of your groin.

You looked for a bathroom in vain.
The bed was uncomfortable
like a roof ridge.
The mattress smelt of insecticide,
the new scent of your body mingling with it.

I woke to a cannonade
(a round number of years ago
something happened). You were still asleep.
Your glasses, your patent leather bag
on the floor, your dress on the window-catch
hung inside out -- so practical.

One strap of your black slip
had slithered off.
And a gentle light was wavering
on the downs of your neck, on your collar-bones,
as the cannon went on booming

and on a spring poking through
the armchair's cover
fine dust was trembling.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

The relationship that exists between lovers, even when they are husband and wife, is at best ambiguous:

"Marriage Therapy"

I'm trying to withdraw myself from your life:
becoming soundlessly soft, liveing on toetips, shoeless,
turning the key silently in the door like a burglar.
I'm trying -- at the same time --
to stick to you like a toadstool to a tree,
sponge off you like mistletoe
(also known as "the sucker").
It's about time for me to grow up,
better late than never. On second thought,
maybe it's better never than ever.
Rain has been falling. By morning the sidewalk is slick:
it's either slushy-ice or mirror-ice. either we we can or we can't see ourselves.

(Translated by Michael Castro & Gabor G. Gyukics)

In a world of uncertainties, there's only one absolute: death.

"Credit Card"

We shouldn't rush things: not even annihilation.

No good ever came of haste.
Thus, we stay alive.

In other words, keep all options open;
exchange the one million pound bill of death
for the small change of life.

Or else, we don't make change
beyond our constant presence.
No one can break a nice
crispy death bill like this
with all its impressiveness.
We can live on credit.

The General Bank of Death
will cover all our expenses.
This way our balance is always
a moral zero.

(Translated by Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics)

One can, however, accept the naturalness and inevitability of death and even desire it while still wanting a bit more of life first:

"Elegy and Disseration"

I'd like to shrink nowadays
It's better if one is proactive with
event that happen to him.
The desire for death is a synonym for a willing compromise.
Reducing size is not that bad at all;
one can fit in a baby kangaroo pouch, in a sportbag,
in an urn.
shrinking creates less difficulties for a person.
Though he must gravitate. But chalk that up to
Mr. Newton's account.

Above all and after all
I would rather shrink into myself.
(I throng inside me. I contract.)
No community, no party, no corporation, no caste.
Jst to present myself: what I am, that.
Morevoer: becoming. Be
any side of the dice.
Not a turn, but a twirl.
Be it! Whatever will ber, will be. Prevailing

I comprehend it as my own subevent.

I'd like to walk
on the "all bodies street" (Gyorgy Petri Boulevard),
beforehand I'd make
a good juicy beefstew,
just to eat a few more gristles and cartilages,
but first buy the ingredients for it
(calf, and maybe heartroot, oxtail)
and then take a walk in this
(perhaps the last)
spring with you, with you, with you
(Da capo el fine).

(Translated by Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics)

Ultimately, though there is acceptance of death, there can be concern for those left behind:

"What a Shame"

What a shame to die this way,
just now, when things could be OK --
though even like this it's not too bad:
I'll go quietly, almost glad
to mix with water, leafmould, clay,
thawed snow, showers of a summer's day
and autumn leaves that smell like booze.
The quiet hill waits for my repose -
and say, Will the muses of my song
rest there beside me before long?
(I'd go there right away, but who
will care for Mari if I do?
And who will bring her flowers home
when I am gnawed at by the worm?)

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

Thanks for posting these. I enjoyed quite a few of them, especially the Christmas 1956 one.

Coincidentally, I was reading a review of Clive Wilmer's new book on the Stride ezine only yesterday at Wilmer's work looks well worth checking out - my kind of thing anyway - and I noticed he'd translated quite of few of these Petri poems.
My link doesn't work. But if you go to Stride and click on "Three From Carcanet", that's where the review is.
Thanks, Rob. The Clive Wilmer and George Gomori team have translated a good bit of Hungarian poetry; I haven't read any of of Wilmer's own work, though, so your link will give me the chance.
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