Passio by Wilmer and Gomori

“Wilmer’s ambitious versions achieve an abrupt starkness, signalling Pilinszky’s naked vulnerability, the existentialist horror of livIng through war. Formally there is an immediacy, a daring bleakness…Wilmer and Gomori have conveyed Pilinszky as a poet who inhabits suffering deftly, a suffering that cannot be contained even within formal and highly wrought structures but it is accentuated by them.”

Saradha Soobrayen, Modern Poetry in Translation 2012

“Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri’s translations of János Pilinszky’s Passio: Fourteen Poems, is another collection that is heavily influenced by the European war experience. János Pilinszky (1921-1981) is part of that generation of Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert, and Yves Bonnefoy who experienced both The Second World War and The Holocaust. He is a Hungarian poet and translator who was conscripted into the Hungarian army and spent the last part of the war in Southern Germany. Most of these poems are from his second book Harmadnapon (On theThird Day) (1959) which contains his war poetry, the poems for which he is most renowned. Clive Wilmer’s introductory comments on Pilinszky are insightful:

…of someone for who the mere possibility of suffering is intolerable,

whose nerves are on the surface of the skin. There is something naked

and innocent in the language, as if he could not forget his surprise at

the horrors of existence. The vulnerability… and enduring shock of a

remembered historical moment chime with the sense of ‘given-ness’ in

Existentialist thought – as if the poet had been dropped into the world

and was startled by what he found there.

Wilmer goes on to note that his work is reminiscent of Giacommeti and Beckett, but that his key influences are the work of Simone Weil, Dostoevesky and Van Gogh. He also tracks Pilinszky’s translation history. Here he notes that his and Gömöri’s translations are a corrective to the early high profile translations by Ted Hughes and János Csokits which, though worthy translations, he feels downplay the religious tone in some of the lines.

 These war poems reflect both the memories and isolation that the writer has been unable to rid himself of since the war. He describes how he has been permanently changed in the opening poem ‘On a Forbidden Star. Note the unobtrusive rhyming of the translation and the beautiful clarity of the plain diction:

 …look on me as the dead

look on the night, seeing it as their own,

your shoulder there to aid my weaker one.

I can no longer bear to be alone.

I never wanted to be born. It was nothingness

Who bore and suckled me; with her I started.

So love me darkly. Love me cruelly. Love me

like the one left behind by the departed.’ (‘On a Forbidden Star’)

From here we have poem after poem to describe vivid, horrific memories. For example, there is the immediacy in the concrete detail in ‘Harbach 1944’ where he describes soldiers harnessed to a cart still sharp in his memory – as he tells us, ‘I keep on seeing them’:

 They bear the road, the horizon,

the beet fields shivering,

but only feel the burdening land,

the weight of everything.

Silence accepts their frames. Each fate

is dipped in height, as if

straining for the scent of troughs

in the sky far off.

And like a cattle-yard prepared

for the herded beasts outside –

its gates flung open violently –

death, for them, gapes wide.

The poem interweaves the awful physical war setting with more absolute suggestions of the after-life that is to be the inevitable fate of the soldiers. This merging can be seen particularly in the powerful comparison of the cosmos with a cattle-yard for herding beasts. He continues in the next poem with an unbearable memory of a starving French prisoner again still clear as yesterday: ‘Now he, who would have been contented once / with any kind of food, demands my heart.’(‘The French Prisoner’) Combined with the intensity of such images there is also subtlety, taking the poems beyond mere description along with a number of poems rich in religious imagery. Take this description of the collapse of an inmate of the woman’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück north of Berlin – note how he lifts the power of the last two lines of the first verse, suggesting both physical and mental size:

Fearful to be a self alone:

the pores are visible, and everything around so huge

and everything so small.

And that was it. As for the rest –

for the rest, without a sound,

simply forgetting to cry out,

the body hit the ground.

There is so much thought in these lines. There is the absolute nature of finally giving up in ‘And that was it’ and the total sense of disinterest in life in that ‘forgetting to cry out’. Pilinszky is clearly aware of how depth of meaning is most effectively conveyed in the simplest of words.

This is a very small collection, perhaps a little pricey given it only has fourteen poems. This said, each poem is beautifully crafted in these polished translations which do good service to Pilinszky’s harrowing poems.”


Belinda Cooke, Tears in the Fence. Purchase Passio