I fell next to him. His body rolled over.
It was tight as a string before it snaps.
Shot in the back of the head—”This is how
you’ll end.” “Just lie quietly,” I said to myself.
Patience flowers into death now.
“Der springt noch auf,” I heard above me.
Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.
–Miklós Radnóti, Szentkirályszabadja, October 31, 1944, Translated by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, & S. J. Marks
The art of last things is an art pared away to what is absolutely essential, an art of making language at the edge of a void where everything is undone, unmade. Language was put to a grave test on October 31, 1944 when the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti somehow found it within himself to write the last of his four “Postcard” poems in the midst of a forced march westward across Hungary…
Radnóti speaks to the unspeakable in these seven lines, to the horrific death he knew was coming. The poem inscribes a suffering unimaginably intense, a consciousness of death unbearably palpable. It is a poem nearly literally rising up from a mass grave. Near the town of Abda, sometime between November 6 and November 10, Radnóti was one of twenty-two prisoners murdered adn tossed into a collective grave. He was thirty-five years old. After the war his widow had his body exhumed and his last poems were found in his field jacket, written in pencil in a small Serbian exercise book. They display the classical poise of an Orphic art that comes back from the underworld to give testimony.
All the poems written during Radnóti’s internment appeared in a posthumous volume, Clouded Sky (1946), which is one of the pinnacles of Central European poetry in this century. I have sometimes wondered if Radnóti’s commitment to classical values as well as his immense labor in translation (his 1942 volume In the Footsteps of Orpheus ranges across two thousand years of European poetry) was a way of keeping alive an ideal of Europe as a place of enlightenment during a time when it had clearly became a site of barbarism.
Radnóti’s poems are filled with disquieting premonitions of the horrors to come. Characterizing the times he wrote, “I lived on this earth in and age / when man fell so low / he killed willingly, for pleasure, without orders.” He was doom-ridden and ha an uncanny sense of his own impending destruction. “I am the one they’ll kill finally / because I myself never killed,” he prophesied in 1939 for a new edition of Steep Road, the last individual collection of his poetry published while he was still alive. One high-water mark of his work is a series of eight eclogues, written in hexameters, that refashion the pastoral form to address an era when morality is turned upside down and right and wrong have changed places. He calls on the pastoral muse to assist him in trying to preserve the values of civilization. These poems sing to overcome terror, invoking the splendor of memory, the landscape of childhood, and the necessity of love at a time when “reason falls apart.”
Radnóti’s descriptive powers never faltered. Until the end, he was able to characterize with poignant accuracy the nightmare he experienced. I’m struck by the fact that he entitled his last poems “Postcards.” Here the jauntiness of the title belies the gravity of the content. It’s an offeirng characterized as much by what is left out as by what is put in, and its brevity (its self-acknowledged communicative inadequacy) speaks volumes to what must be left unsaid. The informality of the postcard (dashed off, superficial) is also belied by the scrupulousness with which Radnóti re-creates the scene with a few dramatic brushstrokes.
Radnóti’s poem is not an exact transcription of experience but a made thing. It is not a work of reportage but of art, and therefore it enters art psyche, art time. It has the moonglow of a poem made halfway to Hades. There are minds that can split themselves off and still have utterance, minds that show uncanny stoicism on the edge of the grave. It takes a particular kind of involvement and detachment both to speak and to stand beside oneself, to engage oneself as an artist with a dead person lying next to you…
The fourth postcard begins drastically with two sharp staccato sentences that fuse together in one line broken in the middle: “I fell next to him. His body rolled over.” The speaker has fallen out of time into the netherworld (no time for elaboration now) and immediately we’re inside the experience of someone who has fallen, or been thrown down, next to a dead body. That body is compared to a string so taut it’s about to snap. I can’t stop thinking of him lying there next to someone who had been shot in the back of the head. Something has got to give, and Radnóti seems to be desperately trying to hold on to reason, to fend off madness, which terrified him. Remember his poem “Maybe…”:
But don’t leave me, delicate mind!
‘Don’t let me go crazy.
Sweet wounded reason, don’t
leave me now.
Don’t leave me. Let me die, without fear,
a clean lovely death,
Like Empedocles, who smiled as he fell
into the crater.
(translated by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S. J. Marks)
These pleading lines echo as I listen to the voice in “Postcard” that comes to the still-living man with a flat warning, a matter-of-fact declaration: “This is how you’ll end.” A threat made good. The poet counsels himself to hold still, to accept what is happening to him. He says it aloud to calm himself, to enact it for us. There’s a terrifying stoicism to the line “Patience flowers into death now.” A blossoming into oblivion. Then he hears an unattributed voice floating over him in German, the language of death. There’s remarkable richness in the phrase: “Der springt noch auf,” which means something like, “Wait till you see this guy break open.” It has a nasty colloquial edge. But the verb aufspringen, which means “to break or pop open,” is usually used to describe a bud or a flower. It’s an image of germination, and so perhaps there’s a hidden tenderness here, as if the poet ventriloquized the German to say, “Wait till you see him blossom.” He is breaking free of his fetters; and death has become a liberation. After this, the last statement of the poem (a memory mad more forceful by the way the sentence and the line coincide) has an eerie calmness: “Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.” Radnóti was also thinking associatively here, and the sound of German links to the image of blood coagulating on his ear. The one who listens and observes is still alive, speaking from earth.
I cling to the fact that a postcard is a message directed to another person. It has a particular reader in mind. But its openness suggests that it can be read by anyone. The poem in the guise of a postcard is a testimony back to life, a signal that Radnóti has pushed back the silence long enough to embody a final experience. This postcard peels off his body. He has taken us all the way into the shadowy hushed space of death itself.
–Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, pg 147-150