Age Meets Beauty

György Faludy (1910-2006) was a Jewish-Hungarian poet who spent his best writing years in exile or prison. My Happy Days in Hell, his seminal and enormously readable autobiography, has just been released by Penguin Classics in London for the centenary of his birth.

1.  REFUGEE, 1940

Like our hosts, we thought the French army
was the mightiest under the sun.
And what did it show to the German Nazis?
Beaten backsides on the run.

The French distrust and despise us aliens  
for fleeing to their land for salvation.
It was their own deceit, not ours,
that callously brought down this nation.

They boast: defeat will bring them peace
(too bad for the Jews). Oh, hunky-dory...
Few of them know that it’s only the start
and very far from the end of the story.

The Nazis will settle into their homes.
They’ll drink their cellars dry, abuse
their women and, should they object,
treat their hosts as they treat the Jews.

(11th century)

A hundred libraries and parks surrounded
the university where mosques and fountains
and jasmine, myrrh and passion's honey scent
and night revellers mingled with the olive trees.
His sword was fine, his charger black as ravens.
The Grand Vizier was quoted with devotion
by all Seville. He grew a little vain
and thus came to write his lyrics in this fashion:

Amar am I
my poetry's reputation
is carried by the winds and celebrated
beyond the deserts' dust, beyond the oceans' spray.
None but a fool knows not my name and station.
I am a golden lizard venerated
in golden sunshine. Whispering lovers say
my rhymes: the women melt through my creation.
My verses will go on, disseminated

still, even after I have passed away.

And he was cheerful, happier than I
for time had not yet marred the fading Moresques
although the walls began to shed their plaster.
He did not grasp that cities can decline
and could not guess that one day soon the fountains
would wither short of water, dry and gaping.
He failed to mark the weeds along the roads,
the rise of rubbish shrouding his horizon

and to foresee the burning of the books,
the slaughter of the lovers of his rhyme

and to perceive that neither rhymes nor gold
nor thought nor deed nor craft nor knife nor rage
nor rational conviction can support
a culture when it crumbles from decay.            

(To F. K.)

She was far from the first. We lay there naked
and, with one arm, I lightly caressed her body.
I hoped it should be quite agreeable
with just a touch of customary boredom.

It turned out to be more. I leaned above
her small left nipple musing what to compare
it with: a speck of coral? or a wild strawberry?
a tiny tulip still in bud perhaps?    

Only an instant had passed and I entered a different
reality. Had I fainted or just awoken?
Around us stillness prevailed and blue, insane
wildflowers began to whirl behind my forehead.    

It was the taste and fragrance of your skin,
not your perfume, that utterly triumphed. They thrust
away my troubles, cares and fears and sorrows,
my past and memories, leaving only this love.

Packed into one another, we two alone
inhabit the earth, our shoulders spliced in stages.
We lose our way in one another’s hair.
We meditate on one another’s navel.

You can go away but will remain with me holding
between my teeth a single strand of your hair.
I use your body’s shadow for my cover.
Say not a word, for all our secrets are shared.

Many people are never touched by such passion
and many would never dare to risk it, even
though this is all that I recognize as love:
soaring all the way from our bedsheets to heaven.

György Faludy
Translated from the Hungarian
by Thomas Land

If you have any comments on this poem, Thomas Land would be pleased to hear from you.