20 November 2018

Three Poems, Translated by George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer

It was good news indeed to have learned that the Cambridge-based English poet Clive Wilmer was awarded the 2018 Janus Pannonius Prize for Translation. Wilmer and myself have been friends for nearly five decades co-translating modern Hungarian poetry into English, our joint efforts resulting in two books by Miklós Radnóti, one selection from János Pilinszky’s poems and two books by György Petri. Our second Petri book Eternal Monday published by Bloodaxe even made it into the final of the prestigious Weidenfeld Prize for Translation in 2001, as the only book of poetry amongst five volumes of fiction.

Apart from those mentioned above we have translated many other Hungarian poets, some of them to be found in the 1996 selection The Colonnade of Teeth edited by George Szirtes and myself. This anthology (also by Bloodaxe Books) comprised verse by 35 Hungarian poets from Lőrinc Szabó to Győző Ferencz, amongst them several contemporary Transylvanians, such as Béla Markó, Géza Szőcs and Sándor Kányádi. Kányádi I have known since 1956 and forty years later already considered him as one of the best poets writing in Hungarian. He believed in the power of the spoken word and managed to write equally well both for older and younger readers – in fact, during the oppressive Ceauşescu regime he was editing a Hungarian-language magazine for children which was essential for the cultural survival of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania. Four of his poems were included in The Colonnade of Teeth, three of which we reprint here, remembering the poet who passed away recently.

George Gömöri


I Shall Die

The way I die

will be such that even my last

gasp will be first

picked up then played back

on tape by

someone who re-

plays it a few times

toning it down till

it’s more acceptable

or just wipes it

Better to leave him with

that hint of a smile

of course without bitterness

that’s what he was like

with the hint of a smile

says that someone without

a sigh the someone whose stif-

ling hand I have felt

at my throat

through the whole of my wretched life



History Lesson

history – I tried to

explain it to the stones

they were silent


then I turned to the trees

the leaves kept nodding at me


then I tried the garden

it gave me a gentle smile


history consists

(it said) of four seasons

spring summer

autumn and winter

now winter is drawing near



there are lands there is countryside

where though beautiful nothing thrives

but bitter burdock where in the eyes

of wretched people with harsh lives

a glimmer of pale hope appears

barely flickers then expires

hope that one day it will all be over

stares into space as if forever

black kerchiefs and black hats encase

each rigid parchment-yellow face

and like their own hands on their knees

just so they sit there stiff with unease

on those old benches which worm-eaten

have as their lives have ebbed gone rotten

they sit as if in engraved prints

of mexico or way up where once

on manicured vancouver lawns

I came upon those indians

day-dreaming in silence dazed

barely a flicker in their gaze

and hands resting on their thighs

our lives their lives

you travel far for a surprise

to shock like that how our eyes

are like those indians’ eyes and look

more and more the way theirs look

as on a Sunday when we’ve all

met for a quiet funeral

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