09. 27. 2006. 09:18

A Week With Old Cain (poems)

István Kemény

"There is a crisis of values, Cain, sir!
A need for a credible word,
the people are seeking a father
and the Bible says, you –"

“Usually I start a poem by having a line or a couple of lines which seem really strong, and those start the process. But sometimes, and this happens more and more often as I get older, there is a statement I want to make, to put it somewhat pretentiously. To highlight my views on a given subject, as it were… This is how the chapter or cycle on old Cain came about in the volume Élobeszéd (Live Talk). I imagined a Cain who, if not immortal, is practically coeval with humanity and commits fratricide once in every epoch. Then, he has a rest. He just hangs out somewhere for decades at a time. When people spot him he just moves on. So the Cain poems describe the story of an incident like this, when he is recognised and runs away.

One of my poems, Epilogue, is even more conceptually based that the others. I particularly wanted to write an educational poem. To make it really powerful. (...) I even did something I hardly ever do. I quoted half a line from Miklós Radnóti's Forced March in my own poem, ‘rises and steps anew’. I wanted to present the murderer and the movement of the whole society as if they were driven along a forced orbit by some force, like a forced march, by their own animal nature. To be sure, I was not aiming to conflate the murderer with the victim but to warn as many people as I could that there is no lesson that people will not forget. Any evil can always start all over again. Certainly, this was also a warning to myself. This is how I wrote the most didactic poem of my life.”

(István Kemény in an interview to Litera)

Preparatory Visit

“Cain, sir, don’t fear us.
We came to you for your life,
but not to take it away, just to make a note of it.
We would chat, and if you agree,
we'd occasionally flip on the camera –

We don’t expect an immediate reply.
This is just a draft of the contract.
Think it over, for the moment
we ask nothing else, just think it over –

Eventually you should say something.
You should break your silence.
Challenges of global proportions
touch human civilization –

There is a crisis of values, Cain, sir!
A need for a credible word,
the people are seeking a father
and the Bible says, you –

We won’t even ask
about your ill-fated brother,
because of whom you live thus, grumbling,
far from the clamor of the world, as it were,
you decide whether or not to bring it up –

And for the moment we won’t bother you further,
Cain, old man, for now we take our leave –

The garden gate was wide open,
soggy branches bowing across
the path, and the door to your house
opened at the push of the handle.
On the way out should we lock the door,
tie the branches to one side,
close the garden gate,
or leave it all as it was?”

The Chorus of Neighbors

“That was Cain? Really? You don’t say!
That little old man? Him? Who would have thought!
He always greeted one so humbly.
Wait a sec... he was the one who caused the flood!
No, that was Noah, come on, we knew that!
So he was hiding away here. It’s all coming together.
Indeed, now thinking back there really was
A sort of strength to his gaze.
Along the fence, if he just stood there,
The dogs took fright and didn’t bark.

Why did they kill him? Look, he had money, that’s certain!
Or he knew something, some secret.
Or they broke in, he was asleep, but he stirred,
Or a Jew took revenge on him.
And blame it on someone else for all we care,
Believe us, a Jew did it.
And he was right to do it, no matter what anyone says,
One has to take revenge on the sinful.
Cause they set up some kind of camp
And then they shut them up in it...

Oh, so they didn’t kill him? Then pardon.
He simply set off into the world?
And all these police? And the cameramen?
Oh, 'cause some miracle took place here!
Cain lived here? Really? You don’t say!
That little old man? Him? Who would have thought!
He always greeted one so humbly.
Wait a sec... he was the one who caused the flood!”

(and so on.)


Who knows anymore who it was, for it happened long ago,
Magellan perished, let’s just say it was Drake.
Set off westward bound, arrived from the east,
Or perhaps the other way round, could be switched,
The important thing is he became a hero, the queen’s court
And the brothel riff-raff hailed him alike,
      A ball that arrives and topples every wooden doll,
      And convinces every thick head that the globe is round. 

Who knows anymore what it was, perhaps it wasn’t true at all,
One question, if indeed there was a question at all, just a deep voice the scandal,
And perhaps they didn’t even raise it in the ceremonious silence,
And thus the answer spoiled no festivities: “Well, not order!”
And thus the rabble could not snap back: “Death!”
And perhaps this is why today we write today as we do.
      The question is: “What comes of it, then,
      If, bearing westward, you may arrive from the east?”
Let’s leave this brothel, together with Shakespeare’s day,
And journey forward, or perhaps we shall go back,
Forward to yesterday evening, or back to Cain,
Who, according to some rabbis, quibbled thus with the Lord:
“Neither law nor judge!” Or rather, all is allowed,
and ever since these words wander, gone wild.
      The murderer, if proudly he rises and steps anew,
      Will elsewhere be innocent, for the soul is round. 

And here is Cain again, and it is yesterday evening:
He rises from his bed, aged, yet not insubstantial,
Turns off the tv, flushes a toilet, wipes his hands,
Lies down, he’s rounded the earth again today,
In procession beneath him all his past deeds,
And all proper, fitting, for each was done by inner command…
      And he takes offence, today again, if their weight falls upon him:
      You sent me round and round, my Lord, don’t say that you live!

Little Monkey

The head hasn’t time for you now. It drones.
The park hasn’t time for you now. Drones.
The traffic hasn’t time for you. Drones.
They drone.

The city hasn’t time either. It too drones.
The night sky is busy too. Drones.
The air conditioners, they too drone.

Nothing has time right now. Everything drones.
They haven’t time for you, they are working.
They are divvying up the soft murmur.

Play by yourself, little monkey.

Translated by Thomas Cooper

Tags: István Kemény