‘Apocrypha’ by János Pilinszky

János Pilinszky was an odd figure: a twentieth-century Roman Catholic Hungarian poet whose work hovers on the precipice of despair, probably because he spent time as a prisoner of war during World War Two, and remained in Hungary during the almost impossibly sordid and brutal post-war years.

There's very little English-language information about Pilinszky to be had. There appears to be no English biography, but Pilinszky apparently wrote a very odd book about his conversations with a black American actress which contains some autobiographical details about his later life. About the best online source is this fine appreciation by Ted Hughes, who was so taken by Pilinszky's poetry that he spent much effort translating it.

The only translation I could find online of 'Apocrypha', one of Pilinszky's most weirdly compelling works, is merely serviceable. So here is Hughes' version, which I find much better:



Everything will be forsaken then.

The silence of the heavens will be set apart
and forever apart
the broken-down fields of the finished world,
and apart
the silence of dog-kennels.
In the air a fleeing host of birds.
And we shall see the rising sun
dumb as a demented eye-pupil
and calm as a watching beast.

But keeping vigil in banishment
because that night
I cannot sleep I toss
as the tree with its thousand leaves
and at dead of night I speak as the tree:

Do you know the drifting of the years
the years over the crumpled fields?
Do you understand the wrinkle
of transience? Do you comprehend
my care-gnarled hands? Do you know
the name of the orphanage? Do you know

what pain treads the unlifting darkness
with cleft hooves, with webbed feet?
The night, the cold, the pit. Do you know
the convict's head twisted askew?
Do you know the caked troughs, the tortures
of the abyss?

The sun rose. Sticks of trees blackening
the infra-red of the wrathful sky.
So I depart. Facing devastation
a man is walking, without a word.
He has nothing. He has his shadow.
And his stick. And his prison garb.


And this is why I learned to walk! For these
belated bitter steps.

Evening will come, and night will petrify
above me with its mud. Beneath closed eyelids
I do not cease to guard this procession
these fevered shrubs, their tiny twigs.
Leaf by leaf, the glowing little wood.
Once Paradise stood here.
In half-sleep, the renewal of pain:
to hear its gigantic trees.

Home – I wanted finally to get home –
to arrive as he in the Bible arrived.
My ghastly shadow in the courtyard.
Crushed silence, aged parents in the house.
And already they are coming, they are calling me,
my poor ones, and already crying,
and embracing me, stumbling –
the ancient order opens to readmit me.
I lean out on the windy stars.

If only for this once I could speak with you
whom I loved so much. Year after year
yet I never tired of saying over
what a small child sobs
into the gap between the palings,
the almost choking hope
that I come back and find you.
Your nearness throbs in my throat.
I am agitated as a wild beast.

I do not speak your words
the human speech. There are birds alive
who flee now heart-broken
under the sky, under the fiery sky.
Forlorn poles stuck in a glowing field,
and immovably burning cages.
I do not speak your language.
My voice is more homeless than the word!
I have no words.
           Its horrible burden
tumbles down through the air –
a tower's body emits sounds.
You are nowhere. How empty the world is.
A garden chair, and a deckchair left outside.
Among sharp stones my clangorous shadow.
I am tired. I jut out from the earth.


God sees that I stand in the sun.
He sees my shadow on stone and on fence.
He sees my shadow standing
without a breath in the airless press.

By then I am already like the stone;
a dead fold, a drawing of a thousand grooves,
a good handful of rubble
is by then the creature's face.

And instead of tears, the wrinkles on the faces
trickling, the empty ditch trickles down.

[translated by Ted Hughes & János Csokits]

Source: The Lost Rider: A Bilingual Anthology (George Szirtes, ed., 1997), pp. 413-417

2 thoughts on “‘Apocrypha’ by János Pilinszky

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