03. 25. 2008. 15:30

The French Prisoner (two poems)

János Pilinszky (1921–1981)

"János Pilinszky is, for me, one of the great European poets of an extraordinary generation: that of Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert, and Yves Bonnefoy." (Clive Wilmer) – Two new translations by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri.

The French Prisoner
 
If only I could forget him, the Frenchman
I saw outside our quarters, creeping round
near daybreak in that density of garden
as if he'd almost grown into the ground.
He was just looking back, peering about him
to check that he was safe here and alone:
once he was sure, his plunder was all his!
Whatever chanced, he'd not be moving on.
 
He was already eating. He was wolfing
a pilfered turnip hidden in his rags.
Eating raw cattle feed. But he'd no sooner
swallowed a mouthful than it made him gag;
and the sweet food encountered on his tongue
delight and then disgust, as it might be
the unhappy and the happy, meeting in
their bodies' all-consuming ecstasy.
 
Only forget that body… Shoulder blades
trembling, and a hand all skin and bone,
the palm cramming his mouth in such a way
that it too seemed to feed in clinging on.
And then the furious and desperate shame
of organs galled with one another, forced
to tear from one another what should bind them
together in community at last.
 
The way his clumsy feet had been left out
of all that gibbering bestial joy; and how
they stood splayed out and paralyzed beneath
the body's torture and fierce rapture now.
And his look too – if I could forget that!
Retching, he went on gobbling as if driven
on and on, just to eat, no matter what,
anything, this or that, himself even.
 
Why go on? It turned out that he'd escaped
from the prison camp nearby – guards came for him.
I wander, as I did then in that garden,
among my garden shadows here at home.
"If only I could forget him, the Frenchman" –
I'm looking through my notes, I read one out,
and from my ears, my eyes, my mouth, the seething
memory boils over in his shout:
 
"I'm hungry!" And immediately I feel
the undying hunger which this wretched creature
has long since ceased to feel, for which there is
no mitigating nourishment in nature.
He feeds on me. More and more hungrily!
And I'm less and less sufficient, for my part.
Now he, who would have been contented once
with any kind of food, demands my heart.
 

Harbach 1944
 
I keep on seeing them: a shaft
rears and the moon is full –
there are men harnessed to the shaft.
It’s a huge cart they pull.
 
They are dragging a massive wagon,
which grows as the night does,
their bodies split between the claims
of hunger, trembling, dust.
 
They bear the road, the horizon,
the beet fields shivering,
but only feel the burdening land,
the weight of everything.
 
Their neighbors’ fallen flesh
seems stuck into their own,
as in each other’s tracks they sway,
to living layers grown.
 
Villages keep clear of them
and gates avoid their feet.
The distances approaching them
falter and retreat.
 
Staggering, they wade knee-deep
in the dark, muffled sound
of clattering clogs, as if unseen
leaves carpeted the ground.
 
Silence accepts their frames. Each face
is dipped in height, as if
straining for the scent of troughs
in the sky far off.
 
And like a cattle-yard prepared
for the herded beasts outside –
its gates flung open violently –
death, for them, gapes wide.
 
Translated by Clive Wilmer & George Gömöri
 
These translations were first published in Poetry Magazine, "The French Prisoner" in March 2008; "Harbach 1944" in April 2007.
 
Previously on HLO
Gospel Aesthetics: János Pilinszky died 25 years ago
Poems by János Pilinszky

Tags: János Pilinszky (1921–1981)