Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Endre Ady: Strangeness and Tragedy

As I have indicated in recent posts, I’m a frequent participant in an annual meeting of P.E.N. in Slovenia. Another regular contributor is the charming Elizabeth Csicsery-Ronay, who lives in Budapest, where she both writes and translates poetry.

At this year’s conference, members concentrated on World War I, whose centenary we observe (one can scarcely say celebrate) in 2014. 

Elizabeth’s paper included a poem I found particularly compelling, one composed by Endre Ady (1877-1919), a major Hungarian-language author who was born into a family of impoverished Protestant nobles in Szilagy Country, then a part of Austria-Hungary and now of Romania.

For much of his short life, Edy was an editor of Nyugat, perhaps the most influential literary journal in Hungary’s history. Nyugat eschewed politics, but in other media Ady engaged that world with some vigor. Maverick by nature, he attacked both the nationalism of the more prominent contemporary parties, but also the anti-nationalism of the left.

After the fateful killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Ady believed war inevitable, and he lamented the Austro-Hungarian elite’s apparent eagerness for it.  Though the following poem makes no direct mention of the horrific cataclysm that was the Great War, it eerily captures the strangeness and chaos that cataclysm meant for all.


An angry angel beat the drum on high
Sounding the alarm on this sad Earth,
At least a hundred youths went mad
At least a hundred stars fell
At least a hundred veils were rent:
It was a strange,
Strange summer night.
Our old beehive burst into flame,
Our best colt broke his leg,
I dreamed the dead came back to life,
Our good dog, Brutus, went astray
And our servant, Mary the mute,
Burst into loud song
On that strange,
Strange summer night.
The worthless swaggered like heroes
And true men lay low
And finicky robbers went out to rob:
On that strange,
Strange summer night.
We knew that men were feeble
And bankrupt in love:
Even so, it was weird
The living and the dead on the turning wheel.
The Moon was never more mocking:
Never were men punier,
Than on that night:
That strange,
Strange summer night.
Dread bent over souls
with gleeful spite,
The hidden fate of his forebears
In every man dwelt deep,
Drunken Thought, Man’s once proud lad,
Heading to that grim and bloody wedding feast,
Was now lame and naught:
On that strange,
Strange summer night
I believed at that time, I thought
Some neglected God
Would come to life
And deliver me to death
And now, I live here,
Transfigured by that night
Waiting for God. I remember
That world-destroying,
Dreadful night:
That strange,
Strange summer night.

©  Translated by Elizabeth Csicsery-RĂ³nay

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On the late Paul Petrie

At the post office this morning, I found a card signifying that I had a package too big for my little box. It came from a woman named Sylvia Petrie, with a return address to a town in Rhode Island I didn't know.

The parcel was heavy, and when, full of curiosity, I opened it, I was surprised to find a heavy volume, the Collected Poems of Paul Petrie, published by  Connecticut-based Antrim House, founded by the gifted and indefatigable poet and– what? poetry missionary?– Rennie McQuilkin.

What a handsome volume it is, and how gracious of Petrie's widow (a painter and printmaker whose cover image is part of the collection's beauty) to send it my way!

Mrs. Petrie had written a very cordial letter, and with it enclosed a copy of one I had written to her late husband many years ago, in which I praised his 1984 volume, Strange Gravity. (The author had sent it my way immediately upon publication, as an unncessary but welcome thank you for having published some of its contents in New England Review, whose editor I was at the time.)  I spoke in my note of the collection's wonderful mixture of "deftness" and "grace." By that, I am quite sure I meant how taken I was by this writer's capacity to use both the most constrictive sorts of formal verse and free verse with equal agility and to equally moving effect.

I mentioned too that I was pleased by his gift of the book to me, because, "as I'm sure you know, it can get lonely in the House of Verse, especially when, like yours and mine, that house is located out of the usual way for 'career advancement.'" I was vain enough to imagine, that is, that by being ambitious for my own work, as Petrie clearly was for his, rather than for its promotion, I might produce verse that followed its own star, that I needn't get hung up on being a star myself. Paul Petrie, clearly, was not obsessed with reputation; and yet he consistently produced writing that was, to my mind, far superior to that of many contemporaries who were, at least in their time, more celebrated.

Petrie's collected poems, as I say, make a large volume, and I won't pretend at ten o'clock in the evening of the very day when I received it that I have managed more yet than to browse around, which I have done at some length and with the constant, sure sense that I found myself in the presence of genuine mastery. In due course, I intend to go cover to cover, more than seven hundred pages worth.

And all this for free. Mrs. Petrie mailed me a book whose cover price is $40, and I paid not a cent. Let me, however, assure readers that so far as I have seen, both from prior collections I knew and from what little I have gleaned from this one,  the volume is worth every penny of that and you'll do well to buy it.

I am grateful to Sylvia Petrie, and grateful that the world of letters included her husband's canon, into which I give the merest glimpse by reproducing a poem chosen more or less at random.

The Great Depression

Mid-day, mid-week, and father
stretched on the living room couch,
half staring up, half dozing–

and my aunt in the spare room weeping
behind closed doors
with harsh, convulsive sobs.

Consultations– late-night whispers–
two voices, tense with the clinking
of nickels and dimes, the computations of need.

Long lines edging the streets;
workmen loitering, begging
like off-beat Santas with black

stubble beards;
and in the factory on Livernois
the army of the great drill presses
hanging on air.

More stews, more ham-bone soup
laced thick with rice,
and waking long past midnight,
the whir of the sewing machine
stabbing into my sleep.

More hand-me-downs, more quarrels,
more fights at school–
Something hanging over the house
like a huge black veil–
at whose edges we played.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sad message from Middle Europe

I am just back from my Slovenian conference, during which our P.E.N. group visited the Soca valley (in Italian, the Isonzo), remembered by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. How sobering to compare the majesty and sernity of that landscape –the most beautiful, literally, that I have ever seen, despite my numerous trips to that nation– to what transpired there a hundred years ago this year: hundreds and thousands of deaths as the Italians faced off with the Austro-Hungarian empire's armies, which included the Slovenes, of course.

In some sense, I believe that western literature owes much of itself since that time to the bullet fired at Prince Ferdinand. Never again would western men and women look at the world and at human existence in the same way.

I met or re-met any number of gifted and thoughtful writers at the conference. One particularly impressed me, a Serb from Sarajevo, who had driven up with a friend who is Bosnian Croat, which simply indicates how futile and ruinous ethnic clashes can be, and how, given the right frame of mind, they can be healed. We all ought to know as much, but how quickly we can forget it.

Nor is the problem one restricted to that corner of the world, needless to say. The news was full of the Russian-Ukrainean crisis in Crimea; my heart wept to consider the more than two hundred school girls carried off by Nigerian rebels, whose leader claims that Allah commands him to sell each last one. Incredible? We need not go all the way back to the bombing deaths of four school girls in Birmingam, Alabama to recognize that our sense of American exceptionalism– it never happened (can't happen) here– is fraudulent.

But back to that Bosnian Serb poet, whose name is Goran Simic. (Though they are not related, he shares a last name with another Serb, this one originally from Belgrade, but now one of America's most distinguished authors: Charles Simic.) Here is a representative poem, though I am sure it loses something in translation.

A Scene After the War

 I'd never been aware how beautiful my house is
until I saw it burning,
my schoolmate told me, who had twenty pieces of shrapnel
that remained deep under his skin after the war.
He wrote me how at the airport he enjoyed
having upset the customs officials who couldn't understand
why the checkpoint metal detector howled for no reason.

I had never been aware I was a nation
until they said they'd kill me,
my friend told me,
who'd escaped from a prison camp
only to be caught and raped by Gypsies
while she was roaming in the woods.
Then they sold her to some Italian pimps
who tattooed the owner's brand and number on her fist.
She says you cannot see it when she wears gloves.

I recognized them in a small town in Belgium.
They were sitting and watching the river
carry plastic bags, cans,
and garbage from the big city.
She was caressing the hard shrapnel lumps
through his shirt
and he was caressing her glove.

I wanted to say hello
and give them a jolly photograph from the times
when none of us knew the meaning
of House and Nation.
                                 Then I realized that there was more meaning
                                      in the language of silence
                                            in which they were seeing off
                                      the plastic bags down the river
                                        than in the language
                           in which I would have tried to feign those faces
                                      from the old photograph
                                     that shows us all smiling long ago.