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An Anthology Attila József Poems Translated by Miklós Nádasdi

 

You made a child of me

Mamma

Ode

With pure heart

Belated wailing

I saw something beautiful

The inventory is ready

They say

What you hide in your heart

Give me air

For a missed embrace

For my birthday

Feast of great gift

At the Danube

Shema Yisrael

  

ATTILA JÓZSEF

Biographic sketch

Attila József was born in Ferencváros, a poor district of Budapest, in 1905 to Áron József, a soap factory worker of Székely and Romanian origin from Banat, and Borbála Pőcze, a Hungarian peasant girl with Cuman ancestry; he had two elder sisters, Eta and Jolán. When József was three years old, he was sent to live with foster parents after his father abandoned the family and his mother became ill. At the time of his birth, Attila was not a well-known name; because of this, his foster parents called him Pista, a nickname for the Hungarian version of Stephen.

From ages seven to fourteen, József returned to living with his mother until she died of cancer in 1919, aged only 43. While also attending school, he worked many odd jobs and was a self-described street urchin. After the death of his mother, the teenage József was looked after by his brother-in-law, Ödön Makai, who was relatively wealthy and could pay for his education in a good secondary school.

In 1924, József entered Franz Joseph University to study Hungarian and French literature, with the intention of becoming a secondary school teacher. He was expelled from the university, deemed unfit to be a teacher, after he wrote the provocative and revolutionary poem, Tiszta szívvel ("With clear heart" or "With all my heart"). With his manuscripts, he traveled to Vienna in 1925 where he made a living by selling newspapers and cleaning dormitories, and then to Paris for the following two years, where he studied at the Sorbonne. During this period he read Hegel and Karl Marx, whose call for revolution appealed to him as well as the work of François Villon, the famous poet and thief from the 15th-century. Financially, József was supported by the little money he earned by publishing his poems as well as by his patron, Lajos Hatvany. He returned to Hungary and studied at Pest University for a year. József then worked for the Foreign Trade Institute as a French correspondent and, later, was the editor of the literary journal Szép Szó (Beautiful Word.)

A supporter of the working class, József joined the illegal Communist Party of Hungary (KMP) in 1930. His 1931 work Döntsd a tőkét (Blow down the block/capital) was confiscated by the public prosecutor. József's later essay "Literature and Socialism" (Irodalom és szocializmus) led to indictment. In 1936, he was expelled from the Hungarian Communist Party due to his independence and interest in Freud.

Beginning in childhood, József began showing signs of mental illness and was treated by psychiatrists for depression and schizophrenia. In adulthood, he was sent by the state to a sanatorium and was diagnosed with "neurasthenia gravis." Modern scholars believe that he likely had borderline personality disorder. He never married and only had a small number of affairs, but frequently fell in love with the women who were treating him.

József died on December 3, 1937, aged 32, in Balatonszárszó. At the time, he was staying at the house of his sister and brother-in-law. He was killed while crawling through railway tracks where he was crushed by a starting train. There is a memorial to him not far from the location where he died. The most widely accepted view is that he committed suicide, which he had previously attempted, but some experts say that his death was by accident.

 

MIKLÓS NÁDASDI was born on January 29, 1932, in Budapest, Hungary. He received an M.D. degree at the Semmelweis University of Budapest in 1956, the same year when, during a revolution against the Soviet regime, he escaped from Hungary to Vienna. The following year he immigrated to Canada with the sponsorship of Hans Selye, the scientist who developed the stress theory. He worked as his postgraduate student at the University of Montreal where he obtained A Ph.D. degree in experimental medicine. This followed 34 scientific publications. In 1964 he moved to Toronto and became the vice president of medical affairs of   Glaxo, a large international pharmaceutical company (now GSK). He also established a medical practice as a staff member of the North York General Hospital in Toronto. He is married, has 2 children, 4 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Presently he is retired and lives with his wife in Toronto.

               ***

 

YOU MADE A CHILD OF ME

 

You made a child of me. Despite all pain

that thirty bitter winters made me suffer through.

I am trying not to move, though in vain.

My limbs are dragging, pulling me to you.

 

I hold you in my mouth like a bitch her offspring

and try to escape from being suffocated.

The years, that my fate turned into nothing,

are dumped on me by every minute wasted.

 

Feed me – see, I am starving. Tuck me in, -- I’m freezing.

I am ignorant – please help me to learn.

Your void runs through me like draft through a building.

Tell fearfulness to leave me alone.

 

You looked at me and I lost my senses.

You listened to me and it broke my voice.

Do something that makes me less relentless

And lets me live or die by my own choice.

 

My mother threw me out – I lied on the threshold –

I tried to hide inside myself, can’t any more.

Hard stone under me, above nothing to hold.

Oh, I just want to sleep! I knock on your door.

 

Many people are insensitive, such as me,

Still in their eyes a sea of tears can swell.

My feeling of love for you grows immensely,

with it I started to love myself as well.

 

               ***

 

MAMMA

 

I am thinking of mamma the whole week long,

when sitting at home or strolling along.

With the laundry basket in her arms

up the attic she briskly climbs.

 

I was then still an honest guy,

I stomped my feet, let out a cry.

Forget the laundry, why the bother,

I am the one she should take up there.

 

She hung the clothes on the line quietly

without reprimand or even a glance at me

and the pieces were flying up high,

swishing and glistening, ready to dry.

 

It is too late for me to whimper,

now I can see the giant in her --

in the sky her gray hair waves ever so light

while she is washing the clouds pristine white.

 

               ***

 

ODE

 

I am sitting on sparkling crest of a cliff,

the light breeze of the young Summer

like the warmth of a cozy supper

lingers adrift.

I train stillness to my heart -

it is not hard.

The distant past is around,

the head is bent

limp is the hand.

 

Up high the crown of the trees tremble

they are not the mountain's mane -

but they form the frame

of your shining temple.

The road is empty.

I see your skirt flickers gently

from the whiff of the wind.

And under the graceful branches

I see how your hair dances

- your tender breasts quiver

and as the waves of the river

bounce on the round white stones

- your teeth, as you start laughing.

 

               2.

Oh, how much I love you,

who from the deepest hollows of the heart

was able to retrieve and unite

crafty loneliness and mighty wholeness.

You, who deserts me like the waterfall

leaves behind its thunder

while I, getting closer to the distance

on the peak of my existence,

scream down below and up to the sky

that I love you, dear tormentor!

 

               3.

I love you like a child his mother,

like caves love the depth they cover,

I love you like a shrine

loves the light that makes it shine,

like the spirit loves fire

I love you like mortals love to live until they die.

 

I guard your every smile, word and movement,

like the Earth holds the falling rain.

Like acid burns the metal

I burned you in my brain.

You are beautiful and gentle,

your essence contains all the essential.

 

The moments clatter away loud

but you are soundless in my ear.

Stars light up and go out

but you stay in my eyes like tear.

As the air hides in the cellar,

your taste in my mouth takes shelter,

your hand on the glass is resting

showing its soft blue veins 

fluorescing.

 

               4.

 

Oh, what matter am I that all your might

can control like nobody?

What kind of soul and what kind of light

and what kind of amazing sight

opens on the fertile hills of your body?

 

And like a magic discovery,

I can descend into its deepest mystery.

 

Your blood vessels, like rosebushes,

tremble constantly,

bringing the eternal current so that

love can glow on your cheeks gently

and your womb can bear its fruits,

while in your stomach tiny roots

grow into its soil to produce

and store its bubbling juice

and the shrubs of your lungs

praise their precious use!

 

The eternal matter travels merrily

along the tunnels of your bowels

and the slag acquires rich life

in your diligent kidney wells!

 

Undulating hills emerge,

constellations ticker with urge,

lakes are moving, factories working,

million creatures bustling and jerking,

crawlers,

flowers,

pleasure and cruelty,

the Sun shines, Northern lights gloom,

you hide in you the doom

and the unconscious eternity.

 

               5.

 

Like a blood clot

these words thus drop.

The existence is shaken,

only the law is certain.

But my busy organs that are awaken,

Are now ready to stop.

 

But 'till then, you, the chosen one

from a thousand million,

you, soft cradle, warm bed, strong tomb,

absorb me like a welcoming womb! 

 

(How high is the sky in the distance,

Armies are shining inside its ore.

My eyes hurt from its brilliance,

I cannot survive any more.

I hear above my chest

my heart throbs without rest.)

 

               6.

        (Addition)

 

(I am on the train behind you,

perhaps today I shall find you,

perhaps my burning face will cool,

perhaps you will talk to this fool:

 

The water is running, get into the tub!

Here is the towel, I'll give you a rub!

Dinner is ready, the table is set!

Where I am resting, there is your bed.)

 

               ***

 

WITH PURE HEART

 

I've no father, no parent,

have no God and no homeland,

not a cradle and no shroud,

no lover, no one to hold.

 

For three days no food in sight,

not as much as a small bite.

My twenty years a good prize,

I sell it for a good price.

 

If no one puts in a bid

I'll let the devil have it.

Break in with pure heart I will,

if needed, I'll even kill.

 

They'll hang me when I am found

and bury in blessed ground

and deadly grass will grow out 

above my beautiful heart.

 

               ***

 

BELATED WAILING

 

I am burning in a fever of thirty-six degrees

and, mother, you're not here to watch my breath.

Like a sleazy girl when asked to please

you readily went to bed with death.

From soft autumns and faces of all kind

I try to put you together in my mind;

but I am running out of time,

the fierce fire burns all it can find.

 

Last time I went to Szabadszállás

at the end of the war,

because Budapest was in shambles,

no bread, no food, empty every store.

On the top of the train, without a ticket,

lying on my belly, I brought you chicken from somewhere,

I brought potatoes and millet,

but you disappeared into nowhere.

 

You took it from me and gave it to worms

your sweet breasts and your whole.

It was all a lie, your phony kind words

you were using to chide me and to console.

My soup you cooled and you stirred,

You said:  Grow for me, apple of my eye!

Now your lips taste greasy dirt -

all what you told me was a lie.

 

I ought to have eaten you, not your supper!

Why did you drag the laundry basket

curving your back and suffer?

only to straighten it out in a casket?

Why can't you give me one more beating?

You good-for-nothing, want to be non-existent,

I could snap back at you without thinking,

but you spoiled everything in an instant!

 

You are a worse cheater than anybody

who is cajoling and scheming!

You furtively abandoned the offspring of your body

you brought to this world yelling and screaming.

You are a thief! Whatever you gave

you took back in the last hour vilely!

The child wants to curse - he won't behave,

mama, can you hear me? Revile me!

 

Slowly the light gets back into my brain,

the legend disappears.

The child who clings to motherly love in vain

realizes how stupid he appears.

Every child born from a mother's conception

will be disappointed whatever he may try,

fight or surrender or use self-deception.

Either from this or from that he will die.

 

               ***

 

I SAW SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL

 

I thought of something beautiful, amazing

and imagined a rose, slight and tender. 

Suddenly as I was just gazing,

reality hit me with a sledgehammer.

 

But the sledgehammer is only a metaphor.

It is better to talk straight and plain.

I learned it from life long before

that solving useful problems is not in vain.

 

See, my instinct worked as a notion

when a man entered my place.

A voice roared in me like the ocean:

"He'll turn off my power" --it showed on his face. 

 

The knife was lying on the table

-- I just sharpened my pencil with it --

if I stabbed him now, if I were able,

I would solve my problem in a minute.

 

Everything will be left in darkness.

I was very upset and sore.

Animals can protect their nests;

but this is a different kind of war.

 

To take arms would only appear

as weakness that brings defeat I reckon

and the kindness in me would disappear.

In a constitutional state money is the weapon.

 

Warfare now has a different mode.

The heroes do not carry swords.

A bomb today is a banknote

and pennies splinter when it explodes.

 

I was reasoning like this and soon

said goodbye and got out of sight

and the friendly stars with the full moon

together were laughing at me that night.

 

               ***

   

THE INVENTORY IS READY

 

I trusted only myself right from the beginning --

it doesn't cost much when you don't own anything.

Definitely not more than it could

to an animal that falls down for good.

Even when scared, I held my ground as needed --

I was born, I mixed in and I seceded.

I duly paid everyone according to demand,

I loved all of those who gave me a free ride.

Woman who fed me with promises -- and some:

I believed truly so she had her fun!

I scrubbed decks and pushed carts for a period.

Among clever gents I played the idiot.

I sold rollers, books and sometimes bread,

newspapers, poems -- whatever I could get.

Not in glorious fight, not on a gentle rope

but in bed I shall finish my life, I hope.

The inventory is ready, whichever way will do.

I lived -- and others have died of this too

                                                 

               ***


             

 THEY SAY

 

I was born with a knife in my hand and then

they say this is just poetry for some.

Sure, this wasn't enough, I grabbed a pen;

I was born to be human.

 

Those in whom faithfulness cries implicitly,

they say those have true love in their soul.

Oh, take me on your lap, tearful simplicity!

This is only a game for me, no more.

 

I don't remember and don't forget either.

They say how could that be?

As when I drop something and it stays there, --

if not I, then you'll find it for me.

 

The earth plugs me up, the sea washes me away:

they say that I shall die at the end.

But it is only small talk and hearsay

that just makes me forever silent.

 

               ***

 

WHAT YOU HIDE IN YOUR HEART

(For Freud's 80th birthday)

 

What you hide in your heart,

open it for your eyes;

let your heart wait it out

what your two eyes surmise.

 

In love -- the one who lives --

can die, so it is said.

But happiness one needs

just like a piece of bread.

 

The living ones are children always,

in mother's lap they hope to get.

They will kill if not embrace --

the front line is the bridal bed.

 

Be like the eighty-year-old

who, as he bleeds

while being destroyed,

a million offsprings he breeds.

 

The broken thorn in your sole

has long been removed.

And now your dying soul

from your heart has moved.

 

What you expect with your eyes,

grab it with your hand.

And the one your heart hides,

kill or kiss at the end.

 

               ***

 

GIVE ME AIR!

 

Who could forbid me to tell

what bothered me on my way home.

Lukewarm darkness fell

like velvet mist on the lawn

and, as I walked, under my feet,

like little children when beat,

sleepless thin leaves moaned.

 

The shrubs were searchingly squatting

where the city limits fold

while they were tousled by the autumn wind.

Everywhere the cool mould

suspiciously squinted at the light and beyond.

Wild ducks quacked in the pond

as I slowly strolled.

 

Someone could attack me. I felt a surge,

-- the grounds were so deserted.

And suddenly, from nowhere a man emerged.

If he would rob me I would deserve it.

He could really do me harm,

I had no strength to lift an arm.

But he left me there unattended.

 

They could tap into my telephone

and keep all my calls in sight.

They could watch when I am at home

and all my dreams could be filed.

They could surely just decide

to pull out my index card

and rob me of every human right.

 

And those poor frail villages in the country

-- where my mother was born --

they fell off the tree of bounty

like the leaves here -- forlorn.

To show their misery they rattle.

They have no rights, they lost the battle

and they turn into dust when fallen.

 

Oh, this wasn’t how I imagined the order.

To my soul it was strange believing

that one is able to drag on better

by constantly deceiving.

And for people who are afraid to vote

for the right one, it is just a thought.

What makes them happy - - is cheating.

 

This was not how I imagined the order,

although often I did not see

why they spanked me in a corner,

when for one kind word so good I could be.

Somewhere far away, I knew it well,

I had a family and a mother.

These here are strangers to me.

 

I am a grown man, my teeth are hard,

filled with substance from outside,

like death has been filling my heart.

I am not clay yet but have thick hide

and, with my mature mind from within

I am not willing to give in

and give up my freedom, my precious right.

 

My leader, guide me from inside!

we are not savages but human --

not just a file a drawer can hide.

We have brains and desires, all in one.

Come freedom, give me the order I need

and, while all your wisdom I heed,

give some time for pleasure to your clever son.

 

               ***

 

FOR A MISSED EMBRACE

 

I was waiting for you like I did for supper

when my mother still came and stepped to my bed.

I was expecting you like a stupid youngster

is waiting for death, so desperate --

it didn't come, thank God -- you see how

happy I am, thinking of it now.

But it is even more stupid, I say

that you didn't come, though you will, one day!

 

Unrelenting demise shoves the world ahead

like the miner in the shaft pushing the coal,

once all the pieces he’d dug out were spread.

But deep down those who love are staying one whole.

What conflagration and drawn out sword

was able to dazzle me and hold

me back as the Moon passed through the night

from getting to you and grabbing you tight?

 

Among dead stars up in the sky with fervent

yearning I flew like pebbles tossed around --

How could I swim against the current

into your lap that's nowhere to be found?

While the clock was gabbling with deceptive speed,

you found a dancefloor tempting to your feet

and enmeshed by the rhythm's flare

you trembled -- without me being there.

 

Aren't you annoyed when your stocking has a tear?

You are upset and complaining, no doubt.

See, it is the same what I have to bear

when, from our love, an embrace is torn out.

That artist quarrels with things that pass too fast.

Prove it to him, but with me, that truly, they don't last.

Find out what to do and do it.

After all, as you know, I am not stupid.

 

               ***

 

FOR MY BIRTHDAY         

 

I 'm thirty-two years old at present

and this poem is a present

bauble

bubble:

 

a present which is a surprise

I wrote in the coffee house

for me

from me.

 

I am now thirty-two, though

I never had enough dough

and that

is that!

 

I could have become a teacher

instead of a pen-pincher

that's sad

you bet.

 

But the head of college said, no

and he said I had to go,

so mean

a dean.

 

I was not worthy, he thought,

due to a poem I wrote,

moral

quarrel.

 

His sharp tongue was his weaponry

he used against my jeopardy

a threat

with fret:

 

"Listen to me, mind my word,

you'll never teach in this world" --

mumble

fumble.

 

If you're happy Mr. Horger

for I do not study grammar,

your fun

is gone --

 

My class will be the whole nation

and I'll give them education

my way

some day!

 

               ***

 

FEAST OF GREAT GIFTS


I give you a ruby, the size of my fist, then
I put it on your neck and let it glisten
in the middle of your chest, above your heart,
it is  like glowing embers in a wonderous light.
My eyes weave a wreath around your head,
more splendid than what  any goddess could get.
I  spread your road with silk and rhymes,
don't step  on it because it  is covered with sighs.
If you are thirsty I offer you sweet wine.
I mix it with a few drops of dark tears of mine
and if you think that it is somewhat bitter,
just drink it, for it is finer than nectar.
If you are cold, I wrap you in my soul,
I cover your shoulders with a velvet shawl.
And my trembling brain, if you are hungry, -
you will never live in want if it depends on me.
And when your tired body needs a good rest,
my two arms, like a bed, offer you the best
and when you are facing any kind of harm
I'm here to protect you, accept, accept my arm.
Accept it all, they  belong to you forever,
after all, to me you cannot be so cruel.
Even if you don't come,  all is yours to keep,
I'll never  take them back, I shall not be so weak.

              

               ***

 

AT THE DANUBE           
                       
I was sitting on the quay's last step,
watching a floating melon rind.
I hardly heard the surface babbling  to the silent depth 
while I pondered about my destiny, in my mind.
As if it would flow out of my  heart,
the Danube was murky, wise and large.
Like muscles when someone is working,
hammering, filing or digging a groove,
that's how it was stretching, relaxing, jerking
each wave as it made every move.
And, like my mother told me tales rocking me gently
while washing the city's dirty clothes a plenty.
And then suddenly it started to rain,
but it was just a mild drizzle.
It stopped, then it started again,
but, as it made no difference, it fizzled
out  and, still, as if in a cave,
I was watching it in a daze.
The Danube was just flowing and swaying
and, like on a lush daydreaming  woman's lap 
a child, the waves were giggling and playing
and leaping toward me, many a playful whitecap.
On the stream of time they trembled
like in an old graveyard the tombstones tumbled.
               II.
I have been watching time for a hundred thousand years
together with a hundred thousand ancestors, I reckon.
It hits me when it suddenly appears
and becomes  a complete  picture in a second.
I can see things that they never did,
being busy hoeing, killing, embracing with passion
and some things deep in the matter they were more fit
to see when it came to confession.
Like happiness and sorrow, we know each other.
They have the present while the past I recall.
They hold my pen, writing poems together,
as I remember and sense them all.
               III
My mother was a kun, my father half székely,
half Rumanian but it is doubtful.
From my mother's cooking we always ate well,
when my father talked the truth was a mouthful.
When I move they embrace, I feel them
and it makes me so sad in a way --
This is passing away and all what I am
"You'll see when we are gone!..." they say.
They talk to me because they have become me
and this way my meagre being gets larger,
remembering to be more than majority.
I am the primordial cell, my forefather
who started to multiply and divide
until my mother and father I become
to further divide on each side
so at the end I propagate into a zealous One!

I am the world, all that ever existed,
all the clans turning against each other.
The first settlers are winning with me while dead
and I am aching with the beaten who suffer.
Árpád, Dózsa, Werbőczi and Zalán,
Turks, Slovaks, Rumanians and Tartars
you all keep on swirling in my mind
who owes the past a kind future; new Magyars!
I want to work. It was sufficient
struggle to confess the past.
The Danube which is past, future and present,
flows on and on with waves that last.
All the battles our forefathers shouldered
dissolve into peace through remembrance.
To put all our affairs in order
that's our job now; not big -- immense.

 

               ***

 

SHEMA YISRAEL
I  was restless as I roamed
in poverty-torn dirty shroud
among cheerful people I was alone,
my  heart was crying like a child.
Where is a place I could call home,
where I could find a bed? - I would shout:
Shema Yisrael!
And servants  eagerly watched my word,
I lied on silk pillows with  woman in bed,
I was counting my cattle and my gold,
all my strength was the brain that I had
and when I was giving I always told
happily, with highly held head:
Shema Yisrael!
And now come what may,
glory, wealth or get gravely ill;
they can throw stones at me any day
and even when they prepare my deathbed, still
I shout the words all the way
of  my unrelenting love, with a thrill:
Shema Yisrael!

 

January 13, 2022