Miklos Radnoti’s songs from the grave
(A Wiser, More Beautiful Death, Miklos Radnoti, translated by Solomon Rino, Editions Michel Eyquem 2011, paperback, 43pp)
“In Abda, Hungary, a mass grave was exhumed in 1946 and the corpse of Hungarian poet, Miklos Radnoti, was found. In his raincoat pocket was a notebook containing his final ten poems. Written not in memory, but in the labor camp and on the proceeding forced march, the Bor Notebook was to become an invaluable Shoah document.”
So begins Solomon Rino’s translations of these memorable poems in a reverent and elegant bilingual edition.
The Nazis in their mad zeal for ethnic purity murdered symphonies, poems, paintings, inventions, the future of civilization, supplanting it with hack, derivative surrogates, and foreshadowing a nativist impulse which today in America disguises itself in phony issues.
A poignant thirst for consciousness, for a higher awareness, characterizes this stanza, a complete poem appearing on page 19:
Bloody drool hangs from oxen’s mouths
We urinate blood
The company stands in stinking wild knots
Death blows hideously overhead
I call this courage of a high order, this unyielding quest for comprehension in the jaws of death. To his very end the poet seeks to understand what is happening. He seeks to describe it. But it dies with him, in his bloody raincoat, only to emerge later and arrive in our minds as a gift from the grave. The poet stands for the creative thrust, the light-giving aspiration to ennoble what the mind touches, while his murderers stand for the angry, nihilistic impulse that motivates every schoolyard bully and lying politician.
In this way, this small, exquisite volume is a monument to our alchemical history, the great yearning of man to transmute lead to gold, which is really a metaphor for the transmutation of the human soul, for the ennoblement of the spirit.
Radnoti’s poem, “Letter to My Wife,” begins:
Deep silent worlds
How in my ears,
I shout But no one replies from far
Serbia swooning in war
And you are distant.
He never saw his wife again, nor did the young Turkish officer who died at Gallipoli with an unsent letter to his wife in his pocket, which begins with this heartbreaking salutation, “High-born lady, Rose of Dawn.” A British soldier found it and was as moved as we are today by these letters. Such words make us ashamed for each other, that we concoct base, transparent reasons to make war.
Radnoti’s poems reveal a close study of modernist tendencies, such as the occasional abandonment of punctuation and an unparsed rhetoric that makes way for greater clarity and potential meaning. He understands when silence and ambiguity speak volumes, and there seems to be an awareness of the work of C.P. Cavafy and the uses of the conversational mode. I suspect, judging by the typography, that Radnoti is somewhat more modernist in the original Hungarian than in this English translation.
The poem, “Forced March,” gives us the book’s title:
The fallen man who stands and walks again, is a fool. Moving ankle, knee wandering in pain Rising as if winged. The ditch calls in vain he dare not stay. If asked, Why not? He might answer, His wife waits and a wiser, more beautiful death. It also gives us a clue to the questions raised not only by the translator but the poet himself. Why, why persevere in the shadow of indescribable doom? For the same reason Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin did, to make music, all they knew how to do well.
“Through this book,” Rino writes, “I hope to generate greater empathy with Radnoti, not as a victim or quirk of history, but as an avatar of poets, who at the gravest moment in his life went as Celan did, ‘with his very being toward language.’ ” I think Rino succeeds in this ambition.
Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com