LIKE A RIVER
For James Fenton
Floating among the ice, these peaceful
soft, curly shapes reflect the sky.
The river rocks them lightly, gently,
their pace appearing slow and graceful
beneath the evening’s silver mantle.
We cannot see the fish below, but
discern from here a place of worship
that dominates this wounded landscape.
The fish cannot disturb the dead.
Indifferent, the murdered lie
swelling our rivers of history.
A friendly warlord has purged a delicate
threatening issue of principles
(which we regret). You must have heard:
a war afar stirs passions once
it has occurred on television.
They’ve left behind a tidy village
of great importance -- once, to them,
the toil of ruined generations,
a scent of sweat, the stench of fear,
spent cartridges trampled into the snow
and children recoiled from adult ways,
potential witnesses still in hiding
in crumpled bedrooms, to be dispatched
in their own time (which we regret).
Others I know marched calmly at gunpoint
and left their clothes and shoes on the shore.
They were received by the surging waves
tied in pairs to prevent survival,
to float forever towards the sea
-- rejected by oblivion.
We have erected a monument
to urge humanity: Never Again!
...A monument secured by our stubborn
pillars of fear that make us insane and
succumb to the lure of the tranquil river.
The icy current coils beyond
our will and wailing. Hear this dirge
composed for you and me, undated.
It mourns the living. We calculate
our fate in sums of overkill.
Flippant flight on a butterfly's wings --
life, adult life, life, life:
born from coincidence, changing, passing,
soaring above the riverbank's grass,
shaped from the yearnings of distant childhood,
venturing over the menacing waves,
lured by the nectar of pulsing flowers,
sharing the sun with invisible stars.
LIKE A RIVER
Like a river, you carry me down
washing over my senses
the fort of my seven skins has abandoned
the rite of defence to the waves
unsheltered, my nerve-raw flesh in its freedom
spatters into the current
like a river, you carry me down
between singing, mountainous shores.
I begin with that overcrowded single bed,
my home in the winter of ‘44/45
when public affairs assumed a dismaying mask
and the threat of panic was graver even than death.
It wasn’t very wide and it lacked a headboard,
its pillows were soaked in moisture from the wall
inside the entrance of the air-raid shelter
beneath a Nazi Arrowcross Party centre.
I shared that bed through the siege of Budapest
with Irene, my mother, and my two big brothers,
one just 11, the other turning 15,
a Jewish family petrified in hiding.
A word for genocide had not been invented.
My dysentery was beyond control. Its stench
mingled with the cooking smells and the odour
of fear polluting the musty, smoke-filled cellar.
And the cellar was full of homicidal Nazis
at the brink of hysteria, under constant bombardment,
awaiting their fate as the Soviets approached the gates.
The law of the siege prescribed the execution
of carriers of communicable diseases
-- like me. I think I was saved by the cotton wool
that I nightly stole from a nearby first-aid station.
It blocked the loo, and that was blamed for the stink.
My desperate mother had sought refuge from Auschwitz,
with a stack of doctored documents I still treasure,
in that howling den of hatred. A daring ploy:
she posed as the wife of an officer at the front
and claimed a vacant flat in that elegant building
that had been cleared of decent folks by the Nazis.
We were hardly allowed to use our looted flat,
its windows blown with the blasts, between the blackouts.
Irene had engaged in a calculated act
of audacious gamble, deliberately seeking out
the hunters, the hunters! the hunters, for they would least
expect to find the hunted within their pack.
Even I knew the odds. But I have survived to write this.
There might have been two alternatives: suicide
or terror and probable death in the ghetto, exposed
to hunger, disease and the fancy of uniformed bandits.
Instead, we lived with them and heard their descriptions
of what they had done and seen, as we helped each other
to play our roles in an endless performance for life.
We were observed all the time by a constant queue
that stretched past our bed to the overflowing lavatory.
Questions were raised about the persistent theft
of first-aid supplies. Then, in a rare lull of the air-raids,
the Gestapo swooped one day to arrest Irene.
And how we could act!… Victor the Wolf appeared
in the dusty cellar inspecting the huddled children.
A little rant he was, but preened like a hero: his Hitler
moustache was sculpted, his uniform carefully pressed.
His three-quarter burgundy leather jacket glowed,
his gun holster glittered in the paraffin light.
He was blunt: The game is up, we know who you are.
Your mother is off to the Danube, feeding the fish.
But you can save yourselves... If you are smart
and admit to the truth while you may, you will be safe
in a home we run in the region for well brought up Jewboys.
What do you say? A wink: You know you can trust me.
But George, the oldest brother, confronted him:
How dare you slander the sons and the wife of an officer
above your rank? I shall report you at once!
Paul piled it on: You only act big with children
behind our father’s back while he’s doing his duty...
Go on, be brave at the front! As for me, I dried
my eyes to stare very hard, and tried not to blink.
Did our robust retort confuse the ambush?
What else might explain why Victor failed his chance
for the Arrowcross test of race -- to look for proof
beneath the duvet in a country where only
Jews and some foreigners had their sons circumcised?
And Irene? More than six decades later, I reconstruct
the drama from her old stories, probably accurate.
She was small and strong. She was protected by passion.
A butcher's daughter in love with her gentleman husband,
at 37 she must have been at her prime,
entirely devoted to her refusal to die.
Expressive, widely set eyes, high cheekbones, arched brow.
Her firm and generous body was tried by hunger.
In a bygone existence, a mischievous brother once chased
me into the bathroom where she stood reaching towards
the towel: she smiled down me like a goddess and stamped
into my heart the glory of female beauty.
Now she stood in the over-draped drawing room
of a fortified Schwab Hill villa in Buda, adjacent
to Hotel Majestic, the base of Eichmann's detachment
administering the racial cleansing of Europe.
Before her, a line of suspects led up to an "expert"
of human classification, in charge of their fate.
The woman in front of my mother was a brunette,
like Irene, but you could not tell if she was a Jewess.
Distinctive Jewish features do not exist.
The disgruntled specialist wielding the final decision
was weary of whining. The woman at last
before his polished desk was too frightened to whine.
My mother watched as the woman unfolded some papers,
to be dismissed with a flick of his manicured fingers.
His hand reached forward in a continuing movement
as he rose from his chair and almost gently took hold
of her chignon hung lean against the nape of her neck.
He drew her head towards the electric light
above the fateful desk and carefully studied
the shape of her nose in profile. Her ashen lips
gave way to the mute, vibrating grimace of panic.
He did not pronounce a decision, just tossed the papers
into the bin. The queue moved forward again.
The whimpering woman was dragged out by two soldiers.
Irene then seized the pink hand and shook it with cordial
admiration. My dear doctor, she purred,
you amaze me. That Jewess might have deceived me.
But you have unmasked her. Accept my congratulations.
The official recognized a voice with authority.
Oh, madam, he clucked in toners of genuine modesty,
we do what we can, but the task is frightfully hard.
The devious Jews never cease to invent new tricks
to subvert the cause… But why are you here? She sighed
with suffering patience. He added: Our agents are urged
to be vigilant at this hour of national peril.
Still, they must answer for disturbing your peace.
And he sent her home to avert yet further distress,
escorted by four officers, with his apologies.
The vehicle's headlights were switched off: a precaution
despite the restful pause in the Allied bombing.
The empty, snowbound, freezing streets were lit
by the brilliant fireworks of the cloudless sky.
My abused and defenceless city lay numbed by terror.
A rumble of artillery fire bounced over
the Buda hills as the party crossed the wide river.
The crackle of small arms fire told of the raids
of Arrowcross gangs on civilian shelters, staged
under pretext of hunting for Jews and deserters.
Few people ventured out between the curfews,
mostly women and children, driven by hunger.
Their young men were lost. Even the old and some boys
unfit to fight were being deployed in the path
of the Soviets by the German occupiers
and their pitiless local “brothers-in-arms”.
And the city was being destroyed by the bombs so fast
that untended pain and panic reigned in the ruins.
Irene was of this city and knew every alley
far better than any military driver.
True to herself, she was to remain for life
faithful to her love of this treacherous city.
City of light and city of darkness where Wallenberg
and Eichmann duelled to the death for our lives!
One to be remembered truly forever
as a torch of radiant hope for the human spirit,
the other a blot on the very soul of humanity.
The deportations to murder, from which Wallenberg
managed to rescue legions of captives, persisted
until the tightening noose of the Soviet siege
duly severed all communications.
The orgy of death went on to the end in the ghetto.
The city was made to pay a horrible price
for its foolish embrace of the Nazi rule of Europe.
Irene caught a fleeting glimpse in the twilight of shrunken
abandoned corpses here and there on the pavements.
There were no animal corpses. Like rats, the civilians
converged on the dying horses as soon as they
collapsed from fatigue, and tore them apart for food.
... At last my exhausted mother was safely delivered
to her destination by her gallant escorts.
They greeted the sentry, saluted and clicked their heels
and turned to meet their own, very different destiny.
Irene flew down the stairs -- each step a joy! --
to the children sitting up in the bed that was
our home at 66 Pannonia Street.
Adapted from the Renaissance French of Francois Villon (b.
1431) & the Hungarian of György Faludy (1910-2006)
Villon the vagabond was one of Europe’s first modern poets.
Faludy, a Jewish-Hungarian master, spent some of his best
writing years in exile or political imprisonment. This poem about
the massive Westward flow of abused stateless migrants that
characterises the 21st century is dedicated to The Exiled Writers
Ink organization of London.
I've proudly wrapped my dazzling sky around me
yet I have found one faithful friend: the fog.
In banquet halls I've heard my hunger howling.
By fires, I have endured the test of frost.
I am a prince of human kind: I've reached out
and to my thirsty lips, the mud has swelled –
My paths are marked by dead wildflowers: even
the festive seasons wither from our breath.
I stare surprised in disbelief when genial
sunshine holds my frame in still caress.
And thus across three continents I've travelled
and been despised and welcomed everywhere.
I've wrestled with the storms on shrivelled wastelands.
My dress: a leaf that graced a bygone tree.
And nothing's clearer for me than night's fragrance
and nothing darker than high noontide's bleach.
My rising sobs have burst in wary taverns
but in the graveyards I have laughed my fill,
and all I own are things I've long discarded
and thus I've come to value everything.
Upon my stubborn curls, the spell of autumn
collects its silver while, a child forever,
I cross this freezing landscape never pausing,
and live despised and welcomed everywhere.
Triumphant stars erect their vast cathedral
above me, and dew calms my feet below
as I pursue my fleeing god in grief
and sense my world through every pore in joy.
I've rested on the peaks of many mountains.
I’ve sweltered with the captive quarry-slaves.
And at my cost, I’ve learned to shun the towers
of state and curse our rulers’ power games.
My share of life has been the worst and best,
and thus I've come to find an equal ease
in squalor and beneath the whitest pillars,
a guest despised and welcomed everywhere.
I have no state, no home – nor choice but freedom.
Between my legs, the playful wind alone
blows a merry duet with my arse.
I wish that I could quell the foolish fears of
the local folks, that they would look at me
beyond my status, and would prize my gift,
this hoard of words I’ve brought to share with them.
The time may come when all my words will rhyme
and I will dip my pen in molten gold
...before I find a restful spot beneath
some wizened thicket, and remain forever
a voice despised and welcomed everywhere.