Zsuzsa Beney’s life (1930-2006) spanned that century which brought hardship and suffering to so many. Hers, however, could be regarded as a particularly difficult fate: after the Second World War, she lost both her husband and – perhaps the worst misfortune to befall a mother – her only child. She continued, nonetheless, to write: poetry and critical studies of stunning psychological penetration and literary depth. Her poetry hovers on the edge of being and non-being, as if creating an ethereal travelogue comprised merely of elusive fragments of that impossible no-man’s land from which none return.
Beney’s late poetry, while clearly drawing upon the legacy of the postwar Újhold generation, in particular the work of János Pilinszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy, carries their moral and aesthetic mission a step farther. Like Zen koans, they condense intangible essences into enigmatic words, turning the paradoxes of being and non-being, memory and oblivion, into strange, compelling riddles. Emptiness, made tangible through language, dissolves anew under the weight of seemingly irreconcilable contradiction; it bridges hermetically enclosed Existence only to retreat into itself again.
Not surprisingly, Beney also treated the theme of Orpheus and Eurydice in her late collection A tárgytalan lét (Objectless Existence, 2003). The mythological pair are expressed as shadows of each other, in an eternal fragmentary dialogue: “the only free being” is that which can move freely between the realms of existence and non-existence.
I awoke, but then still dreamed.
I saw you, but only in outline.
I knew you were my husband, but only that
Moment lived with ever greater illumination
When in your arms I plunged into dream.
Perhaps it was not for you that I went amongst
The shades. To follow, step by step,
Your night-black shadow within myself.
Only I glimpsed your frail beauty
In the silver scales of your dying.
(from Orpheus and Eurydice)
A personal memory: once, when working at the Translators’ House in Balatonfüred, I happened to be watching the evening news. A report was broadcast about the possible closing of a well-known Budapest hospital. One of my fellow translators suddenly turned to me: she had been a good friend of Zsuzsa Beney, a trained doctor, who had practiced medicine at that very hospital. ‘She was a good doctor, she loved those in her care,’ were her words.
Beney knew, perhaps better than most, how vexing and capricious is the depiction of what is no more. Hers is a testimony of Absence, of the spaces where something used to be, a journey through those haunting interstices, the glance that seeks the unnamable. The glance of Orpheus.
Where are you? You rest in the flat brick grave.
At the same time, on the souls’ invisible
field, like the moth, hovering you dance.
The rose, then its wilted stalk, then
Its memory, then not even that. The infinite
Cathedral of existence is oblivion.
Spring, the plumes of summer, fragrances carried off by the wind.
The heat of childhood dissolving into the light.
The wilted rose on my mother’s dress.
New work–25th October, 2011
Zsuzsa Beney's poetry hovers on the edge of being and non-being, as if creating an ethereal travelogue comprised merely of elusive fragments of that impossible no-man’s land from which none return.