04. 28. 2010. 07:50

The complaints of a poor little child

To the English-language reader, Kosztolányi is chiefly known as the author of the novels Skylark and Anna Édes. Yet his Complaints of a Poor Little Child is one of the best known books of 20th-century Hungarian poetry. In these poems, Kosztolányi captures the world of childhood in its timelessness and sense of eternal beginning.

The chessboard
 
            A black and yellow mottled scene.
The many-colored chessmen watchfully stand guard.
My father stares for hours, he looks, he looks
and they stare back, they look at him, the chessmen.
In the thick cigar smoke they speak to him at length
like a solemn Arab.
 
***
So good to awaken
 
            My dream reels in the distance
and already I see yesterday’s room,
if drowning – from the waters of dreams –
I stretch my hand out onto the quilt.
 
Already this is shore
            Ah, but lovely it was, so lovely
the ticklish hesitancy of awakening
in the washbasin the nearby vaults of Heaven,
the piano in the next room.
 
Enchanted morning. In the darkened parlor
my father dreams at the piano.
Mendelssohn. The mists and fogs of dreams.
 
Thus I listen through a crack in the door
and I stand mute in my nightshirt amidst the notes,
as amidst the lilies of the valley of dawn.
 
***
On an April morning
to hear distant songs sudden.
From the fragrant Japanese sky
falls the sunlight, fall the quick gusts of rain
 
Spring offers its scents to the air,
on the flowering branch burns the skew-eyed light
Small, strange girls giggle
the devil is beating his wife.
 
With opened faces we drink the rain,
and into our brains the rose-tinted fever.
On the thin silver rain-threads
impish angels play the zither.
 
The land is kindled. What a storm it was
Nor did lightning blaze, nor did the Heavens roar.
But we have seen of ancestral mysteries two:
Here came the Angel and Satan.
 
***
To my grandmother’s house I was taken to sleep
one evening.
Amidst dark bushes, a garden peeped.
I do remember.
In the half-dusk there stood a glass door,
how strange it was.
The clock struck, struck, but not like at home,
it sung, it sung.
Aged clock, old chairs, tart perfume,
ghosts.
Filled with regret my tiny chest,
then it burst.
I longed to cry out, to fall and collapse,
like one who believes.
I held out my arms, and then it stopped –
Time stood still.
 
***
On that evening
the clocks struck all at once.
On that evening
all the gardens swam in moonlight.
On that evening
carriages rumbled below our gates.
On that evening
sultry words struggled in tears.
On that evening
into our room shone candle, lamp.
On that evening
we feared the shuddering darkness.
On that evening
pale were our faces, frightened
On that evening
my poor grey-haired grandfather died.
 
On that morning
all kinsfolk came, a lamenting people.
On that morning
the ancient laundresses bustled.
On that morning
they bound up his weak chin with cloth.
On that morning
slowly I was led across his ravaged room.
On that morning
they laid rusty coins across his blue eyes.
On that morning
in terror I gaped at him.
On that morning
he kept silent with his obstinate mouth.
On that morning
he was like a mute angel.
 

Dezső Kosztolányi (1885–1936)

Translated by: Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: Dezso Kosztolányi (1885–1936), Dezső Kosztolány