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'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

Saturday Music Blogging: Ruy Grudi's 'Amor'

It's always a gamble to visit the countries where the 80% or so of the human race that doesn't have white skin lives. Because of the risk of musical disappointment, that is.

Living in a place like Germany, you're used to the musical exports from these countries: the sophisticated, syncretistic 'world-music' that catches the attention of listeners worldwide. When you actually visit the countries in question, you realize that real people in the country you're visiting almost never listen to this music. The acts from country X that get heard abroad is just the tip of a very large Country-X iceberg whose base reaches far into the chill depths of musical mediocrity.

Yes, there's no sugarcoating it: the sort of music average citizens of country X really listen to is screechy, repetitive, and clumsily produced. Further, it's hopelessly formulaic. According to my careful prosthesis, 90% of the lyrics of all the music produced in the entire world fall into one of these categories:

  1. The rugged beauty of Mountainous/Seacoast/Plains Region where the singer comes from.
  2. The rugged beauty of girls that come from Mountainous Region.
  3. The unusual qualities of Mountainous Region's local liquor.
  4. Simple country boys from Mountainous Region who fall in love. 
  5. Simple country boys from Mountainous Region who move to the big city and fail to find work, and pine for the simple life in Mountainous Region.
  6. Folk festivals celebrated in Mountainous Region, and the singer's plans to dance/get drunk/score with a ruggedly beautiful girl at said festival.
  7. Adultery, including hiding from spouse/being caught in the act and killed.
  8. The heroism of local independence fighters who fought off the British/French/Spanish colonists.

What's worse, you're usually introduced to this music by hearing it through decaying loudspeakers in passing cars, or in markets where the locals buy the ingredients of their harrowing cuisine. Negotiating the price of a cheap duffel bag is hard enough; doing it while hearing 'Chee Funga Doop Gloy' by the Neerungathan Boychockno All-Stars -- blasting through a visibly blown 1970-vintage AR-5 speaker dangling 5 inches from your head -- is barely survivable. Which is probably exactly why the music is played; Rich Westerner will happily leave an extra $5 on the table just to escape the speaker's fateful sonic penumbra.

Which brings us to today's music video. Brazil is, I would say, one of the only exceptions to the above rule. Pretty much all music Brazilians make is listenable, and much of it is enchanting. Such as this clip from Ruy Grudi, the "Apache of the Northeast," who comes from Pernambuco, in arid Northeast Brazil [H/t JR]. If this don't turn you on, as Wayne Newton was fond of saying, you ain't got no switches: 

In fact, Brazilian music gets progressively worse the more local performers try to ape non-Brazilian genres (stadium rock, soft jazz, etc.). As we see in this video from 'McGill in Brazil', which shows us that Ruy's still at it, and is now (unfortunately) singing in a form of English:

Living Abroad Enhances Creativity

Living abroad makes you more creative, according to this study, summarized by the Economist:

Anecdotal evidence has long held that creativity in artists and writers can be associated with living in foreign parts. Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin, Samuel Beckett and others spent years dwelling abroad.

Now a pair of psychologists has proved that there is indeed a link. As they report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, William Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Adam Galinsky, of the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, presented 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in America with a test used by psychologists as a measure of creativity. Given a candle, some matches and a box of drawing pins, the students were asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall so that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. (The solution is to use the box as a candleholder and fix it to the wall with the pins.) They found 60% of students who were either living abroad or had spent some time doing so, solved the problem, whereas only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did so.


To check that they had not merely discovered that creative people are more likely to choose to live abroad, Dr Maddux and Dr Galinsky identified and measured personality traits, such as openness to new experiences, that are known to predict creativity. They then used statistical controls to filter out such factors. Even after that had been done, the statistical relationship between living abroad and creativity remained, indicating that it is something from the experience of living in foreign parts that helps foster creativity.

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:

Continue reading "German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years" »

See My Speech to the West Gelsenkirchen Accountants Society - Online!

German politicians, says Heribert Seifert, are trying to imitate Barack Obama's use of the Internet to raise funds and craft his message, with predictably unconvincing results (translation courtesy of Sign and Sight):

Heribert Seifert assesses the German online election campaign. And what does he find? Films of party conferences and public appearances by politicians. But a dialogue with the citizens? No chance. "The marginal role played Web 2.0 in the political race is a result of politicians' ineptitude and lack of familiarity with net-specific communication forms. The 'transparent strategy and amalgamation of communication, development and organisation' that the Internet magazine Telepolis described as the feature of Obama's online campaign, is nowhere to be seen. German parties and politicians seldom or never manage to get the right mixture of authenticity and informal address that is required online."

Seifert finds -- surprise! -- that most of the websites run by German politicians and parties are boring, rarely-updated, and one-way. The party hacks tell the public what they're doing or thinking, and hope someone out there cares. The politicians have heard that they are supposed to have some kind of 'online presence', but aren't exactly sure what that means. Their habits and attitudes remain trapped in ruts of convention. They're sort of like South Sea Islanders who have carefully crafted a painstaking wooden likeness of shipwrecked Captain Obama's musket, but just cannot get it to spit fire like his does.

Let's hope they don't decide to boil him alive.