Thursday, February 18, 2010

Friday Night Poetry: A Communist Revolts

One of the amazing stories of the last 60 years are the writers and artists behind the Iron Curtain who fought for a middle way between communism and right wing ideologies. I don't know much of Laszlo Benjamin's history (1915-??) except that in 1955 he was a communist party member who revolted against the system. After the Russians put down the Hungarians in 1956, it's unlikely Benjamin would have gotten far without recanting or burrowing deep into the system somewhere. But there were many writers and artists all over Eastern Europe who saw the walls come down in 1989, some 33 years later. Was Benjamin one of them? I don't know.

The poem below was translated by Edwin Morgan. I only offer the first four stanzas. The rest can be found in Modern Hungarian Poetry, edited by Miklos Vajda. Many libraries still carry copies.

Poem By an Unknown Poet from the Mid-Twentieth Century

They ranged themselves in facing lines
—switches would soon be thrust in their hands—
and we were braced to run the gauntlet
down through that pure and heartless band.

It is to induce salvation in us
that ethics swishes from both sides;
and if not by fear and humiliation,
we're bent by chronic belly-gripes.

Endless vigilance, the very virtues
thumped into my long-hunted spine
cheated me of my power to act,
that many-splendored only-mine.

Between four-dimensional hell and
two-dimensional heaven, intention
is no more than a scurrying shadow,
reality a fading apparition.


—Laszlo Benjamin

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Friday Night Poetry - Tao Chien

Like the Romans and other builders of empire, the ancient Chinese would send their soldiers to conquer faraway places. Not a few died along the way. This poem takes place in autumn but it seems as cold as our own winter has been at times.

A reluctant soldier, Tao Chien was more a bureaucrat stuck with a stretch of military duty. Actually, like many others, he was happiest when he was deep in contemplation or taking long walks, writing poetry or drinking wine with friends.

Like many soldiers, he wasn't sure he was coming back home.

Death in the Far Lands

Here, the grass goes on and on.
Below, white poplars go shoo, shoo,
the frost biting in the late fall.
You have sent me off as a bearer
where all around no man lives.
Tall crags close in like ghosts,
horses rear, neighing at the night sky.
From the ravine, the wind comes alone—
death has walked here before.
I will never again see the dawn.
I will never again see the dawn.
Here, the wise can do nothing.
All mourners who have come before
surely return to their home.
Surely faraway relatives will grieve
and others will return to their songs.
But where will the dead go?
This one nestles in a mountain niche.

—Tao Chien (365-427)

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