Attila József’s “Winter Night”

On this frigid, bitingly cold Sunday (it’s currently -26°C in the Canadian capital) Hungarian poet Attila József’s piece “Winter Night” seems like something appropriate to share with our readers. Attila József (1905-1937) is one of Hungary’s iconic twentieth century poets and one of the few who built much of his oeuvre on exploring the human condition within the Hungarian industrial working-class. As far as I could tell, John Bátki’s translation is not available anywhere else online, so I’m taking the liberty of typing it up from a wonderful anthology, entitled Winter Night–Selected Poems of Attila József (Budapest: Corvina, 1997). As can be expected, the poem is about much more than just a reflection on snowflakes and winter cold…(C. Adam)


Winter Night

Be disciplined!

Summer’s flame
has blown out.
Above the broad charred lumps it covers
a fine light ash stirs and hovers.
A place of silence,
this air,
this fine crystal atmosphere
scraped only by a sharp twig or two.
A lovely people-lessness. Only a shred
of tinselly scrap–some ribbon or rag–
clings fiercely to a bush,
for all the smiles and hugs snagged
in this thornful world.

In the distance, knobbly old hills stand
ponderous, like tired hands,
shifting at times to guard
the sunset’s flame,
the steaming farmhouse,
The vale’s round silence, the breathing moss.

A farm worker heads home, weighed down,
each heavy limb earthbound.
The cracked hoe on his shoulder rambles
along, shaft and blade a bloody shambles.
As if returning home, leaving life itself,
his body and tools both prove
heavier with each move.

Night flies up scattering stars,
like smoke from a chimney belching sparks.

This blue and iron night comes floating
on the stately waves of bells tolling.
Feels like my heart’s stopped, forever still,
and what throbs, with bated breath,
is perhaps the land itself, not death.
As if the winter night, winter sky, winter ore
created a bell,
its clapper the hammered earth, the swaying core–
and my heart sounding its knell.

Clangor’s echo floats, heard by the mind.
Winter struck the anvil: iron to bind
the heavenly vault’s dangling gate,
that poured all that fruit, light, wheat, hay
while summer held sway.

Like thought itself, the winter night
is bright.

This muteness, this silvery dark
makes the moon the world’s padlock.

The raven flies, silence grows cool
across cold space. Bone, can you hear the silence?
Molecule clinks against molecule.

In what showcase shine lights
such as this winter night’s?

Frost sticks daggers in twiggy hands
and the wasteland’s
black sigh soughs–
drifting in fog, a flock of crows.

In this winter night a freight
train–itself a small winter night–streaks out onto the plain.
Its smoke ready to extinguish,
in an armspan infinitely,
the stars that revolve and languish.

On the frozen tops of boxcars
scurrying like a mouse, light flies,
the light of this winter night.

Above cities, up high
winter still steams up the sky.
But on the flashing track
blue frost brings racing back
the light of this jaundiced night.

In city workshops is where it’s made,
mass-produced pain’s cold steel blade,
by the light of this frigid night.

On the outskirts of town,
in streetlight like wet straw flung down,
off to the side
on the corner, a shivering coatful of woes:
a man, hunkered down like a pile of dirt,
but winter still steps on his toes…

Where a rusty-leafed tree
leans out of the dark,
like an owner
his property,
I measure the winter night.

(Source: John Bátki, Winter Night–Selected Poems of Attila József, Budapest: Corvina 1997, pgs. 62-64).

Wintry Budapest - Streetcar No. 47. Photo: Karl Wood.

Wintry Budapest – Streetcar No. 47. Photo: Karl Wood.

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