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

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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.

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