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Creek Running North

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July 22, 2003


This is how it is: Miklós
was born too soon,
or too late: his mother and twin died
as he came wailing into the atmosphere. It took
a bullet to shut him up
thirty-five years later.
Four years of forced labor
in fascist Hungary's mines, or cutting
the hearts from bombs
on the Ukraine front,
writing in the darkness
of blood, cold, of ripening peaches.
Translating Apollonaire. They took
his paper, beat him. One piece was written
on the label of a bottle of cod liver oil.
When his wife rifled
his two-year-old corpse's pockets,
in the mass grave
where Horthy's soldiers had put the bullet
into the leftist Jew poet's skull
she found a schoolboy's small notebook
and four new poems.

This is how it is: Julius
was born too soon. An honest man
and honorable, and in his twenties and even
if he did not love his country, Admiral Horthy's soldiers
would have conscripted him nonetheless.
He became a sergeant. Though Horthy was tough,
he was a shining white light
next to the madness out of Germany.
The Admiral did not hate Jews: Julius
thought that counted for a lot.
When the Russians captured him,
Julius was a seasoned soldier:
a leader of men
in his early twenties. For fourteen years
he mined coal for Stalin.
In Vorkuta, half a million
were buried under pavement,
in the snow-scarred fields,
in the beds of railroad tracks.
Writing in the darkness: language lessons
copied out by hand on thin strips
torn from the margins of newspapers
small enough to swallow if need be. They took
his paper, beat him. When he reached New York,
he spoke ten languages.

This is how it is: Julius had a student
born when he felt like it. It was
an odd school, run by refugees of 1956
(Stalin dead, Rakosi ousted,
surely more good was coming!
And then Nikita scattered dead hopes
like street corpses.)
This decaying steel town felt
like home, Poles and Germans
bitter winters; spring like a flame.
They made wine in the school's basement,
held mass in the foyer.
In Russian, Julius warned his student
about dreaming through life. "I was a sergeant!
Remember, I can be tough if need be!"
The student stared at the blackboard
for five years.
Pushkin, Chekhov lay on the table
untranslated, the dictionary
growing yellow on the shelf.
The student wrote in darkness, flaccid verse
for fourteen-year-old girls,
inapt heart in a schoolboy's small notebook.
Eventually, Julius gave up.

This is how it is: his student
at some point reached age twenty-one.
At the party, a friend's gift: a book;
some slim volume of verse by some Hungarian poet
crafty-looking and thin
and dead three decades, translated
by a student at an odd school
run by refugees of 1956.
The book went onto the shelf,
unread, for more than two decades.

This is how it is: Today I saw a Say's phoebe
sitting astride a long tule stem.
It was at Point Pinole, where for a century
men made gunpowder and dynamite, and
an old bunker filled with water
now bears rushes and cattails.
There are gifts that come
long before you are able to accept them.
People once put tules to use, twined them
into profitable shapes.
Now they sway crazily
woven not by hand but wind. If the weight of a bird
bends one stem permanently a little
closer to the saturated earth
this is how it is.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 22, 2003 11:32 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I'd like to leave absolute silence, wordlessness here. But then you wouldn't know that I was here, that I read your poem, and that I was moved to silence. Stunning.

Thank you for reminding me of Miklos Radnoti and his Postcards.

Posted by: Lisa Thompson at July 26, 2003 05:32 PM
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Like Lisa, I want to thank you for reminding me of Radnoti ... and of Hungarians from a time that was very much that of my parents.

But thank you, most of all, for this moving post.

Posted by: maria at September 12, 2004 07:42 PM
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