In November of 1944, a Jewish Hungarian poet known for mixing innovative and classical styles, was shot into a mass grave with his notebook of last poems in his coat pocket. One of 3,200 Hungarian Jews forced by fascist militia to march hundreds of miles in retreat from Tito’s advancing armies, Miklós Radnóti remained under that mound for eighteen months before he was unearthed and later identified by his wife. What she found in that notebook damp with his body fluids were his last poems, including love poems scribbled to her, Fanni, known to her friends as Fifi. In August 2008, I flew to Budapest, Hungary, to meet with the 96-year old widow of the poet Miklós Radnóti.

Mrs. Radnóti has been a widow for 73 years, but she has likewise been a widely loved and quite brilliant teacher and activist. The city of Budapest recently conferred upon her formal honors. She lives a few blocks from a street now named for her husband. I arrived hoping to record Mrs. Radnóti reading a few poems by her husband, but because she had fallen and felt dizzy, I asked Alexander Kunst, a Modern East-Central European scholar to read the poems in Hungarian. Kunst is the same age that Radnóti was when he wrote these last poems.

I’ve included the Hungarian text, several translations, and then a poem by the Australian poet John Kinsella from his sequence, “The Radnoti Poems.”

A note on the translations. The most affecting and vivid English translations of Radnóti that I’ve seen are those by Clayton Eshleman and Gyula Kodolány in the first volume of Poems for the Millennium,
 one of the few truly necessary anthologies of the last fifty years. But those translations forgo Radnóti’s hexameter and rhyme to unleash the raw energy of the poems. Other translators, most notably George Szirtes, have tried to preserve end rhyme and/or form. I wonder which version of the fourth “Razglednicas/Postcards” poem, below, you prefer. First the Hungarian as text and mp3:

Mellézuhantam, átfordult a teste

s feszes volt már, mint húr, ha pattan.

Tarkólövés. - Így végzed hát te is, -

súgtam magamnak, - csak feküdj nyugodtan.

Halált virágzik most a türelem. -

Der springt noch auf, - hangzott fölöttem.

Sárral kevert vér száradt fülemen.
Szentkirályszabadja, 1944. október 31.

Hear the poem in Hungarian by downloading this quick-loading file: Download file

I fell beside him and his corpse turned over,

tight already as a snapping string.

Shot in the neck. "And that's how you'll end too,"

I whisper to myself; "lie still; no moving.

Now patience flowers in death." Then I could hear

"Der springt noch auf," above, and very near.

Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.
(translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner)
I fell beside him, his body rolled over
as stiff as a thread about to snap.
Shot in the back of the neck. “So this is how you, too, will end,”
I whispered to myself. “Just lie still.
From patience death will bloom.”
“Der springt noch auf,” I heard someone say above me;
Mud caked with blood dried upon my ears.
Szentkiralyszabadja, October 31, 1944.
(Translated by Gabor Barabas)
I fell beside him; his body turned over,
Already taut as a string about to snap.
Shot in the back of the neck. That’s how you too will end,
I whispered to myself; just lie quietly.
Patience now flowers into death.
Der springt noch auf, a voice said above me.
On my ear, blood dried, mixed with filth.
Szentkiralyszabadja, 31 October, 1944
(Translated by Emery George and included in Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché)

And here’s that poem by John Kinsella, from “The Radnoti Poems” in Doppler Effect, Salt Modern Poets, 2004.

The way those poems were more than familiar
with death, soaking fluids from the corpse, absorbing
the mud. Those postcards from the last suffocated
breath, as if composed deep in the ground, recalling
tableaux and movements of people on a closing
landscape, where just below the dark surface you lay,
feeling their last hesitant movements, their forced march.
Those mountains bringing God no closer—elements
of the sublime drowned in their own words, that you might
have said look now to the journey of the tiny
shepherdess as she moves with the ripples of cloud
over the small lake’s surface, but send no postcards . . .
For I have read those you carefully wrote before
your last march, receiving them an age after they
were sent, long after you had set off—history
franking them with blood and mud. Now they have burrowed
into the rot of a collective conscience filled
with readings of war-- that footage from Vietnam
where the officer shoots the VC in Saigon
straight through the head, the cameras rolling as blood
rolled onto the street and spread like a small dark lake
that would not be stilled . . . Fifty years later the same
traffic stumbles through the Balkans, and CNN
is there moving where it can while others quietly
tell themselves to just lie still. Purnell’s History
of the Second World War [I] explored as a child,
with images of humans and pack animals
caught exposed on thrombotic arterial roads
that had finally burst, churned into the soil’s rank
garden . . . When that road reared and whinnied like a horse
taut as guns thundered from out of Bulgaria . . .
Hesitating, I glance up towards an outcrop,
a heron splendidly awkward in its roosting
tree, hunched and primal over the dark swamp water:
poets aren’t silent now, but the guns are behind
newspaper print, lurking in layer on layer
of tv and computer monitor screens, deaf
to their own presence like flocks of terrible birds
smothering the persistent voice of the heron
as it rises again and again, long after.

Originally Published: November 20th, 2008

Born in California’s Mojave Desert, poet Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, where he majored in geology. After earning an MA in literature from San Francisco State University, Gander moved to Mexico, then to Arkansas, where his poetry—informed by his knowledge of...

  1. November 20, 2008

    Forrest--thanks for this post. I agree w/ you 110% (to use football math) on the Joris/Rothenberg anthology. Do you have an apt translation for the German? The babelish doesn't seem right--what a shock! --Ted

  2. November 20, 2008

    To my surprise, I'd take-- as a poem in English (I don't know any Hungarian)-- the first of the versions above, the one with pentameter, end rhyme, and Frederick Turner (!) attached. I'm not sure the others gather to themselves enough to make up for what they give up in rhythmic effects, and I'm not sure they sound any more idiomatic than the first. It's a haunting poem...
    Ten years ago I saw a remarkable anthology of modern Hungarians in English translation, assembled, I think, by Wm Jay Smith-- anyone else seen it?

  3. November 21, 2008
     Forrest Gander

    The line with German-- Der springt noch auf, a voice said above me--
    would, says German scholar Susan Bernstein, literally be:
    he/she still jumps up, a voice said above me.
    Still he springs to his feet
    He leaps up still
    He still springs forth or up (like the Rhine in Holderlin's poem)
    And she notes that springen-- spring up, leap up, jump to one's feet--
    is related to Ursprung-- origin.

  4. November 21, 2008
     Susan Bernstein

    Actually it would have to be "he" leaps up, still -- in this context.
    In isolation, the German phrase, "der springt noch auf," could be pedestrian - he jumps to his feet again. In the poem, followed by "a voice said above me," it has a kind of eery ambivalence. On the one hand, it suggests a promise of resurrection: he will rise again. But it also sounds like an unnerved German soldier looking down into the mass grave: "Look, that one is jumping up again!!"

  5. January 16, 2009
     jason kenny

    Personally I would put a lovely bench so all the squirrels could use it and maybe add a mini bar and a Jacuzzi at a later date just for the wildlife though!