Category Archives: poetry magazine
Click the image below and go to p. 7 (for an enlarged view — so you can actually read the thing — click the white rectangular icon lower right):
Detroit is also home to Quill Puddle, a hand-made poetry magazine edited by James Hart III and Frances Barber. The evening of April 18 marked the launch of two double-issues of Quill Puddle (3-4 and 5-6), featuring poets Will Alexander, Kim Hunter, Rob Lipton, Ken Mikolowski, Christine Monhollen, Julie Patton, Chris Tysh, Dennis Teichman, Matvei Yankelevich, Barbara Henning, and myself.
Following a mesmerizing set by The Doll Hairs (James Hart III, guitar and vocals, and Frances Barber, vocals), Julie Patton gave an extended and stunning performance, accompanied by Will Alexander (keyboard), James Hart II (percussion), and Paul Van Curen (guitar). It was magical. I hope the recording came out well, because it would be a shame not to be able to revisit that dynamic performance.
The next day, I had the pleasure of visiting the Eastern Market, a large market area composed of many buildings, one of which is Salt & Cedar, a letterpress studio. New York poet and co-publisher of Ugly Duckling Presse Matvei Yankelevich arranged to convert the letterpress printing space into a bookstore and poetry reading venue for three months. It was a delight to meet and get to know Matvei, who is devoting his time in Detroit to enriching the already rich poetry scene there.
Thanks to Matvei, Salt & Cedar is (for the time being, at least) bookstore heaven, stocked by titles from Ugly Duckling Presse, Small Press Distribution, and others, including several Canadian titles – I noticed books by Sina Queyras and Nicole Brossard, among others. I purchased books by Clark Coolidge (88 Sonnets), Tomaz Salamun (On the Tracks of Wild Game – part of Matvei’s Eastern European Series within UDP), Swedish poet Fredrik Nyberg (A Different Practice), Matvei Yankelevich (Alpha Donuts), and Russian Absurdist Alexander Vvedensky (An Invitation for Me to Think). The last title was suggested to me by Matvei when I told him of my affinity for the work of Daniil Kharms, another Russian absurdist who, along with Vvedensky, tragically died in their thirties as a result of Stalin’s harsh persecution of writers.
People, Detroit is a happening mecca for poets and an open community for poetry in all its manifestations, written and performed!
Part 10. International Affinities:
France (Marcel Marceau)
L’Art du Silence
and the Language of Empathy
In 1955, French mime artist Marcel Marceau made his historic North American debut, beginning his tour at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and continuing with standing-room-only performances in most major cities in the United States. The tour propelled Marceau into international fame. In 1958, he made a triumphant return to the Stratford Festival, the venue that had kicked off the series of performances that not only secured his place as the most important mime artist of his time, but also established miming as an performance genre with a high degree of artistic and intellectual merit.
In 1970, Marceau once again returned to Canada to perform at the Stratford Festival. To commemorate his visit, Zend designed a chess set to be presented by the CBC to Marceau, an avid chess player (figs. 1 and 2).
The warm and reciprocal friendship that developed between the two men isn’t surprising. On a personal level, they had both survived Nazi-occupied countries and experienced profound losses during that period. Zend lost both of his parents to hostilities against civilians during the Soviet siege of Nazi-occupied Budapest, and his first wife, Ibi, lost both of her parents and other family members to Nazi concentration camps. Marceau lost his father, who was murdered in Auschwitz. Subsequently, he joined the French Resistance and helped many Jewish children escape to neutral countries; in fact, Marceau began miming in order to entertain the children and keep them quiet during their treacherous escape.1 And Zend was active in the resistance to Soviet rule during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Both Marceau and Zend understood well the consequences of authoritarian regimes founded on terror and hatred.
They shared a keen sense of humour and apparently also a love of the spontaneous sketch: Zend calls Marceau “a friend with whom I like doodling together.”2 And since they also shared a close personal, artistic, and spiritual bond, each refers to the other as his “chosen brother.”3
Zend was deeply affected by Marceau’s practice of l’art du silence in his creation of a mute clown, Bip, who in brief mimed narratives played out the dilemmas of an ordinary man faced with predicaments (fig. 3). Marceau ascribes Bib’s popularity to the fact that
Bip is a funny, sad fellow, and things are always happening to him that could happen to anybody. Because he speaks with the gestures and the movement of the body, everyone knows what is happening to him, and he is popular everywhere. . . . There is no French way of laughing and no American way of crying. My subjects try to reveal the fundamental essences of humanity.4
Of his art, Marceau noted, “It’s not dance. It’s not slapstick. It is essence and restraint.5
Zend felt an affinity for the “essences of humanity” within Marceau’s tragicomic everyman, Bip, out of his own concern with the erasure of superficial barriers between peoples to reveal their commonalities. He admired Marceau’s ability to create through Bip’s gestures alone a universal language by presenting distilled human nature in “style pantomimes.” Film and theatre critic Robert Koehler describes Marceau’s “style” pieces as “ambitious works” that might be “Bip’s fantastic dreams,” and that “often try to soar above the earthly plain.”6.
In one such style sketch entitled “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death,” Marceau glides seamlessly through the trajectory of a human life in about three minutes, from curled fetus to shriveled old age and death. The general idea can be seen in the following montage of film stills from a 1965 performance (available on YouTube, for anyone interested) (fig. 4):
Marceau’s compressed arc of human life is reminiscent of Zend’s typescape Mutamus (We Are Changing) (fig. 5), which shows five stages of human life against the backdrop of an hourglass. It also recalls Zend’s 1983 flipbook animation entitled Linelife, which I featured in Part 1. of this series, and which I repeat below for any who missed it or would like to see it again (fig. 6):
Fig. 6. Robert Zend, LineLife, ink drawing on paper, 1983, Box 10, Robert Zend fonds, Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries. Adapted for digital medium by Camille Martin. Copyright © Janine Zend, 1983, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend.
Like Marceau’s ethos of embracing all humanity by appealing to commonalities, Zend’s poetry also dissolves boundaries between self and other, as in the following aphoristic poem:
When I talk about myself,
I talk about you, too.7
In just a few words, Zend creates an empathetic bridge linking two persons and acknowledging their common humanity.
And in “The Universalist,” dedicated to “the Style Pantomimist Who Can Tell Years in Minutes,” Zend celebrates Marceau’s ability to render the “essences of humanity.” The poem’s premise is reminiscent of Borges: a writer dreams of capturing “the history of the world in ten volumes” but is faced with the “impossib[ility] to know everything about all the peoples in all times.” He then tries writing successively less ambitious but equally detailed pieces: “a triology about three consecutive generations,” “a play about an interesting conflict,” and “one short story about one character.” But each time he begins a new project, he soon gives up in defeat because he realizes that the enormous scope of his subject exceeds his capacity to capture all of the details of world history in “a true picture.”
Then he tries to render “one of his moods in a short lyrical poem.” This also fails because he realizes that such a poem would always remain a “fragment,” unable to do justice even to one momentary mood in one human life, “for his mood rooted back into his childhood, into his family, into the culture which bore him, into the whole history of mankind.” At last,
after decades of not writing at all — when he was very, very old — one evening — after careful consideration — he took a clean sheet of paper and immersed his pen in the ink, and — as if he had just finished the magnificent life-work he had started dreaming about when he was very young — he dropped a tiny, little dot of ink onto the paper, and was satisfied and happy, because he knew that the little dot contained hundreds of billions of universes in it, complete with galaxies, and within the galaxies solar systems, and within the solar systems swarming life on each of the infinite number of planets contained in them. He was a god after the creation. No longer afraid of death.8
Within the microcosm of a drop of ink swarm macrocosms that in turn, viewed through an imaginary microscope, contain infinite microcosms. In his fantastical tale, Zend acknowledges Marceau’s gift of distilling complex human emotions and predicaments into a series of gestures, which in turn suggest infinite possibilities in the macrocosm of “all the peoples in all times.”
“I divide myself in two” (Marceau)
“and punch myself on the nose” (Zend)
The flip side of that universalism is Zend’s interest in Marceau’s renditions of masking and of the divided self. In one style sketch, Bip plays a mask maker who alternately tries on his masks of tragedy and comedy, performing various antics appropriate to the masks’ moods. But at a certain point he’s unable to remove the laughing mask. As Bip grows increasingly desperate to pry it off, his frantic gestures reveal the stark incongruity between the laughing mask and the tragedy of the situation (fig. 7). Finally, Bip blinds himself and is then able to peel off the offending mask. Marceau describes the sketch of the Mask Maker as showing, “through the use of his many faces, the problem of illusion and reality,” thus creating a “Pirandellian effect,”9 referring to the Italian playwright’s exploration of the human capacity for self-delusion and the construction of masks hiding a darker, unknowable reality. (This idea of the multiple masks of the self fascinated Zend and will be explored further in the section on Italian affinities, Pirandello in particular.) Marceau describes his performance in “The Mask Maker” as one of self-division:
I must detach myself wholly from my face. At the end, when he cannot wrench the laughing mask off, the face laughs and the body cries. I divide myself in two.10
Zend had the opportunity to hear in depth Marceau’s ideas on the mask when he produced a CBC Ideas program entitled The Living Mask in 1971, featuring conversations with Marceau.
Moreover, as an exiled immigrant, Zend himself knew intimately that “schizoid” feeling of being split by the impossibility of reconciling two different places, so his life was steeped in that feeling of dividedness. In “Spheroid Poem,” dedicated “to All Men in Marceau,” he writes of a self sometimes violently opposed to itself:
I sometimes met
myself on the street
and punched myself on the nose —
and I was mad at myself
for I wasn’t even sorry for myself —
sometimes I stayed home
and penned poems
which every hundred years or so
I will reread
and either like them
or dislike them.
I was often dissatisfied
and rebelled against myself —
I declared war
and in one bloody battle after another
I wiped myself out —
through boring years of peace,
I thought triumphantly about
my losing the war,
so I thought revengefully about
my winning the war,
so I thought triumphantly about . . .
and so on.11
The multiplicity of identities within the self are also explored in Zend’s poem “You”:
If I say “you”
it’s not you I think of
but rather the one I think of
If I say “you”
It’s not me I think of
but rather the one I am thinking of
If I say “you”
I’m thinking of one of my selves
in whom another self believes12
Zend’s repetition of the phrase “thinking of” becomes like a hall of mirrors in which not only is the “you” or other person unknowable but the self that thinks of the “you” is also unknowable, and so on, in a potentially infinite regression of unknowable selves thinking unknowable thoughts.
Portraits and Bouquets:
A Collaboration of Gifts
Following Marceau’s visit, Zend and Marceau continued their expression of friendship and mutual esteem. Marceau expressed his admiration of Zend in both words and art. He wrote that “[o]nce Robert Zend told me that I was a poet of gestures. Once I told him he was a mime with words. Robert Zend is a poet in every moment of his life.”13 Marceau also drew a fine portrait of Zend, published in the negative on the front dust jacket of his first book of poetry, From Zero to One (fig. 8). Before he became a professional mime, Marceau had first dreamed of becoming an artist. During his tours, he would often present quick sketches of himself to autograph-seekers.14 Marceau also created more studied portraits of Bip that often feature stylized suns with exaggerated starburst lines. It’s perhaps a sign of Marceau’s esteem for Zend that he draws his portrait with Bip’s characteristic suns exhibiting various emotions from joyful (high in the sky) to mournful (setting) – Marceau’s version, perhaps, of the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy. Also, it’s possible to see in Zend’s image a hint of Bip in the almost mutton-chop effect of the facial hair, a trademark feature of Marceau’s clown. The care that Marceau took with Zend’s portrait, with its delicate strokes and the meditative, slightly melancholic countenance, is evident.
After designing the chess set, Zend again paid tribute to Marceau in a thirty-one-page piece entitled A Bouquet to Bip, published in Exile Magazine in 1973 (fig. 9). The bouquet in the title likely refers to the single red flower absurdly sprouting from Bip’s crumpled opera hat. We have already seen some text from A Bouquet to Bip above. The following are some remarkable images from that sequence.
One of the most beautiful and poignant of these, entitled “The Family Tree of the Alphabet,” is a concrete poem consisting of letters in a connect-the-dot configuration of a butterfly (fig. 10). The image renders homage both to Marceau’s sketch “Bip Hunts Butterflies” and to George Mendoza, author of the children’s book Marcel Marceau Alphabet Book.
Zend’s butterfly shows an imaginary evolution of the modern alphabet originating from punctuation marks in the body of the butterfly and branching out into more evolved letters along its wings. The detail (fig. 11, above right) focuses on one branch of the letter “X” symbolically dead-ending in the swastika, which is topped with a cross as grave-marker.
Below are two additional concrete poems in Zend’s Bouquet series. To the left is a “nomograph” (a word probably coined by Zend) depicting Bip using the letters of Marceau’s name and dedicated “to a Friend with Whom I Like Doodling Together” (fig. 12). And the one to the right uses the letters in “The Title” to salute Pierre Verry, the “presenter of the cards” who walked onstage prior to each of Marceau’s sketches carrying a sign indicating the title (fig. 13).
Marceau wrote a three-page response to A Bouquet to Bip, which Zend included in the Exile Magazine publication. Two pages are reproduced below. At left is Marceau’s drawing of Bip showing his silent acceptance of Zend’s “bouquet” (fig. 14). Perhaps in response to Zend’s use of The Mask Maker in his tribute, Bip’s mouth is divided into a smile and a frown, echoing the masks of comedy and tragedy like the starburst suns mentioned above. And to the right is a Zend-like poem by Marceau (fig. 15).
Although their meeting was relatively brief, Zend’s friendship with Marceau was extraordinarily fruitful in their exchanges of poems and drawings. The ideas and feelings that raised Marceau’s miming to a subtle and ingenious artistic expression resonated with Zend’s own explorations of self and other and the tension between human universality and the divided self. Zend thrived on such creative interactions with other writers and artists, which produced within his own work sympathetic vibrations. Zend honours Marceau and, by extension, Bip by finding aspects of them within himself and creating work that is a spiritual collaboration and a testament to their friendship. A Bouquet to Bip is remarkable for being so openly and sincerely woven of their close and affectionate brotherhood.
Next Installment — Part 11.
International Affinities: Italy
(Leopardi and Pirandello)
Part 5. Hungarian Literary Roots:
The Budapest Joke and Other Influences
If we look at Zend’s oeuvre only in a Canadian context, we miss out on the rich cultural heritage in Hungary that shaped him as a writer. For although his writing came to maturity in Canada, the roots of his literary sensibility and philosophical outlook can be traced to Hungary.
I’d like to discuss two of Zend’s literary characteristics that developed from models in Hungary. First, his themes tend to be cosmic and allegorical rather than realistic. His stories in Daymares and many of his poems and artworks draw on world mytholology and explore fantastical realms of infinity, dreams, the place of humans in the larger universe, and the cycle of creation and destruction.
Secondly, at the heart of many of his works are humour and satire: a bio for a 1970 anthology states that
in one of his previous lives — as he faintly recalls — he was a jester.1
These traits of Zend’s writing and art were shaped by Hungarian forebears such as nineteenth-century poet Imre Madách and early twentieth-century writer Frigyes Karinthy.
Imre Madách (1823—1864):
Lucifer’s Time Machine
Our universe is a tree
on the leaf of existence
and then there is the forest . . .
——Robert Zend, “Zoom-Out”2
Imre Madách is the Milton of Hungary. Just as the English-speaking literary world is well acquainted with Paradise Lost, almost every Hungarian is familiar with Madách’s The Tragedy of Man (1861), a long dramatic poem that takes as its starting point the story of creation and the Garden of Eden in Genesis (fig. 2).
But the resemblance of The Tragedy of Man to Milton’s poem ends at the point that Lucifer, cast out from God’s realm, successfully tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Post-Fall, the narrative reads like Paradise Lost meets H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine meets the Faustian legend.
The rest of the plot goes something like this. Lucifer brings Adam on a time-travel flight into humanity’s future. In the course of their increasingly pessimistic journey through destiny, Adam and Eve play various characters and explore the nature of free will, good and evil, and individuality versus collectivism. In ancient Egypt, Adam is a pharaoh and Eve is the wife of a slave; in ancient Greece, Adam is a tyrant and Eve his wife; during the Enlightenment Adam becomes Johannes Kepler; during the French Revolution, Adam plays Georges Danton to Lucifer’s executioner.
Near the end of the time-travel, Lucifer transports Adam to the Phalanstery, a futuristic dystopia of soulless conformity and machines. Madách’s utilitarian nightmare anticipates such dystopias as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The inhabitants of the Phalanstery regulate life mathematically, rendering families (and familial affection) obsolete. Childhood stories have been replaced with “higher equations / and geometry.”3 Any activity or object without functional value has been banished. I’d like to give some samples from this dystopic scene in order to give a taste of this Hungarian canonical work that is too little known in the rest of the world, as well as to show its influence on Zend.
After Lucifer’s time travel takes him and Adam to the Phalanstery founded on cold science, Lucifer changes their appearance so that they can mingle inconspicuously among the residents, who might otherwise become suspicious and “lock [them] in a test-tube.”4 He then fabricates a story to a passing scientist that he and Adam are “student-scientists / from a thousand phalansteries away,” drawn by his renown to study with him.5 In a scene that predates that of the Ancient House in Zamyatin’s We by sixty years, the scientist takes Lucifer and Adam on a tour of a museum showcasing the “extinct species of antiquity / . . . the original specimens, / well stuffed and preserved”6:
Here you see the very last rose that bloomed
on the surface of the earth. A useless flower.
Together with its hundred thousand siblings,
it took away space from the cereals;
it was a charming toy for grown-up children.
A peculiar phenomenon, indeed,
how people, long ago, enjoyed these toys.
Even the intellect brought forth such flowers:
the fantasies of poetry and faith.
While rocking in the arms of these delusions
and squandering his finest energies,
Man neglected the purpose of his life.
We are still keeping here as rarities
two such works. The first of these is a poem
whose author, living in a selfish age
when individuals wished recognition,
called himself Homer. In it, he describes
a world of fantasy, calling it Hades.
We disproved each line of it, long ago.7
Madách implies, of course, that in the dystopia of the Phalanstery, not only Homer’s epic but his own dramatic poem about a fantastic world would be censored.
The second work is Agricola by the Roman historian Tacitus, which the scientist dismisses as “the laughable, yet / sordid concepts of a barbarous age.”8
Of such sterile existence, in which material goods are created by machines and human life reproduces in test tubes, Adam observes that “there is no life, / no character which will survive its maker”, for how could a test tube baby
inherit human features,
detached from the environment, from pain,
raised to consciousness in this tiny flask?
. . .
So, science too has disappointed me:
where I expected to find happiness,
I found only a boring kindergarten.9
Among the inmates of this place are Roman senator Cassius, Plato, and Michelangelo. Each, called by a number, is reprimanded for his rebelliousness against the Phalastery’s scientific and utilitarian ideals. Michelangelo, known as “Number Seventy-Two,” is scolded because he left his workplace in a mess, to which he responds:
Yes, because I was always making chair-legs,
and even those in a most simple form.
I begged for permission to modify them,
to let me carve on them some ornaments:
it was refused. So then I asked permission
to make the chair-backs, still to no avail.
It almost drove me to insanity,
so I left my torment, I left the workshop.10
As punishment for “breaking the rules,” Michelangelo is ordered back to his room. Adam, objecting strenuously to the “sanity” of the Philanstery and embracing the “madness” of humanity, suggests that “every great / and noble thing on Earth was such a madness, / unrestrained by cool rationality.”11
Although the Phalanstery was loosely modeled after plans for utopian communities by French socialist Charles Fourier (1772—1837), contemporary readers might sense in Madách’s dystopia an eerily prescient indictment of life under Soviet rule. Thus it is not surprising that publication and performance of this classic of Hungarian literature and theatre were banned in 1950 by official censors, despite protests from Hungarian writers and other intellectuals. Zend was fortunate to experience it as a staged performance prior to the ban, and copies of the text, like many other censored works, were in circulation.12
Perhaps Zend had not only the Soviet dictatorship in mind but also Madách’s Phalanstery when he wrote his dystopic short story “Chapter Fifty-Six,” which I briefly discussed in the previous installment. In that story, the totalitarian Romarmian forces use a form of mind-control to brainwash the citizens of Maletria into believing that they are living in a utopia. In reality, they have become conformist automatons doing the bidding of the dictatorship while living in squalor, their children taught by bureaucrats “with no imagination whatsoever.”13
And Zend’s “The King of Rubik,” a dream-like tale with shifting layers of time and identity, may have also been roughly patterned after the similar premise of The Tragedy of Man. In this partly autobiographical story, Robert, who lived through the “raving, cataclysmic human mass-madness” that was World War II, is overwhelmed by Holocaust survivor guilt because his close friend, Peter, “starved to death in a Nazi concentration camp thirty-eight years earlier.” Like Madách’s Adam, Robert travels between past and future, and also changes identity. Within the shape-shifting nightmare, he discovers that he is Robert, father of Natalie; then Robert, friend of Peter thirty-eight years earlier; then Robert after Peter’s death, confronted by Peter’s mother, who resents that Robert survived and not her son. He later discovers that he has become the King of Rubik, in which the puzzle-cube determines destiny, but wonders whether he is actually “Haroun al Rashid, the ancient Persian Caliph who assum[ed] a different disguise every night,” or perhaps King Solomon or Oedipus. He is uncertain whether he is fifty-one, twenty, or seventeen, or whether he is in Budapest, Toronto, Tonto, Ronto, or Rubicropolis.14
Both narratives are suffused with a deep sense of melancholy and pessimism, and whereas in Madách’s poem it is Lucifer who directs the journey through time and identity, in Zend’s story it is the Rubik’s Cube that seems to be manipulating the lives of Robert and his friends. Like Adam, Robert feels less and less in control of his life, identity, and destiny, and is powerless to counteract the evil forces that have destroyed the lives of so many. Both Zend’s and Madách’s narratives use history and identity to grapple with the nature of good and evil forces.
The impact of The Tragedy of Man on Zend’s literary approach and themes becomes more evident when we consider Madách’s images of deep time and space, which offer a sense of the impermanence and ultimate insignificance of life, and an understanding of the earth as a tiny microcosm within the larger macrocosmic universe.
One such striking scene occurs when Lucifer takes Adam on a flight into outer space, offering him a bird’s-eye view of Creation. They soar high above the earth, watching as the planet dwindles to an insignificant point in the vastness of the universe. Adam, marveling at the sight, exclaims to Lucifer,
Just look back at our Earth:
at first the flowers vanished from our sight,
and then the forests with their trembling leaves;
the familiar landscape with all its cozy
corners turned into a featureless plain.
Even the mountains are reduced to pebbles;
the clouds, pregnant with thunder, harbingers of
divine wrath for the frightened sons of Earth,
are thinned into a miserable mist.
The infinity of the roaring oceans—
Where has it gone? It has become a great spot
upon the globe which mingles with the swirling
cluster of stars. This was once our whole world.15
Earth tries to lure Adam back home, but he ambitiously presses on to the outer reaches of space, only to feel himself perishing as he believes he has gone beyond the point of no return. Lucifer scornfully pushes Adam away from him and sarcastically rejoices:
This puppet-diety can now rotate
in space, as a new planet on which life
will develop, but now, perhaps, for me.16
Adam revives, only to feel keenly the insignificance of his earthly goals, battles, and struggles, in the face of the vastness of the universe.
Such scenes of time travel and of micro- and macrocosmic worlds fed Zend’s imagination, and images recur in his writing and art that echo Madách’s fantastical vision of zooming out to reveal the larger cosmos. In “Growth,” for example, a tiny dot expands until it becomes a huge sphere, which in turn becomes a mere snack for a giant:
at first I was a dot but I
walked and walked and walked
then I became a line but I
grew and grew and grew
then I became a curve but I
rose and rose and rose
then I became a spiral but I
circled and circled and circled
then I became a sphere but I
swelled and swelled and swelled
then a giant came upon me
and held me in his hand
what a lovely little dot he said
I do hope you understand17
In the zooming-out effect, a microcosm grows into a macrocosm, but is in reality just a microcosm for a larger predator.
“Madness,” a poem that explores a relationship that has failed to develop because one partner cannot shake the past, ends with a vision reminiscent of the outer space flight of Adam:
Rushing into the future,
time takes us with it in two tiny coffins.18
In another scene that evokes Adam’s space travel, a runaway elevator crashes through the building’s roof and
continues all the faster —
speeding through the dark sky on toward the moon —
on toward the moon and the planets and the suns —
beyond all the galaxies like a speeding
bullet . . . 19
And in “Before Ascending,” a poem that would have been at home in Daymares, a person at the brink of death looks back on visions of fruitless existence before everything dissolves:
Looking back he still sees
their little offices, where they scribble with important frowns,
their workshops, where they labour mightily on tiny things,
scar-faced gangsters, industriously rattling away at their
soldiers heaving hand grenades with religious fervor,
priests directing the traffic up and down with formidable faces,
heads of families slaving to get what they weren’t given,
nudists trying to take pleasure in what no longer gave pleasure,
film producers inventing things and then believing in them,
capitalists piling up their money while they live in misery,
Communists acting as midwives to the future while murdering
statesmen embracing the people in order to pick their pockets
. . .
and he remembers
that a second ago — it now seems a thousand years ago —
he himself was one among them —
. . .
the whole thing starts to drift apart, pull away,
the way colours on a palette run together20
Although Zend uses such images to different effect in different works, at their heart is an understanding of impermanence and relative insignificance in the larger scheme of the cosmos.
In addition to such correspondences, Lucifer’s parable on dust in The Tragedy of Man seems to have had a lasting impact on Zend. In ancient Egypt, Adam as a pleasure-seeking Pharoh asks Lucifer,
Let me cast a brave glance into the future,
several millennia from today,
what will become of my fame?
Lucifer responds with a time-lapse vision of the inevitable ravages of time, with echoes of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:
Do you not feel the mild breeze which caresses
your face and sails away, leaving behind
a thin layer of dust where it passed by?
In one year, this dust will be a few streaks;
in a hundred, a few feet; one or two
millenia will cloak our pyramids,
bury your name under a mound of sand;
your pleasure-gardens will become a desert
where jackals howl and tribes of beggars stray.21
Lucifer telescopes time to reveal to Adam the layers of dust and sand that accumulate across deep time and bury the fame and supposedly permanent works of even the most powerful and wealthy. In his poem “Meeting,” Zend offers a similar vision of ephemerality:
He tried to live each day as it came
and it came and he lived
and he died and became
dust in interstellar space and in the streets
no more than dirty dust22
Zend’s collages and typescapes also reflect the influence of Madách’s dramatic poem based on Genesis, such as the collage entitled Eden (fig. 3), and the typescape with the punning title Sexerpentormentor (fig. 4).
In other visual works, Zend depicts iconic images of trees and snakes from world mythology, imbuing them with a broader symbolic meaning. In Vivarbor (Tree of Life), for example, the complexly overlapping shapes in the pentagonal structures create a stylized representation of the primordial and widespread symbol for the interconnectedness of life and the common source of vital force (figs. 5 and 6).
The text below the image reads, “The god-rooted tree of life, with its lightning-shaped pointing fingers transmits spirit into the brains of human faces each of which is part of the mirror within the sphere of existence.” The overlaid shapes and spaces suggest Gestalt principles of organization. The tree of life echoes the idea of the “sphere of existence” as well as the shape of a mirror on a stand. The human faces within the petal-like spaces look toward the central starburst directing life-force outward toward humanity. The dialogue among the overlapping shapes contributes to the layered meanings of the work.
And the typescape Uriburus (fig. 7) intertwines three images of the ancient serpent of world mythology in various stages of a cyclical process of beginnings and endings: “The first uriburu is hungry, the second is fulfilled, the third is eating its own tail.” Zend notes that the serpents symbolize “the universe — which constantly renews itself by destroying itself.”
The overall effect of these concrete poems drawing on world mythologies harmonizes with Zend’s recurrent themes of commonality and universality: the Other within the I, and the endless cycle of creation and destruction.
Such was Zend’s admiration for Madách’s The Tragedy of Man that after he immigrated to Canada and became fluent in English, he wrote a translation of it, which he later edited with Peter Singer and illustrated with works by an unidentified artist (fig. 8). He wanted to create an English version with more contemporary language, as opposed to the British translations in somewhat outdated English that were available at the time.23 Although never published, Zend’s translation of The Tragedy of Man is one of his most remarkable accomplishments; the passages quoted in this essay are from his version.
Unfortunately, Zend did not live to see his translation put to use, but during the fall of 2000, Q Art Theatre in Montreal produced the dramatic poem featuring translations by Zend and George Szirtes (fig. 9).
Frigyes Karinthy (1887—1938)
and the Budapest Joke
If Madách is Hungary’s Milton, then Karinthy is its Jonathan Swift (fig. 10). His sketches, stories, and novels are known for their satirical qualities, and he was an important science fiction/fantasy writer under the sign of Swift.
Karinthy isn’t terribly well known outside Hungary, though Journey Round My Skull, his autobiographical account of being operated on for a brain tumor (with an introduction by Oliver Sacks), has consistently received excellent reviews and sold quite well. However, within Hungary he is regarded as one of the most influential and prolific writers of the twentieth century.
Karinthy belongs to the generation known as “Nyugat” (West), named after the Budapest literary journal in which they were frequently published. Fig. 11 shows the Karinthy memorial issue of Nyugat, published shortly after Karinthy’s death in 1938. This issue also includes poems in a series entitled Postcards by Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet and victim of the Holocaust, whose work Zend also greatly admired.24
In the installment on Zend’s early life in Hungary, I related the story about his meeting with Karinthy. During their conversation, Karinthy encouraged him and called him his “spiritual son.” Many years later, Zend acknowledged his literary and personal indebtedness to his early mentor by naming him his “spiritual father.”25 He also paid homage to him in the title of his first book, From Zero to One, which is a phrase from one of Karinthy’s stories, which I quote here to give a flavour of Karinthy’s writing:
Between one and two there is a series of road-signs like “Be Bright” or “Take Care” or “Look Ahead” or “Live and Learn” or “Stretch Your Legs According To Your Coverlet” or “Work as Long as Your Work Wick Burns” or “Be Prepared to Fight” . . . whoever follows them will safely reach the next station, and arrive from One to Two, from Two to Three, from Three to a Millon. . . .
But between Zero and One, there are no such signs, and even if there were, they wouldn’t do any good. For instance, how could you stretch your legs according to your coverlet if you have no coverlet? And how could you work as long as your wick burns if you have no wick? On the road from Zero to One there aren’t even milestones, only millstones, here and there, standing here, fallen there. For between Zero and One is the “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it” and the “I’m sorry, I’m too busy now” and the “Unfortunately, the President won’t be able to see you,” for between Zero and One there lie murder and madness and impossibility.
Between Zero and One is Horror and Desperation. Between Zero and One is Instinct and Religion, Evil and Salvation. Between Zero and One is the Discovery of the World.
Yes, the mathematicians are wrong: the way from Zero to One is longer than from One to a hundred-thousand-million . . . it is about as long as the way from life to death.26
Between one and two lies reason, the Apollonian principle of deliberate conscious planning and the comforting bromides that nudge us to achieve goals and give us the illusion of conscious order and control.
Between zero and one, however, there are no yardsticks by which to measure or analyze, no logical progression of a life, for there is no progress, no goals. That infinite stretch between zero and one — which could be considered as subconsciousness, the vast chaos of unnoticed processes — can seem a nightmarish realm of “Horror,” “Desperation,” and “Evil.” On the other hand, it is also the source of creation, of “the Discovery of the World.”
Karinthy’s passage must have appealed to Zend’s feeling for the fertility of subconscious processes, as the following excerpt from the introduction to Daymares suggests:
There is a mysterious world stretching somewhere below the surface of the Earth (or below the upper layer of the cortex) that constantly whispers images, plots, and words to us; as many worlds as heads sitting on human shoulders — heads which during the day function according to the radiant commands of the golden god, Sun. But as soon as He sinks below the circular line of the horizon, another ruler takes over, Darkness, through whose empire the spiraling-straight lines hurled by the fiery sphere cannot penetrate. Darkness, floating and amorphous, vast and expanding. Her law is entirely different from that of the temporarily dethroned king: falling-apartness instead of coherent concentration; obscurity instead of distinctness; spaciousness instead of linearity; dispersion instead of fusion; overlapping instead of separateness; indefinity instead of explicitness; womb-like roundness instead of erect angularity.27
Karinthy’s writing, famously philosophical, fantastical, and humorous, inspired Zend to share in that legacy.
Those who have not heard of Karinthy will more likely be familiar with the movie Six Degrees of Separation, whose premise is based on a short story by Karinthy, “Chain-Links.” In Karinthy’s story there are only five degrees of separation, perhaps owing to the smaller world population during his time. The concept behind Karinthy’s story is a kind of parlor game demonstrating the shrinking of the globe through modern transportation and the resulting interconnectedness of people around the world. The idea is to select a close acquaintance and any other
person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth. . . . [U]sing no more than five individuals . . . [one] could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.28
The first sentence of that story opens with a philosophical question about whether the universe is progressing toward a teleological end or endlessly cycling back upon itself:
We were arguing energetically about whether the world is actually evolving, headed in a particular direction, or whether the entire universe is just a returning rhythm’s game, a renewal of eternity.29
The “energetic arguing” reveals something of Karinthy’s intellectual milieu in Budapest: the gathering of literati and their acolytes in cafés to debate, exchange stories, and hone their wit with verbal play. Douglas Messerli likens this café culture to that of the New York Algonquin writers, and states that Karinthy and other writers “held literary court at the famed Budapest New York Café” (fig. 12), where they “played sophisticated verbal games and satirized the leading Hungarian poets.”30 And László Cs. Szabó observes that Karinthy’s work “reflects the rich folklore of the city of Budapest, replete with puns [and] nonsense words.”31
“Chain-Links” exemplifies the play of intellect and humour practiced by these Hungarian writers of the Nyugat generation. It also reveals another important characteristic of Karinthy’s writing that Zend inherited: the influence of the so-called “Budapest joke,” raised to an art form by Karinthy.32
The urban joke that developed in nineteenth-century Budapest (then Pest) was a more “concise and abstract” version of the more detailed rural anecdote. This popular expression of urban humour was “born in East and Central Europe’s Jewish communities,” whose distinctive brand of entertaining wordplay was integral to their culture.33 Karinthy, a Hungarian of Jewish origin,34 gravitated to the witty verbal play of the “Pest joke” and developed its characteristics, including the essential punch line, into a sophisticated literary form.35
The end of “Chain-Links” is a case in point. The speaker, sitting alone in a café, lost in a reverie about the “chain of connections between . . . random things,” is interrupted by a man who walks up to his table with “some trifling, insignificant problem.” The speaker then begins to develop a chain of associations with that interruption until he arrives at the fourth link, the destruction of the world:
Well, then let a New World Order appear! Let the new Messiah of the world come! Let the God of the universe show himself once more through the burning bush! Let there be peace, let there be war, let there be revolutions, so that — and here is the fifth link — it cannot happen again that someone should dare disturb me when I am at play, when I set free the phantoms of my imagination, when I think!36
The paradox of the joke is, of course, that war, destruction, and revolutions might pose more extreme interruptions to his chain of thought than the trivial disturbance of a casual encounter in a café.
Another characteristic of Karinthy’s writing that had a major influence on Zend is his exploration of alien, unfamiliar worlds, which blossomed into the fantastical fiction of two novels written under the sign of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: Voyage to Faremído (Utazás Feremidóba, 1916) and Capillaria (1921).37 Voyage to Faremido describes Gulliver’s voyage to an alien planet of beings who communicate using a musical language. And Capillaria recounts Gulliver’s sojourn in an undersea realm where women rule over and cannibalize the diminutive male population.
Karinthy’s interest in science fiction and fantasy, shared by many Nyugat writers, follows Hungary’s lineage of utopian and allegorical writing since the mid-eighteenth century, including, as we have seen, Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man. Significantly, Karinthy was also a prolific translator who introduced to Hungarian readers such writers of fantasy and science fiction as H. G. Wells and Jonathan Swift.38
For all of the above reasons, Zend found in Karinthy a kindred spirit and mentor for the philosophical, fantastical, and humorous bent of his own writing. To begin with the ludic sensibility that the two writers shared, we have seen how Karinthy, one of the foremost humorist writers of his time, drew from the Budapest joke of popular culture. Zend had been reading Karinthy’s work since childhood, and through that influence and a natural proclivity for humour, developed his writing in a humorous vein. Like Karinthy, Zend absorbed the tradition of the Budapest joke in such works as “The Legend of the Axe”:
Once upon a time, when Iron was formed, the Forest began to worry, and its cries finally reached the heavens.
“Oh, Lord, how can you be so cruel and underhanded? With your right hand you give life, with your left hand you sharpen a knife!”
God shook his head sadly and said: “Your fear is groundless, Forest. Tell me, if you can, how could Iron harm you?”
The Forest fumed: “Me, tell you! Do you mock me while putting me in chains? As the creator of everything, you must know the reason. I’m worried because that Iron will turn into an Axe, and with it man will lop me off!”
God answered: “Only if you supply the handle.”39
Zend’s joke-like poem also has the feel of a fable or allegory, highlighted by the capitalization of “Iron” and “Forest,” by the anthropomorphized trees, and by God’s pithy axiom, which arrives like a punch line.
Here’s another example, this time in a lineated poem, “Monday”:
It took me decades
the basic principles
This is this
Now is now
Here is here
I am I
Nothing else is true
there are no harps in heaven
there are no turtles holding up the world
the best investment is a T-bone steak.40
The rationalist world view (a trait shared by Karinthy) is carried through to the absurdly comical punch line.
In addition to humour, Zend’s love of fantastical dream worlds and paradoxes also clearly shows the influence of Karinthy and other writers of the Nyugat generation who wrote in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, rather than following the literary tradition of descriptive and psychological realism. It is likely that Zend was also exposed in his youth to the works of Wells, Swift, and other non-Hungarian writers of the fantastical through the translations by Karinthy and others. (It should be remembered that although Hungary’s authors wrote under the watchful eyes of censors, readers in Hungary had ready access to translations of a variety of world literature.)
Starting with his first collection of poems, From Zero to One, Zend shows his penchant for creating fantastical worlds, as in “Variation” (which is, not incidentally, dedicated to American science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke):
Somewhere in the empty reaches of space
there is a place where
dentists play pianos in caves
children with wrinkles on their faces
throw snowballs deep in tropical jungles
in garrets escaped convicts pen their poems in blood
mayors panhandle at streetcorners
butchers with green hair stand on their hands
At the end of this otherworldly description, we see god-the-accountant sitting at his desk:
wearing his spectacles and well-worn corduroy jacket
god bends over his accounts
and when he balances it he sighs and mumbles:
“It could have been different,
but what difference would it make?”41
Zend’s creation of wildly absurd worlds illustrates the philosophical paradox of change versus permanence. The saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” might succinctly capture the dilemma faced by the deity, figured here as a bureaucrat “bending over his accounts” and wondering whether, if creation had been different, anything would have really changed. God seems to lean towards that resigned view of change as static: despite the bizarre worlds he might have created, a feeling of ennui envelopes him as he comprehends that change will not really change anything at all.
“Variations” succinctly encapsulates several aspects of Zend’s indebtedness to Hungarian literature: his interest in the story of creation, inspired at least in part by Madách’s dramatic poem, the creation of fantastical worlds and the humourous tone, revealing the influence of Karinthy.
The most developed and eloquent expression of Zend’s fantastical works is in the stories and poems collected in Daymares. These works continually involute expectations about identity, time, and the distinction between reality and illusion. Some of the stories offer twists on religious mythology, including “The End of the World,” a comical revision of the Apocalypse in which the narrator scoffs, “Mankind, shmankind!” and boffs his neighbour’s wife as the four horsemen gallop toward the annihilation of the earth into smithereens — sort of.42 Others, such as “A Dream about the Centre,” explore the vastness of human cognition in the blink of a waking dream.43 One of the most moving stories, “My Baby Brother,” confounds time and identity in exploring issues of Holocaust death, survival, and the continuity of life.44
The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Daymares in which Zend’s mythical dream world merges ideas of creation, illusion, imagination, and the connectedness of life, reminiscent of the dream-worlds of Jorge Luis Borges as well as the fantastical fiction of Karinthy:
Although the Sun declared it a false doctrine, we still secretly accept the creed of Darkness, which teaches us that the land of dreams is common for everybody: it is not three-billion individually enclosed lands, but one. It obeys not three-billion personal laws, but one. It is a common land where we all meet each other, and these meetings will be unremembered during the linear Sun-time, by the vertically erected individuals who intermingle on the curved, collective male-plane. We all believe — though we know it isn’t true — that the land into which we submerge (while our horizontal bodies rest, tossing and turning about) is real, as real, if not more, than that from which we sank down. Originally, we were all the sons and daughters of Darkness: that was our prenatal land, the Atlantis-womb before the ejaculating rays of the aroused Sun-lord fertilized it, generating us who grow and pop out into the light. We never lose our nostalgia for the cool, dank, soily shadow-shapes of the womb.45
Zend echoes Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy of darkness and light, in which the Dionysian dream-world represents freedom from the imposition of order, and the Apollonian represents
. . . the measured restraint, the freedom
from the wilder emotions, that calm of
the sculptor god [whose] eye must be
“sunlike” . . . 46
For Zend, the wordlessness of dreams is the ur-language, and translating dreams “with Sun-lit words gives rise to impenetrable jungles of misunderstanding in which sameness means difference; nearness, distance; flux, solidity; consecutiveness, simultaneity and repetition, comparison.” The language of dreams “informs us of the bankruptcy of words: its emotions provoke events and its abstract objects are expressions of solid symbols.” Zend acknowledges the need for “sun-lit words,” though his heart is with the “creed of Darkness,” the realm that permits creation with no constraints. However, true to the humour that informs his work as a descendent of Karinthy, Zend situates a winking laughter between the poles of this duality:
[I]n the stripe-shaped no-man’s land between the two borderlines, another, a third god rises to existence, He who is an alien in both the land of Light and that of Darkness. His name is Humour. . . . This is the zone — His domain — in which I, pushed-around wanderer of depths and heights, decided to settle. . . . Thus, when I am approached with inquiries from either kingdom about the other, or about my true identity and idiosyncrasies, or about my loyalties and allegiances, or about my views of the universal nature of things, I can reply to all with just one, single, identifcal, common answer: laughter. I hope to be respected as a citizen of this no-man’s land . . . 47
In such writing of a philosophical, other-worldly, and humourous nature, Zend shows himself to be a true literary descendant of Karinthy.
In some of Zend’s visual works as well, the originary influence of Karinthy is apparent, as in the collage below entitled Science Fiction.
In both his humorous, satirical approach and his fantastical bent, Karinthy’s influence on Zend is obvious. And although he was later influenced by many writers of science fiction and the fantastical (notably Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), the origins of this interest are in Hungarian sources such as Karinthy as well as translations of English-language and other foreign literary works available in Hungary. Moreover, Zend’s Hungarian influence is not limited to such writers, but also extends back into traditions of Jewish and Hungarian forms of popular expression such as the Budapest joke.
Zend’s literary roots were in Hungary, but it’s also true that in Hungary he encountered the works of writers of many nationalities. Budapest, historically a sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban centre, was home to publishing houses with a strong tradition of translating world literature. As we will see in the next installment, it was a similarly diverse situation with Zend’s literary “cross-pollination” after his move to Canada. He was influenced by many Canadian writers and artists, some of whom were born elsewhere.
Zend’s literary exploration of illusions, the unreal, and the imagination would have been antithetical to the Communist Hungary’s demands for socialist realism during the years of Zend’s early adulthood. Stalin’s violent regime saw show trials, purges, and executions in Hungary, and during Khrushchev’s tenure the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was brutally crushed. If Zend had stayed in Hungary and survived, it’s likely that such works would have been censored.
Next Installment: Part 6.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
Part 4. Canada: “Freedom, Everybody’s Homeland”
Robert Zend and his wife, Ibi, and eight-month-old baby, Aniko, escaped Hungary in mid-November 1956 when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution. After receiving Canadian visas in Vienna, they traveled by train to Liverpool, where they boarded an ocean liner headed for Halifax (fig. 1). In Canada they could start a new life free from government repression and terror. They had fled along with a huge exodus of other Hungarians also eager to leave before the Hungarian borders were completely locked down. By 1957, about 200,000 Hungarians had escaped, among which 37,000 immigrated to Canada as political refugees.1
The official Canadian response to the humanitarian emergency was slow at first, and there was even a decision in the early days of the refugee intake to admit into Canada only those who could pay for their own transportation. Public pressure from Canadians to respond to the crisis with generosity gathered impetus and had its intended effect on immigration officials. By the end of November, Canadian Minister for Citizenship and Immigration J. W. Pickersgill was persuaded to ease restrictions. He traveled to Vienna to announce the cutting of bureaucratic red tape and to offer free transportation to the refugees. Even so, old prejudices resurfaced when the director of immigration issued a caution that “those of the Hebrew race . . . in possession of a considerable amount of funds” might attempt to take advantage of the Canadian resettlement program. In spite of the initially conservative official response, the bureaucratic wheels gained momentum, and by mid-December about one hundred Hungarian refugees were arriving in Toronto every day.2
The Zends, who had been living at subsistence level in Budapest and in fleeing lost whatever meagre possessions they owned, benefited from the new, more lenient and generous refugee policies. On December 11 in Liverpool, along with 106 other Hungarian refugees and hundreds of regular passengers,3 they boarded the newly-built luxury liner Carinthia of the legendary Cunard Lines, courtesy of the Canadian government (fig. 2). Their journey to Halifax took twice the normal time due to stormy weather and rough seas, causing Ibi to suffer from seasickness. But the amenities of the Carinthia must have helped somewhat to ease the discomforts of the ship’s heave and sway (fig. 3).
The Zends also befriended some of their fellow Hungarian passengers seeking asylum in Canada and the United States, documented by some poignant photographs on the ship by Zend (fig. 4).
Finally they arrived in Halifax on December 22. On their landing cards (fig. 5), Zend indicates his profession as reporter-journalist, and Ibi as librarian. Their religion is noted as Presbyterian. Considering the Nazi terror that Hungarians had experienced, it’s not difficult to understand the concealing of Ibi’s Jewish background, also keeping in mind that antisemitism was not limited to its long history in Europe but was also present and indeed institutionalized in Canada during the 1950s, as we have seen from the prejudice of the Canadian director of immigration. In addition, Jewish quotas and stricter admission standards were in place for universities such as McGill and the University of Toronto.
In Halifax, they boarded a train for Toronto. From the photographs Zend took from the train, his fascination with the vast stretches of snow, punctuated by a cluster of houses every few hours, is apparent (fig. 6). He and Ibi joked wryly that the landscape might well be Siberian — except of course for the occasional church steeple rising above a village.4 It was not an idle observation but one with ominous overtones, since after 1945 the Soviets had transported up to half a million Hungarians — among them poet György Faludy and writer György Gábori, survivors of the Gulag — to forced labour camps. Many of those camps were in Siberia, where a high percentage of inmates perished.5
The Toronto population mobilized to provide housing and jobs for the new refugees to help them get started. From January to March 1957, a couple in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke gave the Zends a place to live in exchange for Ibi’s labour as a live-in domestic (fig. 7). Meanwhile, Robert put his experience in the Hungarian film industry to use when he found work at Chatwynd Studios editing film and doing odd jobs while he learned English. Soon thereafter, Ibi was able to find a job in her field as a librarian at the Toronto Public Library. Robert and Ibi were pleased to find that even on their low income during the first few years in Canada, they were able to afford things that were out of their reach in Hungary because either supplies were short or they couldn’t afford them. Aniko, who was born premature and who was sickly and undernourished the first eight months of her life , received the special nutrition she needed to flourish.6
And for the first time in his life, Robert was able to afford a typewriter. In Hungary, it would have cost three months’ wages, but in Toronto he only needed to put a dollar down and pay affordable installments.7 He couldn’t know it then, but years later the typewriter was to become the instrument of an important body of his work in the categories of concrete poetry and typewriter art.
Zend describes the move to Canada as a “rebirth” and the new country like “a different planet” (fig. 8).8 And in important ways, life for the Zends had indeed improved. However, although remaining in Hungary would have placed Robert at great risk from the harsh reprisals of the Communist government, uprooting himself and his wife and baby from their native Hungary came with its own set of dilemmas and emotional trauma. He relates that his first five years in Toronto were “wretched,” and that for the next twenty he “felt like a man without a home” and a “misfit.”9
Zend’s unforeseen and precipitate departure from Hungary meant relinquishing his material possessions as well as his beloved Budapest and his friends and mentors. As he later quipped, “I lost everything except my accent.”10 As well, he had left behind all of his writing and personal mementos, which he had entrusted to a friend who stayed in Hungary. He later found out that his papers had disappeared or been destroyed when their apartment was ransacked in the chaos following the failed Uprising. He had been on the brink of publishing a one-hundred-page poetry book with a dissident publisher. The crushing loss haunted him for the rest of his life. 11
He revisited his family’s escape in “Chapter Fifty-Six,” a thinly-veiled autobiographical short story that posits an alternative history, a recounting of the rebellion of Maletrian citizens and its quashing by Romarmian forces. The protagonist tries unsuccessfully to escape with his family, but they are stopped at the border and are compelled to return to their home. He discovers the cause of the robotically compliant behavior of the citizenry following the brutal invasion: the Romarmian military had installed a “dream broadcasting centre” in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to brainwash the people. Unlike actual history, the outcome is positive as he blows up the Ministry and the people are able to think freely again.12
More often, however, the sorrow of exile from his homeland echoes throughout his writings during these early years in Canada. Loneliness and alienation are common themes, as he tells of feeling like a person with no country, acutely aware of his “solitude among a thousand people”:
This is the real solitude bearing the whole world within
Consuming colours and sounds and growing big with them and
choking with them
Strangers have locked all the doors around me
Ghosts are stalking the desolate corridors
the walls are tense and about to explode13
In addition to writing of feelings of alienation, Zend, profoundly affected by the sudden and unexpected immigration, wrote “about the change, the culture shock, the homesickness, about the schizoid emotions of an exile between two worlds.”14Much later, during a trip to Budapest in the 1980s, he drew a sketch, “Split Zend,” showing his divided self — perhaps in reaction to experiencing once more the shift within himself that started in 1956 (fig. 9). He succinctly expresses the ambivalence of being mentally split between Budapest and Toronto in his poem “In Transit”:
Budapest is my homeland
Toronto is my home
In Toronto I am nostalgic for Budapest
In Budapest I am nostalgic for Toronto
Everywhere else I am nostalgic for my nostalgia15
As late as 1981, in a prose poem entitled “Fused Personality,” he writes that “[t]he deepest regions of my soul don’t seem to accept that I split myself and my life in two, in 1956.” He recounts a dream of living in a city at once Toronto and Budapest, sitting in a café having a stimulating conversation with Canadians Margaret Atwood, Glenn Gould, and Northrop Frye, as well as Hungarians Frigyes Karinthy, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály. He then leaves to find a table to write alone:
I write a poem for the excellent literary magazine called Search for Identity. I write down the title in Hungarian, but I realize that my English readership won’t understand it, so I cross it out and write it down again in English, but now I think about my oldest childhood friends who won’t be able to read it. My right hand holding the pen freezes in mid-air while I ponder the problem . . .16
At his idealized café table in a blended city, Zend assembles a dream coterie of Hungarian and Canadian cultural icons, who reach across anachronisms and language barriers to engage in brilliant conversation. But paralysis sets in when he must choose to write in one language or the other. The symbolism seems quite clear, yet it poignantly brings home the depth of the impression made by the culture shock of 1956 and the ongoing dilemma of identity, not only for Zend but for many thousands of refugees.
The title of the magazine, Search for Identity, is perhaps also a reference to the Canadian quest for cultural identity and cohesiveness. In Zend’s humorous piece entitled “An Interview with a Newborn Baby,” an interpreter translates the babytalk response to the question, “How do you like Canada?”:
Canada is a country that is engaged in an unrelinquished search for its “Identity,” and — due to this fact — it is quite impossible to determine whether one likes it or not. How can one like or dislike a territorial unit which doesn’t even know whether it exists or not and if not, why, and if yes, why not?
Zend riffs on the pop culture question pointing to the ongoing identity complex of a country perennially striving to distinguish its culture, especially from that of the United States. Zend, who explores in his writing and concrete poetry his own troubled and ambivalent feelings about cultural identity, settled in a country having an identity dilemma of its own. He felt the irony of that situation, which in “Interview” he resolves by pointing out (via the babbling baby) a basic fact of human universality:
Canada as such is not very different from any other country in the world. After all, they all have newborn babies who are starved and need instant breast-feeding.17
And in a short poem ending his speech on the evils of labeling people, he comments, tongue firmly in cheek:
In a country
is searching for
for I’m already
The play on “identity” and “identical” creates a paradox because of the ambiguity of the latter. Again, Zend’s solution is to embrace the commonality of basic human needs. As he wryly notes in a journal, pointing out the inherent contradiction in the quest for Canadian identity:
Why search for Canadian identity? We found it. Anybody who searches for Canadian identity is a Canadian. Consequently: He who has found his Canadian identity is not a true Canadian.19
Some of Zend’s concrete poetry such as “BUDAPESTORONTO” (fig. 10) graphically epitomizes his complex and conflicted feelings about the two cities: Budapest, cosmopolitan and cultured yet also a place where intellectuals were censored and oppressed, and sometimes in danger for their lives; versus relatively “prosaic” Toronto, as Zend puts it in “Return Tickets” — “huge, clean, and functional.”20
He also faced an uncertain future as a writer in a country whose language he had not previously studied. Arriving in Canada with his wife and baby, he quips that the first English word he learned was “diaper.”21 Magyar does not have Indo-European roots; neither does it share with English the etymological origins and grammatical structures (he describes Magyar as “extremely condensed” compared to English)22 that make it relatively easy to gain fluency within the closely-related Romance languages, for example.
In a short fantastical prose piece entitled “The World’s Greatest Poet,” Zend writes of Granduloyf, a poet who moves from Uangia to Obobistan and has difficulty learning the new language, which underscores for him not only grammatical but also cultural differences. His inability to reconcile the cultural with the linguistic occasions the poem:
While his people had no words for human character, but only for changing moods, the Obobs could not recognize changes in individuals. They thought of themselves as impenetrable iron bricks. . . . Like migrating birds, guided by ancient instinct, circling aimlessly over the ocean waves searching for Atlantis, the sunken destination of their migration, his pen circled aimlessly over the white paper and could not descend.23
Here Zend uses an image of paralysis similar to that in the dreamed café poem. The pen, like a migrating bird searching for a lost civilization, is unable to land words on paper. The poet as well as his language are exiled. Zend creates an artificial alphabet in a concrete poem to represent his perception of the differences between the two languages (fig. 11).
The poet’s initial awkwardness with the new language appears in the angularity of its alphabet as opposed to the graceful curves of his mastered native tongue. Zend’s own language barriers on arriving in Canada show through the veneer of fiction as he expresses the poet’s frustration of not being able to “ask for a packet of cigarettes without making himself look ridiculous.”
In addition to the challenges of learning a new language, Zend felt himself to be linguistically and psychologically “in limbo because I wasn’t a Canadian citizen yet, but I was no longer a Hungarian either.” He felt torn between writing and publishing in English or in his native language. He couldn’t yet write in English for Canadian publications, but neither could he write for Hungarian journals or presses because, “having illegally left the country, [he] was considered an enemy.”24
And his decision of whether to publish in Canada or Hungary was fraught with catch-22’s. At that time, there were no Hungarian ethnic literary publications in Canada. So for about a year in 1961, he published his own Hungarian literary monthly, The Toronto Mirror (fig. 12). However, his advertisers, “unable to think but in labels,” wanted to know whether his publication was for “leftists or rightists, for Catholics or Protestants, for Jews or Gendarmes, for junior or senior citizens.”25 Zend had felt himself to be a “misfit” in Hungary, and that had not changed in Canada. Canadian publishers also were in a quandary about how to categorize him, wanting to know whether he was famous in Hungary.
In the 1960s, Hungarian exiles were allowed to return to Hungary as tourists (once the government, needing “hard currency . . . changed our labels from ‘Counter-Revolutionary Hooligans’ to ‘Our Beloved Fellow-Country-Men Living Abroad’”). Zend seized the opportunity to fly to Budapest and meet with Hungarian publishers, only to be asked whether he was famous in Canada. Once again, Zend was faced with a lack of sympathy due to nationalistic labels. They asked, “If you are a Hungarian poet, why do you live in Canada? If you are a Canadian poet, why do you want to publish in Hungary?” One Hungarian publisher suggested labeling him as a Canadian poet whose poems had been translated into Hungarian, telling him that he had “never published the original Hungarian poetry of Hungarian poets living in exile, in Hungarian, in Hungary! We just cannot start a new trend!” Zend’s assertion “that being a poet does not depend on the geographical location of the poet’s body, or on the political system under which the publisher functions, but on the linguistic and literary value of the poems” did not convince any Hungarian publisher.26
Realizing the need to publish in English in order to establish himself as a writer in Canada, he decided to learn the language to the point that he could write poetry independently in it. His linguistic talents and his mastery of Italian and study of Latin and German no doubt helped him as he gained fluency in the new language. By 1964 he was writing poems in both Hungarian and English. He also worked closely with John Robert Colombo, a literary scholar and poet in Toronto, on translating the poems originally written in Hungarian and published in his first two poetry collections: From Zero to One (1973) and Beyond Labels (1982).
Determined to write his poems effectively in English, Zend took pains to transfer his musical feeling for his native language into his adopted one. Revisions of poems written in English during the 1960s shows him trying multiple versions, taking care that the language be musical and that the rhythm mesh with the content. In “No,” for example, he writes of honing the rhythm to achieve a percussive beat to reflect the knocking on a door of an unborn being, and towards the end of the poem creating a rhythm that “widens and calms down to annihilate” as the being becomes “lost / in the snowy fields of non-existence.”27 It’s not surprising that Glenn Gould calls Zend “unquestionably Canada’s most musical poet,” high praise from one of Canada’s greatest musicians.28
Finding employment in Toronto proved to be a huge setback for Zend. He worked at a series of menial jobs in order to support his family. In From Zero to One, he expresses frustration at having to restart his career with such labour “at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards,”
where we have to put on cards
our comings and goings
and every moment of lateness or early leaving
has to be accounted for
but if during the eight hours we redeem the world
or just twiddle our thumbs
no one cares —29
In addition to such frustrations, Zend relates that his experience with labels did not end upon escaping Communist Hungary and immigrating to Canada: “the free world didn’t deliver me from evil labels.”30 In a story published in the Toronto Star in 1992, Ibi relates an encounter with antisemitism soon after the move to Canada, when they were living with the couple in Etobicoke:
Until one night the couple noticed the Auschwitz identification mark on [Ibi’s] arm. “You mean you are Jews!” said the husband. Next day they were sent packing.31
Also, Zend relates being subject to denigration due to his country of origin: a supervisor at work called him a “bloody Hungarian.” With typical good humour, Zend responded by telling him that he should call him a “bloody Canadian” since he had just become a citizen.32
On the positive side, life in Toronto was relatively peaceful and stable, and provided a safe haven for Zend to continue his development as a writer (fig. 13). In a 1959 letter to Pierre Berton, he professes that with some reservations, he “likes Canada very much. Not because I am living here and this has become my second homeland,” but because it represents freedom, which is his “first homeland” for which he was “homesick . . . already in Hungary.” As much as he loved the land and language of his birth, it was also a country scarred by history and suffering under an oppressive regime intolerant of free expression. In a letter to the editor soon after his arrival, he writes that in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries,
It’s not allowed to notice the low standard of living. It’s dangerous to joke about party-leaders. It’s inevitable to adore the altars of their living Gods or applaud rhythmically at meetings and to smile happily while applauding. Also for listening to the radio of free countries you’ll get punished. What’s more: it’s quite risky to follow faithfully the party-line – if it is changed, you’ll be punished. That is: deported, jailed, exiled or tortured to death. No one is allowed to think of the enemy’s victory. To think means to hope. To hope means to wish. To wish means that you are a spy.
And although he realized that Canada was not without its historical baggage of discrimination and that he would face difficulties adjusting to profound changes in his life, he also understood that “life is not much without freedom,” that
freedom is everybody’s homeland — only secondarily the house, the city and the country where we were born.”33
To ease his feelings of isolation during his early years in Toronto, he held weekly house parties.34 And since he was a chess aficionado, he created a circle of friends when he joined a chess club. An anecdote related by Toronto chess champion Lawrence Day, in which Zend is jailed for unpaid parking tickets, shows his sense of humour in putting relatively minor inconveniences into perspective, considering his experience with totalitarian regimes in Hungary. Zend and others in the chess coterie had devised a system for serving the least possible amount of time in jail for parking tickets:
In those days serving three days in jail wiped out all parking tickets so the game was to get as many as possible and then turn yourself in at 11:30 Friday night and get out at 12:30 AM Saturday which added up to three days since Sunday was free.35
When officers caught on to this game and arrived at dawn to haul Zend away to jail to serve his sentence, he took it cheerfully. His friends asked whether he didn’t feel “paranoid with the cops after him.” He responded,
[I] survived Budapest under the Nazis and the Commies — then was tragedy, this was comedy.36
Employment conditions for Zend soon improved. He began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1958, advancing from shipper to film librarian, film editor, and ultimately radio producer of close to a hundred literary and and other cultural documentary programs for the series Ideas.37 Over the years, his work for the CBC gave him the invaluable opportunity to meet with many leading figures in world culture, including Northrop Frye, Glenn Gould, A. Y. Jackson, Norman McLaren, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Town, Isaac Asimov, Robert Easton, Richard P. Feynman, Andrei Voznesensky, Jorge Luis Borges, and the Dalai Lama, some of whom became long-term friends.38
Two of these friendships proved especially conducive to creative collaboration. In 1971, Zend contributed to a CBC Ideas program featuring Marceau on the concept of the mask. Zend’s creative exchange with Marceau began with his designing a metal chess set to be presented by the CBC to the mime artist, and culminated in a correspondence of art and poetry between the two. And in 1974, Zend spend two weeks with Borges in Buenos Aires, providing himself with an important mentor for his fiction and leading to a collaboration on a postmodern narrative entitled “The Key,” on the subject of the search for the key to a labyrinth, written as a series of footnotes. Both collaborations will be explored in future installments.
In 1967, Zend decided to continue his studies in Italian literature by pursuing a Master of Arts degree at the University of Toronto. First, however, he needed to give evidence that he had earned a bachelor’s degree in Hungary. Returning for the first time to Hungary since 1956, he was able to retrieve his university diploma. While he was studying toward his degree, he continued working at the CBC in Original Film Editing, again making use of the skills he had learned in Hungary. After passing his oral examinations In Medieval Italian Literature, Italian Lyric Poetry from Petrarch to Marino, nineteenth-century Italian Poetry, and Luigi Pirandello, he graduated in spring 1969 (fig. 14).39
That summer, he was accepted into a Ph.D. program within the Department of Italian and Hispanic Studies.40. His program of study was international trends in twentieth-century Italian poetry with special emphasis on Palazzeschi, Ungaretti, Montale, Quasimodo, and Pasolini.41 A few months into his program, he decided to write his dissertation on the poetry of Piero Bigongiari.42 One of his minor areas of study was the Italian language, and the other was fine art, which he later changed to Marxist philosophy.43 His intensive study of Italian literature was an important influence on his work, and will be documented in an upcoming installment on Zend’s Italian affinities. During his graduate studies, he continued to write and publish his own poetry as well as translations of Italian poets.
In fact, the 1970s was a decade of creative flourishing for Zend, as he hit his stride with several important publications, including poems and stories in a number of anthologies and magazines. In 1970, his poems were included in New Poems of the Seventies: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry edited by Douglas Lochhead and Raymond Souster. And in 1971, twenty-one pages of his poetry appeared in Volvox: Poetry from the Unofficial Languages of Canada . . . in English Translation. In addition, Exile Magazine published 136 pages of several longer works, including “A Bouquet to Bip” (his collaborative correspondence with Marceau), “The Key” (his collaboration with Borges), “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (his creative essay illustrating the evolution of his typewriter art), and excerpts from Oāb (his two-volume multi-genre work published in 1983 and 1985).
Seventeen years after his first poetry collection was to have been published in Hungary but instead tragically perished in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1956, Zend’s first collection of poems in English, From Zero to One, was published in 1973 by The Sono Nis Press in British Columbia (fig. 15). These poems were written between 1960 and 1969, and as he was still making the transition to writing poetry in English during that time, they were written in Hungarian and translated into English in collaboration with Colombo. In his first major statement as a poet we can already sense his cosmopolitan openness evidenced by the international influences in the poems and by his dedications to writers and artists from several countries (I’ll document these influences in greater detail starting with the next installment). Zend explores most of the major themes that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life: exile, science-fiction and fantasy, the metapoetic idea of the writer as creator, romantic love, and the cycle of birth and death. Evident throughout is his philosophical bent and his sense of irony and playfulness.
By 1972, Zend had finished his coursework for the Ph.D. but stopped short of completing his dissertation. His personal life was in a period of transition around this time with the dissolultion of his marriage with Ibi and his starting a new family with Janine Devoize, who had immigrated from France to Canada in 1964 and whom he married in 1970 (fig. 16). For her part, after the divorce, Ibi married writer George Gabori, a fellow Hungarian survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, whom Zend had introduced to her. Gabori was also a survivor of Soviet labour camps and wrote a remarkable autobiographical account of his experiences, When Evils Were Most Free (1981). A friend relates that on the occasion of their marriage, Zend thought it “wonderful that his and Ibi’s daughter, Aniko, now had two fathers.”44
In 1972, a daughter, Natalie, was born to Robert and Janine (fig. 17). Natalie remembers her father as devoted, and one of her happiest memories is of the bedtime stories he would tell her from the time she was two years old. She recalls being delighted with tales that he gradually unfurled in series that lasted months, including a fantasy novel about Atlantis, Bible stories, world history, and stories from his childhood.45
Feeling the pressure of working for the CBC while at the same time preparing his dissertation, Zend decided not to continue in the PhD program. He also took early retirement from the CBC in order to work as an independent radio producer for the CBC Ideas program. Among the programs to which he contributed are Perception and Prejudice in Science, The Magic World of Borges, The Five Faces of Norman McLaren, Inscape and Landscape (on ecology), The Lost Continent of Atlantis, The Mask, Humour, Man and Cosmos, Ideas on Evil, and Japan. He continued working for the CBC until 1977,46 thereafter contributing to programs as a freelancer. Because of the scores of cultural documentaries that he researched, wrote, directed, and produced, his contributions to intellectual life in Canada are immeasurable.
Zend, having long ago shed the introversion of childhood, was very much a social animal, and in the home he shared with Janine in the Hillcrest neighbourhood of Toronto, the couple entertained many poets, artists, scientists, chess champions, and CBC colleagues. They also collected works by artists whom Zend had befriended socially or through his position at the CBC.
In 1973, the same year that his first book came out, he suffered a heart attack. It was only the first episode in a prolonged period of ill health involving heart troubles and strokes, and culminating in his early death in 1985. He had been making arrangements to embark on a major CBC project on the myth of Atlantis. However, his plans were put on hold while he recovered. When he was well enough, the project offered him over the next few months occasion to travel to England, Morocco, Spain, the United States and France, where he taped forty-eight hours of interviews with scholars of world mythology such as Robert Graves and Immanuel Velikovsky.
Although the research and writing was a source of excitement and satisfaction to him, it was ultimately also the source of tremendous stress due to the CBC’s decision to air only one week of a planned three-week program. He believes that the disappointment of this decision, along with what he felt to be “deterioriating working conditions,” contributed to his decline in health.47 He also knew that his long-term smoking habit was not helping matters but was unable or unwilling to quit. On October 31, he had a stroke and was hospitalized for three weeks. Shortly thereafter, he had another traumatic cardiac event, which was diagnosed as inflammation between the heart and the heart sac.48 And in 1976, he suffered his second heart attack. During his recovery, the program on Atlantis aired from January 3 to 7, 1977; he was gratified to receive hundreds of enthusiastic responses from listeners.49 His decision to stop freelancing as a radio producer for the CBC that year allowed him to devote himself more fully to his writing and art as well as to avoid the stressful conditions that had exacerbated his health issues.
In spite of continuing episodes of serious illness, including two additional strokes and chronic arthritis, the period from 1978 until his death in 1985 was one of extraordinary productivity in his collaborative work as well as in his poetry, fiction, essays, and visual art. One of the most remarkable stretches of intensely concentrated inspiration occurred in 1978, when, during a span of two and a half months, he developed a unique process for making typewriter art, from relatively straightforward beginnings to a complex and sophisticated art form (fig. 18).
He created these self-described “typescapes” by superimposing characters on a typewriter to form shapes and textures. The meticulous execution, often involving overalpping forms and figures, achieves an effect of delicate intricacy. At the areas of intersection of these shapes, the effect is far from being muddied or heavy. Instead, they retain the delicacy that is characteristic of the whole.
In the beginning, the process was not easy:
I had to tame the typewriter . . . patiently, very patiently . . . one careless movement, and I had to start all over again. Several times, the typewriter forced me to alter my original plans and finish the picture as I was able. It wasn’t the same as typing a letter or a poem. I had to re-learn typing.50
The beauty of these concrete poems is that out of a slow and painstaking process of planning and creation using paper inserted into a clunky manual machine emerge visions of airy lightness and subtle movement.
Although Zend didn’t invent typewriter art, he did seem to have created it without knowledge of forebears in that genre, in the days before computer graphics software. He relates the evolution of the typescapes in a fifty-page account, the aforementioned “Type Scape: A Mystery Story” in Exile Magazine. This brief “period of fever, or inspiration, or obsession” produced a variety of interconnected works, including an amazing volume of typewriter art as well as work in other genres, all of which he describes as interrelated associations stirring in his subconscious mind:
I typed 27 Type Scapes, drew 58 plans for new Type Scapes, new concrete poems, 10 normal (?) poems, 2 short stories, and drew about 60 new self-illustrating word-drawings. All of them were connected, parts of the chain reaction.51
He describes his obsession with his newly-discovered art form: every morning,
after getting up, instead of taking a shower, I staggered to my typewriter promising myself that I would just finish this one, and then . . . there was no way. One thing led to another, one type scape led to a cartoon, one word led to a new title for which a drawing was needed, and so on. I was walking through wife, child, people, friends, business affairs, as a ghost walks through walls: I wasn’t really there or they didn’t really touch me, there was only one reality: the typewriter—there was only one happiness: to go home and play on it.52
Toward the end of this brief, intense time, he complains to a friend,
“You don’t know what a curse it is for me to live with my brain. It doesn’t leave me alone, it never lets me rest. I would like to sleep like others, work from 9-5 like others, be a quiet man, play with my daughter, go to movies, read books, but I can’t. I am constantly whipped by the scourge of this non-stop brain. I am the prisoner of Zend! How could I escape?”53
Eventually, the obsession subsided, and the typewriter wasn’t “a musical instrument any longer: it was a boring grey piece of metal mainly for correspondence. . . . I was fed up with paper and scotch tape, with scissors and shapes, with typing and patterns. I was fed up with my aching back and my strained eyes.” But during this brief period he had mastered his techniques and produced an astonishing number and variety of typescapes that are so beautifully executed as to leave the viewer surprised that such work was possible before the digital age. Zend collected and published some of the most polished of these works in Arbormundi (Tree of the World) (1982), a portfolio of sixteen typescapes (fig. 19).
Another satisfying and fruitful project grew out of Zend’s friendship with two other Toronto poets during the early 1980s. He began collaborating with poets Robert Priest and Robert Sward, forming a group they eponymously dubbed The Three Roberts. Together they gave poetry readings (in Toronto at the fortuitously-named Major Robert’s Restaurant) and in 1984 published three thematically-inspired poetry chapbooks based on their readings: Premiere Performance, On Love, and On Childhood (fig. 20).
In addition to his readings and publications with Priest and Sward, Zend collaborated with artists such as Jerónimo, a Spanish-Canadian with whom he published a collection of silkscreens and poems entitled My friend, Jerónimo (fig. 21).
He also paid tribute to artists in ekphrastic poems, notably in response to oil paintings and ink drawings of Hungarian-Canadian artist Julius Marosan54 as well as to paintings by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. And he generously assisted fellow poets such as Peter Singer (Ariel and Caliban, 1980) and Mary Melfi (A Queen Is Holding a Mummified Cat, 1982) by editing and introducing their work.
In 1981, he attended the International Writer’s Congress, which that year was centered around the topic of “The Writer and Human Rights” in aid of Amnesty International. At a panel discussion on exile, he gave a talk entitled “Labels,” a moving and eloquent statement about the potentially catastrophic consequences of labelling people.55 He included the text of his speech in full as a preface to his second collection of poetry, Beyond Labels.
Zend was also active on the reading circuit in Canada. Among other events, in 1981 and 1982 he was a resident poet at the Great Canadian Poetry Festival in Collingwood, Ontario, a scenic town on Georgian Bay, and in 1983, he gave a reading tour including stops in Saskatoon, Regina, and Edmonton.56
The years 1982 to 1985 were especially fruitful for publications: during that span three important collections appeared: Beyond Labels (Hounslow Press) and Arbormundi (blewointment press) in 1982, and the two volumes of Oāb (Exile Editions) in 1983 and 1985.
Zend wrote the poems in Beyond Labels (fig. 22) over a twenty-year span between 1962 and 1982; most were originally written in Hungarian and translated into English with the assistance of Colombo. They extend the theme of displacement, and in addition to including poems of a personal nature, he continues philosophical and cosmic concerns with poems about the universe, time, and dreams — as in one about an hourglass with infinite top and bottom. He also branches out formally with some early experiments in concrete poetry that he called “ditto” and “drop” poems. In dedications and influences, as well as the Magritte-inspired cover by John Lloyd, Beyond Labels continues the cosmopolitan flavour of his first collection.
Zend’s magnum opus is generally recognized to be the two-volume Oāb, published in 1983 and 1985 (fig. 23). Oāb is a multi-genre fantasy about authorship and creation, involving autobiography, metafiction, concrete poetry, drawings, and doodlings. “Ze̊nd,” a character in Zend’s own creation myth, writes a being named Oāb into existence and gives his progeny the “Alphoābet” to play with. And Oāb proceeds to do just that, in comic-book frames that show his growing knowledge and abilities. Oāb in turn creates a being named Ïrdu. Together they romp across the pages like children on a playground, creating a compendium of games and puzzles using the letters in their names to create shapes and explore their universe. The effect of this alphabetic creation is encyclopedic.
Although the two volumes were published in the mid-80s, Zend relates that he wrote the bulk of it during a rush of inspiration during two weeks in May 1970. The long saga of his attempts to have it published is partly a story of the bewilderment of publishers who had never seen a manuscript like it and who were at a loss as to how to categorize it. One publisher wanted to “transform Oāb into an electronic sound-play,” which Zend turned down. Another told him that he would publish it if the 180 pages were “reduced to 48” and the “doodles, drawings, concrete poems [were] left out.” And another deemed “the text superfluous and want[ed] to keep only the doodles drawings and concrete poems.”
In 1972, Barry Callaghan published about thirty pages of the manuscript in Exile Magazine. Northrop Frye responded that “it is a piece of experimental writing to which I know nothing comparable in Canada, and its impact, if published, would be quite considerable.” Canadian experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren also saw it and wrote to Zend about “the affinity between Zend’s poem and his films.” Avant-garde poet Richard Kostelanetz was “‘floored’ by Zend’s ‘extended visual poem’ and stated that ‘nothing comparable to it was ever published in U.S. literary quarterlies.’” It was also praised by Isaac Asimov, John Updike, and Jorge Luis Borges. The latter told him, “Actually, I should have written Oāb.” Such was the buzz surrounding the manuscript that Robert Fulford for the Toronto Star called it “Canada’s Perhaps Best Unpublished Book.”
In 1979 Callaghan founded Exile Editions and told Zend that he wanted to publish the entire manuscript. After many delays and revisions, the two volumes were finally published in 1983 and 1985.57
After years of declining health, Zend succumbed to a heart condition on June 27, 1985, just two weeks before the publication of the second volume of Oāb. A few weeks later, he was to have read at the Toronto Harbourfront with fellow immigrant writers Josef Skvorecky and Robert Gurik. The event became a memorial reading for Zend, hosted by Northrup Frye. Rampike Magazine, which had published some of Zend’s works during the early 1980s, paid tribute to Zend in their next issue with excerpts and photographs from the memorial reading, which was also a posthumous launch of Oāb, and a poem that Zend had submitted shortly before his death.
Thanks to the efforts of Zend’s widow, Janine, several of his books were published posthumously: two in English (Daymares and Nicolette) and three in Hungarian.58
Daymares (1991), a collection of mostly short stories but also a few poems and concrete poems, selected by Janine, reveals Zend’s most extended and sophisticated expression of the fantastical, especially dream-worlds (fig. 24). Shape-shifting characters, dreams within dreams, anachronisms, and paradoxes keep the reader adrift in a fantastical realm whose often dark irrationality probes mysteries of humanity: uncharted cognitive depths, the burdens of history, and the continuities between self and other. These stories are akin to the mind-bending labyrinths and dreamscapes of Jorge Luis Borges.
Nicolette: A Novel Novel (1993) is an erotic avant-garde novel that Zend wrote in Hungarian in 1976 and translated into English (fig. 25). The temporally zigzagging narrative tells of a Toronto poet’s passionate and obsessive love affair with Nicolette, a woman half his age and the wife of a close friend, during visits to Paris and Florence. Not only is the chronology fractured, like a shifting, multi-layered dream, but also the chapters exploit a spectrum of forms and genres, playfully manifesting pieces of the story as haiku, Morse code, concrete poetry, a footnote, a play, epistolary narrative, Greek mythology, lyric poetry, censored text, and so forth. The novel also metafictively relates its own composition and birth: Nicolette from Nicolette.
A Wider Homeland
A large part of Zend’s identity as a human being and as a writer arises from the dual geographical and political frames of reference that became a reality for him in 1956. His writing after his immigration to Canada reveals a process of attempting to understand the psychological rift and ambivalent emotions of being a writer in exile.
Life in Hungary had not been easy. The losses from the Nazi era were devastating, and living under the Stalinist regime was stifling and potentially dangerous. Poverty was a reality, and travel was severely restricted. On the other hand, Hungary represented continuity of language, culture, and the community of friends and relatives. For Zend, life in Canada reflected a mirror image of his ambivalence toward Hungary. Free from the climate of intellectual oppression and duplicity, and now able to travel freely (though not yet to his native Hungary), new possibilities opened up for expression and experience. But that newly-claimed freedom was tempered by intense feelings of nostalgia. In that nether-world of exile, of not being able to completely embrace one world or the other, difference was everywhere, and identity was nowhere.
The dynamic tension in Zend’s work often consists in the split between, on the one hand, his existence in the no-man’s land that characterizes exile and that leaves its mark of dividedness on the psyche, and on the other, his equally strong consciousness of a larger, universal humanity in which identity is defined not so much by national borders but instead by the erasing of boundaries separating self from other, tribe from tribe. Zend’s literary writing provides a space where historical and personal trauma, rather than being resolved or healed, opens a fertile arena for the drama of division and unity, of the impossibility of return and the possibility of embracing of a wider homeland.
Next Installment: Part 5.
Hungarian Literary Roots:
The Budapest Joke and Other Influences