Wednesday, August 29, 2012


János Pilinszky
(Budapest, 25 November 1921 – Budapest, 27 May 1981)


to Ted Hughes

It arrives. It stiffens
on the ashen silent wall:
the moon. A single immense blow.
Its core is a death-stillness.

It shatters the roads
the moonlight shatters them.
It rips the wall apart.
White gushes over the black.

The black day splits with lightning.
And lightning. And lightning.
Cataracts of white and black.
You comb your hair in the magnetic tempest.

You comb your hair in the flashing silence.
In a mirror more vigilant than the unfinished past.

You comb your hair in the mirror
silently, as in a coffin of glass.


Only the warmth of the slaughter-house,

its geranium pungency, its soft shellac,

only the sun exists.

In a glass-cased silence

the butcher-boys wash down. Yet what has happened

somehow cannot even now finish.


Just like the earth where I shall soar

unmoving, and crumble:

just like the water, so near

is the solemn hour of weeping.


As I was at the start

so, all along, I have remained.

The way I began, so I will go on to the end.

Like the convict who returning

to his village, goes on being silent.

Speechless he sits in front of his glass of wine.


The antelope is looking at herself

in a perfectly-fashioned mirror.

Hanging at her neck: a gem.

Of her we say: beautiful as a tapestry.

We say: you just go on looking at yourself

and we shall bear children, be born, die.

We whisper things of this kind

to the antelope living in madness.


Two white weights are watching each other,

two snow-white and pitch-black weights.

I am because I am not.


In the narrowest possible space

you achieved the forbidden.

You marvelled at the ceremony

which is a slaughter-house, though it has no dimension,

reaches to the elbow, though it is not in time.

Only later did you hear what

you have withheld, then entering the garden

you were astonished by the magic of the full moon.


I am alone. And by the time you come
I shall be the only one still alive.
Feathers in an empty roost.
Stars instead of a sky.

In my orphanage, unburied,
as on a wintry dump
picking among the rubbish
I keep finding scraps of my life.

And that will be seamless peace.
Even my heart inaudible.
All around me the ecstatic
barriers of silence.

Naked eternity.
And yours, helplessly yours.
A majestic simplicity
created for you, from the first day.

Like a lumpish basketwork dummy
time simply sits, without a word.
Desire has lost its limbs.
It has nothing but a gasping trunk.

By the time you come I shall have lost everything.
No house, no soft bed.
We shall be able to lie undisturbed
in a bare ecstasy.

Only you must not rob me, you must not desert me.
If you are weak, I am finished.
Horrible, then, to awake, in a bed
among pillows, hearing the noise of the street.


We are tossing in a net of stars.
Fish hauled up to the beach,
gasping in nothingness,
mouths snapping dry void.
Whispering, the lost element
calls us in vain.
Choking among edged stones
and pebbles, we must
live and die in a heap.
Our hearts convulse,
our writhings maim
and suffocate our brother.
Our cries conflict but
not even an echo answers.
We have no reason
to fight and kill
but we must.
So we atone but our atonement
does not suffice.
No suffering
can redeem our hells.
We are tossing in a starry net
and at midnight
maybe we shall lie on the table
of a mighty fisherman.


János Pilinszky
from The Desert of Love
selected poems translated by
Janos Csokits
& Ted Hughes
(Anvil, 1989)

Well known within the Hungarian borders for his vast influence on postwar Hungarian poetry, Pilinszky’s style includes a juxtaposition of Roman Catholic faith and intellectual disenchantment. His poetry often focuses on the underlying sensations of life and death; his time as a prisoner of war during the Second World War and later his life under the communist dictatorship furthered his isolation and estrangement.

Born in a family of intellectuals in 1921, Pilinszky went on to study Hungarian literature, law, and art history at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, in 1938. Although he failed to complete his studies, it was during this same year that his first works of poetry were published in several varying literary journals. In 1944 he was drafted into the army; his unit being ordered to follow the retreating German allies, he arrived to Harbach, a small village in Germany, after a march of several weeks. Adrift in Germany, he witnessed several camps before he could return to Hungary after the end of the war, most notably the Ravensbrück concentration camp. What he saw in the camps was an experience he never forgot and later commemorated in a great number of poems, most notably, KZ-oratórium ("KZ oratory"), Ravensbrücki passió ("Passion of Ravensbrück"), Harbach 1944, etc.

Following the publication of his first body of work in 1946, Trapéz és korlát ("Trapeze and Bars"), he was awarded the Baumgarten Prize in 1947. While Trapéz és korlát consists of only 18 poems, it established Pilinszky as a major poetic force in Hungary.

His next publication, 1959’s Harmadnapon ("On the third day"), was not released for over 10 years as a result of his being labeled “pessimistic” by the ruling Hungarian Communist Party in the 1950s. Harmadnapon contains his poem Apokrif ("Apocrypha"), considered his chef-d'oeuvre, which many see as one of the highest peaks of Hungarian poetry. The poem has the return of the prodigal son to his parents in its centre, and summarises Pilinszky's poetic world from his experiences in the lagers to his alienation and the painful absence of God from the world.

From 1960 to 1970, he travelled the United States and Europe taking part in several poetry readings. In 1971 he was awarded the József Attila Prize for his collection entitled Nagyvárosi ikonok ("Metropolitan Icons"). His monumental and visionary poems gave way to short, epigrammatic verses over time. 1972 saw the publication of Szálkák ("Splinters"), followed by Végkifejlet ("Dénouement") in 1974. His last collection, Kráter ("Crater") was published in 1975, containing both new poems and the majority of his rather short, but extremely substantial and concise oeuvre rearranged in cycles. He was awarded the Kossuth Prize in 1980 before returning to Budapest where he died of a heart attack in 1981.

Pilinszky lead a very reserved private life. He discovered his homosexuality at a very early age, but due to his deep Christian beliefs he purged it in himself for the rest of his life.[1] Eventually he married a French woman, Ingrid Ficheux, 11 months before his death.



Everything will be forsaken then

The silence of the heavens will be set apart
and forever apart
the broken-down fields of the finished world,
and apart
the silence of dog-kennels.
In the air a fleeing host of birds.
And we shall see the rising sun
dumb as a demented eye-pupil
and calm as a watching beast.

But keeping vigil in banishment
because that night
I cannot sleep I toss
as the tree with its thousand leaves
and at dead of night I speak as the tree:

Do you know the drifting of the years
the years over the crumpled fields?
Do you understand the wrinkle
of transience? Do you comprehend
my care-gnarled hands? Do you know
the name of orphanage? Do you know
what pain treads the unlifting darkness
with cleft hooves, with webbed feet?
The night, the cold, the pit. Do you know
the convict's head twisted askew?
Do you know the caked troughs, the tortures
of the abyss?

The sun rose. Sticks of trees blackening
in the infra-red of the wrathful sky.
So I depart. facing devastation
a man is walking, without a word.
He has nothing. He has his shadow.
And his stick. And his prison garb.


And this is why I learned to walk! For these
belated bitter steps.

Evening will come, and night will petrify
above me with its mud. Beneath closed eyelids
I do not cease to guard this procession
these fevered shrubs, their tiny twigs.
Leaf by leaf, the glowing little wood.
Once Paradise stood here.
In half-sleep, the renewal of pain,
to hear its gigantic trees.

Home—I wanted finally to get home—
to arrive as he in the Bible arrived.
My ghastly shadow in the courtyard.
Crushed silence, aged parents in the house.
And already they are coming, they are calling me,
my poor ones, and already crying,
and embracing me, stumbling —
the ancient order opens to readmit me.
I lean out on the windy stars.

If only for this once I could speak with you
whom I loved so much. Year after year
yet I never tired of saying over
what a small child sobs
into the gap between the palings,
the almost choking hope
that I come back and find you.
Your nearness throbs in my throat.
I am agitated as a wild beast.

I do not speak your words,
the human speech. There are birds alive
who flee now heart-broken
under the sky, under the fiery sky.
Forlorn poles stuck in the glowing field,
and immovably burning cages.
I do not understand the human speech,
and do not speak your language.
My voice is more homeless than the word!
I have no words.

----------------------Its horrible burden
tumbles down through the air—
a rower's body emits sounds.

You are nowhere. How empty the world is.
A garden chair, and a deckchair left outside.
Among sharp stones my clangorous shadow.
I am tired. I jut out from the earth.


God sees that I stand in the sun.
He sees my shadow on stone and on fence.
He sees my shadow standing
without a breath in the airless press.

But then I am already like the stone:
a dead fold, a drawing of a thousand grooves,
a good handful of rubble
is by then the creature's face.

And instead of tears, the wrinkles on the faces
trickling, the empty ditch trickles down.