Monday, July 12, 2010

Miklos Radnoti Was

Miklos Radnoti was shot and killed by retreating Axis troops in 1944 after spending the four previous years as a slave laborer. In 1946, in an exhumation of a mass grave his body was found, identifiable by the small notebook he had hidden inside his clothing where he'd continued his previous work as a poet.


From the window I look out on a hill,
the hill does not see me;
I hide out; a poem trickles from my pen,
though it makes no difference now,
I see it, unable to figure out why
such grace from an ancient bosom:
as ever, the moon alights on the sky,
and the sour cherries open into blossom.

9 May, 1944


The moon sways on a foamy sky,
I am amazed that I live.
An overzealous death searches this age
and those it discovers are all so very pale.

At times the year looks around and shrieks,
looks around and then fades away.
What an autumn cowers behind me again
and what a winter, made dull by pain.

The forest bled and in the spinning
time blood flowed from every hour.
Large and looming numbers were
scribbled by the wind onto the snow.

I lived to see that and this,
the air feels heavy to me.
A war sound-filled silence hugs me
as before my nativity.

I stop here at the foot of a tree,
its crown swaying angrily.
A branch reaches down -- to grab my neck?
I'm not a coward, nor am I weak,

just tired. I listen. And the frightened
branch explores my hair.
To forget would be best, but I have
never forgotten anything yet.

Foam pours over the moon and the poison
draws a dark green line on the horizon.

I roll myself a cigarette
slowly, carefully. I live.

* * *

In the miasma of our fucked lives we tend to focus solely on ourselves, with no ability to see anything beyond our fuckedness. We are myopic. Miklos Radnoti is an icon in Hungary, though little known elsewhere. He was one of six million - utterly anonymous to the machine that killed him. Yet he was not anonymous. He was loved and loved his wife. His circle of friends, family knew him and he had readers who read him.

Anonymous only in death - not in life.

Viktor Frankl survived the camps. Miklos Radnoti did not. And yet they are the same. Both chose to live with death all around them. Both chose to write when simply having a piece of paper was cause to be shot. Both chose to continue their work, the only work they knew, in spite of the outward circumstances they lived in. And one died and was buried in a mass grave. The other lived to an old age. Both altered the world because of the choices they made.

* * *

My copy of Radnoti's poems was given to me in 1984 by my Hungarian language teacher, Borbala Szendro. I was leaving Budapest after being part of an exchange program with DePaul University. There was an English language bookshop on Vaci Utca where I would spend my afternoons. I missed my language. Borbala came with me one day and saw this on the shelf and bought it for me, telling me I needed to know Radnoti. She cried when she retold his story.

The book has sat on my shelf for 26 years now. I did not read the poems when it was given to me. I had no interest. But as time crawled by I found myself looking again and again at what a murdered man wrote. And there on the page was life, insistent, tired, unfailing life.

This is the work of poets - to remind us to live


I'm a poet and nobody needs me,
not even if I mutter wordlessly:
u-u-u- no matter, for instead of me,
prying devils will sing relentlessly.

And believe me, believe you me,
the cautious suspicion is justified.
I'm a poet who's fit for the stake's fire
because to the truth he's testified.

One, who knows that the snow is white,
the blood is red, as is the poppy,
and the poppy's furry stalk is green.

One, whom they will kill in the end,
because he himself has never killed.

* * *

The earth is one mass grave. What will they find on your body?

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