Tag Archives: Hungarian literature

Robert Zend – Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: bpNichol

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Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha

          In the last installment, I began my exploration of Robert Zend’s affinities with Canadian cultural figures, starting with Marshall McLuhan. The next two installments will discuss ways in which Zend’s work was transformed through exposure to Canada’s poets and artists. Here I’ll focus on his kinship with avant-garde poets such as bpNichol and the sound poetry group The Four Horsemen, and artist Jiri Ladocha.

Robert Zend and bpNichol

          Among Canadian poets, bpNichol produced a body of work that is most closely akin to that of Zend. Most obviously, both expand their range to include concrete poetry, typewriter art, sound poetry, and multi-genre works. In addition, both weave an intensely social poetic fabric; embrace a processual aesthetic; incorporate metapoetic gestures; exhibit playful, free-spirited qualities; and explore cosmic themes. There are fundamental differences in their work, of course, some of which I will try to address as well.

The Process Is the Message

          Ample evidence points to Zend and Nichol as writers and concrete poets concerned as much with the processual paths leading to thoughts and decisions — both conscious and subconscious — that become a part of the reader’s experience, as they are with the published product. Fortunately, neither was averse to discussing the process and evolution of their work. In Nichol’s case, we have Meanwhile, a generous selection of essays and interviews edited by Roy Miki. And of course the multi-volume The Martyrology itself, which Nichol describes as a “poetic journal,” is a testament to his interest in exploring process. In Zend’s case, works like “The Key” (a story told in footnotes, arising from a collaboration with Borges) and “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (a multi-genre essay recounting the evolution of Zend’s typewriter art) demonstrate such an approach. As well, an examination of the documents in the myriad boxes of the Zend fonds allows the researcher to traces interconnecting strands among works and to understand Zend as a writer and artist fascinated with journey as much as destination.
          In an interview with Pierre Coupey and others, Nichol addresses what writers sometimes call “writing on the mind,” or as Nichol explains it, writing that “reflect[s] accurately the processes of the way the mind works”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I keep going back to this, of how consciousness works. Like in The Martyrology, I would bring in names very briefly, or characters very briefly or faces very briefly. Because it felt to me like that was the way you encountered people in real life. You’re walking down the street, you’re feeling things all the time, you see somebody you meet very casually, you know their name. You might never meet them again, but for that moment they’re there, and that’s all you know about them. Whang — they’re gone. So I let all that stuff into the poem, I let in a bunch of maudlin things because it felt to me that it was all part of the process of moving through something. All those things actually collide with your consciousness, so I left them in. But it makes for a very strange poem.1

In the following example of such “strangeness” from The Martyrology, Nichol writes of spending an evening with poet friends:

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                an evening spent with friends —
                bissett, Arlene Lampert, Janine & Robert Zend
                — that list enters the writing again
                like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
                the details of my life dragged into the poem
                in part at least
                immaterial as the leaf
                as any life
                as the fleeting impressions of this cold October night
car slam2

Nichol moves freely and conversationally between naming friends and more metaphysical musings (“immaterial as the leaf / as any life”). He then jolts the reader into consciousness of the materiality of both life and writing with the auditory reality of a “car slam.” This passage also displays Nichol’s famous self-reflexivity, bringing into the writing the act of writing itself (“that list enters the writing again . . . the details of my life dragged into the poem”). The result is a linguistic texture of a life lived, suffused with an awareness of being in the moment, observing details as they happen and jotting them down for later reflecting and shaping (he was not at all averse to revision).
          Zend also embraced a processual aesthetic, and tells of enjoying drafts and sketches as well as the completed work:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Picasso . . . published a huge book containing his sketches for Guernica. For me, turning the pages of this book is [as] interesting and enjoyable as looking at the finished mural itself.3

He was also acutely aware of the ever more reticulated network of cognitive associations over time that lead his work in different directions. His description of the evolution of his typescapes demonstrates that although his brief but remarkably intense period of creation of this typewriter art may seem to have been “spur of the moment,”

QUOTATION MARKS 7

the moment on the spur was, in fact, the final eruption of hidden forces boiling and whirling for years under the surface.4

          For Zend, eastern spiritual traditions wisely de-emphasize originary creation:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Artistic creation is often compared to divine creation, but the mystery of the beginning (the tale that God created everything out of nothing and will annihilate everything at the end) is a special note in our Judeo-Christian tradition. According to other — more Eastern, or more ancient, and, perhaps more sensible — traditions, the thing called Nothing doesn’t really exist except in the human mind as a concept; consequently they speak about world ages separated by global catastrophes in which the death of a past age coincides with the birth of a coming age. Thus the concept of creation in the beginning and the end of the world is replaced by that of eternal change.5

          In his customary highly visual style, Zend observes the continual fluctuation between process and product in the evolution of his typescapes, in which

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I had succeeded not only in expressing my entangled subconscious
PROCESS 1 115 W
in “finished” type scapes
PROCESS 2 140 W
but I also had kept a clear account of the mysterious “process” of creation
PROCESS 3 210 W
so that one day I could write it down with the most acute clarity, so that it would be just another finished product.
PROCESS 4 235 W6

The triumph of that account, however, is tempered when he describes an inscrutable encounter with his six-year-old daughter and understands that the product is never finished but continues to produce still more threads in the “entangled subconscious”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

PROCESS 5 270 W7

Thus Zend believes that there is never true poetic or artistic completion, but instead an ongoing process of associations between creation and quotidian existence, an attitude shared by Nichol, especially, as we’ve already seen, in The Martyrology.
          While Nichol usually references postmodern linguistic and critical theory to make his point, Zend more typically refers to ideas from world religion and mythology. Although their theoretical approaches diverge, nonetheless they are both swimming in the same avant-garde waters, radically questioning habits and traditions of thought and writing.
          Another difference is that whereas Nichol found in the poetic journal “a logical model upon which to build formally” in The Martyrology, Zend found in dreams the ideal cognitive model for his fractured and shape-shifting narratives of Daymares and some of his poems. For Nichol,

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the journal is almost always present as an element in the continuous poem. Its partialness, incompleteness, serialness and, yes, processualness, make it a logical model upon which to build formally. Certainly, in my own work, its use of intimate detail, of private reference & temporally tied specificity, has worked as a formal framework for The Martyrology and for part of what The Martyrology attempts—the building of a life work in which the building of a life is also reflected.8

On the other hand, dreams-worlds and the journeys and digressions of the conscious (and subconscious) mind provided Zend with a model for exploring the strange world in which a mysterious darkness reigns, whose law is

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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 expictness; womb-like roundness, instead of erect angularity.9

Each chose a different paradigm — Nichol the journal and Zend the dream — but their explorations of the mysterious movements of consciousness as multi-layered and meandering are on parallel (if non-linear) tracks.

Parties and Gossip

          Another point of convergence between the poetry of Zend and Nichol is that it is often intensely social, as the above passage by Nichol remembering a party with friends demonstrates. For Nichol, such naming was part of bringing lived experience into the process of writing, as in a journal. He also stresses that “one of my intents in naming, on a first name basis, people encountered in the course of the text [is] to recreate that . . . parallel emotional experience . . . as part of the reading experience.” Mentioning proper names is “part of the gesture of story-telling,” to “locate the narrative in a moment of reality. That was their entire function.” Using proper names is also

QUOTATION MARKS 7

a deliberate confrontational device, an attack, if you like, on naïve notions of biographical and psychological criticism, since “David” is many Davids and the “I” is more than a biographical gesture.10

          In a similar way, Zend’s poetry is often laced with social interactions — autobiographical or semi-autobiographical — as in a poem in which he and twenty-five co-workers (“at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards”) construct a fantasy room complete with carpet, bookshelves, flowers, and a record player, where partying and love-making help them to escape the soul-numbing workday.11
          One of his most striking “naming” poems is “Prelude and Fugue,” which involves a complex web of gossip surrounding a poem of Zend’s. Here are the first two stanzas:

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I wrote a poem to A(mbrosios),
I read it to B(elinda),
Then gave it to A(mbrosios)
Who showed it to C(ameleon)
Who mentioned it to D(olores).

I didn’t really like what I’d written about A(mbrosios),
But B(elinda) wept when I read it aloud),
That’s why I gave it to A(mbrosios) because B(elinda) wept.
C(ameleon) liked the content but didn’t like the form
and told this to D(olores) who didn’t read my poem at all. 12

Despite the alphabetic naming, which tends to generalize persons almost to the point of anonymity (or at least fictiveness), I view such instances in Zend more as an apparatus of story-telling than a postmodern attack on notions of individual biography. Nonetheless, it’s clear that both he and Nichol share, along with many other poets of their time such as New York poets Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, a desire to incorporate interactions with their network of friends into their poetry, bringing elements of the personal, narrative, and lived experience into the texture of the poems.
          Zend brought a social dimension to his concrete poetry as well, especially in a series of “portraits” in hand-written Hungarian, as in “Vera” (fig. 1). I can’t comment on the Hungarian but only admire the ingenuity of the shapes and guess as to the kinds of characteristics they suggest.

VERA 300 W

Meta

          The excerpt from Nichol’s Martyrology above includes a metapoetic gesture in his incorporation of the process of writing into the poem:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

                — that list enters the writing again
                like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
                the details of my life dragged into the poem
                in part at least13

Another example from The Martyrology shows Nichol addressing writing to a different effect, that is, not self-reflexively to announce the incorporation of lived details into the poem, but to meditate on such non-transparent use of language:

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this is a voice speaking
reflecting in reflection

metaphorically the page is a window

it’s not

i try writing on the glass &
the ink won’t hold
ideas
the mind won’t hold
writing i try in the dream &

this is a pen moving on paper

metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper

gesture

memory trace

place to place &
a poem because of it
part of poem this time
not always the case14

Nichol’s metapoetic “reflecting in reflection” arises from the desire to critique assumptions about the transparency of signification: the transparency of glass, the window-on-the-world that is text assuming its role in transparently conveying meaning. Such transparency will not absorb ink, will not draw attention to itself as a writing surface to bring into awareness its own material presence; nor will it allow language to reveal its own incompleteness and semantic slipperiness. As Nichol says in ABC: The Aleph Beth Book,

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WE HAVE PLACED THE POEM BEYOND OURSELVES BY PUTTING ARTIFICIAL BOUNDARIES BETWEEN OURSELVES & THE POEM. WE MUST PUT THE POEM IN OUR LIVES BY FREEING IT FROM THE NECESSITY TO BE. . . . THE POEM WILL LIVE AGAIN WHEN WE ACCEPT FINALLY THE FACT OF THE POEM’S DEATH.15

For Nichol, the autonomous poem, oblivious to itself as created artifact, constitutes an artificial separation of poem and poet, whereas the “artifice” of self-reflection liberates and breathes life into the poem.
          Zend’s poems also often describe the act of writing, as in the following short poem, which opens his first book, From Zero to One:

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Pencil
Someone writes with me
his fingers clutch my waist
he holds me tight leads me on
holds me tight again

The poem done he drops me
I feel diminished
and with surprise I read
the part of me he wore away16

Here, Zend’s metapoetry functions differently from Nichol’s. Whereas Nichol critiques language as a transparent conveyor of signification and incorporates the act of writing into the poetry, Zend dramatizes the illusion of the writing subject as autonomous, intentional author, by imagining the poet taking the role of the writing implement, and some other force wielding him to write the poem. In this respect, Zend’s metapoetics seems more related to Spicer’s notion of the poet not as a consciously created self with an autonomous voice, but instead a conduit for language channeled from some other source.
          Zend’s most significant metapoetic exploration, of course, is Oāb, in which each character in turn writes into existence his own two-dimensional child, who then attempts to stretch beyond the limitations of his world of ink on paper. We can see a similar kind of metanarrative at work as in the short poem above: the otherness of the writing subject, unaware (at least in the beginning) that he may be being written by another.
          In the excerpt below from Oāb, Zėnd (a semi-autobiographical character in Zend’s creation myth — note the diacritical mark on the name — contemplates the constraints of the world of his son, Oāb, compared to his own more expansive perspective:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

His cosmos is one of my galaxies
his galaxy is one of my planets
his planet is one of my poems
he lives alone on it17

But Oāb, the filial creation of Zėnd, wonders what lies outside those limits:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

What is beyond the four
edges of this paper?
Another paper? And beyond that?
Another and another and another?
How many sheets of paper
lie beside each other?
How many sheets of paper
are contained in what?
And what lies after
the last one, on the other edge?18

If on one level Oāb is Zėnd’s textual progeny, then the perceived limitation of the paper’s range signals the circumscription of authorial perspective as well as that of the signification of the created text. Oāb’s yearning to expand his world and become more autonomous alarms Zėnd (again, the character), who in his hubris would like to think he possesses and controls his writing.
          Oāb and The Martyrology both contain so many metapoetic passages that one can practically point on a random page and find such reflexive gestures — indeed, self-reflexivity is part of the fabric of each work: writing that self-consciously creates worlds as it proceeds, commenting along the way on that act of creation.
          bpNichol’s self-referentiality in The Martyrology occurs within the personal and meditative framework of journal writing, traditionally a genre in which the writer meditates on events, but not usually the event of writing itself. Nichol continually shatters the mimetic illusion in a convergence of writing and life, and a blending of poetry and critical theory.
          Zend’s fundamentally metanarrative premise in Oāb, on the other hand, arises more from his dramatic playing out of authorial creation and intention. The multi-layered drama of Oāb also alludes to other contexts of creation: biblical and generational. Although the name “Zėnd” suggests a semi-autobiographical character (as do many of Zend’s poems and stories), the work as a whole has a mythic or allegorical quality, and the reflexivity of Oāb serves to explore questions of authorial desire and illusion within that framework.
          Of course, metapoetry and metanarrative were very common during that period of concentrated experimentation in poetry and fiction (not to menton their occurences throughout the history of literature). Nonetheless, I find it instructive to compare the self-reflexivity of these major multi-genre works by Zend and Nichol — contemporaries who lived in the same city and who were certainly aware of each other’s work, even if they were not close friends — for their differences in approach as much as for their similarities.

Typewriter Art

          During the 1960s, Nichol began experimenting with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In the end, he produced more handwritten concrete poetry than typewriter art. Zend, on the other hand, produced about as much concrete poetry as typewriter art, the latter during an extremely concentrated period of feverish creation. It’s interesting to recount Nichol’s and Zend’s stories of coming to their visual work without much influence from predecessors, as well as to note the many points of similarity in their work in each genre.
          Nichol relates that he came to concrete poetry and typewriter art with few examples and no clear idea of the history of such work. In the early 60s, he was studying the Dadaists and the visual poetry of Kenneth Patchen. Addressing this relative isolation, he states that

QUOTATION MARKS 7

There were hardly any examples; I had nothing that I could actually look at. The whole problem with what is known as “avant-garde” literature in the 20th century . . . is that it’s like we’re dealing with amnesia; we’ve got this repressed tradition so that . . . when you start writing this way, you end up regurgitating a lot of what’s already been done because you can’t get your hands on the stuff. So you literally have to make your own way. In a way I made my own way, so that when I look at some stuff I can say, as some reviewers have said, “Hey that was done in Berlin in 1921”; I look at it and say “Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921.”19

NONOSISI          Similarly, Zend tells that he came to typewriter art with no knowledge of precedents. By 1978, he had already produced a body of work in the category of concrete poetry, and was approached by John Jessop to contribute to the International Anthology of Concrete Poetry he was editing. Jessop selected forty, some of which needed to be re-typed or translated from the Hungarian original.
          Zend, famously a procrastinator, didn’t complete the work on time but instead began to create new concrete poetry. At first, he typed lines of repeated words onto paper, cut them into shapes, and glued them onto paper on which he had typed another word repeated in lines — see fig. 2 for this kind of early experiment with the yin and yand symbols. Then he had an idea:

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I could get rid of the glue by using a sheet of paper as a “negative” and placing it on another sheet, the “positive.” I typed across the holes of the negative onto the positive.20

He found that this method “gave a much more 3-dimensional look . . . than the former glued version.”
          He then discovered the range of textures he could create by superimposing various typed characters. Through a series of trial and error, he finally succeeded in creating polished and complex works. Fig. 3 shows the process from sketch to finished typescape, which looks rather abstract but is actually a “stylized representation of the almost invisible fine lines on the silvery crust of a sea shell”:

KURDALMION PROCESS

My low-resolution reproduction does not convey a faithful sense of the delicacy of the textures, so I’ve cropped a portion of the finished typescape to show a detail (fig. 4):

KURDALMIION DETAIL

The differing weights of the question marks forming the overlaid shape suggest that he varied the pressure applied to certain typed characters to give the effect of shading.
          Nichol relates that his typewriter art evolved from visual and verbal puns, such as the following minimalist poem:

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warbled
WARbled
warBLED
warbled21

Nichol dubbed “warbled” and other more visually complex poems such as “ASEA” (fig. 5) his “ideo-pomes.”

ASEA 250

          At a certain point, Nichol decided not to continue with typewriter art, preferring to draw his concrete poetry by hand, citing the

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more direct connection with the body—I’m actually shaping the individual letters with my hand . . . . The form is moving into my body—it’s moving into my own musculature—it’s like an intimate involvement with the architecture of the single letter.22

          However, some of the work that he did produce in this genre shows him and Zend thinking in a similar vein about overlapping forms, as a comparison of Nichol’s “precarious poem” and Zend’s Peapoteacock reveals (figs. 6 and 7).

PRECARIOUS + PEAPOTEACOCK

          A key difference in their typewriter art is that while Nichol brings linguistic and conceptual play to the fore, Zend emphasizes the aesthetic and symbolic, using typed characters to create varied and delicate textures that form emblematic images, as in Uriburus; or that create visual or verbal puns, as in Peapoteacock, a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock; and Sexerpentormentor, an image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Nichol’s typewriter poems most often must be read to be appreciated; their typed shapes add to the plurality of meanings that arise from the fragmentation and recombination of letters and words.

Concrete Poetry

DRAGONFLY 380 W

          As early as 1963, Zend was beginning to experiment with spacial configuration in his poetry, adding visual movement complementing the meaning, as in “Dragonfly” (fig. 8). bpNichol also produced a number of such poems that take the shape (or suggest the movement) of an object or experience, as in “sunthrutreespassing” (fig. 9).

SUNTHRUTREES 500 W

Nichol created a number of such concrete poems in which the letters and words more or less mimetically reproduce some feature of the object they spell out. Zend created (quite literally) hundreds of them to illustrate the play-learning of Oāb and Ïrdu in Oāb.
          As we have seen above, Zend also created a series of portraits as concrete poems, sometimes drawing the small letters to form lines and shapes, as in “Erzsi” (fig. 10), and sometimes typing them, as in “Judith” (fig. 11) (see also “Vera,” fig. 1).

ERZSI 500 W

JUDITH 500 W

In most of these concrete poems, the words and letters are as important as the shapes in contributing to the effectiveness of the portrayal.
          In such portraits, Zend’s concrete poetry has a social component, whereas most of Nichol’s work in this genre tends to be (as far as I can tell) almost exclusively metapoetic, conceptual or representational. Zend’s concrete poetry that he created as a result of his friendship with mime artist Marcel Marceau, as well as that which created under the influence of Japanese traditions, will be explored in later installations on international influences and affinities.
          Zend’s most prolific and sustained contribution to concrete poetry is contained within the two volumes of Oāb. Until this work, most of his concrete poetry is mimetic on some level — imitative of a person or thing, or else creating textures for a more or less representational work. In Oāb, however, the concrete poetry is interwoven with the dramatic metanarrative.
BPNICHOL 2 250          Both Zend and Nichol delighted in alphabet games, including the creation of artificial alphabets and strange fonts. Zend’s playful use of the alphabet in the visual poetry of Oāb is related to Nichol’s concrete poetry experimentations using the letters of the alphabet, giving sculptural materiality and playful drama to the irreducible components of language. Fig. 12 is an example of Nichol using comic-book-like frames, riffing on the letter “A.” Fig. 13 shows images from three pages in Oāb, in which names and letters personify the characters they represent, playing out various dramas in Zend’s myth of authorial creation—sometimes also using comic-book frames for the parade of Oāb and Ïrdu’s games.

OAB 3 4 6 250

          Zend also shared bp Nichol’s interest in the calendar, specifically with the naming of months, in his concrete poem “The Months of the Super Year” (fig. 14), which is part of a “super-calendar” for humans to track time if we ever populate a “super-universe”:

MONTHS WORK

A comparison of this work with Nichol’s “Calendar” (fig. 15) shows a similar structure but a different kind of fragmentation in the names of months:

CALENDAR NICHOL 505

While there is no evidence of mutual influence in Zend’s and Nichol’s rendering of the calendar months, it is worth noting that both were experimenting with language in related ways, taking apart the names of the months and arranging them in such a way as to reveal something about the nature of mutability and expanded temporality. Where Nichol’s approach to the months is fragmentary, Zend’s is recombinatoric.

Sound Poetry

ZENDOCHALAND CREATION OF WORLD 270          Another dimension to Zend’s multi-genre explorations is his sound poetry. In addition to composing and performing his own, sometimes in collaboration with others, Zend also performed on at least one occasion, according to Janine Zend, with The Four Horsemen, the sound poetry group to which bpNichol belonged along with Steve McCaffery, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Paul Dutton.23
        Zend was no doubt influenced by the explosion of Canadian sound poetry during the 1960s and 1970s in his unfinished manuscript of sound poems from 1979, Zendocha-land (fig. 16), which was to be collaborative effort with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha. He proposed to Ladocha twelve to sixteen “poem-paintings” to be presented in a dynamic relationship with the art. Fig. 16 shows a draft for the sound poem in that collection about “the creation of the world,” which arises “from nothing: H / from breath / H / ether becomes air becomes water becomes solid ever denser / new vowels are born / new consonants are born” and new “combinations develop.” The trajectory of the sound poem follows that of creation and destruction: “Life appears on the back of cold rock planets . . . but when the creation reaches its peak / the end begins / the machine runs down” and all is once more nothing, “where it started / long ago.”

Splitting Words

          Nichol and Zend are kindred poets in their linguistic playfulness; both delighted in creating puns and fragmenting words into phonemes and letters. Nichol shares his love of wordplay with Zend, whose puns extend to his typescapes. For example, Zend’s Peapoteacock (see fig. 7 above), a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock to form a visual and verbal pun, shows a playful punning that is similar to the Nichol’s delight in verbal inventiveness, as in his most well-known minimalist poem, “Catching Frogs”:

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jar din24

The following is a more extended example of word fragmentation, from Nichol’s The Martyrology Book 5:

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each street branches in the mind
puns break
                    words fall apart
a shell
sure as hell’s
ash ell
when i let the letters shift sur face
is just a place on which images drift25

Compare this with an excerpt from Zend’s “Ars Poetica”:

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There are poets who insist
that poems can only be written
about glbvx
in the style of iuiu

I think everything
repeat everything
eve and ryth and ing
also yreve and gniht
evth and ryng and tyrev too
can be poetry26

Steve McCaffery points out in an interview with Nichol that

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In your playful destruction and reassemblage of words, the subject and its relation to meaning become a prime issue. If a reader can get beyond a distanced appreciation of (or irritation at) the display of wit in these pun productions, then a radically different subject emerges and one not predicated upon the orthodox logic of the sign. A subject deprived of unity and circulating as a textual effect among the verbal fission and the shattered syntax of the language.27

McCaffery’s observations about fracturing in relation to both poem and reader also relates to Zend. In their word-splitting, both poets are expanding the possibilities of language, and the string of fragmented words and recombined letters seems to unmoor words from their meanings so that when “the letters shift,” “sur face / is just a place on which im ages drift.” Depth of meaning (and thus the mimetic effect of language in which poems must be “about”) is transformed to a surface of drifting images, and this “too / can be poetry.” A different kind of reading is involved, one in which expectations of linearity and completion must be relinquished to appreciate the text. Such language does not merely fade into the background while a more or less straightforward signification plays out on a stage, but comes to the fore, compelling the reader to contemplate the materiality of language and to reflect on the slipperiness of its signification.

Inner Child

          Northrop Frye wrote that “Robert Zend never forgot that every creative act was first and foremost an act of free play.”28 Both Nichol and Zend have been described as taking a childlike delight in their manipulations of language and visual poetry. In a poem from about 1979, Zend writes admiringly of his seven-year-old daughter Natalie at play, and expresses the desire to “change the Earth into a gigantic playground / instead of the battlefield that it was made into / by our common enemies, the grownups.”29 Zend, who as a young man had written and published for children in Hungary, must have felt an affinity for the playful spirit of experimentation in the work of avant-garde Canadian poets such as Nichol, and in his adopted language he was constantly experimenting with wordplay and puns, as in a series entitled “Silly Rhymes,” perhaps created to amuse his daughter Natalie:

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Winnipeg

When you come to Winnipeg,
I’ll show you my guinea-pig.

Fly!

Butterfly!
I will catch you!
Better fly!30

Perhaps some day Zend’s early and popular publications for children written in Hungary under his pen name, “Peeker,” will come to light. Such verses above likely came naturally to him as he explored and delighted in the possibilities of English. Nichol also wrote for children, including the beautifully illustrated On the Merry-Go-Round; an excerpt from the title poem is reproduced below (fig. 17):

MERRY GO ROUND POEM

Cosmic Scale

          Lastly, Nichol’s and Zend’s poetry shares a preoccupation with cosmic themes and images, which often play out dramas of infinity and cyclical processes of life and death. Zend’s concrete poem “Scope” (fig. 18) is a thought experiment illustrating the interplay between micro- and macrocosmic scales, in which the the pupil of the human eye serves as an image of both the tiny and the vast:

MACRO MICRO 2 550 BLUE

In a similar way, the following poem by Nichol from The Martyrology imagines a dizzying and continually broadening span of time and space in relation to human lives, which “flare briefly” and vanish:

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here on the galaxy’s edge we live out our lives in ignorance

the distance to the dawn bridge grows infinitesimally longer
our lifetimes flare briefly and are gone

highways stretch from the big bang outward
cycle back to our beginning31

Comparing Nichol’s excerpt with the one below by Zend, from a poem entitled from “More and More,” it’s clear that they were both fascinated by space and time on a cosmic scale:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Hasn’t the universe been exploding long enough?
No, not long enough. More.
Death. And what can follow death? More.
Should we buy a second house? More.
After our world tour, should we travel again? More.
When this poem is finished, should I write another? More.
The sun orders us: More. From the core of the galaxy of galaxies
a telegram comes to ours
which is forwarded down to earth
and when we read it, it says: More.32

The excerpt by Nichol relates cyclical processes on a grand scale to those on a human scale, whereas the excerpt by Zend relates the two to offer a compelling vision of infinity to the point of ennui, accompanied by the relentless refrain “More.”

In the Air

        A case could be made for Zend’s kinship with other contemporaneous Canadian poets who were experimenting linguistically and visually with the aesthetic approaches mentioned above. After all, bpNichol was not the only Canadian poet exploring typewriter and other concrete poetry and performing sound poetry; as Janine Zend points out, such things were “in the air” during the sixties and seventies. Zend befriended many Canadian poets, attended their readings, collected their books, and dedicated poems to them. Focusing the above comparison on bpNichol shows many points of convergence, and extrapolated to a wider community within Canada would reveal a matrix of themes and processes that Zend was aware of and drew upon for inspiration in his own work.

Next Installment — Part 8.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren,
and Glenn Gould


Camille Martin

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Robert Zend – Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan

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Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980)

Introduction:
Multiculturalism before Multiculturalism

          In the last installment, “Hungarian Literary Roots,” I traced some of Zend’s foundational influences in his native Hungary. In this section, I’d like to investigate the corresponding Canadian “cross-pollination”: writers and artists who inspired in Zend new aesthetic explorations. The 1960s saw an explosion of experimentation in the arts as well as paradigm-shifting ideas (to use Thomas Kuhn’s term) in cultural theory. Many of these would likely have been banned in Communist Hungary as decadent or counter-revolutionary. In his adopted country of Canada, Zend was free to delve into these new trends, to which he responded with a spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.
          I’m describing the influence of Canadian cultural figures on Zend as cross-pollination, for although his inalienable roots were in Hungarian traditions, his poetry and art that emerged since the 1960s blended aspects of both. His penchant for humour, mythology, and the fantastical, inherited from his Hungarian lineage, merged with ground-breaking Canadian ideas such as Marshall McLuhan’s theories on media culture and bpNichol’s avant-garde mixed-genre poetics. Knowing Zend’s delight in creating hybrid words like “peapoteacock,” I like to think he might have called such a hybrid of Magyar and Canadian influences something like “Magyanadian.”
          As this essay took shape, I’ve been continually reminded of the illusory nature of unified national culture in my description of literary lineage. Zend’s Hungarian influences included traditions from populations that immigrated to Hungary (as we’ve seen from the Budapest joke, which also provided a creative wellspring for Zend’s “spiritual father,” Karinthy), as well as poetry and novels from around the world, thanks to translations of world literature into Hungarian (including Zend’s own translations of Italian poetry). Similarly, Zend’s Canadian associates were often writers and artists who, like him, immigrated to Canada from other countries, such as poet Mary Melfi (Italy) and artist Jiri Ladocha (Czechoslovakia).
          In this respect, Zend’s work in Canada embodies a multicultural spirit — not only by virtue of his country of origin. His was among the crescendo of immigrant voices that eventually led to Canada’s official embracing of multiculturalism as a defining national feature in 1988 with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
          Although lineage can be documented, in reality the entangled network of influences is much more mysterious. Impossible complexity notwithstanding, what follows is an attempt to point out some Canadian cultural figures who had a transformative effect on Zend’s development as a writer and artist.
          And the most striking transformation of his work is due to the influence of the Canadian avant-garde. Although all of Zend’s early poems written in Hungary were lost to the chaos of the Hungarian Revolution, his earlier poems written in Canada in Hungarian, some of them unpublished, are likely a continuation of poems in a humorous and fantastical vein, sometimes with logical twists. Others are impressionistic, sometimes exploring dream states, more in the vein of Miklós Radnóti’s lyricism than Frigyes Karinthy’s modernist satire and science fiction.
          It is possible that Zend was influenced in Hungary by avant-garde culture, which most likely would have come from his knowledge of 1920s Russian constructivism. Janine Zend astutely points out that some of the concrete poetry in Oāb is reminiscent of such visual art. Certainly the work to which he gravitated in Hungary was influenced by European international modernism as opposed to traditional lyricism and narrative. However, I think it’s fair to say that his exposure to the Canadian avant-garde was transformative to his work, in ways that can be traced to specific influences.
          Among Canadian writers, Zend’s work is most closely related to the formally innovative writers of the 1960s and onward, such as the TISH poets of UBC Vancouver, including Lionel Kearns; other experimental poets such as bpNichol and Steve McCaffery; his fellow poets named “Robert” in a performing and publishing group called The Three Roberts (Priest, Sward, and Zend), and media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
          The following correspondences do not, of course, fully explore the breadth of Zend’s Canadian aesthetic affinities, and I’m no doubt omitting some important ones. Perhaps someone will take this topic as an opportunity to write a more developed analysis.

Marshall McLuhan, Lionel Kearns,
and Norman T. White’s Hearsay Project

          Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist who wrote about the effects of media and electronic communications on society, was a frequent guest speaker at the CBC, where Zend worked as a producer. Zend was obviously fascinated by his ideas; some of his works were written under the sign of McLuhan, such as the following short one in a series entitled “Tissues:”

QUOTATION MARKS 7

The time will come
when there will be no time
only electronic circuits
and I will remember
what the dead have forgotten
what the unborn have planned1

In a futuristic world in which brains are replaced by electronic circuits, time, memory, and desire will have collapsed into a static omniscience in which every thought — past, present, and future — is always already immortalized. In such a world, total knowledge paradoxically becomes oblivion, a vacuous nothing (in human terms), since it is no longer parsed by the meaning-producing processes of remembering, forgetting, and planning. Birth, growth, change, and death would be equally meaningless. In a few linguistic strokes, Zend captures the essence of the age of electronic information, and we don’t have to exchange brain cells for circuitry to experience the effects of a culture increasingly reliant on electronic information storage.
          A closely related work is “The Message,” which Zend dedicates to McLuhan:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

          The messenger arrived out of breath. The dancers stopped their pirouettes, the torches lighting the palace walls flickered for a moment, the hubbub at the banquet table died down, a roasted pig’s knuckle froze in mid-air in a nobleman’s fingers, a general behind the pillar stopped fingering the bosom of the maid of honour.
          “Well, what is it, man?” asked the King, rising regally from his chair. “Where did you come from? Who sent you? What is the news?” Then, after a moment, “Are you waiting for a reply? Speak up, man!”
          Still short of breath, the messenger pulled himself together. He looked the King in the eye and gasped: “Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.”2

“The Message” is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “An Imperial Message,” in which the dying emperor’s words, whispered to a messenger, never reaches its intended receiver, who nonetheless daydreams about the message’s content.3
          Zend’s parable tells the reverse tale of a messenger approaching the king, whose expectations are thwarted by the runner’s denial of the role of messenger and thus the very existence of a message. The messenger-who-is-not-a-messenger is himself the message—which is simply the fact of his enjoyment of running. The king, like a good consumer of messages, has failed to comprehend the significance of the medium of that message.
          In 1985, electronic media experimenter Norman T. White honored Zend several months after his death by using “The Message” for The Hearsay Project (fig. 1), a conceptual electronic art happening that took place in a span of twenty-four hours from November 11 to 12.

HEARSAY PROJECT

The story, minus the title, dedication, and author, was sent in succession to various countries around the world, in which each translator passed their rendition on to the next translator, in the manner of the children’s game of telephone, also known as hearsay. White reports that Zend’s “widow, Janine, was on hand to hit the ‘return’ key which sent the message on its way around the world,” from Toronto to Des Moines, Sydney, Tokyo, Vienna, Newport, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and back to Toronto. En route, “The Message” was translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, Welsh, Hungarian, and finally back into English. Not only was the text of the story transformed by the successive translations, but also the process “preserve[d] . . . the text distortions generated by typographical errors and by telephone-line ‘noise.’”4
          The following is a comparison of the messenger’s last words in Zend’s story and the end result of The Hearsay Project:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.

QUOTATION MARKS 7

YOUR MAJESTY, THERE IS NO NEED FOR AN ANSWER. AFTER ALL, NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. NO ONE SENT ME. I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING.

If the media of language and electronic transmission are the message, then the vaguaries and fallibility of those media are rendered transparent in this conceptual game. And the final words, “I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING,” seem oddly apropos and fortuitous, for to rise above all is perhaps also to become less visible as a medium to consumers of messages.
          Such theoretical concerns were emerging themes among TISH poets such as Lionel Kearns, who shares Zend’s fascination with the ideas of McLuhan: Kearns’ book of poetry By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface (1969) explores the ironies and paradoxes arising from mass media fallout on society.5 A prime example of Kearns’ preoccupation with media is “A Collage Education,” which “exposes television’s ironic juxtaposition of African-American poverty and pharmaceutical painkillers. . . . Kearns’ engagement with media culture also infuses poems of postcolonial irony, as in ‘Bleeding,’ in which Mexican Day of the Dead ceremonies are marred by arrogantly voyeuristic tourists and the intrusion of travelogue filmmakers.”7
          In other poems, such as “Medium,” Kearns more directly pays tribute to McLuhan:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Once I’d be filling up poems
with outrageous images
                    and impossible ideas
just to keep track of them
and let you know I’m here

Now I give you only
silence and blank paper
but this too
                    is a kind of message7

KEARNS BIRTH OF GOD  130 W          One of the most striking (and most widely anthologized) works from By the Light of the Silvery McLune is the concrete poem “The Birth of God” (fig. 2), which Kearns calls “a mathematical mandela embodying the perfect creative/destructive principle of the mutual interpenetration and balanced interdependence of opposites.” In its creation of an image of the binary from characters that denote the binary system, it might well also be an homage to McLuhan.
          An interesting counterpart to Kearns’ depiction of binaries is Zend’s Espanto (fig. 3), which creates the yin and yang symbol in Daoism using the Spanish words “no” and “si.” While I would not say that this work was directly influenced by McLuhan, it’s possible that the spirit of Kearns’ “Birth of God” was in the back of his mind when he created Espanto, which was, by the way, Zend’s first venturing into the kind of typewriter art exemplified in his collection Arbormundi.

YIN YANG 350

          Kearns, White, and Zend responded creatively to McLuhan’s theories of media communications. And in this section I have confined myself to poems that effectively transpose McLuhan’s theories into descriptive, allegorical, or concrete-poetic form. But McLuhan famously upheld modernist and avant-garde poetry as an exemplary manifestation of changes in the nature of communication through their juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, disruption of syntax, and disjunctive narrative, as he relates in a 1969 interview:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of processes of cognition and creation.7

          It’s beyond the scope of my present project even to begin to document such vast and complex territory, which is being explored by such communications scholars as Darren Wershler and Richard Cavell. So I will close by simply pointing out that in a similar way that bpNichol, Zend, and many other poets of their time were drawing attention to the medium and materiality of language through disjunctiveness and fragmentation, poets and New Media artists such as Kearns, White, and Zend were exploring ways to make visible the media and effects of mass communication, which despite (or because of) its pervasiveness tend to fade into background noise.

Next Installment: Part 7.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha


Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 5. Hungarian Literary Roots: The Budapest Joke and Other Influences

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Part 5. Hungarian Literary Roots:
The Budapest Joke and Other Influences

MACRO MICRO 1 WHITE 400

          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

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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

MADACH COVER 180          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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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

QUOTATION MARKS 7

                    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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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,

QUOTATION MARKS 7

                    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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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

QUOTATION MARKS 7

                                        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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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
          machine guns,
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
          the present,
statesmen embracing the people in order to pick their pockets
          the better,
. . .
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,

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

He tried to live each day as it came
and it came and he lived
and he died and became
dust again
dust in interstellar space and in the streets
dust
dirty dust
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).

GARDEN OF EDEN AND SEXERPENTORMENTOR

          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).

ARBORMUNDI VIVARBOR AND DETAIL B

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.
ARBORMUNDI 2 250          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.
MADACH COVER 250          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).

TRAGEDY OF MAN MONTREAL

Frigyes Karinthy (1887—1938)
and the Budapest Joke

 
KARINTHY 250          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.
NYUGAT 180          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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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:

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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

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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

NEW YORK CAFE 250          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:

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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”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

          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”:

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It took me decades
to learn
the basic principles
of wisdom

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):

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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:

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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

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. . . 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:

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[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.

SCIENCE FICTION 500

          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:
Marshall McLuhan


Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 4. Canada: “Freedom, Everybody’s Homeland”

TITLE WITH BUSINESS CARD IMAGE AND BYLINE

Part 4. Canada: “Freedom, Everybody’s Homeland”

ZENDS ON CARINTHIA 250

          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
CARINTHIA          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).

CARINTHIA BROCHURE 450

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).

FELLOW REFUGEES ON SHIP

CANADA LANDING CARDS 300          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.
SNOW FROM TRAIN          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
ZEND BY CAR          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
1 A DIFFERENT PLANET          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”:

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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

SPLIT ZEND 200 H          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”:

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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:

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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?”:

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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:

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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:

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In a country
where everyone
is searching for
identity,
I am
an alien
for I’m already
identical.18

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:

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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

BUDAPESTORONTO 270          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:

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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).

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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
TORONTO MIRROR 250 WIDE          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,”

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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:

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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
PORTRAIT 13           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,

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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

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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:

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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,

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[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.
PORTRAIT 18 250          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).
FROM ZERO TO ONE 200 WIDE          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.
PORTRAIT 14 250 WIDE          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
PORTRAIT 15 250          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).

ORIENTOPOLIS

          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:

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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:

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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,

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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,

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“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

ARBORMUNDI 1 200 WIDEEventually, 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).

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          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).

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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.
BEYOND LABELS 200 WIDE          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.
OAB COVER 200 WIDE          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 200 WIDE          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 200 wide          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


Camille Martin