Nicholas Kolumban


Poets as Expatriates - Nicholas Kolumban




The Native Tourist



(1) Homage to Batthyany Square in Budapest
(2) The Skier
(3) You Can Tell From This Poem
(4) Had I Not Left Hungary
(5) After Prostate Surgery
(6) To a Gibbon
(7) Felix Dzerzhinsky
(8) Remember the Time When I Flew
(9) Two Worlds
(10) The Virile Gold Shimmer of Beaten Eggs

Translations from the Hungarian:


(1) Albatross
(2) In Homage of Our Deceased Japanese Rooster
(3) Graves of Soldiers
(4) You Become More and More Waxen
(5) Sarcophagus
(6) Mother Always Knows Something New
(7) The Small Bicycle
(8) This Is Not Death Yet



Nicholas Kolumban

The Native Tourist

SOME PEOPLE DROP in on their birthplace once every three weeks. Others once every ten years. Some, on the other hand, never go back and proceed to breed llamas in Utah.

It was at the end of July in Budapest, hot and dry as expected, slightly steaming sidewalks. I was thirsty. Near the still-dashing Hotel Astoria with its elegant Cafe, its elaborate dining room, I bumped into a small street wide enough only for skinny cabs going one way. My throat was parched; luckily I discovered a sign in the window of a bar, advertizing Amstel beer on draft: 210 Forints (about 90 cents) a mug. I entered. The bar was not much: four tables and a counter with three stools. No pictures anywhere, just dust. The bartender greeted me unenthusiastically; I was given my portion with too much foam. But I was happy enough. I sat down at my tiny table, opened a newly purchased book about Hungarian history.

I began to read. Slowly my ears distinguished two different languages spoken: Hungarian, naturally-spoken by the bartender and an elderly guest at the bar. But there was also this guttural, raspy language being spoken by six customers who were leaning back at two tables along the wall. All under thirty, they talked quietly, businesslike, occasionally removing wads of banknotes from their pockets, counting them out casually before giving them to others there at the tables. A quick glance told me the bills were 5000 Forints, the second highest denomination in the country.

Under the circumstances, I minded my own business. Generally, I'm ill at ease among people who amass too much of one thing. Meanwhile, these foreigners (but so was I) spoke so fast, now and then raising their voices. Finally, they nodded at each other, got up and left. But more came in soon after. The same procedure ensued. There might have been other commodities exchanged under the table (because who wants to just hand out money?), but I doggedly tried to keep concentrated on 13th century Hungarian society. Then, finishing my beer as discreetly as possible, I got up to leave--but too abruptly, it seemed. As I fumbled for my wallet in order to pay, out the corner of my eye I saw a man reach for something under his shirt. It was a well-rehearsed motion.

Luckily, I had the jump on him. I was faster with my money, showing it as prominently as I could. The man relaxed instantly. A wry smile. Meanwhile, dumb with panic, I didn't wait for my change. I dashed out like a swallow from a barn when the door opens.

I must have been an unknown cipher for them, too. But, although I had not turned out in the end to constitute a danger, I had nothing to offer either, not even linguistically. The men had short haircuts, beautiful shoes; possible candidates for an Italian heist movie. I lowered my eyes, my calf muscles quivered. I distanced myself from them without looking back, hoping that they would forget my existence in record time.

For my stay I had rented a room above the Danube. It was small, but the view was breathtaking: in front of me a slender, taut bridge in the sunshine; at night it looked like a glittering necklace hovering over the river. It was the Elizabeth Bridge, lit up.

I took long walks on the cobblestone rug of the streets. The water lured me also, and I sat for hours on the stairs below the docks, watching the Danube scrub the cement feet of the bridge. It seemed to me that the river splashed softly in more than a few languages, flattering the nations that lived along its banks. I was also aware that-even here inthe city of my birth-my mother tongue had ceased to be the vehicle of my thoughts. When I spoke Hungarian, even to myself, I was automatically translating words and phrases from English.

I felt somewhat lonely in Budapest. I wasn't certain whether I belonged here; occasionaly, I felt like the greenest of newcomers stumbling on the rocks of local custom. For example, I forgot to shake hands when saying "good bye" to people. Or, while leaving stores or someone's office it always slipped my mind to say some parting words at the door. I just mumbled "Thank you" and went out. I had forgotten my manners.

My room was on the fourth floor of an apartment building that needed a coat of paint. My landlady was an old woman, wobbly and hard of hearing. Outwardly kind, she refused to allow any food in her refrigerator that wasn't hers. She rented out three rooms: they had ancient furniture and rickety closets. All the rugs were faded. One room was occupied by a silent middle-aged man who was always well-dressed and bowed to me whenever we met in the hall. The other was taken by two young women who were blond to varying degrees, shapely, and wore very short skirts. The younger one, about 19, had high heels on, even while in our communal bathroom. These two were an enigma to me with their muted chatter in the evenings. Then one night I heard panting through the thin wall, my ears soon deciphering the nature of the din: people making love. But why four? This music of bodies made me feel sad.

The next morning I saw one of the women sitting on her bed, counting banknotes. Then, that evening, I distinctly heard the women speak in German, telling lewd stories to each other, unaware that I understood them. (My teenage years spent in West Germany had made me live in that language at well, though did I ever feel at home?) Later, the two women exchanged kisses - the popping of champagne bottles. Their exuberance just deepened my loneliness.

In the daytime I usually took a bus to Margaret Island, the seat of fragrant flowers and hotels. Margaret Island was located in the middle of the Danube, at an equal distance from Buda, the residential twin of Pest, and from Pest, the entertainment center. I went swimming in the Sportuszoda, the home of two public pools. In the larger one, not always open to the public, Olympic champions and waterpolo players swam. Being a 50-meter pool, it was partitioned into eight lanes.

One day I noticed that lane number 8 was empty. Quietly I lowered myself into the water and began doing my version of the butterfly. I imagined myself as a civilized dolphin. Soon two children began to use the same lane. An old man in low-cut bathing trunks instructed them. He pondered my presence for a moment, then accepted me as part of the scenery. By the time he was finished with the swimming lesson, I pulled myself out of the water and sat down at the edge of the pool. He approached me without haste and then asked with a smile in English:

"Are you English?"

"No. I'm from the other side of the Atlantic," I said in Hungarian.

"Ah," he said, switching to Hungarian too, "you're one of the long-lost sons of the Revolution. But also an American, aren't you?"

I nodded. Then he told me that he was the coach of the national swim team, that he had figured I must be a foreigner. "Native Hungarians wouldn't dare use this pool," he commented. He also confided in me that he had just returned from Los Angeles, from a swim meet. He liked the "bustle" there, the "possibilities." The general well-being of the place, milk and honey oozing through the city's pores.

"You see, I feel at home in both countries," he said. "They both offer you something. You just have to be open to it."

I told him that his was a very positive approach. In turn, I said very jauntily that I felt at home here in Budapest too, but also away from home. In a good way.

I had already noticed that both older people and children already had begun to accept me as being someone who belongs here. Senior citizens approached me in parks, then sat down next to me on the bench. They offered me amusing stories of their lives, reinventing their youth and forgetting the tough moments later on. The children showed me their toys and attempted to share with me chunks of their sandwiches and broken pieces of French fries. Then soon men in taverns warmed to my brand of humble Hungarianness by telling me that they found nothing "odd" about me. "You think like us," one hairy man said in workclothes after he discovered that I live in New Jersey. But since I was paying his beer I wondered about the sincerity of his appraisal.

On the last day of August I visited a former high school classmate of mine and his spouse. They had no children, not a rare phenomenon in Hungary. Andras Bathory was a mechanical engineer with a Ph.D. He worked as an executive engineer in a company that manufactured machines able to produce plastic containers-plates and cups, etc. In the evening he also taught graduate courses in his discipline at the University of Budapest, supplementing his already sizable income. He was an introverted, earnest individual with a bodybuilder's physique. His wife Katalin was high-spirited, prone to laugh at any time. She was one of the editors of a publishing firm that only printed foreign books in translation.

I was invited for dinner. I had already learned from Andras' letters that Katalin happened to be an excellent cook. Needless to say, I only ate a light lunch that day. Their living room-they owned a roomy apartment in the inner city, quite a feat in space-starved Eastern Europe-surprised me. The ceiling was covered with posters of foreign movies and black and white photos of folk dancers. Soon Katalin arrived with a tray of open-ended sandwiches. I only took two, saving my gargantuan appetite for the main dish.

But nothing else materialized after they removed the tray. I felt like a hungry whale that had just arrived in waters depleted of plankton. Then soon we slurped sweet espresso and that concluded the feeding portion of the evening. It was then I realized I had forgotten that Europeans eat their main meal at noon.

They praised my Hungarian, then proceeded to ask me how I could survive my losses-the hole of 40 years in my memory? "What hole?" I asked them. I had become a witness to Kennedy's inspired reign, King Arthur in Camelot. Later I had listened to and shook hands with Hubert Humphrey. Moreover, I had undergone the Vietnam War-as did many other Americans, even from their living room-this misconceived and intricate undertaking. I had Learned much in undergraduate and graduate schools at Penn State. I had discovered delight in work. Teaching English had become my life's calling, and writing poetry didn't lag much behind. I had fallen in love with women who were not good for me-and with women who were. None of them spoke Hungarian. From a pensive, befuddled outsider, I had metamorphosed into a tolerable (and tolerant) semi-Yankee.

Now it was their turn to be astonished.

"Anyhow, you can certainly impersonate a native in Hungary," Katalin gushed while hugging me.

We drank a few shots of Unicum, a rich Hungarian liquor, slightly bitter in taste. It's guaranteed to strengthen your stomach against the trials of digesting mutton goulash, fried veal shank, spicy carp stew or other hearty Hungarian dishes.

My leave-taking of Hungary took place the next day. I sensed that I didn't belong here, but I didn't want to depart either. I also felt a little ashamed that unlike most natives, I could choose to leave. I also wondered where could a life-long native tourist like me could go anyway? Maybe the journeying itself could materialize into a country? -Somerville, New Jersey, June 3, 1999


Nicholas Kolumban

Homage to Batthyany Square in Budapest

With its alto voice, the sturdy church of St. Ann 
announces the bygone victory over the Turks. 
It is noon. 
It's always glorious noon when the bells peal. 
Two steeples, with rain-dyed cupolas, are basking in the sun. 
Angels and gold-‚how humility and pomp can co-exist 
like melancholy and joy inside humans. 
I'm savoring indigenous beer at a table 
in front of a laborers' bar. 
An elderly woman wipes off the top, 
her glances hunting the clients for tips. 
The third mug allows me ever to be tolerant toward cars, 
parked on the pavement. 
Poor people are selling their things to the poor 
at the Metro stop. The shoes are unpolished. 
A drunk breaks the neck of a bottle, 
offering it as a drinking glass. 
A woman strides by on high heels, 
her calves tanned and muscular- 
they quiver like aspic. 
Her little daughter falls behind, 
sniffing flowers, and she makes 
her run to her, her urgent voice 
beckoning me too. I get up-the native tourist- 
and tremble, enveloped by the low register 
of her bell.


Nicholas Kolumban

The Skier

     Austria 1945

I was like nature: still. 
I didn't know the new language. 
There was a war; we heard cannons 
that silenced us. 
My parents had fled Hungary; 
the villagers disliked emigres
we ate their food, 
inhabited their rooms, 
prepared them to bear defeat. 
I was also in school- 
an Austrian girl volunteered to help me. 
She usually arrived on skis, 
then my parents ushered her into the bedroom 
where we were left alone. 
She made me kneel behind the mattress, 
placing her books on the quilt. 
She was older, alluring. 
She wore her hair long like adults. 
She asked me to echo German words, then massaged 
my palms. She unbuttoned my fly, 
and made me repeat her kisses.


Nicholas Kolumban

You Can Tell From This Poem

     Vienna, November 1956

They gathered us foreign students. 
We looked shabby, pale, our shoes worn 
from the road that led to freedom. 
Even the bridge at Andau was rain-soaked. 
The university personnel ushered us through halls 
adorned with marble. Pillars blocked our way. 
We were shown a room that was packed: 
silk shirts, woolen sweaters, Italian shoes, 
donated by the conscience of the world. 
We had just battled the Soviet hordes in Budapest. 
I selected two shirts, a sweater, a pair of tweed pants 
from Scotland, warm boots from the U.S. 
I also walked away with a battered suitcase. 
They let us store our treasures in the Dean's office, 
then we were led, almost on a string like children, 
to the dining hall. There was no food, 
only more charming men and women, sitting behind tables. 
They were selling entry to their homelands. 
Was it a craft show with countries as goods? 
I was offered shelter as a freedom fighter, although I wasn't. 
Australia sat beside Japan, Britain beside South Africa. 
Brazil and Canada were tablemates. The U.S. and Argentina 
sharing bad coffee and files. To us, used to isolation and shackles, 
all choices came wrapped up with danger. 
Would a kangaroo kick you to death? 
Or could you end up in the gold mines of Africa? 
I was leaning toward Brazil: tanned women and beaches, 
the forgiving arms of Christ. Rio and samba: 
what more could you aspire to at 18? 
Then I remembered Grandfather who had come to America 
as a pastor to immigrants back in 1915. He loved Pittsburgh, 
but had to return to Europe. His wife couldn't bear the cold, 
the small pittance the coalminers 
could part with for his salary, her daughter's bad grades 
because of faulty English. So would it be Pittsburgh 
with its steel and great smog? The rugged houses 
on the hillside. The cable cars rising slowly 
up over the heads of mortals. . . 
In Vienna we had to make up our minds in 15 minutes, 
before the dinner, donated as well. 
It wasn't supposed to be hard: we were guaranteed to arrive 
in the new country in two weeks. We had to grab 
a patch of earth quickly, and not to look back. 
Abandon our loyalty to birthplace and mother tongue, 
write off our friends, become a model citizen 
on the other side of the world. 
You can tell from this poem which country I chose.


Nicholas Kolumban

Had I Not Left Hungary

I would have become a keeper of rooms, 
inspected hotel floors for crime, 
hated the word "empty." 
I'd have catered to the whims of guests 
and forgotten my own. 
I'd have played cards in bars, stayed in rooms without a fee. 
I'd have swum in the Danube, kept pace with Olympic champions. 
Needless to say, I'd have become a connoisseur of Budapest, 
adored baths that spout up from limestone, 
promoting health through muds and minerals.

Ultimately, I'd have married a historian 
to learn the mysteries of survival.


Nicholas Kolumban

After Prostate Surgery

Your sleep is heavy and without meaning. 
You've been assaulted- 
they made you bleed on thin, porous blankets. 
The blood seeps into your consciousness and doesn't leave. 
Despair wells up in you like a boulder. 
You're not ashamed of your hairy ass anymore, 
of your poor, skewered penis. 
You beg for relief from pain, from spasms, 
touch nurses as if they were goddesses. 
Hate the odor around you; dismiss the future. 
You crave tranquillity while listening to an old woman scream.


Nicholas Kolumban

To a Gibbon

      For Nicole

Sweet, you sit there, reclining, 
resigned but wearing an amused face. 
Hairy, with elongated arms that could circle 
our house. White, after a wash, 
lovely. Love should elevate you 
among the living. 
Please, hibernate, breathe 
inside our fondness. 
Stay always here 
on this planet, 
on an even keel, 
even after we've 
moved downward.


Nicholas Kolumban

Felix Dzerzhinsky

So "Iron Felix" is gone.
So this malicious landmark
is made to kiss the ground
in front of KGB Headquarters.
I used to hate
his unapproachable stance, his Trotsky goatee,
his overlong coat that tried to warm his vicious heart.
His nervous, cruel hands
when he spoke on newsreel.
He once interrogated my uncle,
my meek uncle who wanted to sleep alone
in prison because of his conscience and TB.
"Comrade, I spit blood," Uncle said
to give credence to his verbal petition.
But Felix hissed: "Don't spit!"
So my poor uncle in Moscow didn't spit for three years,
just snored alongside two other infected inmates.

Today the pigeons shit on Felix's bronze coat.
Now workers kick him in the head,
trying to change his mind, make him human.
But it's of no use. Felix never was like us.
He stayed vicious and haughty like his statue.
They say his only love was his dog,
a half-blind, wiry mutt,
that occasionally bit him.


Nicholas Kolumban

Remember the Time When I Flew

to you on foot? Your father locked himself away
because he knew no English.
Your mother with her crooked but creative English
greeted me. She made me perogies.
She also painted Easter eggs. As she sat at the table,
her spine was crooked as her speech.
Though I feared the genes,
I asked to marry you. You laughed,
playing the piano
with your exquisite back to me. I envied
the keys under your fingers.
I hitchhiked back to college.
I cried in two cars,
telling them my mother died.


Nicholas Kolumban

Two Worlds

Finches wake me at Lake Balaton.
On top of a hill, I drink
champagne, inhale the ozone
that soothes my tremulous lungs.
The roses in my yard
exude a deliriously sweet aroma.
With the almost naked guests of the lake
I converse in Hungarian,
the magnificent gift of my mother.
I watch the women on the beach,
their muscular legs
shown off in high heels.

In September I'll be back in New Jersey
where I refine my thoughts.
In my backyard the pine
will greet me with popelike arms.
My fixed cat will sing in my lap.
Her rump a monument, she sheds her fur.
The breeze carries lean, white needles.
Japanese beetles dine on my roses,
their scent also deliriously sweet.


Nicholas Kolumban

The Virile Gold Shimmer of Beaten Eggs

It's not my concern whether Jesus is or isn't,
she said. They'd never spoken 
of religion before. It was mostly about papers to give,
about the fitness of typewriters.
She just made an omelette, a crescent beauty.
The virile gold shimmer of beaten eggs.

He ate fast, not looking at her--
her hair bleached, the color of the omelette.
She had a belly, a watermelon,
that stood between her and his acceptance.
Eternally pregnant without a child, he thought.

The wooden banister led to their bed.
Stained glass windows, a family crest.
He liked the poster in her room--
a male dancer through Cocteau's eyes,
graceful but also evoking alarm,
his shirt woven out of roses.
He wore a warrior's helmet
carved out of cordovan leather.


Katalin Mezey


It took the family a week 
to consume the bird.

Constantly, its meat popped up 
in the form of a neck, a breast, a head. 
Pieces of a wing appeared here and there 
among the fried rice.

The meat was omnipresent 
like a signal.

Though fragmented, it was 
It constantly returned. 
Mother and Father, the children 
lost count. The mutilated wings, the drumsticks. 
The fillet of this. The fillet of that.

They thought: is it possible 
that so many parts 
had once converged 
into a whole?

The son was startled when he found a gill. 
Suddenly they realized 
it was better to change 
the subject.

(Translated from the Hungarian by Nicholas Kolumban)


Katalin Mezey

In Homage of Our Deceased Japanese Rooster

     For my daughter Kati

Don't abandon your loved one in the backyard. 
He's exposed, and runs a risk 
here where the cat lies concealed. 
Have you seen the shadow that haunts the yard?

How often do I leave you unprotected, 
guarded only by a feeble latch. 
You wait in wild anguish- 
a cat's shadow imprinted on your pupils.

I've just arrived, dragging my take-home work. 
I brought money and food. The routine of my life 
is that I go, and come back. I'm still terrified 
until you start pecking at the muck on my shoe.

Most things are a succession of chance- 
a vicious moment can snuff good fortune out. 
The one who snoozed in th calm yard before 
just screamed in the vice of the cat's claws.

(Translated from the Hungarian by Nicholas Kolumban)


Imre Oravecz

Graves of Soldiers

They were there ever since I can remember.
They lay in neat rows in our vegetable garden
among the potato plants next to the cemetery.

They formed a narrow, elongated island.
Our tilling of the soil almost reached them.

The graves were short and small.
I thought that children
were buried beneath the mounds.

They didn't give us much trouble;
we simply avoided them
and were glad that there was less to hoe.
Only in the spring did they get in the way.
Then we had to take heed 
not to plough the ground above them. 
Even the horse had to step aside.

In the summer, we trimmed the grass 
on all sides of the graves. But we didn't offer 
the green to the cows. We threw it away instead. 
Once a year on Memorial Day 
we pulled up all the weeds 
and tied them in bundles around the gravesites. 
We lit a candle for each soldier 
as if they were relatives. 
Actually, there was only one candle-- 
because wax wasn't cheap. 
At times I tried to imagine these soldiers as blood-thirsty savages-- 
when I was under the influence of Soviet films. 
But I really couldn't. 
I couldn't hold a grudge against these Germans 
because I remembered Miklos, my friend, 
whose father never returned from a Soviet POW camp. 
He was probably buried somewhere in Russia. 
Then, through the years, these graves sunk 
deeper and deeper into the soil. 
They decayed along with their alien names. 
The wooden crosses rotted.

And I began to mix up the names of all these friends: 
Kurt with Hans, Hermann with Jürgan. 
Otto with Reiner. I slowly forgot 
who was who. When he was born. 
His age when he was killed. 
We paid less and less attention. 
We became aware we couldn't tend to them 
forever and ever. 
We couldn't halt disintegration.

Now and then we were so inattentive 
we stepped on the mounds 
or sat on top. 
Yet, we still kept an eye.

When -- in 1956 -- we turned the vegetable garden 
into a building site 
the graves still existed. 
But -- when the site was added to the cemetery, 
and, so to speak, the soldiers began to occupy 
their rightful place-- 
the graves were mercilessly rooted up 
and flattened. A new building for the holding wakes was errected. 
They also needed open ground in front. 
This is where the soldiers were sleeping their new dreams.

The graves are unmarked now, 
yet the bodies are not abandoned. 
They were just given several fresh partners in fate. 
A whole village of dead civilians moved in with them. 
So now the place is cramped. 
So crowded that the cemetery 
still needed to be enlarged.

(Translated from the Hungarian by Nicholas Kolumban)


György Faludy

You Become More and More Waxen

You become more and more waxen, exhausted 
when it is morning. When I comb your hair, 
it breaks off. 
Your arm is a withered vine. 
The cocoons of cancer protrude from your neck. 
Blue sky in front of your window. 
The stone wall has no compassion.

Today you don't feel pain. I perch 
by your bed and cradle a coffee mug. 
In place of your hard breasts, green sutures, 
purple scars. I'm lost in reverie. 
You don't have to leave. May I be 
next to you for another half-year?

Love, my 70-pound ghost, 
what shall I say? I kneel in the light 
because your pastel-gray eyes are still lovely. 
Your wrecked body has life. 
It is good this way. 
And it will never get better.

(Translated from the Hungarian by Nicholas Kolumban)



Elemer Horvath


Now that the last patch of snow has left us
the forest has begun to knead the mud.
The willow is narcissistically green-eyed.
The daffodil is sightless.
The statue lives forever inside rock.
Censorship is silent in the brook.
Only man is capable
of rattling his chains
before he sheds his coat.
He ponders the meaning of pneumonia
and how the earth can exist
for those who have never been in exile.

(Translated from the Hungarian by Nicholas Kolumban)


Katalin Mezey

Mother Always Knows Something New

Mother always knows something new;
something clandestine about the weather
because she's fluent in the language of plants.
Now she thinks there will be a long, warm autumn:
she learned this from the blooming, wild chestnuts.
They flower for the second time among rows of trees.
If I'd spend eighty years on this earth
would these plants enter into a conversation
with me? These plants that to spite winter
unfurl their coded messages of time.

(Translated from the Hungarian by Nicholas Kolumban)


Otto Tolnai

The Small Bicycle

A small bicycle rolls away
Succulent mulberries drop
out of the mesh bag
on its handlebars
Somebody let out
the air from its sturdy tires
Its bell rings
on every corner
Somebody placed in its mesh bag
the still warm newspaper
the raw meat
The small bicycle rolls
Nobody is manning it

(Translated from the Hungarian by Nicholas Kolumban)


Otto Tolnai

This Is Not Death Yet

I'm skinning a rabbit on the porch
houses like toy blocks     I'm daydreaming
a gun shot     the rabbit jumps up
this is not death yet
between my legs a road with trees
we embrace each other on the razor sharp hook
this rabbit's a true athlete--
small ass, wide shoulders--
his tongue a dirty rose petal
in my mouth
and I throw up inside him
the gun cracks and he jumps up
this is not death yet
it's good to find refuge in a skinned rodent
inside a still warm comrade
during a battle on the Eastern Front
a skinned body is not dead yet
round and round in a naked dance
the silk of a jet plane's tail
sews you up like a needle
the straw stitched back inside a leather bag
it's not death yet
only the delicate taste of game
only the delicate taste

(Translated from the Hungarian by Nicholas Kolumban, Daniel Bourne and Karen Kovacik)





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