Three Translated Péter Závada Poems

1 August 2016


Image courtesy of Cool List Hungary 2012

Péter Závada (1982 —) is a poet and playwright born in Budapest. He holds degrees in English and Italian from ELTE University and a degree in Theatre Studies from the Károli Gáspár Protestant University. His plays have been performed in the Katona József, Belvárosi and Trafó theatres in Budapest. He has performed with rap and slam poetry group Akkezdet Phiai and is a member of the József Attila Circle Literary Association of Young Writers. His poetry has been published in the Hungarian literary journals Jelenkor, Élet és Irodalom and Műút. His first collection of poems, Ahol Megszakad, was published by Libri in 2012. His second collection, Mész, followed in 2015.

Translator’s note:

These three poems by Hungarian poet Péter Závada are taken from his second collection, Mész, published in 2015. The title itself is a play on words, as mész can mean either ‘limestone’ or ‘you are going.’ The significance of this duality becomes apparent in the emotional and symbolic power of the images evoked throughout the collection.

Both senses of the term mész have deep connections to the three poems presented here. The eponymous poem makes reference to a well-known Hungarian folk tale in which the central character – a stonemason named Kőműves Kelemen – finds that the castle he’s trying to build keeps falling down, and is forced to sacrifice his beloved wife and mix her remains into the mortar in order to make the castle stand. This is a reference familiar to almost any Hungarian reader, but clearly not obvious to the non-Hungarian. The second sense of the word mész evokes a sense of departure, perhaps even of abandonment, and is thus connected to the deep theme of loss represented in these poems. Závada lost his mother to clinical depression at a young age, and one gets the sense that these poems are an attempt to process that loss many years later. The title, then, represents both a sense of departure and a sense of loss, with the latter serving as a necessary impetus for the construction of a meaningful creative edifice.

These poems are more personal, if formally freer, than those of Závada’s first collection, published in 2012. They come close to the heart of the poet, possessing an honesty and a power that draws the reader close, while keeping us at arm’s length linguistically – one imagines that the poet, too, feels this distance. The economy and gorgeous precision of Závada’s language results in a raw, melancholy tone that I feel privileged to bring to an English-speaking audience for the first time.


But nothing

It is not grief, diffusing through me, 
but emptiness; and what the blind see
isn’t darkness, but nothing. 
But we can’t imagine nothing, 
and in fact even a vacuum 
is never completely empty. Just think:
for years they thought there was nothing 
around the moon but a vacuum 
yet it, too, has
a thin, rare atmosphere. The lighter atoms
are blown away by the solar wind 
but some of the heavier ones remain 
near the surface.
In dreams, I look for you in the bustling street
but it’s like searching the cosmos for signs of life. 
What if you’re one of those civilisations that 
destroy themselves before we even know they exist? 
But if we did meet, I would tell you 
what’s been on my mind:
that the night is nothing but the shadow that our planet casts on us
and that your memory, mother, is like
a thin atmosphere – 
just substantial enough to suffocate in.
Vákuum

Nem a gyász terjed szét bennem,
inkább üresség ez, mint ahogy
a vakok sem a sötétet látják,
hanem a semmit. A semmit persze
nem tudjuk elképzelni, az üresség-
értelemben vett vákuum voltaképp
nincsen. Gondolj csak bele, sokáig
azt hitték, légüres tér veszi körül,
pedig a Holdnak is van egy egészen
vékony és ritka légköre. A könnyebb
atomokat magával sodorja a napszél,
de néhány nehezebb a felszín
közelében marad. Álmomban megtalálni
téged az utca forgatagában: mintha
az univerzumban egy idegen élet
nyomait kutatnám. Félek, hogy olyan
vagy, mint egy civilizáció, ami azelőtt
elpusztítja magát, hogy hírt adhatna
létezéséről. Ha mégis találkoznánk,
elmondanám, ami egy ideje foglalkoztat:
hogy az éjszaka csak a bolygó ránk
vetülő árnyéka, hogy az emléked is,
mint a ritka légkör: még bőven
meg lehet fulladni benne.
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