Tuesday, April 25, 2017

I am perched solidly / on nothing’s branch - the poems of Attila Jószef

Today the short book of translated poetry at hand is Perched on Nothing’s Branch: Selected Poems (1986) by Attila Jószef (1905-37).  Ah, those horrible dates.  Jószef’s early childhood was miserable, his later childhood in wartime Budapest if anything worse, and his later years cursed by mental health issues.  His life finally ending under a train, a suicide.

In between he was for a time a great Hungarian poet.  The 1999 White Pine Press edition has an introduction by Maxine Kumin where she calls the poems “brief, sharp, but invariably built on a scaffolding of arresting images” (13).  It is the images that come through in Peter Hargitai’s translation:

A raspberry bush squats,
cradles the greasy paper
slumbering in her arms.  (from “Dew,” 84)

Outside the window an old man
pitches manure to clucking chickens.
Muddy potatoes cower in hay needles.
The thatch roof bristles, holy soup ascends
toward the ceiling.
Jesus, in a playpen of yellow down,
is mirthful among the paper sheep.  (from “Bethlehem,” 29)

Yes, a grim sort of Christmas poem, that last one.  But I quoted it for the animation of not just the toy Jesus but the thatch and the potatoes, which are likely not as cowardly as Jószef imagines.  His signature, in the book’s selections, is this sense that the world is active, even as entropy works against it, and us, as in this gleefully gray autumn poem:

Autumn fog is scraping
bald interlacing branches,
frost squints on the railing.
Autumn was already lurking
about the yard, drooling
between the bricks. (32)

Jószef is often described as a surrealist, and this is why.  It’s not the branches that scrape, but the fog; frost squints; autumn lurks and drools.  Everything is doing something it should not do.  This stuff can seem a facile reversal game that anyone could do, or it can seem like the world has been refreshed.  Hargitai chooses his collection’s title from a line that is like a statement of purpose:

I am perched solidly
on nothing’s branch.
The small body shivers
to receive heaven.  (from “Perched on Nothing’s Branch,” 82)

It is the surreal word, the paradox, “solidly,” that clenches the poem for me.  This poem ends “There’s no one out here / to hear – ,” a good example of Jószef sounding like Samuel Beckett.

Jószef’s formalism, to the extent that it is visible, is amusing.  Modernism means that a poet can write a sonnet called, and about a, “Drunk on the Tracks”:

There’s no room for the sun, the sky is ashes.
Only a drunk is lying on the tracks,
and from far away, the slow boom of the earth.  (78)

Those are the last lines, which presumably, in Hungarian, contain some rhyme words.  As for the subject, Jószef’s death makes it almost too painful to read, although less so than this book’s final poem, “Nothing,” which begins like Shakespeare:

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
Let it be, so it won’t be…

And ends, with “no luggage,” at the train station, “where there’s nothing at all.”  What despair.


  1. I have not read his poems, so I'm glad you made this post. I looked him up and saw that he was once thought to be schizophrenic but now is considered to have had BPD, which perhaps is parallel to his sense of the world as unstable and blighted by emptiness. Or is it that this world is not alive and solid but there is another world humming behind it, a more metaphysical world--at least in the earlier poems? Or neither of those things? I'll have to read him.

  2. Yes, this is a poet who glimpses the world behind the world.

    I hope you do read it. This is a good little book.

  3. Ah, world behind the world. I like that better than the first thought!

    I will order it.

  4. It felt like an ideal match of poetic mode, in translation, and poet.

  5. Just popped back to say thank you, that I'm now reading the book.