This collection provides both an introduction to and an overview of one of modern Hungary’s most original poets. Born in 1943, Petri is from the literary generation that followed Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub. He entered the world during a stormy political era: by 1948 Soviet Communism was firmly entrenched and Hungary had entered a long dark period. The uprisings of 1956 brought a short-lived euphoria, only to be followed by 33 years of “goulash communism” under János Kádár. Although the Kádár regime brought superficial prosperity to Hungary, Petri loathed its hypocrisies and retaliated against it by issuing his 1982 and 1985 collections in samizdat. By the time Hungary was finally able to hold free general elections in 1990, Petri had matured into a sharply observant, acerbic, satirical writer, informed, but by no means limited, by politics. His lyric gift is evident in every poem, and his wry perspective is drawn from the depths of the human condition. In “The Nothing Going On,” after describing many random particulars (“Sunshine, leaves rustling, a light breeze”), he wonders “Isn’t what is / enough: the nothing that goes on?” And in “Christmas 1956” he recalls life from the perspective of a child: “the kitchen is filling up / with family, and it’s just as an observer / dropped in the wrong place that I am here: / small, alien, and gone cold.”
Wilmer and Gömöri’s translation brings a sharpness and energy to these poems, and Wilmer’s introductory essay (along with the forward by Elaine Feinstein) provides much helpful background information. This is the kind of writing Americans would do well to read—and learn from.