Clouded Sky (Tatjékos Ég)

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CLOUDED SKY (Tatjékos ég)

Poems by Miklós Radnóti, 1946

The discovery of Miklós Radnóti's body in a mass grave near the western Hungarian town of Györ in 1946 catapulted the martyred poet to worldwide fame. Critical interest focused naturally on the works written during his last years, from his conscription into forced labor camps in 1940 to his brutal execution in the fall of 1944 at the age of 35. In particular his last 10 poems, found in a notebook when his decomposing body was exhumed, attracted international attention. It is therefore understandable that his posthumous collection Clouded Sky, published in English translation in 1972, includes only poems from the second half of his career—from August 1937 to October 1944—and omits the generally more upbeat poems of his early life.

The first two selections, "Spain, Spain" and "Federico García Lorca," both from 1937, set the tone for Clouded Sky : the dark clouds of the Spanish Civil War are gathering ominously over an autumnal wasteland, and the death of the Spanish antifascist poet foretells Radnóti's own fate. Friends and acquaintances who were killed or committed suicide populate the poems of the following years; in the poem from which the title of the collection is taken, the poet not only expresses his amazement that he is still alive but also his conviction that "I am the one they'll kill, finally, because I myself never killed." Against this impending catastrophe Radnóti puts up sonnets and other tightly organized poetic forms, as if to attempt to reign in the chaos and dissolution he foresees. In particular his "Eclogues" (the collection contains six of the eight extant ones) shows this approach: the traditional bucolic poems, usually in the form of dialogues or soliloquies, idealize the simple, idyllic life of shepherds and country people. By describing the horrors of the war and of the Holocaust in this classical form, Radnóti points an accusing finger at the horrors of his age. All that is left for him to hope for is to keep his sanity and to be allowed, as he states in "Maybe" (1940), "to die, without fear, a clean lovely death, like Empedocles, who smiled as he fell into the crater."

Radnóti's last creative phase begins in May 1944, when he was conscripted for the last time at the Lager Heidenau, near the Yugoslav town of Bor. These so-called "Lager Poems" are preceded by the terrible accusation against his age in "Fragment" (19 May 1944):

I lived on this earth in an age
when man fell so low
he killed willingly, for pleasure, without orders.

I lived on this earth in an age

when women were happy if they miscarried,
a glass of thick poison foamed on the table,
and the living envied the rotten silence of the dead.

In between there are glimpses of hope that he will see his wife again: "I'll use magic but I'll get back" ("A Letter to My Wife," August/September 1944), but already he sees himself no longer as a flower but as a root, with "heavy black earth above me" ("Root," 8 August 1944). His last poem written at Heidenau, "The Eighth Eclogue," is an angry doomsday jeremiad, in which the poet envisions himself and his wife standing next to the prophet Nahum at the fiery destruction of Nineveh. Then follow the broken lines of "Forced March," written after having been force-marched from Heidenau to Bor: "You're crazy. You fall down,_______stand up and walk again,/your ankles and your knees move______pain that wanders around,/but you start again_______as if you had wings," with the spaces indicating the tortured, stumbling trek of the prisoners.

There finally are the last four poems, the Razglednicák ("picture postcards") from the march to his place of execution. Radnóti chose the title carefully to remind the reader of the completely different, carefree cartes postales he wrote 10 years earlier from a trip to Paris. Here they become frightening vignettes of an air and artillery bombardment during his last march, as in "Postcard 1." In the second the unmentioned massacre of 500 Jewish marchers near Cervenka is made doubly terrible by the seeming unconcern of nature and some bystanders. Three weeks further into the death march, "Post-card 3" shows the fatally fatigued and sick men waiting like oxen to the slaughter, and in his final poem, written 10 days before his own execution, he describes the execution of the violinist Miklós Lorsi near Sivac on 31 October 1944, predicting the circumstances of his own death:

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 shout above me.
Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.

The death of the violinist as compared to a broken string and the sarcastic German words of the executioner ("He'll jump back to his feet again") are a shocking conclusion to one of the most moving poetic testimonies of the terrors of the Holocaust.

—Franz G. Blaha