A monumental poem by recently deceased Ferenc Juhász on the death of painter Simon Hantai. Translated by John Batki.
Death. Death. Death. Death. Death. The Dead. Simon Hantai.
I miss you, miss you very much! Friend, Simon, anguished steadfast loyal-
disloyal fellow companion of my childhood, youth, manhood
you Ungarn-Deutsch genius-painter-mathematician from Bia, you Bolyai-
brained universe re-formulator, stubborn and lonely veiled
in mystery, wandering mourning successor to J.S. Bach and Handel,
what’s become of you since we last embraced in Paris, in
the little street flowing into the green mercies of the Cité
Université, in the studio building on Rue Georges Braque,
seated at the oilcloth-covered white table, sipping tea,
munching ripe brown figs and yellow downy quince, arguing,
smoking, shouting and around us your loft walls with giant mystery
grid-paintings and red, yellow, Prussian blue, violet, Grunewald-green
moral anguish-frames, moral-gloss anguish-skeleton-banners
of solitude, creative explosions against the barrenness of being,
cosmic gardens of a mourning mind, flames of grim struggle,
augury-scrim grid-landscapes, where we had tea with your wife Zsuzsa
and my wife Kati and your double chin almost reached to your heart,
to your belly, like a huge hairy skin-sack, like an old cow’s dewlap
and your eyes glowed a green fire like the open green eyes of the corpse
on the heather in Emily Brontë’s novel, green glowing embers, magic marbles.
When Zsuzsa said on the phone that you are dead, died in your afternoon nap,
Simon I was no longer able to bury you properly. "There he lies near
Baudelaire in Montparnasse Cemetery, inside a concrete box, in a
crypt-grave," said Zsuzsa, but without earth on top, "no sod to cover him"
as your woman said, but I'll bring him some "sod," said Zsuzsa, for the dead
must be covered with "sod". And I sit here surrounded by your pictures, books,
letters, catalogues and no more will I hear the phone Sunday morning with your
gently plain, soft and clear voice: "Ferenc, this is Simon!" And the great bell rang.
Remember, Simon? But what am I saying, what am I asking?
The dead, they cannot remember. No, the dead cannot recall.
Buried in the grave, covered by beetling mounds of blessed humus,
tamped down in clay, under the rich fertile soil quilt the dead
have no memory, no shadow, only a stinking decay
in tight dark space, a puffball mushrooming flowering herd
in the diligent dark. Efflorescence in the black, black sinking away.
The dead can only have memory-graves in living hearts, in the human-love
of those teeming, scurrying, yawning, dreaming, wailing, engendering,
birthing, suckling, lamely squinting, catafalque-making
grave-digging humans on the surface of the earth. Like the world
imbibed through vision in the eyeball's rhodopsin nestled nerve-kettle,
the living, the lifeless, the rocky, mountain-chasmed, riverine,
lacustrine, marine, oceanic, desert, jungle, mammalian speeding
leather-rock emotion, wading bird, roadrunner, songbird,
cock and hen, fish, whale, sperm-whale and hammerhead,
frog and peacock, snake and swan, crocodile, parrot, ray and
dolphin-chirp's violin. And still, Simon, who are no more, you recall,
you're with me and around me in your objects and words spoken,
within me and through you, as the endless solitude of the crashingly mute,
grim and miserable multitude of stars, as the petticoat of the expanding
universe, as heat in the fire, the slow fever in the tuberculotic.
Once, and more than once, we sat in Bia on the edge of the stone parapet
on the small bridge by the alley near Holczer's store in the moon-ruled
summer night and debated if there is a God can he create a rock so big
not even he can lift, you were already painting, celebrating El Greco's spell
and I was translating Nietzsche's Zarathustra, bald and summer-tanned
adolescent daylabor kid sheaf-binding the harvest at the big landowner's estate.
And Memory-less do you remember in Paris 1960 the four hours you waited
for me by the gilded equestrian statue near the Louvre's fence along the Seine
while I was at a PEN Club banquet getting royally drunk and slowly,
barely sobering did not find you, then did, you stood in the permanganate-
purple shadow of the golden equestrian, and did not complain but brought me
back to your wife, Zsuzsa in the sidestreet behind floral-patterned grill gates in
Cité Fleur, to your sublet apartment, your son Dani near-teenage, Zsuzsa stood
hugging and rocking her second son wrapped in a colorful wool shawl, the
room with wooden stairs and gallery, a giant brown wrapping paper nailed
to the wall, and at the top of that paper began the writing, the daily expenses,
that became your rose-painting, the Holy Bible and philosophy of the Rose Writing.
Simon, Simon, Simon, how angry you were with Andre Breton then, "a fraud,
hypocrite, traitor," you yelled and the landlady scattered thick shard-leaves of tinted
broken soda bottle glass to keep Dani from her garden. And do you recall, you
shadowless, memoryless one, when we walked the farm fields in Meun, the cart tracks
to the furrows and the raw green of wheatsprouts just like a lace curtain laid on the
undulating soil. "Look Ferenc just like in Bia out in the fields can you see it's all rose-color, rose-color, rose-color, rose!" Later you said, "as I grow old my failing eyes see rose everywhere". And then there was Georges Mathieu! "Here comes Art Nouveau, pictures full of rose merengue, ornament, yellow, blue, red color foam-
rose efflorescence in place of Sacred Severity!" And so much else! In 1978 you wrote
in the catalogue you gave me, "Ferenc, we planted anemones for walnut trees, let the
birds spread it around." Oh yes! you are no longer anywhere and yet you are in me and
all around me in my room. As if we were in Meun, or Paris, on Rue Georges Braque.
Here you are in the hottest chamber of my heart, floating in my blood, like some Red
Angel, Simon, Simon, Simon Hantai. And you are like Pierre Matisse's chapel,
lit by lilac light, flaming its lilac crystal-splendor interior in that small hillside
town above Nice, and there in the Fondation Maeght artists' retreat that rose-
lit rose-colored silence! Your anguished, gorgeous and crumpled-folded-triumphant
works born out of Mama's darkblue-black apron, buried into Mama's apron folded
into squares and ironed to a sharp edge, in Blue Eternity's cemetery, for Le mur, dits:
Manteaux de la Vierge, and Suite-La porte, dits: Les Catamurons, and Suite-Maman!
Maman!, dits: La Saucisse, and Suite ou non: Les Meuns. And where is that harvest,
and pig-sticking loot: blood sausages, liver sausages, kolbasz, and porkchops
your mother sent with me, to Paris by way of London I brought them to you, my friend
with the red hair and greasy green leather vest. And what else was there? White on
white, and Pour Pierre Reverdy! And now only the silence of decomposition. No
more the silence of the pupil of the eye, no pupil taboo, no pupil muteness, pupil-
prison. Pupil-bereavement, pupil-rose, merciless pupil-mercy! Oh, and your Sexe-
Prime! Hommage à Jean Pierre Brisset! Your enormous curtain of pain scrawled all
over with black ink and your stallion-rage triumph, the ancestress of the Sacred Rose
Image hangs here in my cosmic heart, just like a black lace flag of mourning, blissfully
thrust in windless space into a mound of stars, a flaming heap of heavenly bodies, the
tousled whinnying banner of rebellious sexuality, black curse-joy woven of black-
bearded medusas and galloping blind steeds. That Sexe-Prime! It is like a mythological
giantess' hairy mat covering her genital lily, a shaggy and thick beard-shawl, a hair-lava
sexual-desire-sheltering sack spread over a giant cunt, matted, coarse, graceful with
its gravitation-cruel magnetic star. Like a pile of black silk stockings. Like a withered tree's hairthin rootlets fanned out over a snowy hill. Like a vast teeming formicating
anthill-volcano in a forest clearing's sunlit golden circle! Black hair-cascade panty on
a giant woman's naked loins: the stormcloud of the Resurrection-tomb. Where are you?
I don't know. Yet I do know where you are. There you lie on your back in that tight
narrow taut wooden box like a violin in a black violin case, there in black decay,
your body a white foam-rose garden in blind death-passion, your mouth shriveled,
your tongue dissolved, only your teeth filled with gold sticking out of that rattle-less
kettle-cave, that open demise-twilight like snowdrops in the silence-wrinkled dead leaves
of a winter forest, like the white-washed lattice gate in a fence where silent sparrows
sit on the triangular lath tips. And where is your mother, Náni néni, Mrs Simon Handl,
nee Anna Wachter? You can no longer recall, only the live body, the live anguished brain
can recall and I do, for you, bearing your shadowless non-being's weight: there I stood
by your dying stroke-felled mother's eiderdown-quilted bedside and your brother
said, "Mama, Feri Juhász is here," but Mama just stared and could not speak, her
eyes like giant lilac plums in her brittle white hair, like black butterflies black stars of
mourning in live betrayal. They were making a film about me and our birthplace Bia
at the time, and I'd said to the nimble feverish film crew lads, "I'll visit Simon's mother,
old Mrs Hantai, wait for me boys." And the next day, when they were filming the houses,
your brother said, standing forlorn and orphaned outside, "All of a sudden Mama started
to kick up and flail her bare legs like a cowherd or swineherd wielding the stout, veined, brown knobby staff slapping the shit-besmirched cow's flank, or the rose-whiskered butt of the pigs, driving them to the muddy grass-edged reedy mire at the village
edge. And she kept kicking until she died. Then I had Mama washed, and dressed,
and I put Mama in her coffin." O dear Anna Wachter! O my dear older friend
Simon! Where are you two? In the ground. But perhaps not really there!
And you are no longer in Paris, although you lie in Montparnasse Cemetery.
And where is Babsie, and where Helene Cixous, the Algerian philosopher?
And where is Derrida? And where M. Foucault, and where the conceptual past?
And here are the postcards you sent from the Transylvanian Alps where they'd
taken you from college to dig trenches. Then when you ran away from the army
I brought food and a revolver in a wicker basket to you in the vinyard on the hill.
And you're no longer in Meun, in "Mon" as the French peasants said, although
that's where you felt at home as if in Bia, in Meun where M. Fournier, your art
dealer for a promissory note bought you the farmhouse by the brook and the acacia
woods, its enormous stable made sacred by you, through you it became your busy studio,
inside it the pride of creation and its humility too. Up on the long whitewashed stable walls your paintings, the gridwork blue, red, yellow and violet crumpled-knotted-
untied-stretched canvases hung nailed up, like consecrated tapestries in a church
as on the floor we treaded upon your paintings with surrealistic lizard skeletons and green-veined dead leaf-sliver piles, as on the leaf mould of antediluvian primeval forests
and in the garden from fence to quince tree an endless gridwork blue canvas slept
on the ground, on it gigantic four-leaf clovers, miracle-flattened butterflies,
and in the middle of this blue imitation heaven-sky sat your glittering candle-flame pure
virgin little daughter Anna. O yes the quince trees, quince trees you sprayed so often
also cast their spell on the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. And this philosopher who had a heart transplant, Nancy, this archangel apparition, together with another philosopher,
your friend Derrida, visited Bia to see your birthplace, and the fishpond at the end of
Szél Street. Remember, you called me one Sunday when the bells rang, "Nancy
telephoned from Bia." O yes! The vast pond isinglass-silent at the end of the street!
It was like a giant silver shoe, a man's shoe with long green sedge for shoelaces, ears-
of-wheat fish, black snake-whiskered thick mushroom-lipped catfish, one-leg
wading birds like upside down musical notes, glittering isinglass wave-muteness,
pleated intrusions, in winter dressed like ice-knights, in summer treefrog-green
heart-whisper-splendor stunning flower-beauty, and copper-gray sparrows cheeping,
dream-black crows cawing, the red fox with triangular head like a praying mantis
sniffing the air in the channels, running in pondweedy mucky water among walls of colt-hair-crested deep-green reeds. This is the pond within you and this is the pond within me.
And you are in this pond's gigantic silver shoe, and I too am in this pond, in the
deep watery hollow of the silver-leather titanic life-shoe. Yes, that pond! And its
mud-encrusted edge, that was like my tiny body dotted with black smallpox pustules,
the pink garden roseblossom's fly-blown head-petals, it was like my small-pox-riddled infant body wrapped up, my skull a hairy dandruff-nut, and my arms, hands, back, skinny yellow chest, my whole body down to the ankles. My mother said, "We laid you in a bedsheet and bathed you in a tub filled with hot water, rolling you in the hot water, pulling the sheet side to side, me and your father." Ever since then, whenever my hair was clipped down to a stubble my skull's dome surface was pocked with dents as if my infant head had been blasted with shotgun pellets, as if the sculptor Béni Ferenczy or László Márton had pressed old copper pennies into a clay head. O my clever, courageous mother, o my clever and courageous father, who cured me without medical assistance the way the crucified Jesus' wounds were anointed with sacred ointment by the fingertips of the saintliest parents, Mary and the carpenter Joseph, so did my parents anoint me to keep
the blackened pustules from bursting. They smeared me with oil, and myrrh, through all
sorts of fevers, unmourning and yet with a silent mournful surrender.
Thus I became the marked one, the appointed one chosen for life, for creation. Yes, that pond! with its shallow-glaze water's edge reeds, rushes, cattails and in the mute waters of Eastertime, in the silvery shoe's toe-cap there were crushed slivers of sickle-shaped arcs
from broken soda bottles to prevent us kids from swimming there. Because the guard
wasn't always there with his double-barreled shotgun loaded with rock-salt filled shells. O those child-soles and heels slashed by sliver-sickles from soda water bottles,
youth cut up and sliced to the ankle! Yes, that lake, glimpsed by Jean-Luc Nancy from a distance as if star-embers were burning in the eyeball, blind blood-collection in the vision-kettle of black pupils. Bullfrogs were seated atop yellow-green nerve-network duckweed rafts, their heads pointy like De Falla's tricorne hat, their integument striped like brown corduroy and Eastern Orthodox diamond cross dragonflies circled shishtering
over this frog-heaven, their flitting shadows reflected in frog-eye pupil-mirrors like golden thrones. And you, whose rose-gold enormous writing-thicket sacrificial painting
hangs on the wall of the Hantai room at the Beaubourg, a painter's knife-scraped Star
of David in the center of flame petals, with painting-umbilicus and below the navel
a cross. And you and I! And I, and you! First, Budapest. Then, for you, Rome, the
Hungarian Academy. Once, when I told you I was going to New York with
my fellow poets, you said, "Look up Norman Mailer, he lives in Greenwich
Village. See if he still has my painting! You know, he and I sat skinny and poor
on the Tiber's bank, soaking our bare feet in the water, sat there living and dead
poor, empty pockets, penniless. Then came the mailman, looking for Mailer, bringing
ten thousand dollars for him: his great novel, his wartime epic The Naked and the Dead had just received the Pulitzer Prize. Right away he bought one of my paintings!"
Then Paris! Simon, when, joking, I told you about Pierre Szekely who gave me in
Budapest the lovely ink drawing he did for my poem, there he stood in a hallway like a
Hindu in Delhi in a marble hotel palace, white-turbanned, a necklace of porcelain orbs
the size of apricots smiling around his neck, he stood bare-footed in red silk pants
and kissed me, as did Raghuvir Sahay, the poet Sahay during the leprosy-memorial in India. You said at the time, "Don't make fun of him Ferenc, they were the ones who took us in when Zsuzsa and I arrived in Paris!" And now, the cemetery! Montparnasse Cemetery! Which is like single-humped camels dug into the ground, up to their humps.
And where is Breton by now, and where is Max Ernst, and where Giacometti, and where
Henri Michaux, and where is Aragon? And what became of G. Mathieu, from whose
cosmos-vast paintings the paint dropped in thick sausage hunks, like in my childhood the
horseshit dropping from the fat red-rose-opening rumps of the horses mounted by cops
with their silver-lace helmets parading across Margit Bridge and street cleaners with tin
box brooms swept the horse's ass eruption slimy hay-dumplings into tin-heart troughs.
And on Georges Mathieu's paintings emptied of paint only thick yellow bands remained
like the white foam trails left by snails on the black garden soil soaked by a summer rain.
Simon, where are you? At M. Fournier's vast gallery behind the Galerie Kleberg bookstore you showed me hundreds of your paintings, the surrealistic ones and the flame-
naive skull-mirrored holy wonders, the Tree of Self-Importance that became the cover
of my selected poems titled Flowering World Tree. And all the beauty of my books stems from your power, Simon. For your immortal oeuvre is the majestic triumph of moral anguish, the power of your works the victorious solitude of brooding purity wearing
a Saint Ignatius of Loyola hat, Saint Thomas' prayer-struggle while preaching to
beautiful tired peasants. There you sit in front of God in a brown bent-wood chair
facing God. And you behold God and God beholds you. Just as once, as you told me,
you sat for a week in a chair turned toward a studio corner, and stared steadfast at the
open-book white walls of that corner-triangle. But saw only answerless eyeball-solitude,
a thankless void. And walls, walls, walls, walls, walls, walls. And in your heart, God's
Holy Birdnest! You sit, like my Uncle Jani the house-painter, unemployed, barefoot on
a stool, eyeing the neighboring house's whitewashed side wall for a whole week. There
he sat, as you did, my Friend. You, moral heaven doused with hellfire. Hovering heights sans angels. And walls! Walls! Walls! Walls! Walls! Walls! Walls! Walls! Walls! Walls!
Translated by: John Batki
Tags: Ferenc Juhász