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20 November 2018

Hungarian Transylvanian Poets – Part I

The earliest records show the southern part of Transylvania belonging to Dacia, a Roman colony at the very frontiers of the Empire. With the fall of Rome that area was overrun by successive waves of invaders, the Ostrogoths, the Huns, the Bulgarians, the Avars, etc., and finally in 896 AD by Hungarian tribes that occupied the whole Carpathian Basin. Then for a thousand years Transylvania was the home of Hungarians alongside Romanians and the descendants of the other invaders.

However, Hungary as a whole has had a turbulent history of decline. First, a brief but devastating Mongolian invasion killed off much of the population. Then the area that is the present site of the country was laid waste by a 150-year Ottoman occupation. During that time the northern parts were under Austrian rule while Transylvania had to pay tribute to the Ottoman Empire to remain an independent Hungarian principality and the repository of Hungarian culture. After the Turks were ousted by combined Christian forces, the liberated area was repopulated by Slovaks, Germans and others. Hungary was united once again, but only under the auspices of the Habsburg Empire.

Another disaster hit the country after the First World War when the peace treaty of Trianon arbitrarily chopped it up, giving the northern regions to Slovakia, the southern parts to Yugoslavia, and Transylvania to Romania. The Hungarian population, known locally as Szekler, suddenly found itself in a disadvantaged ethnic minority status in an enlarged Romanian state where now Hungarian culture and language were marginalised and discriminated. No wonder there is a pervasive spirit of dread in the Hungarian poetry written in a land that is no longer Transylvania but a region in Romania. Ironically, the present Hungary is relatively new, with a mixed immigrant population that – almost miraculously – assimilated and took on Hungarian identity and the language. Perhaps this could not have happened without Transylvania.

The prime of the poets in this selection coincided with the Ceauşescu period, a time of strict censorship that called for hidden messages best delivered in surrealist style. The poets of that besieged group in those tragic times accepted as their mission to speak out for their people. However belatedly, their anguished voices now speak to us more clearly than any TV documentary, not only about their suffering but also about their attachment to the land of their birth and their commitment to the survival of their Szekler community regardless of the political system or state government that claims to rule over them. Yet these voices are not blaring propaganda for some kind of nationalistic programme; each one remains an individual and personal confession of faith – and doubt. The mission thrust upon them by persecution was accepted reluctantly and is presented as part of the human condition, just another aspect of life. The universality of their message is rounded out by a sprinkling of love poems, a subject second only to the love of freedom. These are themes that flourish in any language. Their verse is quite current, but reflects that special Central and Eastern European angst that has accumulated in the collective consciousness of the region over a turbulent history.

All these poets deserve to be introduced to Anglophone readers. The featured translations first appeared in Loch Raven Review, an e-journal; this is their first print publication.


Sándor Kányádi

Sándor Kányádi was born in 1929 as the son of a peasant. After the fifth grade he enrolled in Protestant parochial boarding schools, and eventually graduated from a technical high school. He worked as an editor of Hungarian-language magazines until his retirement. He published his first poem in a newspaper in 1950 and from then on, his poems were published widely in Hungarian-language publications. Translations of Romanian poetry (done as much for literary reasons as to pave the way toward ethnic reconciliation) soon followed and earned him a prize from the Romanian Writers’ Association. Because contact with the West was restricted at that time, his international career flourished later, culminating in the coveted Herder Prize. Volumes of his poetry in translation have been published in Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Russian, Swedish, and recently in Sohar’s English translation: Dancing Embers (Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2002), In Contemporary Tense (Iniquity Press, 2015), Behind God’s Back (Ragged Sky Press, Princeton, 2016), and The Curious Moon (Synergebooks, 2003).



the alarm is raised in the

bureau of shadows

when it is discovered

there is still one person

who is not afraid

of his own shadow

the administrators hold a quick

brainstorm and decide unanimously

to withdraw

the suspect’s shadow

and after a lapse of time

they issue to him

a double shadow

which at first brews

anxiety slowly growing

into terror

they even shadow

my own shadow

mutters the wretched soul

besieged by fear that

even his own shadow

may not be his own



The Homecoming of Marin Sorescu

Cluj, 1995

the wagon drawn by a pair of oxen came to a halt

a not-so-old gentleman got off

it’s not you Marin

welcome home my dear son

the neighbour woman clapped her hands

or it could have been a niece

could have been even his mother who

as a young widow had sent his little son

to the big-city school in the same wagon drawn by oxen

how much fun they had back then how much they laughed

there’s no better medicine for misery

there’s no better magic potion than laughter

do you remember my boy my dear sir

the woman corrected her mode of address

giving another occasion for laughter

my god my god how time flies

it’s as if you’d left here only yesterday

you haven’t changed at all except your skin tone

its colour seems let’s say colourless

but the fresh air at home will remedy that

yes there’s some stuff to eat in the wagon

under the books or on top of them I don’t recall

something for everyone

there’s fish there’s herring and salmon you’ve never tasted

in your life before and leeks too

and I brought some eggplants that’s out of season

in this region at home

the journey’s come to an end

my lord my god how many books and in how many languages

how many books my god he says

my journey’s come to an end and no one wondered

no one asked what kind of a journey

has come to an end but passed it on like a revelation

by mouth the news travelled among the gathering crowd

people from the street so if he says so it must have come to an end

he was never in the habit of talking just for the sake of talking

he allowed himself a smile as much as his paleness allowed

he allowed himself a smile about the things he had seen behind his closed eyelids

and things prompted by what reached his ears from home

he said he would like to go out

and when he staggered back to the hospital room

it had been rearranged and enlarged

there was a king-sized bed between the two windows all made up

quotes from world literature were embroidered on his humped pillow

and elegant quilt and the rug for his feet on the floor

at the feet of the king-sized bed a diko

he was glad to recall the words of his home village

at the feet of the king-sized bed near the door

a crib covered with a handmade coverlet was

kneeling to the rush rug on the dirt floor

under the huge quilt I could sleep leisurely

till judgment day and nothing would bother me but and

at this point he ran his hand over the handmade coverlet

but here resurrection would come more easily and more often

this is the best time to sell the oxen he said already turning

toward the wall the rumour has it that it may be alright now but

the time is coming again when those in the yoke will have no value


Gizella Hervay

Gizella Hervay (1934–1982), though born in Hungary, is known as a Transylvanian–Hungarian poet. At an early age her large, poor family was dispersed, and her hectic life took her to various locations. At last she found safe haven in a parochial boarding school in a Hungarian town in Transylvania and went on to finish her higher education with a doctorate in 1956. While holding a series of editorial jobs she had a brief marriage to the love of her life, Domokos Szilágyi, a fellow poet and classmate in college. The year 1976 was a turning point, with Szilágyi’s suicide and a publishing house in Budapest offering her a steady job, as she was starting to make a name for herself as a poet. In spite of crippling depression Hervay carried on with her job and poetry, until her suicide.


The Heavenly Rally

Here we are in heaven in which we don’t believe

and which doesn’t exist as we all know quite well.

But we are here, there’s no doubt about that.


There’s a tired light bulb hanging

over us,

it’s turning to dusk.


The angels place their halos

on the night table till the morning.


In another heaven are

our mother’s calling cries.


Off we march into

a heavenly vision.


Upward, for here we can

only go upward.

A reverse elevator

is our plunging life.


On the signpost “Future”.

We are happy,

have been so or will be soon.


Here we are in heaven in which we don’t believe.




I grew up, didn’t I. That means we should re-do

the resume. There was too much vagrancy

connected with being an orphan, and too

few were the homes available per person.

This we must re-write. Yes, I’m at home here.

I create my own landscape. Out of words,

of course. Out of good, sturdy words.

They can be size eleven, too, but they must be

boots. Without boots you can’t march off

to war. But of course that’s

over now. And an overcoat

is also important in this area. It’s safe

and secure like childhood. Which I didn’t have.

It can be long, too. We can always tuck

it in. One can grow out of them by the end

of their useful lives. Of the poems,

of course. The rest we can cross out. Please

cross it out. Just leave the bare facts. Please take

this down: I was born like others. I accept the

responsibility. According to

Central-European calendar.

Let me have a copy, please.



Aladár Lászlóffy

Aladár Lászlóffy (1937–2009) was born in Transylvania. He graduated from Lutheran Preparatory School, then from Babeş–Bolyai University in Cluj (Kolozsvár) with a degree in Hungarian Language and Literature. After a few years of freelancing he started getting steady jobs as an editor, and finally as a professor of world culture. He published his first poem at the age of nine and went on writing and publishing for the rest of his life. He has received all major literary prizes in Romania and Hungary.

The Cat Set On Fire


We must loosen up, at least at dawn,

when the answers to the ultimate questions

start dripping from

the leaves, and so does dew!

Let dew spread over the table, the

bed! That’s when the body enters,

and the naked embrace of alcohol,

because anyone alive for any period

of time must like it

that we’re androgynous

outside the idea of it and bare

like shell fish split open. At times

like these that cat starts

running around on roof tops,

set on fire by the spirit,

protesting rest and the loss of

consciousness after

swallowing light so long.



The Voice

A voice streaks through the ghost-sharp,

starrynights of stagnant-gold whisperings:

Show me the poets you all read,

and I’ll tell you folks who you are.

Show me the poets you respect,

and I’ll tell you where you’re coming from.

Our grandfathers’ gaunt figures I see

in unbearable times when

our parks withered and we only had our books

to tide us over the winter.


Show me the poets you rally around,

and I’ll tell you what will become of you.


* Marin Sorescu, Romanian poet 1936–1996, enjoyed pop star status, also served as a minister in the post- Communist government.

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