BOOK REVIEW: Foamy Sky by Miklós Radnóti



Foamy Sky the Major Poems of Miklos Radnoti A Bilingual Edition by Miklós Radnóti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The short life of Miklós Radnóti was bookended by tragedy, and in the years between he wrote some of the most hauntingly beautiful – if morose – poetry of the twentieth century. The event of his birth was marked by the death of both his mother and his twin, and he died in northwestern Hungary on the route of a forced march from the copper mine in Serbia where he labored toward a Nazi concentration camp that he never reached.

One might say of these bookends to a life that only the former event, his traumatic birth, could have left a mark on his poetry, and you’d probably be right. As a rational skeptic, I’m not a big believer in precognition. However, some of Radnóti’s poetry (e.g. “Just Walk On, Condemned to Die” / “Járkálj csak, halálraítélt!” [written eight years before his death, before the War began]) is as potent an argument for prevision as exists. Yes, it’s probably true that if one writes as much about death as did Radnóti, one is bound to seem prescient about one’s own death, but when one’s words are magic enough to make a skeptic consider the possibility, that’s a powerful testament.

The book contains about eighty poems. I could talk about a selection from across the collection that are among my personal favorites, but they are all great works. The more meaningful distinction to point out is that the last ten poems in the book (four of which are collectively labeled as “Razglednicas”) are Radnóti’s final ten poems and they arose from a grave, having been buried in his coat pocket. When his body was exhumed, the poems were discovered written in an address book in his pocket.

As the poems were all written in Hungarian, the natural question is how good is the translation. After all, poetry translation is a bit like trying to put a queen-size sheet on a king-size mattress (where the corners are: metering / arrangement, sound (e.g. rhyme, alliteration, etc.), imagery, and emotional content / message.) The more that one insists on perfectly capturing one corner, the more the other ends of the sheet curl up. Getting the sheet to hold on each corner takes skill and selective compromise. I think the duo of translators from the University of Texas, Dallas did a tremendous job. The team included one person with expertise in Hungarian, English, and translation, Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, and one with expertise in poetry and poetic form, Frederick Turner. Both of these individuals contributed some prose to the book, Ozsváth wrote the Introduction and Turner offered a Translator’s Epilogue. The latter presents some insight into how the two went about trying to achieve the best translation possible. Meter and rhyme schemes were not sacrificed as they often might be in a modern translation.

One nice feature of the Corvina edition of this book is that it is bilingual with the English on the page opposed the original Hungarian. My (almost non-existent) Hungarian is far too sparse for the task of reading poetry. However, I was able to take in at least the sound quality of Radnóti’s original, and given that he wrote in metered verse, this is not inconsequential.

This is a fantastic collection and I would recommend it for all poetry readers – even if you can only read the English editions, you’ll be moved by these poems.

View all my reviews

POEM: Dissolving Past

I’ve heard it speculated that all times exist at once, and that our consciousness merely shines a light on a sequence of nows. But it sure feels like the past frays; that it’s dissolving from the edges. Worm-eaten in a way that works its way to the heart. The center reads clear for now, but one day… poof, it’ll be lost.

You’ll awake to find whole tracks of life are lost — like slides that were water damaged in the flood.

What happened in 1997? I’d need some sort of prompt to even make a guess.

POEM: Frosted Glass

I knew I was old when,
upon seeing a frosted windowpane,
I felt no urge to plow my finger through it.

The cost of a cold finger tip didn’t feel worth it for the pleasure of dragging a digit through the frost, carving doodle art or a word,
the frost curling and tumbling down onto the sill to turn from chalk white crystals to clear bulbous drops.

Anyhow, the mere thought prompted me to etch my fleeting symbol onto the pane.

POEM: Bad Reputation

Hey there, Mister Buffalo,

They say you’re mean, but I don’t know.

As far as I’m able to tell,

under the joylessness you’re really swell.

Your persona has been besmirched

by men who shot you from a perch,

and had to follow you, wounded, into the tall grass.

POEM: Metaphorical Sailor

The gruff sailor said,

“No sail and she just floats all lazy like.

No rudder and she’s a missile to nowhere.”

I nodded.

“You see, you need strong sails AND a working rudder.”

I nodded, again.

He continued,

“You get that the sail is a metaphor for passion,

and that the rudder is a metaphor for rationality, right?”

 

I said,

“I thought you, Crusty Sea Captain, were a metaphor for my subconscious.”

First Eclogue: Flow, Interupted

Thru-hiking a sheep-cropped pasture,
I spied a shepherd in repose,
in the shadow of a boulder.
I asked, “Do you know which way it flows?”

 

“It flows? What flows? the creek below?”

 

“I know the creek must flow downhill.
I mean how I flow through the world,
or it through me — by force or will?”

 

“I know when I lie here it slows,
between the bleats and blowing winds,
and I wonder through shaded eyes
whether the world is still in spin?”

I nodded, wandering on, wondering whether the world would stop for the likes of me.

Haiku on Music


 

listless drift
metronomic mast sweeps
the sea’s mute tune

 

snapping flags
halyard and hook ting the pole
spastic anthem

 

creek burble
amid the cedars
stream unseen

 

cave echoes
nothing that moves by sight
avoids bumped head

 

empty bars
rarely known in nature
end robustly

POEM: Lonely Boat

The languid roll of the boat signaled loneliness — silently but steadily.

Was it the inseparable connection of wave and hull — each feeling that, despite the lack of distance between them, they would remain distinct?

Was it that there wasn’t another mast for miles, at least the twelve miles out to the horizon?

Was it the motion, purposeless and uniform, a lethargic fidget that signaled anxiousness without anticipation.

 

POEM: The Revolution of Donald Duck & the Anchormen

Oh! Cast off these khaki shackles!

Like Don Duck, pants raise my hackles.

I’d chuck my slacks in the river Styx,

show all Hades my bag of tricks.

No more this prison for my loins,

and hear these words that I enjoin:

DOWN WITH PANTS!

DOWN WITH PANTS!

DOWN WITH PANTS!