György Petri (or Petri György, as he would have been called in Hungary) was born in Budapest in 1943 to a family with a Serbian and Jewish background. A year after Petri’s birth, in 1944, Hungary joined the Axis powers with disastrous result. The war impoverished the country and brought in its wake the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi, who was briefly replaced by Imre Nagy (the subject of a moving Petri poem), only for him to be followed the next year by the quisling János Kádár, who arrived back in Hungary in 1956 along with the Soviet tanks.
Petri had assorted odd jobs, including a stint at an institute for the mentally ill, before studying philosophy at the University of Budapest. He supported himself by freelance writing and translation. He had no regular employment under Communist rule but published two collections of poetry, with the state publishing house, both of which were well-received and brought him not only literary prominence but a measure of privilege. In 1981 Petri turned his back on both and moved to a samizdat publisher until the events of 1989. This would have been a considerable decision, and the reason for it, apparently, was that he had been ordered to cut some thirty poems from a collection he submitted.
It is not difficult to see why his poems caught the censors’ eyes. His work is steeped in vitriol. His tone reaches well beyond discomfort, impatience or rage. He appears to be involved in a protracted, existential self-immolation. He is in a hurry to reach death, but not before capturing the reader with the spectacle of his pyre. Petri wasn’t one to hedge his bets, and if his political dissent were not enough to trouble the censors, the sexual content of the poetry, or at least its raw treatment, must have raised eyebrows:
The holy family’s grinding away –
Mary lies back, God screws;
Joseph, unable to sleep,
starts groping about for booze …
‘So I told my Mary straight,
at least shut your gob,
it’s enough that the damn bed shakes
and rumbles on as if there was an earthquake.
I mean it now: if he’s really got to screw yuh,
I can do without all the ha-ha-ha-hallelujah!’
In fact, ‘Apocryphal’ is light fare for Petri. He’s trotting out his Villonesque persona and enjoying himself. All his poetry, or nearly all of it, seeks to be outrageous and subversive, though it is often bleakly playful. Sex, for Petri, is the trigger, the touchstone, the lamp by which he sees; and although this is hardly uncommon among poets, the unrelieved barrenness and despair he finds in sex is perhaps unusual:
A bee dying on a split
plum’s honey flesh.
going gold and black,
in the abandoned garden.
This poem, ‘Lovers’, is from an earlier selection of Petri’s poems chosen and translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri, Night Song of the Personal Shadow, as are these lines from ‘Marriage’:
Your skirt is like a bag of candies, offering
familiar sweetness. Do not resent him thinking
he’s grasped what in fact he’s misunderstood. (Though already
love’s tortuous road has set him panting.)
And it’s undesired, the pleasure you combine in
as acid does with metal – eagerly, bleakly.
Petri’s world is doubly bleak. There is life under a Communist regime, which is all the more insidious and stifling for having some of the trappings of liberalism, what the Hungarians referred to as ‘goulash Communism’. But this is reinforced by the poet’s own pessimism and self-destructive urges, his fascination with death without any possibility of redemption. Petri is by temperament a dissident, heretical and spoiling for a fight. His poetry feeds off disgust and anger, whether for the state or himself. When he was free to publish openly again in 1989, he faced a dilemma:
The epoch expired like a monstrous predator.
My favourite toy’s been snatched.
These lines from ‘A Recognition’ are the final ones in Eternal Monday: New and Selected Poems. They pose an interesting question: what sort of poet might Petri, who died in 2000 at the age of 56, have been without the Kádár regime? In an interview with Clive Wilmer in 1990, Petri explained that he had a ‘moral obligation’ to write poetry under a Communist regime ‘because there was no normal canalisation for the expression of political opinion’.
In a totalitarian system political life is over-dramatised. One can say that political life is very poetic. In a normal democracy the political life is very prosaic … and boring! … I never feel … an obligation or engagement. For me, politics, the political life, was a theme, a motif, and … I was concerned in a lot of my poetry with politics, but because it was interesting, because it was dramatic … but now everything’s changed.
It is a commonplace that political poetry under Communism retained much of its vitality and relevance in the smaller Central and Eastern European countries, but has diminished in importance as the local political climate has become less extreme. Also, it goes without saying that the proliferation of Western media and popular entertainment not only dissipates the impact of political poetry but undermines what remains of a coherent, broadly-based literary culture.
In Budapest, where streets are named after poets, Hungarians without advanced educations continue to quote passages from Sándor Petöfi, Atilla Jóseph and Miklós Radnóti, all of whom died young and tragically in the grand Hungarian tradition, with its powerful strain of the Romantic and heroic. Petri’s poetry flies in the face both of his native tradition and the almost monolithic tradition of symbolist poetry in 20th-century European literature, in which a candle is not a candle or an apple an apple but rather a symbol of something else, something a good deal more significant. Petri is an ironist; like Eliot and Cavafy, his translators suggest. His language is spare, colloquial and uninterested in literary decorum. The voice is harsh, aggressively impolite. A candle is a candle, an apple is an apple, not to be observed and meditated on, Ponge-like, for the essence of its candle-ness or apple-ness, but made use of as a prop or projectile, customarily in a poem of assault. Petri is obsessed with getting at the heart of things, where inevitably he finds desolation. He cannot help himself. Poetic notions of beauty or the ideal are obscene and ridiculous to him, as no doubt were the many examples of ornate martial statuary that can be seen all over Budapest, a city under siege and occupation for a thousand years.
George Szirtes, the co-translator and editor of The Colonnade of Teeth: Modern Hungarian Poetry, described his fellow countryman as a ‘lyrical poet who has deliberately gone sour’, which seems accurate. Szirtes goes on, however, to assert that Petri’s ‘love poems are his finest work: sad, dry-eyed, even cruel, but spiced with a bitter tenderness’. Szirtes has, naturally, read the poems in the original, but I don’t think Petri wrote any real love poems, unless I’m missing something. There is no shortage of poems about sex, for which he boasts a large appetite, in one poem (‘Our Loves’) using the name-day list in a calendar to help him ‘identify over a hundred-and-fifty names./ That was OK. I still have an excellent memory/for names. Only I couldn’t fit faces to them …’ Women seem to exist in Petri’s poems exclusively to fuck and provide epiphanies. He doesn’t seem to like them very much: they bore or irritate him, and they don’t always smell very nice. Women don’t exist as characters in the poetry, as commanding presences or even mildly interesting presences. They exist to service him, to provoke his bouts with quiddity. This is not to say he doesn’t find them amusing:
I can do whatever I want.
For instance, when we’re making love,
I’ll begin to shrink all over, proportionally,
and so contract out of you. I’ll be tiny enough
to hide in your pubic hair. You’ll look
all over the sheet for me, you’ll diligently
comb the bedding, every last inch of it –
till finally you’ll hear from your own belly
a giggle thin as a wire …
It’s in the poems fuelled by political rage and frustration that I find Petri’s real brilliance. One of the best is ‘Electra’, based on a version of the Agamemnon story, and concerned with the love affair between Clytemnestra (Mother Hungary) and Aegisthus (János Kádár, the ‘smooth master of compromise’):
What they think is it’s the twists and turns of
that keep me ticking; they think it’s Mycenae’s fate.
Take my little sister, cute sensitive Chrysotemis –
to me the poor thing attributes a surfeit of moral passion,
believing I’m unable to get over
the issue of our father’s twisted death.
What do I care for that gross geyser of spunk
who murdered his own daughter! The steps into the bath
were slippery with soap – and the axe’s edge too sharp.
But that this Aegisthus, with his trainee-barber’s face,
should swagger about and hold sway in this wretched town,
and that our mother, like a venerably double-chinned old whore,
should dally with him simpering – everybody pretending
not to see, not to know anything. Even the Sun
glitters above, like a lie forged of pure gold,
the false coin of the gods!
Well, that’s why! That’s why! Because of disgust, because it all sticks in my craw,
revenge has become my dream and my daily bread.
And this revulsion is stronger than the gods …
I wonder what János Kádár made of ‘trainee-barber’s face’.
To understand Petri, Szirtes also said, is to ‘understand the declining years of European Communism and to sharpen our eyes for intimate half-truths of our own’. This is what makes him such a penetrating poet, and not merely of his own condition as a poet in Communist Hungary. His work asks us to examine our own condition, political and existential, here in the West where we choose not to look very long or very hard because outward pressures don’t compel us to:
now only the filthy pattering of rain
now only heavy coats and squelching shoes
now only the din of steamed-up cheap cafés
now only trodden sawdust on the stone
now only mouldy buns in cellophane
now streetlights decomposing in thin fog
the advice given by a friendly cop
the last drink bought with the last of the small change
now only the tram-island’s desolation
now only the variable course of the night wind
rushing through a town of alleys to no end
now only the unfinished excavations
the night’s prospecting-hole its weeds and thorns
now only shivering now only yawns
Petri has been fortunate in having Wilmer and Gömöri as translators, and we are even more fortunate in having his poetry in English. Very little Hungarian poetry has been easily available in English, nor has it been as convincingly translated as the two Petri collections Eternal Monday and Night Song of The Personal Shadow (1991). Wilmer couldn’t be more different from Petri as a poet, but there is something in the poetry of his Hungarian contemporary that has excited him, and, with Gömöri’s help, he has brought the original into English with clarity and force.