Homage to Batthyany Square in Budapest
With its alto voice, the sturdy church of St. Ann
announces the bygone victory over the Turks.
It is noon.
It’s always glorious noon when the bells peal.
Two steeples, with rain-dyed cupolas, are basking in the sun.
Angels and gold — how humility and pomp can co-exist
like melancholy and joy inside humans.
I’m savoring indigenous beer at a table
in front of a laborers’ bar.
An elderly woman wipes off the top,
her glances hunting the clients for tips.
The third mug allows me ever to be tolerant toward cars,
parked on the pavement.
Poor people are selling their things to the poor
at the Metro stop. The shoes are unpolished.
A drunk breaks the neck of a bottle,
offering it as a drinking glass.
A woman strides by on high heels,
her calves tanned and muscular—
they quiver like aspic.
Her little daughter falls behind,
sniffing flowers, and she makes
her run to her, her urgent voice
beckoning me too. I get up — the native tourist —
and tremble, enveloped by the low register
of her bell.
I was like nature: still.
I didn’t know the new language.
There was a war; we heard cannons
that silenced us.
My parents had fled Hungary;
the villagers disliked emigres:
we ate their food,
inhabited their rooms,
prepared them to bear defeat.
I was also in school— an Austrian girl volunteered to help me.
She usually arrived on skis,
then my parents ushered her into the bedroom
where we were left alone.
She made me kneel behind the mattress,
placing her books on the quilt.
She was older, alluring.
She wore her hair long like adults.
She asked me to echo German words, then massaged
my palms. She unbuttoned my fly,
and made me repeat her kisses.
You Can Tell From This Poem
Vienna, November 1956
They gathered us foreign students.
We looked shabby, pale, our shoes worn
from the road that led to freedom.
Even the bridge at Andau was rain-soaked.
The university personnel ushered us through halls
adorned with marble. Pillars blocked our way.
We were shown a room that was packed:
silk shirts, woolen sweaters, Italian shoes,
donated by the conscience of the world.
We had just battled the Soviet hordes in Budapest.
I selected two shirts, a sweater, a pair of tweed pants
from Scotland, warm boots from the U.S.
I also walked away with a battered suitcase.
They let us store our treasures in the Dean’s office,
then we were led, almost on a string like children,
to the dining hall. There was no food,
only more charming men and women, sitting behind tables.
They were selling entry to their homelands.
Was it a craft show with countries as goods?
I was offered shelter as a freedom fighter, although I wasn’t.
Australia sat beside Japan, Britain beside South Africa.
Brazil and Canada were tablemates. The U.S. and Argentina
sharing bad coffee and files. To us, used to isolation and shackles,
all choices came wrapped up with danger.
Would a kangaroo kick you to death?
Or could you end up in the gold mines of Africa?
I was leaning toward Brazil: tanned women and beaches,
the forgiving arms of Christ. Rio and samba:
what more could you aspire to at 18?
Then I remembered Grandfather who had come to America
as a pastor to immigrants back in 1915. He loved Pittsburgh,
but had to return to Europe. His wife couldn’t bear the cold,
the small pittance the coalminers
could part with for his salary, her daughter’s bad grades
because of faulty English. So would it be Pittsburgh
with its steel and great smog? The rugged houses
on the hillside. The cable cars rising slowly
up over the heads of mortals. . .
In Vienna we had to make up our minds in 15 minutes,
before the dinner, donated as well.
It wasn’t supposed to be hard: we were guaranteed to arrive
in the new country in two weeks. We had to grab
a patch of earth quickly, and not to look back.
Abandon our loyalty to birthplace and mother tongue,
write off our friends, become a model citizen
on the other side of the world.
You can tell from this poem which country I chose.
Had I Not Left Hungary
I would have become a keeper of rooms,
inspected hotel floors for crime,
hated the word “empty.”
I’d have catered to the whims of guests
and forgotten my own.
I’d have played cards in bars, stayed in rooms without a fee.
I’d have swum in the Danube, kept pace with Olympic champions.
Needless to say, I’d have become a connoisseur of Budapest,
adored baths that spout up from limestone,
promoting health through muds and minerals.
Ultimately, I’d have married a historian
to learn the mysteries of survival.
After Prostate Surgery
Your sleep is heavy and without meaning.
You’ve been assaulted—
they made you bleed on thin, porous blankets.
The blood seeps into your consciousness and doesn’t leave.
Despair wells up in you like a boulder.
You’re not ashamed of your hairy ass anymore,
of your poor, skewered penis.
You beg for relief from pain, from spasms,
touch nurses as if they were goddesses.
Hate the odor around you; dismiss the future.
You crave tranquility while listening to an old woman scream.
To a Gibbon
Sweet, you sit there, reclining,
resigned but wearing an amused face.
Hairy, with elongated arms that could circle
our house. White, after a wash,
lovely. Love should elevate you
among the living.
Please, hibernate, breathe
inside our fondness.
Stay always here
on this planet,
on an even keel,
even after we’ve
So “Iron Felix” is gone.
So this malicious landmark
is made to kiss the ground
in front of KGB Headquarters.
I used to hate
his unapproachable stance, his Trotsky goatee,
his overlong coat that tried to warm his vicious heart.
His nervous, cruel hands
when he spoke on newsreel.
He once interrogated my uncle,
my meek uncle who wanted to sleep alone
in prison because of his conscience and TB.
“Comrade, I spit blood,” Uncle said
to give credence to his verbal petition.
But Felix hissed: “Don’t spit!”
So my poor uncle in Moscow didn’t spit for three years,
just snored alongside two other infected inmates.
Today the pigeons shit on Felix’s bronze coat.
Now workers kick him in the head,
trying to change his mind, make him human.
But it’s of no use. Felix never was like us.
He stayed vicious and haughty like his statue.
They say his only love was his dog,
a half-blind, wiry mutt,
that occasionally bit him.
Remember the Time When I Flew
to you on foot? Your father locked himself away
because he knew no English.
Your mother with her crooked but creative English
greeted me. She made me perogies.
She also painted Easter eggs. As she sat at the table,
her spine was crooked as her speech.
Though I feared the genes,
I asked to marry you. You laughed,
playing the piano
with your exquisite back to me. I envied
the keys under your fingers.
I hitchhiked back to college.
I cried in two cars,
telling them my mother died.
Finches wake me at Lake Balaton.
On top of a hill, I drink
champagne, inhale the ozone
that soothes my tremulous lungs.
The roses in my yard
exude a deliriously sweet aroma.
With the almost naked guests of the lake
I converse in Hungarian,
the magnificent gift of my mother.
I watch the women on the beach,
their muscular legs
shown off in high heels.
In September I’ll be back in New Jersey
where I refine my thoughts.
In my backyard the pine
will greet me with popelike arms.
My fixed cat will sing in my lap.
Her rump a monument, she sheds her fur.
The breeze carries lean, white needles.
Japanese beetles dine on my roses,
their scent also deliriously sweet.
The Virile Gold Shimmer of Beaten Eggs
It’s not my concern whether Jesus is or isn’t,
she said. They’d never spoken
of religion before. It was mostly about papers to give,
about the fitness of typewriters.
She just made an omelette, a crescent beauty.
The virile gold shimmer of beaten eggs.
He ate fast, not looking at her—
her hair bleached, the color of the omelette.
She had a belly, a watermelon,
that stood between her and his acceptance.
Eternally pregnant without a child, he thought.
The wooden banister led to their bed.
Stained glass windows, a family crest.
He liked the poster in her room–
a male dancer through Cocteau’s eyes,
graceful but also evoking alarm,
his shirt woven out of roses.
He wore a warrior’s helmet
carved out of cordovan leather.