When I was in my mid-thirties rummaging in a used bookstore in my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, I stumbled across Clouded Sky by Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944). Radnóti was blossoming as a young poet in Hungary at a time when Nazi forces threatened to overcome the last European country that had not yet exported its Jewish population en masse. His poems have remained close to me ever since I discovered them, and every time I read them, my heart is crushed under the weight of unbearable questions.
Radnóti lived and suffered as a Jewish poet during the immense historical upheaval of World War II and its unleashing of the worst ideology—that of one tribe’s certitude of its own superiority over other tribes, and of the necessity to persecute and exterminate in order to prevail. Against a chorus of clear-eyed Fates with whom Radnóti cannot argue, he explores with immediacy moments infused with the darkness of the future. And that dark future was racing to meet and devour the now.
After 1939, Radnóti’s poems are filled with ominous premonitions and with the inevitability of his imminent death. In 1944, Radnóti was murdered by Hungarian Nazi collaborators during a three-month death march and buried in a mass grave. A year and a half later, when his wife located and exhumed his body, a notebook of his last poems was found in his coat pocket. Radnóti had continued to write during his internment in various work camps, his slave labour in a copper mine, and his death march across his native Hungary, bearing poetic witness to the horrors to which he ultimately succumbed.
The five poems that I reproduce here – “Forced March” and four short “Postcards” – are the last that Radnóti composed before his execution. Soon after writing his fourth “Postcard,” Radnóti was badly beaten by a soldier annoyed by his scribbling in a notebook. Soon thereafter, the weakened Radnóti and twenty-one of his fellow Hungarian Jews were shot to death and buried.
These last poems, written under pressure of the most desperate circumstances imaginable, unfurl visions of delicate pastoral beauty next to images of extreme degradation and wild, filthy despair. They give voice to the last vestiges of hope as Radnóti fantasizes being home once more with his beloved wife, Fanny, while grimly visualizing his fate. This impossibly stark contrast flowers into paradox: Radnóti’s poetry embraces humanity and inhumanity with an urgent desire to document both. Yet even when he is most certain of imminent death, he never abandons the condensed and intricate language of his poetry. And pushed to the limits of human endurance and sanity, he never loses his capacity for empathy.
–Poems translated from the Hungarian by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S. J. Marks