Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Case for László Sárközi

Some day you will be able to talk about László Sárközi without having to mention that he is a Roma (and one of the very few Roma poets publishing in Hungary today). But now, for better or worse, he is burdened with that mantle and all the expectation and associations that come with being a gypsy writer in post-communist Central Europe.

Pilvax was lucky enough to be the first literary review to publish Sárközi in English. But getting Sárközi in print proved to be a challenge. For starters, he is not an easy man to find. I had to go through an intermediary, who kept promising me Sárközi, but whenever we were supposed to meet, the writer was indisposed. I finally did catch up with him, at a private writers’ canteen in Pest. He could only manage to make a scrawl on the publishing agreement as his writing hand was mostly unusable due to an incident that was either a bar fight or a slip on the pavement (the explanation was vague, as was about everything that came from Sárközi’s mouth). The second time I met him, he was in a hospital near Marczibányi Tér, where he was recovering from another mysterious accident, which left him slightly crippled. When offered cab fare to attend a reading of his work, he declined, preferring to take the tram. He did show up at the reading though, along with a gang of thuggish guys who tried the patience of just about everybody around them. Later I was informed that they were his former residents of the orphanage he was raised in.

There are many stories surrounding Sárközi and talking to him in person did little to distinguish the truth from the mythologizing. I know he was raised in an orphanage, and was discovered and mentored by the infamous Hungarian poet György Faludy. It is also said he was homeless (unlikely – there are relatively few homeless gypsies in Budapest – they tend to squat or live communally). What is for sure is that he is forever getting in accidents or otherwise injuring his body, his place of residence is constantly changing, and anybody seriously interested in contemporary Hungarian poetry knows his name. Sárközi may be obscure as a person, but his poetry blossoms in gorgeous imagery and is chiseled and rigorous in style. He is a genuine talent, and perhaps a genius. And, what he has made for himself in this life, he made through the craft of poetry, which is unlikely for a person of any race.

Below is a portion of László Sárközi’s Inner World: A Sonnet Wreath, expertly translated by Andrew Singer (the entire fifteen sonnet cycle was previously published in Pilvax Issue 3).

I. Night

I walk the valley of green and silent dreams
and still don’t know where I will be tomorrow;
my moods propel me, they drive me far,
anticipating night, craving respite.

Nightfall is a scaly wound, and then
night’s well holds the moon – a brave warrior’s fate
in shining armor; recoiling to die again.

Down endless streets, new streets run
and where this movement ends, I’ve no idea.
I straddle the border-stone, gazing at naught.

Cold flash, and yellow lamp regards me,
light glints off blue-musted cobblestones:
with ten thousand solitudes, the night caresses,
where a black moon renders every shadow brown.

II. Beggar’s Sonnet

Where a black moon renders every shadow brown,
from a dirty cardboard box a beggar coughs,
his dog poking him – “Leave me, it still hurts so…” –
and eying his master in a Faithful Zen Ring.
The dwarf shifts cannily; no one cares;
he is crawling now on backward-facing knees;
now he throws his cup pugnaciously down:
dawn’s anger recoils on marble walls.
So I wandered by with pocketed hands
and spat into the beggar’s jolting cup –
may the rest be veiled and then forgotten…
but neither of us turned lighter from it.
I’m wretched: good intention has died in me.
My twenty-nine years are just a giddy game.

III. Facing Eternity

My twenty-nine years are just a giddy game,
one day I am ornate; the next I’m plain,
an endless whirl of good and bad design.

My life is like a dream – it comes to naught,
realizing absurdly the weight of the grave –
nor is the stone’s perfume enjoyed in moss.

Whatever I build is in vain, for windmills
and dusty lips are rumbling from the past,
for all is fleeting that once was joy:
the once-shining diamond shall be as ash.

My light fades, morning falls to night –
Once you regaled the evergreen dark
Pandora: a box forever opened, as
I go on – shivering, wounded by light.

About the author: Matt Ellis is an author coach and manuscript editor at Word Pill Editing. Have a look here for an affordable Manuscript Critique.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

They Stank, We Stanker; or, What is the Sound of No Hands Clapping?

I will begin this post by giving credit where proper credit is due: for a more informed, and superbly written post regarding Hungarian punk band Büdösök, click here. I know the Little Black Egg is – at this very moment (!) – working hard on a Miskolc punk rock primer, so we all have that to look forward to.

I have to admit, by last summer I had all but given up hope on finding any Hungarian punk rock band worth getting the back of my hand branded with black ink by some brutish doorman for (if none of those stamps washed off I would look like one of those Looney Tunes suitcases that made its way around the world, stickers from each country). Question: can one balls-to-the-wall punk rock band revive my lowly opinion regarding Hungo-rock? Answer: no. Because Büdösök seem to be the exception that makes the rule. To wit: earlier in the winter I went to see a Hungarian ‘underground music’ festival and I am not going to name and shame here, but most of the evening was a hodge podge of pastiches of popular music from abroad, played by proficient, but not terribly committed musicians. That these bands were the first ones to jump on the trend bandwagon makes them ‘underground’ I guess. But damn if the club wasn’t packed with cute H & M-outfitted Hungarian hipsters, many from the crowd lingering until the early hours of the morning. Contrast that with the Büdösök show. The Büdösök faithful comprise three punks who can usually be seen panhandling in the Blaha Luiza underpass, some rightfully wary travelers from a nearby hostel, and a handful of hard-drinking middle age men (men who wear big metal belt buckles without irony and order their mugs of beer two at a time).

The show itself was in the tiny Kamra club in the Eight District. Büdösök were supposed to start at eight, but they didn’t make it on stage until around ten. By that time the lead singer was thoroughly wasted, spilled his drink on his keyboards, and would only address the audience in a really creepy baby voice. It was either going to be a fantastic show or a total loss of my eight-hundred forints. Turns out, it was a bit of both.

Kind of shockingly, the first thing I noticed was that two-thirds of Büdösök could have been stand-ins for actor playing Hitler in The Last Days. I am still not sure if it was intentional, or if people from Miskolc just kind of look like that. The bass player resembled a studious skin head, and throughout the first song alternated between jabbing at the strings like he was stabbing his instrument to death and strumming as though it was a rhythm guitar. That’s kind of what they are about: chaotic, childlike outbursts where the singer caterwauls like Nick Cave in one of his his most onomatopoeic Birthday Party fits, followed by abrupt silences, and vaguely catchy choruses. Oh, and there was a horn, which somehow fit just right. Büdösök offer a gristly cacophony that has been pounded with a tenderizer into something vaguely palatable. Some of the songs actually had hooks, and a least two of them made reference to Santa Claus.

Then things got strange. This is the only show I have ever attended where nobody clapped or cheered in between the songs. There was just an eerie tension. I mean, it was uncanny and seriously weird. The only time somebody dared to shout something (it sounded encouraging, but it was in Italian) the singer from Büdösök yelled back “küss!”, which roughly translates as ‘shut the fuck up!” But by the end of the show, I was totally invigorated. They had played for about an hour. There was no encore, nor was there a call for one.

Büdösök are confrontational in the perpetually adolescent way only punk rock can be. They have the mark of authenticity that is missing from about, well, every local band I have seen in the pop/punk genre. Indeed, the really great thing about Büdösök is that they exist on their own terms, and kowtow to nobody. They will never play main stage at the Sziget, they won’t even get a chance at an alt-minded Gumipop show: they must know all this by now, and most likely knew it from the get-go. They are bound to fail, and from the looks of it, failure was probably the only acceptable result. But isn’t that at least part of what punk rock is about? Remember when punk was for misfits and outcast? Anyway, I don’t want to get too deep into the psyche of Büdösök, it is a dark, no doubt labyrinthine place: a place where Chucky dolls go when they die (though, as we have learned, Chucky dolls NEVER die).

I don’t think I have heard a more unique Hungarian band than Büdösök. That said, I do not particularly want to be a Büdösök fan. It is a lonely assignment. It means you are the only one clapping in between songs, and will get told to shut the fuck up for doing so. Right now, I am only too happy to.