Various authors, Scottish and Hungarian,
Hunger Like Starlings
Tapsalteerie, 2020 £5.00
From Glasgow to Budapest and back again
Commissioned by the Edwin Morgan Trust as part of the Edwin Morgan Translation Workshop in 2019, this is a joyfully sophisticated selection of poems and translations from both Hungarian and Scottish poets: three from each country.
‘Cement Factory in autumn’ is the opening piece, a translation by Em Strang from the original ‘Cementgyár ősszel’ by Mónika Ferencz. It begins with Bauhaus-like imagery:
I watched the cement factory in Vác
stand immovable in the night
Then it continues in a gritty industrial style with gothic Catholic touches:
It was then my grandfather entered,
a clear glass rosary in his hand.
The poem ends just as strangely as it begins: ‘I kept hitting the concrete wall, / and realised my fist was made of porcelain.’ Interestingly, the title feels very different from the poem. But I love the title — perhaps it connects more readily in the original Hungarian; in English it’s almost like one of Ezra Pound’s haikus: balancing the seasonal with the industrial.
Other poems are similarly engaging. In ‘So long, and thanks’, translated by Kate Tough (originally ‘Viszlát, és kősz’ by Balázs Szőllőssy), a seedy, gothic industrial atmosphere is created with a ‘taste of decay’, ‘warehouses / daubed with graffiti’ and the ‘broken a/c, in the dirty heat’. The speaker ironically keeps thanking an unknown person or abstract being: ‘thanks / for your botched democracy’ and ‘thanks / for the scrambled eggs [...] for the saliva drooling from the corner of our eyes’.
It easy to see from this that the poems are a little disconcerting — as poems often are, and the translations add to this feeling, blurring exact literalism with interpretation.
Much here has an industrial, urban context, appropriate not least because the introduction notes that Edwin Morgan, a prolific poet and translator himself, was drawn to the Hungarian poet Attila Jószef who wrote ‘sharp, powerful poetry of life in the industrial city’, a city which is described as ‘his Budapest to the Scottish poet’s beloved smoky Glasgow’.
There are, however, also lighter, more rurally minded poems, particularly in the second half (this half contains original poems in English with Hungarian translations).
In ‘Columba’, by Ian Galbraith, for example, the poet asks:
What will the morning bring?
A wood pigeon’s call
in a late summer’s garden
so long ago?
In Em Strang’s ‘Bird-woman’, ‘the sunlight is squeezing the field-grass / until her blue dress is a distant boat’, and Kate Tough’s enjoyable poem ‘And what comes after’ reminds me again of Poundian haiku:
sun’s evening beam
on wide June wheat
blind steeple: black barn
rung by rung
over the metal gate.
Overall, Hunger Like Starlings is an unusual and interesting collection. It rewards the curious reader with subtle shifts between cities, rural settings and languages.
Contributing authors are: Mónika Ferencz, Iain Galbraith, Em Strang, Balázs Szőllőssy, Krisztina Tóth, Kate Tough