Faltering dawn, the Avenue: a stammer of light. Yesterday’s
waiters hover tired, yet a fresh brew steams the air and a single
cloud splits from yellow to blue above the park, above
the boulevard of perfumed girls hurled from the cars of soldiers
changing guard; above the boulevard where night-shift writers,
brains wired to the collateral of words, negotiate silence.
I came here too, in an open-topped car, not dishevelled
from lust or games of desire just sad, and I never saw
the Avenue more clearly, nor the city, its chattels, its faces,
its struggles. ‘There’s no stop to it now’ said a man
I didn’t recognise and whose name I’ve forgotten.
We sat in a pinched corner of that café, watched the forced
smiles of girls cancan in stalls hung with tattered posters,
while we fell in to the cheap bitter taste of coffee,
the recounting of sorrows, juvenile mistakes, those we had lost;
how I’d been so sure my love had once been an inaugurating
verb: a rose, its calyx embroidered beyond the suffocation
of youth’s greenhouse – its goodness protected, cherished.
Then he’d come, ripped up the flowerbed as if it was a rotten
stair-rug, a pirate who cared as much for good wine as he did
cheap contraband sold on every street. I wondered if he ever saw
his raids as more than commerce, more than booty? I wondered
if I could rise above this guilt, this nagging sense that I should
be sorry and I knew then I couldn’t do it. How much I hated that!
It was this on my mind as dawn appeared, still dazzled by the city’s
artificial light, the buzz of waiters running; that cloud – a kaleidoscope
breaking over tired soldiers, spent girls, dewy-eyed writers.
‘Look’ said the stranger, ‘one red-tinged cloud ignites another so the world
sloughs its lining – its mantel so bellied, the city’s mills creak beneath it.
Surely this is the day all the winter gardens will shatter, release
their crystal treasure, the pent-up breath of our ambition, so tomorrow,
life will be measured in a value greater than the body’s weight in blood,
something sacred like the kiss of a whore that quietens that stirring for battle’.
I listened to this man sitting beside me yet still can’t recall his face, his name
though his words had been so moving. – Dawn, I thought, a blood-stained sky
above the boulevard, its tint mirrored in the pale complexions of those girls,
those haunted soldiers, those fresh-faced pen-pushers. Oh, my sisters,
with your obliging mouths consumed by such beginnings, there’s no time
to be ashamed. Sons of my father, my brothers, men, don’t you understand?
I said this softly looking into the vigilant beauty of their eyes: ‘if a task
needs to be done, don’t forget us women. We surrender to our hearts only
because they’ve become such small dungeons of our destiny where
all we can do is rinse out the fabric of our tears, decorate it with needlepoint
flowers. Help us untie these chains for it is better to charge the enemy
than to give birth in empty houses, pace empty rooms, be afraid.
What makes you think our blood is only good for love, for making hay?
We are our own revolution, so pile the barricades with our carcasses
if you must but men, if anything is going to happen, don’t forget to take us.’
Notes on this poem
Margit Kaffka died a hundred years ago and yet what is so striking about her poetry is how biting and contemporary it feels today, over a century on. Kaffka believed in a ‘new woman’ (‘új tipusú nő’) who would have the freedom to strive for ‘professions, work, love, creation, battle, action, and learning’ and she worked hard to embody this ideal in her own life as the first female author at the influential Nyugat Review, a working mother, teacher, novelist and poet.
This poem, wrien on Hungary’s ‘Bloody Thursday’, a day of mass demonstration calling for universal suffrage, encapsulates Kaffka’s central preoccupations: her drive for social reform and quest for gender equality. In free verse, Kaffka appeals to both sexes to consider a new way forward in this charged moment of hope, weaving intensely personal experience with detailed outward observation of a city in protest on a day that would see eight people killed. Although poets such as Endre Ady and Mihály Babits, male contemporaries of Kaffka, also wrote about this event, no other work seems to capture the tension of the moment in the way that Kaffka’s repeating images of sky, soldiers, women and writers have done.