Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010

Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010


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An award-winning translator presents selections from the haunting final volumes of a leading voice in contemporary Hungarian poetry

Szilárd Borbély, one of the most celebrated writers to emerge from post-Communist Hungary, received numerous literary awards in his native country. In this volume, acclaimed translator Ottilie Mulzet reveals the full range and force of Borbély’s verse by bringing together generous selections from his last two books, Final Matters and To the Body. The original Hungarian text is set on pages facing the English translations, and the book also features an afterword by Mulzet that places the poems in literary, historical, and biographical context.

Restless, curious, learned, and alert, Borbély weaves into his work an unlikely mix of Hungarian folk songs, Christian and Jewish hymns, classical myths, police reports, and unsettling accounts of abortions. In her afterword, Mulzet calls this collection “a blasphemous and fragmentary prayer book … that challenges us to rethink the boundaries of victimhood, culpability, and our own religious and cultural definitions.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691182438
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/05/2019
Series: The Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation , #136
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 1,206,955
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Szilárd Borbély (1963–2014) wrote in a wide variety of genres. His books include the novel The Dispossessed and the poetry collection Berlin-Hamlet. Ottilie Mulzet is a literary critic and the translator of The Dispossessed and Berlin-Hamlet, among other books. Her translation of the novel Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai won the 2014 Best Translated Book Award. She lives in Prague.

Read an Excerpt



For as that Pelican yonder,
alighting on the Rosemary branch,
on the Rosemary bower,

gazes at the Sun descending,
eventide and day's ending,
light upon the Dead One falling

through the fissures of the shutter,
the sun's last ray across his face,
he awaits — the Resurrection.

And the Pelican bides its time,
when the Sun has already declined,
reckons the number of branches,

the branches of the Rosemary bush,
like the light of Faith itself,
murderous, it blinds:

"I ask of you, my Pilgrim Soul,
You, my Body, passed from this world,
in this grant me your accord.

The Pelican alights on the Rosemary's bough, and its branches sway;
our wings at rest remain.

Christ counts the blows, five thousand four hundred and two score, when offense is given to Him,

and, within his Crown of Thorns,
thorns of seventy-two branches,
how great would be the torment,

were the Dead One to arise,
and walk here, like the Pelican,
its Allegory revived."


There was nothing more than there should have been,
the common residue of the last few days,
gathered by the breeze into the courtyard nooks,
until Fanny the charwoman swept them away

and into the ground-floor flat called
"Good morning!" and "What's for lunch today?"
The sun shone down. Doves alighted on the eaves and pockmarks on the cement were seen

each one by itself, for eternity. It was Spring.
The shutters were folded, the shades drawn.
The window opened just a crack, which was strange,
but maybe not so much. And then everyone

was seeking the cause of the peculiar smell. Evening came, and morning again. The third day. No one thought of the elderly couple in the ground-floor flat.
The detectives were bored. Nothing affects them

anymore. They were drunk when they got there and guzzled even more at the drink-stand next door. The corpses were buried quickly, because it was Easter. The case was closed. And no one played the Dies irae.



The Eternal is cold, like the chisel used to carve the face of our Jesus.

The Eternal is submerged,
like the pebble,
as you gaze at the river and see the water again tranquil.

The Eternal leaps away, like the flea you clutch at in vain —
already the inferno.

The Eternal is profound,
like that awareness in which resides the mercy of our Christ.

The Eternal ticks on, like the clock,
though maybe it misses
— at times — the dawn.

The Eternal is thin as the blade of the knife which Death then slips into your heart.

The Eternal is,
like life itself, fleeting —
it comes to an end while you're speaking.


There is something in the soul. Perhaps a yearning for greatness which never leaves one in peace. From memory, the time

of waiting falls away. Only circumstances remain,
the opened palm, the mouth askew, the cold

touch on the forehead. The eyelids bound to the tear ducts with three or four stitches. Both

already closed, only a scalpel could open them now. The umbilical cord, gnawed through with the teeth. The face

bloodied. The nymphs heard the grinding of teeth. In the realms of poetry, all errant forms

followed the trace. The spilt milk left a stain on the stone floor by the fridge. The shades thirstily

gathered round. For the entire day, they listened in silence.
Waiting by the edge of the opened eye. The flock of sheep

drifted down the white stony hillside. Like a grandmother's hair at night, falling from its knot. Or like

teeth, which are whiter and more rigid than bone. Like specters, jostling around the mouth.


Ghastly the void at the page's edge,
where the sentence comes to an end and floats across

to the next page, turning over the leaves, yet nothing contains within itself

the world, which, should you not pay heed, is lost, for the Soul no longer there resides,

only Malediction, as it watches you in the Mirror, the pupil of its eye observing

by the pages' end, where the void may arise,
the sentence penned may not remain unfulfilled,

for that which is written must come to be,
He who is Sacred must appear:
Marana tha!

May grace upon us descend,
and may this world now reach its end!



On Golgotha, by the crucifix,
our eyes are trained on sweet Jesus

who when he came into this world for all our sakes was murdered

tiny being from his mother's womb cast out upon this world

a naked life came all alone and with it came a tiny soul

the infant has no swaddling clothes only his father's watchful gaze

his tiny hand laid on the cross and held in place with nails because

for all time now he must die for our sakes he lies in agony

there the infant's tiny corpse hovering above its soul there floats

on that night in Bethlehem Pontius Pilate weeps alone

sees the one in the manger laid the nails driven into his hands

the wide gash on his right side crowned with thorns is the infant head

the manger's straw is slick with blood tiny tiny Jesus brother

with his hands so very small plays with the wounds in his tiny palms

turns them round, peering through:
the infant's face, dead, smiling.


He sat on the edge of the bed and waited for Him —
for years now. He said: I try to forget in vain. That day was like any other, like a confining husk —

he repeated this daily. And he couldn't even die, that too was no use. He looked at the wall.
In his eyes there was no longer any light.
Only a few irrelevant thoughts flitted across

his brain. A hesitant smile. "Where am I? —"
he asked, but expected no answer.
As with all the other questions, he hardly believed there could be answers. He perceived

that for the one who has fallen there is no longer any reason to ascend. "Maybe in another life ..." he said at times. In vain. "... For I live here among assassins, which is how I betray Him."



The Eternal is what I'd rather forget:
Like life itself,
unyielding, without end.

A man approaches from the south bearing a cross upon his back,
people gather round and ask,
"Where did you find that?"

If they ask he doesn't tell them why he doesn't put it down,
he simply carries it further,
in his pocket there's no room.

He might put it in his wallet,
but no, not even there,
as he counts his pieces of silver,
"A thousand, a thousand and one ..."

Or even underneath his tongue,
because at times they ask:
"Are you one of the disciples?"
"Is Béla your name?"

"Are you by any chance Peter?"
He looks up in distress,
Always he must move on,
Never finding rest.



The Eternal is like the axe the assassin slams into someone's head.

The Eternal is the act of pillage from which in panic the garret now is empty.

The Eternal is scarlet,
like fresh blood. Above it rises a vapor.
Then it too disappears.

The Eternal is like the heart of him the robbers murdered without hesitation.

The Eternal is like murder,
it destroys the Effigy,
the Face of the Dead.

The Eternal is flawless,
like the in-
decipherable Secret of the Perfect Crime.

The Eternal is like the eye of the one killed:
Dread is in his gaze.

The Eternal weeps,
like the many Archangels who served Jesus in their Multitude.

The Eternal is like the Dawn, to which the Guardian Angel shall no longer awaken.



Evening now in Bethlehem,
the swineherds fallen still —
In a decaying tavern,
Gypsy musicians play.

When the Three Kings arrive,
three roses red as blood.
Three wilted lilies knock at the stable doors.

As through the crevice falls a bit of the full moon.
It shines for two more years,
the knife on the tavern board.



O, bliss of Sweet Death come at midnight for our souls,
should our hearts not find peace grant us at once the knife!
So we shall not suffer long in the assasins' hands come for us now, o Sweet Death,
in place of our Christ our Lord!
Send soldiers, and plunderers who know the art of murder,
so that we may forget the Trees,
and all that's of this earth.


Across the winter land, the vapors rise,
the thin smoke from the house's gas furnace.
The Orthodox cemetery on the mountainside blinding, in the sunlight, like stone,

incandescent, while in the fire the molten ore seethes in the cauldron.
In the afternoon the rain began,
as a few angels lounged

outside the dram-shop, lurching in the mire,
for free booze, or wenches, to slake their desire.
While far away, in the distant outskirts Time itself had vanished for good,

for the day of the Last Judgment had come,
as the hordes of Christians trampled each other.
And the pagans sat there, sipping their Coke,
in the tavern known as "Time without End."


In Death's final snare,
in its infinite final Hour,
the stars playfully swim.

The bacchanalia resounds as carousing through the pub the Angels wander drunkenly.

Weeping, they lament the Christ,
who was born here,
freezing into blood. Slowly,

immersed in reverie, on the road to Emmaus. Alone, like a pointing finger.
In which there is no mercy!


Mert mint ama Pelikán,
amely Rozmaringra száll,
Rozmaringnak ágára,

s néz a lemeno Napra,
mert immár napszállatra fény esik a Halottra

a redony résein át,
arcát fénycsík szeli át,
várja a Feltámadást,
s a Madár csak halogat,
mikor már le ment a Nap,
számolja az ágakat,

a Rozmaring ágait,
amely olyan, mint a Hit fénye, gyilkosan vakít:
"Kérlek zarándok Lelkem,
Téged is halott Testem,
Értsetek egyet velem:

Pelikán a Rozmaring-
ágra szállva ága ring,
s nem mozdítjuk szárnyaink.

Krisztus ötezer-négyszáz
És negyven ütést számlál,
amikor Ot megbántják,

s Töviskoronájának hetvenkét kis ágának tüskéi mind fájnának,

ha a Holt föl támadna,
s mint Pelikán, itt járna az Allegóriája."


A Halál

Nem volt semmi, ami több lett volna,
mint az elmúlt napok hordaléka,
mit a szél gyujtött az udvar szögletébe,
mígnem kijött a Fány néni, és elsöpörte,

és beszólt még a földszinti lakásba,
hogy "jó reggelt!", és "mi lesz ma ebédre?"
Aztán a nap sütött. Galambok szálltak a házereszre. S látszott a beton minden rücske,

külön-külön és mindörökre. Tavasz volt.
A spaletták behajtva, a redunyök leeresztve.
S az ablak, hogy résre nyitva volt, az különös,
de mégse annyira. Aztán mindenki kereste

okát a furcsa szagnak. Így lett megint este
és reggel. Harmadik nap. De a földszinti lakókat, idos házaspár, senki sem kereste.
A nyomozók unottak. Oket nem érinti

meg semmi már. Részegen érkeztek, és a szomszéd büfében rátöltöttek. A hullákat Húsvét miatt gyorsan eltemették. Az ügyet ad acta tették. És nem kapcsolták be a Dies iraet.



Az örökké-valóság hideg, mint a véso,
amellyel faragták Jézusunknak arcát.

Az örökké-valóság merül, mint a kavics,
nézed a folyót, hát nyugodt újra a víz.

Az örökké-valóság ugrik, mint a bolha,
mire odakapnál már vagy a pokolba'.

Az örökké-valóság mély, akár az elme,
amelyben lakozik Krisztusunk kegyelme.

Az örökké-valóság ketyeg, mint az óra,
néha mégis kihagy,
mondjuk, virradóra.

Az örökké-valóság vékony, mint a penge,
amelyet a Halál csempész a szívedbe.

Az örökké-valóság rövid, mint az élet,
hirtelen ér véget,
mire elmeséled.


A Nimfákért

Van valami a lélekben. Talán a nagyravágyás,
ami nem hagyja nyugton. Emlékezetébol kihull

a várakozás ideje. Csak a körülmények maradnak,
a nyitott tenyér, a félrecsúszott száj, a hideg

érintés a homlokon. A szemhéj három-négy
öltéssel levarrva a könnyzacskóhoz. Most

mind a ketto csukott, csak szikével nyitható
már. A köldökzsinórt a fogaival rágta át. Az arca

véres lett. A fogak csikorgását hallották meg a nimfák. A poézis tájain minden kallódó alak

követte a nyomát. A huto mellett kiömlött tej foltot hagyott a kövön. Az árnyak szomjasan

gyultek köré. Egész napon át csak hallgatták.
A nyitott szem peremén várakoztak. A fehér,

köves domboldalon juhnyáj ereszkedett alá.
Mint nagymamák kibontott kontya este. Vagy

mint fogak, amelyek fehérebbek és merevebbek a csontnál. Mint a tolakvó lelkek a száj körül.


Üresség a lapok szélén félelmetes,
ahogy ott véget ér a mondat,
és átlebeg

a másik lapra, lapozgatva közben, meg semmi nem tartja magában

a világot, amely elvész,
ha nem figyelsz, már nincs is ott a Lélek,

csak a Gonosz, amely Rád les a Tükörben, s a szembogárban figyelve

a lapszélen, üresség támadhat,
és leírt mondat nem maradhat teljesületlen,

mert az írásnak be kell telni,
aki Szent, annak kell jönni:
Marana tha!

Szálljon le a kegyelem,
és múljék el ez a világ!



Golgotán a keresztfára szemünk tekint Jézuskára

aki mikor megszületett
értünk akkor megöletett

anyaméhbol kicsi testét e világra kivetették

egyedül jött csupasz élet vele jött egy kicsi lélek

nem is volt még gatyácskája
úgy nézte az atyácskája

a keresztre pici kezét felszögezték csupán ezért

meg kell halni mindörökre
értünk magát meggyötörte

kicsi Jézus halott teste fölött lebegett a lelke

betlehemi éjszakában Pilátus sír egymagában

néz a jászolban fekvore szögek helyén a kezére

jobb oldalt a széles sebre töviskoronás fejére

jászol alján iszamós vér kicsi kicsi Jézus testvér

játszik a csöpp kis kezével tenyerében a sebével

forgatja és átnéz rajta mosolyog a halott arca.


A Pokol

Csak ült az ágya szélén, s várta Ot —
már évek óta. Azt mondta, nem tudok felejteni, hiába. Olyan ez a nap, mint bármi más, mint egy szoros burok —

mondta napra-nap. És nem tudott meghalni sem, hiába. Nézte a falat.
A szemében nem volt már semmi fény.
Csak néhány régi dolog átszaladt

fejében. Tétova mosoly. "Most hol vagyok?" —
kérdezte. De nem várt már semmi választ.
Ahogy a többi kérdésre sem hitte, hogy lehet felelni még egyáltalán. Belátta már azt,

hogy nincs semmi, ami megérné felkelnie annak, aki elesett. "Talán egy másik élet ...",
mondta néha. Hiába. "... mert elárulom Ot azzal, hogy itt a gyilkosokkal közt élek."


Excerpted from "Final Matters"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Princeton University Press.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

From Final Matters, Sequences, Book One: Sequences of Holy Week,
From Final Matters, Sequences, Book Two: Sequences of Amor and Psyche,
From Final Matters, Sequences, Book Three: Hasidic Sequences,
From To the Body: Odes and Legends,
Notes, 161,
Credits, 167,
Translator's Acknowledgments, 169,
Translator's Afterword, 171,

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