Funeral Song by Ágnes Gergely

Translated from the Hungarian by Thomas Ország-Land (November 2010)

Ágnes Gergely (b. 1933), poet, novelist, scholar. A proud descendant of generations of rabbis and men of letters, she was one of the first major Hungarian writers to explore in public print during the Soviet era the long-suppressed experience of East European Holocaust survivors. She is a recipient of the prestigious Kossuth Literary Prize.





The road turns by the press-house and a white

mud village greets me huddling to the right,


blue winding polished hill road that I see

with an intruder's curiosity


with not a soul just trees and tidy lines

of modest homes with aerials and vines


past wine vaults and beneath Pannonia's sky

a grey prophet — a little donkey — ambles by


she waves back with a mother-of-pearl ear —

the prosperous plebeian class dwelled here


when carts of travelling merchants left a track

along these gentle hills five centuries back:


calm bakers of brown loaves and honey-bread

they watched above the mounting thunderhead


behind them a castle resounded with music and dance

of the Renaissance with Italian elegance


and roads took root wherever their carts would ply

their trundling trade beneath Pannonia's sky —


in his brown caftan tightly wrapped, one day

my own forefather might have come this way


and where I stand he might have glanced and slowed

his pace to preach with caution by the road


perhaps that other one, more sober, plain

made fancy saffian footwear by the lane


as his wife with amber eyes surveyed the ground

and kept her guard against a hostile hound


and a toddler played about her gathering

herbs from these very slopes and she would sing —


their psalms and their tanned leathers' scent would fill

the air and travel far beyond the hill


surviving winters, with the gales they flew

and from the maggots' entrails rose anew…


these lands caress them softly like a shroud

they came unasked and graceful like a cloud


they were, as I protect and hold to my

own soil, protected by Pannonia's sky:


both ways the road winds blue beyond your span

so leave this land and run, run… if you can.





In memoriam my father


I do not cherish memories

and even those I hold I do not safeguard.

I do not seek forgotten graveyards.

Organic chemistry does not move me.


Yet, at times like this, towards November

as fog-damped windows seal this room

and I gasp for air and relief, I am surprised

— not knowing where your body lies —

when I'm confronted by your odd gestures

arising through the waters of my mind.


I feel your long and nervous fingers as they

arrange a Thermos flask and a pocket knife

with an old can opener in the gaping knapsack,

and also warm underclothes and a prayer-book

and under the weightless load you still can carry

I share the creaking surprise of your back.

I sense your departure. Elegant tramp, you set out,

you'd never leave the house, you only set out,

and look back laughing, aged just 38 years,

and you nod and you gesture, I'll soon be back

— your birthday should have been the next day —

though you whimper inwards like a Medny?nszky portrait

and you wave — and how and how you wave!


Sign on my doorjamb, you've remained:

and Ferdinand Bridge, the sludgy march, the bars,

the fatal empty weakness, the gorging of grass —

forget these freak inventions of the mind.

For I have lied: I see you often

beneath the stifling, low November sky…

You're setting out with me, breathing within me.

I'm letting your tears go dribbling down my throat

and above, where it has no business, that thin

Memphis cigarette… struck from your mouth

is burning through the skin of a star.


THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent based in Budapest.


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