Ottó Orbán

Ottó Orbán (1936 - 2002)

Ottó Orbán was born in Budapest to a Jewish father and a Christian peasant mother. His father was clubbed to death during a forced march between two concentration camps in 1944 and the young Orbán was sent to an orphanage a year later, where he made his name as a child prodigy poet. He received his diploma in Library Science and Hungarian Language and Literature from the University of Budapest in 1960. By the seventies he was known as the enfant terrible of Hungarian poetry, and even regarded for a while as Hungary's own Beat Poet. An extremely versatile writer, today he is very highly regarded.

In 1981 Orbán became the Poetry Editor of Kortárs [The Contemporary] and in 1989 he was elected Vice President of the Hungarian P.E.N. Club. In 1987 he was Visiting Professor at Hamline and the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

The recurring leitmotifs of his poetry are persecution, orphanhood, and the war. His early poetry is characterized by a burgeoning of metaphors seeking self-identity; his poems from the seventies and eighties are constructed rather on the confrontation between conflicting facts, while his autobiographical poems speak of the secrets of history and the individual. His work is full of restlessness, grimaces, despair, and expectation. In his last decades, although suffering from a debilitating disease, Orbán kept writing with devil-may-care abandon.

Orbán received the Attila József Prize twice, first in 1973 and again in 1985. He received the Robert Graves Prize in 1974 and the Kossuth Prize in 1992. In 1993 he was elected to the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Fine Arts.

His volumes include Fekete ünnep [Black Holiday] (1960), A teremtés napja [The Day of Creation] (1963), Búcsú Betlehemtôl [Farewell to Bethlehem] (1967), Emberáldozat [Human Sacrifice] (1973), Szegénynek lenni [To Be Poor] (1974), A világ teremtése és egyéb badarságok [The Creation of the World and Other Follies] (1977), Az alvó vulkán [The Dormant Volcano] (1981), A mesterségrôl [About the Craft] (1984), A fényes cáfolat [The Splendid Refutation] (1987), A kozmikus gavallér [The Cosmic Gentleman] (1990), A költészet hatalma: Versek a mindenségrôl és a mesterségrôl [The Power of Poetry: Poems about the Universe and the Profession] (1994), Egy kocsmában méláz a vén kalóz [The Old Pirate Is Daydreaming in a Tavern] (1995)

An outsider, if such could exist
Szabolcs Váradi

Having suddenly sighted, through the porthole of an interstellar vehicle,
that village brawl, known as the Battle of Nations,
that local flare-up of the hot blood of the human race;
political parties, protesters, screaming, flailing soap-box orators;
philosophies shining in every colour above the rutting rabble of devils;
taxes, like road-tax, smoke-tax, air-tax, sky-tax, wet-tax, dry-tax, to name but a few,
the impalings, hangings, drawings and quarterings, the stake,
well, everything that is covered and covered up by the term: East- Central Europe;
and realizing also that in this brothel, where beggars bargain for beggars,
we try to establish the golden section between prosperity and freedom
every time we see tomorrow's butterfly in the worm of today,
in other words, we even manage to love somehow our intolerable madness, -
the Angel of the Lord, an innocent country character from an open, transparent world,
could only gape and say this much: WELL, I NEVER!


I toss and turn till dawn like a creaking weathercock
on the glowing-hot sheet of my bed of nails.
At 1 a.m. Nervo Sciatico, Venetian mercenary,
deals a brutal blow to my back with his cutlass,
and a deluge of fire sweeps into my left leg.
Another night, Dio mio, well and truly screwed up!
The throbbing pain in my spine makes me loath my body,
this old bag, not a patch on its former self;
the only patch I do find is a bright yellow wet one on my pants,
a sign of old age foretokening my urinous dotage.
I am a wheezing heart-throb clambering on the library step-ladder,
a one-time gallant escapee from the Lead Chamber,
whose annuity, duly remitted until death will us part is to listen,
in the bed we share, to my wheezy wife's window-smashing snore.


"I wish to God I could forget the Frenchman..."
(Addressing him, I quote a verse he wrote.)
Across decades of perished insulation
two-forty volts are striking in that quote.
There comes Pilinszky on the other pavement,
- a tweeded gentleman from outer space -
I see him as his feverish distraction
erupts in greying stubble on his face.

We lived amid the turmoils of the sixties,
few cars, cheap vodka, hope unjustified.
God held us in his hand, they hadn't killed us
and we had not committed suicide.
We have survived the war, and love, and boozing,
and now we take it easy for a bit,
some clinging to a plank, and some to heaven,
we cling as long as we can manage it.

The poet has his poem, too, to live with,
a wound that's burning, throbbing in his head,
its fever whips the verse into a frenzy
until that winged, obsessive thoroughbred
flies hurtling like a tropical tornado
among plantations, Caribbean roofs -
"I wish to God, I could forget the Frenchman..."
- the rhythm thunders underneath its hooves.

But why go on, when yesterday's life-saver,
the poem, is just face-powder today?
As cunning verse is punning versus verses
we blast off to a cosmic getaway.
The scene is taken over by the text now,
word fornicates with word in steamy sex
while our machines produce those monkey noises
explorers hear on their safari-treks.

A poet of renown, a proper Charlie,
a fallible and rather worldly saint,
he'd chuck his hairshirt in the party season,
all set to dance and to be entertained.
As John he had his mystic revelations
but otherwise plain Johnny was his name.
Let the creator gaze at his creation,
the kindling shaman contemplate his flame.


  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.