They took the district psychologist for a body search
to the drugstore office thanks only to her professional
myopia, because she couldn’t have imagined
that the substitute security guard with erection
problems could flop so badly as to take her
for a thief, and that he was so hard on her
heels in the empty store minutes before closing
time, solely to catch her in the act. So she was
summoned to return at once the (old) blush
she had sunk into her handbag, while conscientiously
placing an identical one in her shopping cart
so that, after payment, she could powder her cheeks
with it for the award ceremony of the Freud medal
for lifetime achievement, to be handed her
by the minister of education himself. ‘But I’ve seen her
steal it with my own eyes!’, the security guard protested
and in his indignation kicked a cardboard box
full of condoms, making a sizable hole
in it. The therapist’s face had no need for the blush
to burn. But her calling, to ease the guard’s bewilderment,
proved stronger than her shame, and with the battle
cry, the patient is always right, she sprang to the guard’s
defense in front of the manager who, blaming
the heat wave, in his embarrassment
hastily put on his long winter overcoat.
Revolt of the Extras
We long to be continued after the last
episode, although the producers opened
the champagne and gave us a small farewell
party. This afternoon even we sit
on the kitchen stools in front of the camera
hoping to see ourselves in the new chapter: we have
played our part for a full year and this recent
indifference to our fate, the plotlines unfolding
without us in the new scenario
hurt us to the quick. No, this is not
what kept us pacing up and down the street,
shivering as usual at winter’s
end. Is it possible that the audience is losing
interest in us? Has our time passed
for good, our story passé, even though we are still
stirring? Coming and going we can hear
the camera’s buzz. As before, we tread with nimble
feet, but a low growl comes from the machine’s
jaws. We fear it might be disapproving.
The Other Side of the Coin
To bear the unsayable agony
of the lovers seated on an anthill,
the rhythmic squeaking of bedsprings at the moment
of climax, a rumble of the stomach in the midst
of an ardent declaration of love, to mix up the dear
addressee’s name when reunited at last.
While contemplating suicide by the open
window, to be soaked not in springtime
melancholia but in grenadiermarsch stench.
To suffer the priest’s flu-inflected
staccato prayer over our dead body.
After a night spent awake due to the weather
turning, to drowse off when our life
sentence is announced.
Instead of ours, to enter the hotel room
of the lust killer who is shaving naked
in front of the full-length mirror. To go raspy
when given the right to the last word.
To meet ourselves on the staircase
(she going upstairs, I tumbling down).
Incensed, to shove our manhood
into the bread slicer instead of bread.
To knock on our own door, waiting to be let in.
With our mouth full of spinach to choke
convulsively on some antediluvial joke
on the silken sofa of the newly wed.
To eat gilded-edged caramel custard
while changing diapers. To shake
hands with the disciple who tries
to sell us the dead master’s gold tooth.
To see the light under shadowy circumstances.
To remain standing for good, half-dressed,
in front of the cupboard, or sitting
in the bathtub until icicles grow on the tap
out of a penchant for parallelism.
…………………………………………..And if not, let go!
Then the day will come: the grenadiermarsch
smell in the open window, the killer
with the razor will come to cut off the ice
from our skin. And spring! spring will come!
A Royal Day
During his visit now and then the king
stops on a whim, and throws a look
across his realm. Winter has worn out
the city, the fences lean in, the frost drove
new cracks in the pavement.
Snow, black, is blocked in the gutter mouths.
Open lorries carry sand to a nearby
construction site, fine dust
drizzles down. With light fingers he wipes
the grains from his brow. On tram fifty-nine
homeless bums are yelling across to each
other over the passengers’ heads
in a tongue of the realm he barely understands.
He arrives at Déli Station. Descends
into the subway’s draughty inner
halls. The brass band strikes up
a fanfare. He spots the mutilated
Romanian sitting in the same corner,
a babbling would-be greeting on his cardboard sign.
So his faithful subject has come to him,
travelling all night on the blackened train,
or defecting across the green border of hope!
He waves at the man kneeling at his feet, whose
eyes run over with tears. Daily routine.
On a mouth organ a duke plays operetta.
The hailing, the attention directed at him,
the loud calling of his name, the hands grabbing
the hem of his robe wear him out, he feels repulsion.
And yet: he was born for this, when all the bells
spoke of hope, I will be one of them,
he said, but now it is as if he were watching
in a microscope the beings, invisible to the naked
eye, scurrying, worming on the ground.
I dreamed I gave birth to a child: by him.
But they warned me beforehand: it is stillborn.
The most awful of all was my indifference,
I didn’t care what was happening with me,
I felt not pain but ennui rather. A huge,
waxen newborn was laid out on the table
covered in transparent nylon.
Next to it, under a damask cloth,
props of an unfinished breakfast.
We must behave as if he were alive, the midwife
said and cried out twice: Look,
how cutely he is wobbling!
I knew I was to be sentenced
I started eating. On the newborn’s brow
above the bridge of the nose, a wound cut
with a blade appeared, I tried to smooth it out,
fighting my repulsion, but couldn’t. No
blood oozed from it: it was final.
Like the outcome of something long-planned,
done in cold blood, it was: concrete.
I knew I was the one who wounded him, unawares
when slicing the bread. I even recalled how
the knife ran into the still protesting skin.
I felt fear and hazy remorse.
I knew I was to be sentenced.
For everything around us is: life
Surely I cannot be the killer of our love?
Surely it was the child of another, a stranger,
not yours, and by no means mine?
It was a strange child laid out on the table,
stillborn, since the wound didn’t bleed:
this should be sufficient evidence.
Most likely it was a wax doll. Someone
must have made a savage joke,
for everything around us is: life.
And inside me too: you surely know me!
Even if leaves are falling on the rails
and the tram turns the corner with long shrieks.
The Chain and the Link (A Lánc És a Szem)
…(1) The most exquisite movement (A legszebb mozdulat)
It is now clear that the forcefully united
stands out in parts. Needless to resist
anymore: as I have always wanted,
the chain and the link crumble a-part.
(I never managed, as I now realize,
to align, however hard I tried.)
Leaf, how gently you fell on the lake’s
water. Gentler than any lover
on the craved pudenda.
This was the most exquisite movement, thank
you, leaf. You didn’t mingle. You didn’t quiver.
This was the most exquisite movement.
…(2) To leave (KIMENNI)
the crowded room at the height
of ovation when the arch-funereal
clowns perform their lightning-fast
jest, not to be duped by their countless
tricks, to break through the elated
row, to reclaim from the mesmerized
cloakroom girl hat, coat and umbrella
for a song, to cross the city when its theatre wings
are being rearranged but the night shift
has not arrived yet, the clocks stand
still, our sole companion the disinfectant
smell on the last pestilential streets.
…(3) Going on (FOLYTATÁS)
Not to call anyone (the greenery will
outgrow their pots anyway and, pushing
open the window, lean out),
not to avenge, nor to get over
insult, not to have tooth-ache, inflamed
cornea, leukemia treated,
not to open the door when the house is aflame,
not to cling on when drowning, to turn back
from the loathed door at the moment
of arrival. Not to look forward on the way
but backward only. To stand up to the clash.
Then on the water a leaf may fall.
Yearning for an ancient cup
To not rebel, even if you possess the necessary
skills, but execute the emperor’s order.
To smuggle my remembrance into the manner of the farewell,
the moral of experience paid with blood, the gift
of clear-sightedness, before my eyesight is
blurred and my pupils hitch upward.
Where does bargaining begin, the withdrawal
of consent, the defensive fidgeting, the living
for the last moment, the hour stolen
for banqueting, or making love? I might
lapse there as well – our emperor left the decision to us,
but Socrates forbids cowardly action.
If I linger on among you for a while, it’s only
to say, I owe a cock to Asclepius.
But since you had promised to pay my debt,
what would hold me here still? The command
summons me, to quote the tragic poet, and it’s high time
to arrange for a bath. I’ll drink the cup right after.
The sand sifting from my eyes will settle on
the borders of Athens. I have never believed in borders,
yet feel no triumph. My legs go heavy,
I lie down on my back, as the man
who brought the hemlock advised.
The world loses its contours, grows cold.
— Zsuzsa Takács, Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa
Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature Online. She lives in Budapest.
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.
- Translator’s note: Potatoes and pasta stewed with onions, some sort of meat or bacon, and eventually anything else that could be thrown in – in this respect, a bit like the famous Irish stew. It is very consistent, and became a food of the poor. The smell would have been of onions stewed in pork grease, into which the mixture is then thrown with water. Appropriately bathetic.↵