What would I have to be to speak about him…
I remembered it wrong, the scene in the film
within the film about Radnóti—there were no young
lovers coming upon the killing in the woods.
It was an older man and a woman who might have
been his daughter. And the soldiers hustling
Radnóti and the other Jewish prisoners too weak
to work, and not dying fast enough, to dig
their own mass grave, then coolly shooting them
one by one, might have been their beloved sons
and grandsons. And I may have dreamed those listing
skeletons marched through postcard towns,
sunshine on rags, the apple-sellers, a blonde child
rolling a wheel with a stick past the starving men.
The wide-angled views of lush and lovely country—
Hungary, Yugoslavia, Germany. Those tracking shots
of green swells of pasture and innocent cows
grazing, peasants carrying their ancestral hatreds
along with the sparse grain and potato crops
in mule-drawn carts. Those close-ups of adolescent
soldiers grateful someone else is led away.
A cart man feeding fresh hay to his horses.
The autumn woods suffused with morning light.
Everywhere in Hungary there are statues of him—
in front of libraries, town halls. In the cover photo
of my new translation he’s cast in bronze.
Slender and tall, he leans against a wooden rail
in a sunlit park, his handsome profile tilted down,
as if he’s staring at his shoes, lines forming, perhaps,
in his mind. His poems were prophetic, writes one scholar,
his gift arising, she thinks, from his Jewish predisposition
to anticipate the worst. In the camps, on the marches,
he wrote. In his filthy bunk, among the worms and lice.
The poet writes, as dogs howl or cats mew.
Or small fish coyly spawn. What else am I to do?
For the denouement, the director’s framed
the exhumation site: a row of pine coffins
lined up neatly as shipping crates,
on top of each a pile of rags, each man’s
things roughly displayed for whoever is left
to claim them. On Radnóti’s the famous raincoat,
hidden in the pockets, his photos and letters,
an exercise book of ten poems. Folded within
its pages, a flyer advertising cod liver oil,
Radnóti’s final lyric on the back. I can’t stop
thinking of how he’d written, five times,
in five languages— the French and English …
rather blurred and party illegible—
on the book’s first leaf, the same message—
Please, forward this booklet which contains the poems
of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti …
Thank you in anticipation.