‘Apocrypha’ by János Pilinszky

János Pilinszky was an odd figure: a twentieth-century Roman Catholic Hungarian poet whose work hovers on the precipice of despair, probably because he spent time as a prisoner of war during World War Two, and remained in Hungary during the almost impossibly sordid and brutal post-war years.

There's very little English-language information about Pilinszky to be had. There appears to be no English biography, but Pilinszky apparently wrote a very odd book about his conversations with a black American actress which contains some autobiographical details about his later life. About the best online source is this fine appreciation by Ted Hughes, who was so taken by Pilinszky's poetry that he spent much effort translating it.

The only translation I could find online of 'Apocrypha', one of Pilinszky's most weirdly compelling works, is merely serviceable. So here is Hughes' version, which I find much better:



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 the 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
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 a glowing field,
and immovably burning cages.
I 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 tower'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.

By 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.

[translated by Ted Hughes & János Csokits]

Source: The Lost Rider: A Bilingual Anthology (George Szirtes, ed., 1997), pp. 413-417

German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years

Right now I'm translating a document containing a bunch of boring legalese. But I could have it much, much worse. Back in the 1970s, somebody had to translate the poetry (temptation to use scare quotes barely resisted) of Gary Snyder:

Reihe Hanser Gary Snyder Gedichte

OK, I take that back. Snyder's poetry actually isn't all that regrettable, although lots of his poems smell faintly of patchouli oil

But the main focus of this post is the giant batch of Reihe Hanser books that my local antiquarian bookstore just received. The covers take passers-by on a trip back to the early 1970s, when all books were expected to be groovy, even biology textbooks. As you can see, the Reihe Hanser was basically dedicated to New Left social critique and mind-breaking textperiments — and if the titles ('Mutant Milieu', '3:00 Fear', 'Farabeuf, or the Chronicle of a Moment', 'a-b Glow in the Clover: Psychopathological Texts') didn't tip you off to what was inside, then the book covers surely would. Many more below the fold:

More Reihe Hanser Book Covers 2

More Reihe Hanser Book Covers 3

Reihe Hanser Book Covers 4

Reihe Hanser Book Covers 5

Bye Bye, Luebben City, Hello Blues


I browsed the "Mixed Goods and Revolution Accessories" store in the Manteuffel Strasse in Berlin a couple of weeks ago. An inspiring joint! The entire interior is encrusted with thousands of items: black parkas, sweaters and jackets hang from the ceiling like cloth stalactites, stands holding revolutionary propaganda are tucked into the chaos at seemingly random intervals, and the proper shelves host haphazard piles of books in many different languages. One of them was Bye bye, Luebben City: Bluesfreaks, Tramps und Hippies in der DDR. DDR = East Germany, otherwise the title is helpfully already in English for you.

I came very close to buying the book, but opted instead for a grimy pamphlet entitled Kommunistische Erziehung (Communist education), stapled together in the 1970s by some sort of collective of West Berlinbourgeois radicals. I figured it might, er, have historical value one day. Although judging by the fact that it only cost 4 euros 30 years after its original publication, that theory may need a little re-working. At any rate, I'll be posting translated excerpts of it soon.

Perhaps feeling pangs of guilt for not having bought the book, I decided to buy the accompanying CD, which features 16 crucial cuts from the 1970s/80s East German rock/blues underground. The only group I'd ever heard of before was the Klaus Renft Combo (mainly on the strength of Anna Funder's unforgettable evocation of Herr Renft in Stasiland (g)). Most of cuts are pretty good. You can tell that lots of the musicians benefited from thorough German musical education, which can sometimes be a handicap, but isn't here. The various bands turn in entirely respectable blue-collar rock anthems, blues, power ballads, as well as the odd mildly psychedelic navel-gazer. The Renft Combo's Caesar's Blues is scorching. But the standout has to be the track "Blues" by Panta Rhei ("everything flows" in Greek). Download it here (large .mp3). The owner of that awesomely smoldering, sultry alt (like Dusty Springfield, but somehow more authentic) is Veronika Fischer (g) one of the icons of the East German rock scene. Known affection as Vroni, she's released 20 albums in her own name, and is still on tour (g). Apparently she turned toward straightforward, bouncy pop sometime in the late '70s. You can see plenty of YouTube samples of the latter here. Not really my sort of thing, but pleasant enough as it goes.

Anyone want to let me know which records by her are worth checking out?

Swiss Men Use Butt Sticks in Public Parks

If you've always wondered what a European 'butt stick' looks like, wonder no more. Draw the blinds, pour yourself a stiff drink, call your lawyer, then click here, if you dare.

The picture is part of a set was taken by an American student in Europe. It would seem to be his first trip to Europe, judging by his ability to be excited by such things as Lift cola, ivy-covered houses, two-part toilet flush buttons, and packages of tea labeled in German!! Okay, he might be a little wet behind the ears, but he's obviously getting a hell of a lot of travel and 'tang lately…