"It started as a routine summer night" - Smoke, cheap rum and a half-eaten pack of margarine. György Petri's infamous poem in a new translation by Owen Good, and a look back at the poet's life and influence.
That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming
It started as a routine summer night.
I wandered from pub to pub.
Perhaps I was drinking at The Polythene,
a booth beside the station at Margit Bridge
(or had it been demolished already?). I don't know,
maybe I was on Boráros Square.
These wanders would always
last until the morning or go on another day,
and led me anywhere.
In any case, I was sitting somewhere, drinking.
(Back then I drank anything – the sampling of youth.)
I didn't read in pubs yet,
no no, I didn't bury myself
in books and papers or gawk at the table-top.
I wasn’t irritated when someone spoke to me.
"You getting me something?" asked the smoke-etched
voice of a woman behind me. A young voice.
"Go on then." I said turning. Fifty
she was perhaps, standing behind me. Matted,
crusty, once light-brown hair;
gums collapsing in, chapped lips, bloodshot
whites, aquamarine eyes[i],
a yellowed, white synthetic jumper,
brown trousers, white sandals lifted from a bin.
She ordered a cheap rum and a small beer. I did not dispute her taste.
"I'll go with you for a twenty," she said. This surprised me.
The price – as prices go – was absurdly low (even then).
I knew the rate of the District. Twenty forints was no price.
Besides the woman would not have held her own
on Rákoczi Square, or any square for that matter.
If she was keen, the sensible thing would have been for her to pay.
But much more. And she was keen. "Come on,
I want to," she said "I'd really love to."
I never could hurt a woman in her womanhood
(unless it was my express intention).
But this …! I went; I felt I had no choice.
Why, I was restless and muddled
like stirred-up sludge back then, and
only in these Espresso-bars and Bistros
could I feel the slightest false superiority
among the true, miserable victims of hardship and homelessness.
She pulled me along a lengthy street, snuggling up.
Awkward, but a true part of contrition. I put my arm around her,
and we landed in a basement, countless steps
led downwards, lit by some unexplained semi-dimness.
The bed. A clawed-up felt strip of matted wadding.
She didn't undress, just undid herself and pushed her trousers down.
"This is how I do it when I screw in the park."
she said quite casually. I did not object,
I, too, only undid what was necessary,
and dropped my jacket – I'd rather it dirty than crumpled.
"Kiss me." Well. I guess that's unavoidable.
Her mouth smelt stale, her lips were scaly, her tongue,
the roof of her mouth dry, like an empty sardine tin,
my tongue prodding around inside – the sharp edge drawing blood any second.
I was terrified I'd presently throw up in her mouth,
yet at the thought I felt the urge to laugh,
my tears poured on to her rough skin, while
I got the better of my oesophagus. Between her legs
it was tight and dry. It hardly relaxed or grew moist.
"Hang on," she said, and gouged her fingers
into some half-eaten margarine, massaging it into herself,
then took some more.
Is she going to EAT from that?
"Can I wash myself off somewhere?" I asked later.
She pointed to a pipe-end. The water spurt out and pure
soaked my trousers through, as though I had pissed myself.
"I suppose that's part of it too." I muttered. A fifty
was all I had. She shook her head, "I said a
twenty, but it's not a price. It was me who wanted to. The twenty,
I just need one is all." "So give me change," I said,
"you see, I don't have a twenty". "You're an idiot,"
she said, "If I could give change for a fifty
I wouldn't need the twenty." A reasonable point.
And the next second she’s asleep mouth open.
I shrugged (well if you're so proud),
I stuffed the fifty in my pocket, found my jacket,
then groped my way up the steps.
That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming,
to emerge, clothes of beige and shirt all-white shining,
on up these broken steps towards some purity,
to where wind blows and white foam spatters,
grimly absolving, coldly threatening,
stairs of nausea, unremitting downward ascent,
a summer dawn, nineteen sixty-one.
[i] Rubbish. You have aquamarine eyes.
The woman? What do I know.
Like copper sulphate in a trough of water?
I just want to offer that poor creature something,
perhaps, your eye colour and a rare word,
so she wouldn’t be such a repulsive wreck,
and myself somewhat more understandable.
Photos: litera.hu - Tibor Keresztury's book on György Petri
György Petri (1943-2000) is a poet of the later twentieth century who merits a greater recognition in world literature than he currently receives. Petri is perhaps best known to foreign readers for his criticism of the Kádár’s “goulash communism”, a regime which offered superficial liberties. But at home in Hungary Petri is not merely remembered as a political poet, but for his quick tongue, his almost alarmingly coarse and erotic love poetry, or simply smoke, cheap wine and food. A selection of his poetry exists in fine translation by George (György) Gömöri and Clive Wilmer published in two collections: Night song of the Personal Shadow (Dufour Editions, 1992) and Eternal Monday (Bloodaxe, 1999).
I Am Stuck, Lord, on Your Hook
I am stuck, Lord, on your hook.
I've been wriggling there, curled up,
for the past twenty-six years
alluringly, and yet
the line has never gone taut.
It's now clear
there are no fish in your river.
Lord, if you still have hopes,
choose some other worm. Being
among the elect
has been beautiful. All the same,
what I'd just like to do, right now,
is dry off and loll about in the sun.
Petri was born in Budapest 22 December, 1943. His family origins show the myriad of national colours of historical Hungary: Serbian, Jewish tradesmen, but there also happen to be Bunjevci (Serbian Roman Catholic) peasants among his ancestors, as well as Swabian, Slovakian and Moravian settlers.
He started out as a relatively young poet, at 11 or 12 years old, intrigued by possibilities hidden within language. Compared to his generation he was also able to publish relatively young; publishing his first poems in Élet és Irodalom (‘Life and Literature’) and Kortárs (‘Modern’) in the early 60s. He was always dissatisfied with his early works, even at the time of publication, stating later that he’d set out following in the footsteps of Attila József, but that he’d soon found that to be impossible. In HLO Lajos Jánossy writes:
“This tradition, according to which the poet is a prophet and/or a victim, Petri deemed impossible to renew or to continue. Using this as a point of departure and relying to a great extent on Eliot, his poetry aims to create a balance between subjectivity and reflection. He puts his strength into fulfilling the poetical programme he had set himself – one whereby he aims to speak objectively about persons and personally about objects.”
Petri’s first two collections of poetry were published openly by the state press, but as he grew more openly critical with the state and sympathetic to its persecuted his political circumstances began to take the foreground, and upon attempting to publish his third collection towards the end of the 70s he was asked to remove thirty pages. Petri refused and from 1975–1988 he published his poems in samizdat. He became one of the founding editors of the illegal Beszélő journal, the most prestigious samizdat journal of the 80s, and which became legal after 1989. During the system change he was also a founding member of the Free Democrats Associastion (SZDSZ). Petri is often referred to as a political satirist, and a cultic, libertarian voice of those critical of Kádár’s regime. However, when asked by Litera, András Forgách, a close friend of Petri’s, wrote, “I’m never satisfied when Petri is named a political poet. There’s no question that Petri ever expressed desires and goals, or wrote “Hang all the Kings!”, like Sándor Petőfi, it would never have crossed his mind. He was as much of an observer in politics as he was in the pub, in the kitchen, in the garden, in the matters of his own body until the very end.”
As can be seen in the ‘That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming’, Petri’s language is objective, bare and unadorned, coarse rather than refined, arguably to the point of base vulgarity, but beneath the bleak exterior lies purity. In Litera’s ‘Writers on writers’ column (Írok írokról) Imre Bartók described him as being “in this sense similar to Rilke: behind Rilke’s mannerisms, affectations and strutting was a dim, dark world, into which he wasn’t too happy to venture, as “every angel is terrifying”, “the onset of terror we’re still just able to bear”. With Petri it’s the opposite, and behind the common, vulgar elements there is something much purer to unfold.” Petri has is often compared to Eliot, a major influence on his work, and Clive Wilmer, the poet who translated his work, compared him to Jonathan Swift for his satirical tone.
Looking back at his influence on Hungarian poetry, perhaps rather than absolve the Hungarian poet like some form of prophet, Petri might have tainted the young poet instead, Imre Bartók continues in Litera, “I think Petri poisoned contemporary poetry. With nicotine if nothing else, everyone knows he causes severe addictions. But I’d add that this poisoning isn’t Petri’s fault; it’s simply an unlucky circumstance: you can’t accept and adopt this subjectivity, these poses, this holy trinity of food, cheap wine, and smoking as a ready basis. For many of us in our youth, we didn’t question the validity of this, we made Petri our own in such a way that we didn’t problematize elements of his poetry or of his attitude as a whole… Someone should write a study on how many cigarette references have been made in the last ten years of young Hungarian poetry.”
In 1998 Petri announced that he had pharyngeal cancer. In 1999 he compiled a collection of his poems written in the last years, and published them in the same year at Magvető Publishing House. He continued to regularly publish poems in journals afterwards, including in Holmi, Jelenkor and Élet és Irodalom.
He died 16 July 2000, and was buried 22 July in Dunalmás.