Let’s Start with the Trees

Let’s Start with the Trees

by Timea Sipos

Budapest, Summer 2016

I’m spending the summer in my hometown, which I’ve only ever known at an arm’s distance. My parents and I lived here until I was six, and while they periodically sent me back to Hungary to spend the summers with relatives, I never visited Budapest for more than a few days at a time.

This is my first real experience here as an adult, and it is unlike anything I could have imagined. I’d of course seen the beautiful architecture, all the spires and churches and museums, and how the Danube snakes through them, splitting the city in two. But I never knew how much life there was here. All the castle-side beer festivals and the maze of ruin bars. When I’m not out at night exploring the town, I’m scouring the bookshelves of the many antiquariums and bookstores looking for a writer to translate.

I’ve just finished my first year as an MFA student of fiction in Las Vegas. I strongly identify as someone who doesn’t “do poetry”. As an angsty, melancholic pre-teen, I’d scribble lines of drivel I’d pretend were poetry, but I didn’t dare show them to anyone. When I grew into an angsty, melancholic college student, I started writing stories about anonymous sex and what it’s like to be a girl with two feet planted in two different cultures. With these, I was accepted to my MFA. I got there, I believe, by leaving poetry behind me, burying it in a box full of middle school love letters and one unopened cherry-flavored condom. And so, when it comes time to fulfill the translation requirement of my program, I know without having to think about it that I want to work with a Hungarian fiction writer. By the end of summer, I’ve accomplished what I’ve come here to do, yet I feel far from finished with this city. But summer cannot live on forever. I have to go back to my program. I must wait another year to return.

Budapest, Summer 2017

Returning to this city is like soothing a persistent rash. I relax into the Budapest summer, like into a beach hammock, but I can’t pull the fear from my mind that come fall semester, I’ll have to take a poetry workshop in Vegas. I’ll have to write passable, readable poems so as not to lose face in front of my workshop peers, my friends.

I escape these thoughts by going out into the night, drinking at the ruin bars, dancing at the lesbian parties, and greeting the sun from the Buda Castle as it rises above the Parliament. On my rare nights in, I toss and turn, sweaty and restless, struggling through the books of Hungarian writers I’ve met at festivals and scrolling through Facebook interchangeably. It’s on a night like this that I come across a simple, haunting poem a new Hungarian friend of mine has posted. I become victim to a strange and unusual feeling: I want to translate a poem.

I’m far from believing I have what it takes to do it justice. But I want so desperately to share it with my friends back home. For them to feel just a sliver of what rushed through me just now. I write to my friend to ask who wrote it. “It’s Márton Simon, of course,” she says. “Don’t tell me you don’t know him?!” I search his name on Facebook and find that he’s friends with all twenty-some Hungarian writers I’m friends with. I’ve amassed these connections over the summer after introducing myself in my faltering Hungarian to writers at a book festival, then volunteering at a literary booth at a music festival, and then escorting these writer acquaintances on their book launches in the countryside. I ask Márton over Messenger if he’ll let me translate the poem. I lead with the fact that I’m not a poet.

Márton is warm and grateful. He happily agrees to let me translate the poem. He asks for my email and sends along his two published collections. I start with the first of the two, Songs from the Mezzanine. In it, I find the poem that brought me to him (or him to me): “3:45 AM,” and many stunning poems besides. There are those, like “3:45 AM,” which are about love, mainly lost love, then there those about his late mother, and then there are ones that blend the two, that try to reckon the lost mother alongside the lost lover. And they all use simple, unassuming language. Economic and exact images. They capture Budapest in all her varying degrees of hot and cold. They make me, someone with the desert buried deep under her skin, curious about a Budapest winter. And, within a few hours, I experience something that someone who largely consumes fiction rarely tends to: I finish a book in one sitting. The hours have flown by beside my open bay window. The clock reads four AM.

A week later, Márton and I meet in person. When I walk up to him, he holds out his hand for me to shake it, but I automatically kiss him on each cheek. “Sorry,” I say, blushing, “having spent time with your poems makes me feel like I already know you.” He smiles. I call him Marci, like he’s a friend, and he lets me. We go to his local bar. It’s so close to his apartment that he can point to his bedroom window from where we sit outside smoking and drinking beer. I pull out my phone and tell him which five or six poems I’ve decided to translate. He listens patiently, letting me think aloud. “Sure, he says, “whatever you want.” I get brave and start wondering what other liberties he might let me get away with. “Question,” I say, “how come you titled that one ‘3:45 AM’?”

He shrugs. “What do you want it to be called?”
“Let’s Start with the Trees,” I say.
“If you think that sounds better, then let it be that.”

In the end, I don’t change the title. In fact, just shy of a year later, when I decide I want to translate the whole book, Songs from the Mezzanine eventually becomes Songs for 3:45 AM. Instead, I write a poem with the title I initially suggested, and it’s the first poem I submit to my poetry workshop in Vegas a few months later. It goes like this:

Let’s Start with the Trees

The trees, that’s good, yes,
let’s start with the trees,
how they’re always green here,
and how all that greenery,
it really takes it out of you.
Takes it out of me, at least. Yes, me.
I should just speak for myself.
You always did have a problem with that,
how I’d always speak for you.
But since you never had much to say
to begin with, I figured one of us should say something
some time. That’s probably why you like the trees
so much, because they can’t speak for you.
I agree they look ethereal in the wind.
Nearly all of them, all these trees you know
the names of, names you kept to yourself,
like so many things I could not talk out of you.

In the poem I keep coming back to,
the poet talks about his lover’s lap,
how the smell of her lingers on his hand.
It’s my favorite line, but not
because it reminds me of you.
You’re not on my mind when I read it.
I don’t think of how you’d wait for me inside
while I smoked, like she waits for him,
sleeping, tucked in a blanket
he laid over her in the cold.
I don’t think about the bottle
balanced on your lap, your palm warm,
waiting for the depression
in the small of my back.
I wish I could say I’m not thinking
of you now, staring at these trees
I wish I knew the names of,
but don’t, so I’ll call them mine,
just so I can have something to call my own.
This isn’t a love poem
like the one I keep coming back to,
you see. There’s no love here,
only these trees, all their greenery.

Las Vegas, Fall 2017

As we lose progressively more hours of sunlight, I spend the days piecing together poems from my Budapest experiences and my nights listening to Marci perform his poems. I’m surprised by how much he has out there from his two collections, as well as interviews and slam poetry. Where his written poetry is deeply personal, his slams are irreverent and decidedly political. I’ve never heard someone tell Orbán and his party to fuck off in so many ways. He becomes who I go to for a laugh or a cry, depending on my mood. But his poetry readings are what I return to most. Some of the readings have live music to accompany them, so it’s like listening to my favorite songs over and over again. So much so that I can hear his voice when I sit down at the page, both when I translate his poems and when I write my own. In lieu of my own poetic voice, I latch on to his. I pull it into English. The resistance is minimal. Soon, he falls into the habit of following me everywhere. His voice carries me into bed after I’ve spent hours with him on the page at night, and it wakes me in the morning, so that later, as I listen to his rooftop reading set to music during my cigarette breaks, it’s his Hungarian that strikes me as foreign. That reading, in which “3:45 AM” is the first poem, goes like this.

I’m set to return to Budapest for the break, my first winter in the city since I was a child. I’m nervous about facing the subzero temperatures, but Marci’s poems make me excited to discover the city all dressed up for winter. A friend of mine who has some understanding of the depth and breadth of my love for Budapest assures me that my love for the city will transcend my sensitivity to the climate. My mother buys me a bag of winter clothes just in case.

Budapest, Winter 2017-2018

I quickly learn that there are a number of Márton Simon poems one cannot understand until one understands fog. And I have never had a proper introduction to fog. Until now. The bridges swim in it. The rolling hills of Buda are no more than bobbing domes when wrapped up in it. It clogs the narrow streets of Pest I walk at night. I become a woman obsessed, possessed with fog. Here’s what Marci has to say about it in his first collection:

Életünk napjai

Anyámra gondolok és tejport eszem,
csönd van, hétvége délelőtt. Te még alszol,
járkálok, az ablak mögött fehér fal, innen nézve ködnek tűnik,
rántottát tervezek, abban jó vagyok, tüzet keresek,
cigarettát – tejport eszem, szeretem a tejport. Ha
olívaolajjal csinálnám, jobb lenne? Mindegy.
Kilépek az erkélyre, üresen iszom a kávét,
rutin az egész, mint a tél. Vár a só, az olaj,
de felnézek és látom, tényleg köd lett a falból,
és mögötte ott áll az erdő a tegnap esti képről, amit
sokáig nézegettél, félbehagyva egy vitát, válasz
helyett szinte – nemigen értettem, látod, csak
álltam mögötted, néztem. Hideg a kő.
Egy eltévedt állat volt a képen, tejszerű, sűrű ködben, és
remélem, ha már az anyámat végleg, majd ezt is
elfelejtem egyszer. De most az van, hogy eljött,
itt áll az erkély előtt az erdő, és a tegnapi kép most készül.
Kávé és kitépett lapok a számban,
mindjárt leég a cigarettám, mindjárt csinálok reggelit,
szeretlek, de ez nem szerelmes vers, ez friss kenyér,
hagyma, olaj, tojás, rend. Ezt már egyszer álmodtam,
de nem, nem emlékszem, mi lesz. Valaki a füledbe súgja,
hogy baj van. Ez a tél. Az üres ízek ideje, a
homályé pontosabban, hogy hol, hol a szívem.

Season of Empty Tastes

I’m eating powdered milk and thinking about my mother.
A quiet, weekend morning, you’re still sleeping,
I’m walking around. On the other side of the window,
there’s a white wall, from here it looks like fog.
I’m planning scrambled eggs, I’m good at that.
I look for my lighter, cigarettes,
while eating powdered milk—I like powdered milk.
Would it taste better if I used olive oil? It doesn’t matter.
I step onto the balcony, drinking my coffee black,
all routine, like winter itself.
The salt, the oil wait for me,
but when I look up, I see that the wall did become fog,
and behind it is the forest from last night’s picture,
the one you stared at a long time, cutting our fight short,
practically in place of an answer—
I didn’t understand, see, just stood behind you, watched.
The concrete below my feet is cold.
There was a lost animal on the picture, in the milk fog,
and I hope that, like my mother, I’ll someday forget this, too. But right now,
the forest is in front of the balcony, last night’s picture just developing.
Coffee and ripped pages in my mouth,
my cigarette almost done, I’m about to make breakfast,
I love you, but this isn’t a love poem.
This is fresh bread, onions, oil, eggs, order.
I’ve dreamt this once before, but no,
I don’t remember what happens from here. Somebody whispers
in your ear that there’s a problem.
This is winter, the season of empty tastes,
of fog, to be precise, of where, where’s my heart.

With Marci’s American voice deeply implanted in my head, I sit down to re-translate the ten or so poems I have from his first collection. The shape of his melancholy recalls my own. The weight is familiar. Like a bowling ball. Once you pick it up, you never forget how heavy it is. The poems and the act of moving them into a new language keep me company through the long and lonely nights of Christmas and New Year’s, until we meet to see just what it is I’ve done with his words.

Marton for site 2The friends I made here last summer are kind enough to invite me into their homes, share their food, and offer me their couches. I’m at one such place when I see on Facebook one night that Marci will be performing in about an hour at a theater within walking distance of me. I don’t have time to let him know I’m coming, but I have no qualms about going alone. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve attended readings at scores of coffee houses and bar basements, a bunker in the middle of Pest, and an underground library and leather workshop in Buda where the owner-bartender makes a home-cooked meal for all attendees who buy the latest issue of the magazine holding the event. I thought that festival- and residency-hopping in the countryside was cool, but because all the readings in the city were on break in the summer, I had no idea just what kind of literary lives these writers were leading every other season of the year.

I find the theater with some difficulty. I didn’t expect it to be so big. I enter a room of roughly five hundred chairs, all filled. Marci’s joined on stage by three other poets, one of whom is also a well-known rapper by the name Péter Závada. The next hour and a half are filled with a combination of poems and Q&A. Afterwards, I wait for the line of people getting their books signed by Marci to slowly shuffle out. When I walk up to him, he greets me like he’d been expecting to see me. He introduces me to his friends and family as his English translator, and a warm feeling bubbles up inside me. We’ve only had one publication so far. He’s currently completing a Visegrad residency in Krakow, where he’s writing poems for his new collection, what will later become Fox Wedding. He’s just come home for this and a few other performances he could fit in. We agree to meet while we’re both in town so we can go over some of my translations. I feel like I have no idea what to do with things like line breaks. That I have no business translating poetry, or writing it. No matter how strongly I feel drawn towards it.

This feeling mirrors in many ways how I feel about being in Hungary. I feel an inherent draw to the culture, my culture, the language, my language, the first language I ever spoke, the language I share with my blood, and yet I feel like I can’t find my place in either. When I shiver on the street or when I trip up on conjugations, I wince. All of it screams “I don’t belong here”. But, like a lover far out of my league, I want her, desperately and hopelessly, no matter how often I feel she rejects me. I want to feel at home in this tongue, this city, this genre. I want to belong to Hungarian, to Budapest, to poetry.

Marci and I meet at a quaint café decorated with antiques and spend the next two hours poring over my translations line by line. I ask him to clarify phrases, images. I explain what will be lost in an American context, why a particular image can’t be translated or won’t have the same impact. Having written the collection over ten years ago, he stands far enough away from it to treat it objectively. Almost objectively. He winces at certain turns of phrase, and we rewrite these together. There are several poems we each decide, for one reason or another, not to include in the English translation. Restless in our seats, we move the session to his apartment. Many hours later—who knows how many?—we’ve still only made it through about half the poems I’ve translated.

We meet again a few days later. This time, I come prepared with pogácsa and a bottle of wine. We work late into the night again, the pogácsa, two bottles, and several packs of cigarettes long gone. We feel comfortable enough with each other now to sometimes outright argue the points we feel strongest about. At one frustrating point I tell him, “You know what? All this would be so much easier on me if you were a dead poet. Then I wouldn’t have to convince you that I’m right.” We burst out laughing. It’s nice to feel like I can say anything to him, tease him like a brother, and he’ll get that it’s a joke.

Many hours pass again, and by the end of the session we’re spent, like after a long run in windy weather. Then Marci remembers that I’d wanted to show him my poems. “They were written based on your writing anyway,” I’d said back at the theater, “so it’s only fitting that you’d look at them.” Now though, in the privacy of his living room, I’m suddenly embarrassed to show them to him. He insists. I pull up the document, and as he takes the laptop, he reminds me that English isn’t his native language, mirroring my own insecurity. Of course, his uncertainty turns out to be only in his head. Every comment of his is helpful. He shows me where I repeat myself, which of my images are strongest, which are throw-away poems, and which don’t need any more work. I’m filled with gratitude.

All out of wine, Marci takes out a bottle of Polish vodka and chocolates to celebrate our hard work. We’re showing each other rap artists we like to listen to when he pulls up the friend of his who’d been on stage with him during the interview. I’m astounded by the number of views this rap duo, Akkezdet Phiai, has. It occurs to me then to ask: “Wait, how many followers do you have?” Marci pulls his shoulders up, like he’s trying to hide his head. He almost looks embarrassed. I look him up on Instagram: ten thousand followers. The country only has a population of nine million. “Oh my god,” I laugh aloud, “I didn’t know I was working with a Hungarian celebrity.” I think back to my friend’s “don’t you know who he is?!” I think back to a verse from his second collection, Polaroids, that reads something like Mom, guess what, I’m famous now. It suddenly makes sense.

Las Vegas, Spring 2018

I go back to Vegas with a packet of poems I feel confident enough to show native speakers. I feel confident now that I understand what the poems are in Hungarian and who they want to be in English. I’m still lost when it comes to line breaks, however. My time spent working with Marci’s poems and reading other contemporary Hungarian poets showed that Hungarians are more concerned with breaking for the sake of line length than the content of the line itself. “It’s not something they give attention to like the American poets,” a Hungarian poetry translation teacher of mine will tell me a few years later. My friend and poet Andy S. Nicholson and I meet at Crown & Anchor over Guinness and a basket of fries to discuss my translations. “What the hell are line breaks and how would you explain them to a fiction writer?” I beg. He, much like Marci had just a few months prior, takes me by the hand and guides me. I learn more than just where and how to break lines, something which will inform the rest of my translation and writing of poetry. He shows me how to economize the line, too, where and how to trim the fat so that the poems sing. And, perhaps most important to a young and insecure artist embarking on a new project, he tells me how much he enjoyed reading these translations and encourages me to keep going.

Budapest, Winter 2018-2019

Marci has just won the Péter Horváth Fellowship, the most prestigious honor for a Hungarian writer under the age of 35. He’s also been nominated as one of ten finalists of the Libri Literature Prize. This means that I return to Budapest to find his face plastered on billboards all over the city. One night, tipsy and contemplative as I wait for my metro to take me home after a reading, all eight feet of Marci is painted onto the wall before me. He smiles at me, and I back at him, like we’re sharing a secret. Then it hits me: I’ll never be able to make him as famous in America as he is in Hungary. I feel like I’ve already failed him.

Las Vegas, Winter 2018

I walk through McCarran Airport and open my eyes, for what feels like the first time, to the billboards of casinos, burlesque shows, and Cirque du Soleil performances to realize that even if I had all the resources to bring Márton Simon to the height of American literary fame, poetry will never be as highly revered in America as it is in Hungary. I learn to forgive myself this.

Budapest, Summer 2019

I move to Budapest. Finally. After all this time! I throw myself into life here. I steep myself in Budapest. In Hungarian literary life. I take all translation opportunities I’m offered so that I’m swimming in work. I take to bed the first poet who shows interest in me. I dive into him, his poetry. Pitch myself into his life. He knows Marci from way back. I tell him about my plans for Songs for 3:45 AM and the rest of Marci’s collections, those that exist and those to come. He accuses me of being in love with Marci. I laugh. And even after he’s long gone, even months after I’ve managed to unwind myself from his life, the idea stays with me. What I arrive at is this: translation is, in the best of cases, an act of love. And it should be. Who can think of a more loving act than giving yourself, your words, your artistic voice over to someone else’s? Of doing everything in your power in service of someone else’s work? It requires the kind of selflessness and sacrifice that is the trademark of the highest manifestation of love.

A dear translator and writer friend of mine, Rachael Daum, visits me from Serbia. We spend the weekend together hiking my favorite hills of Buda during the day, visiting the best dives at night. We set aside a few hours of our Sunday together to workshop a packet of each other’s translations. Much like those times with Marci himself, the session turns into something like nine hours, as we move from teahouse to restaurant to bar. Rachael speaks with the same tenderness for her poet as I have when I speak of Marci, and I find the same care in her translations as I bring to mine. She’s in love, too. In love with this work, in love with this act of translation, and it shows.

I couldn’t possibly bring this same level of compassion to all my translations. Not as a freelancer trying to make rent, anyway. I don’t have the emotional reservoir for it. After Rachael leaves, I find myself moving from coffee shop to coffee shop, hoping the change of scenery might bring some much-needed excitement to the work I’m slogging through. I’m looking to escape it when I find myself on Facebook searching events in my area and come across an Underground Slam Poetry Open Mic. I check to see which of my friends are attending. Only one name pops up: Péter Molnár.

I came across Péter’s work as a result of Marci sharing his winning slam at the European Slam Championships. What sets Péter apart from most people in the literary scene, most people in general, is that in a former life he was a founding member of Hungary’s once liberal but now ultra-right administration, Fidesz. Péter was close friends and college roommates with Viktor Orbán. In his winning slam, Péter addresses Viktor personally: “Viktor, rég látalak, long time no see, you’re the prime minister now, I’m a slam poetry champion. We both represent Hungarians. Our community is a bit more democratic than your party. You’ve got power, too much. We’ve got words, countless words, and they reach even you. Régóta ismerlek, we go way back. Do you remember what I asked you one night in our dorm room before we went to sleep? ‘What’ll happen if we manage to build a democracy, but someone takes too much power again?’ ‘Not a chance,’ you said. ‘We’ll be sure to safeguard our democracy.’ ‘But what if it happens anyway?’ I asked. ‘Whoever tries to take too much power for himself will have to contend with me,’ you’d said.”

Years later, Péter was one of the first to leave Parliament as the party began to veer to the right. He went on to teach human rights and freedom of speech, and eventually turned to slam poetry as a way to speak out against injustices. I met him not long after moving to Budapest after his performance at a literary festival event I attended with Marci and his girlfriend. We spent the night talking politics and poetry, alternating between Hungarian and English.

I reach out to Péter and ask if he’s at the event, which has already started. “I’m co-hosting it!” he responds. “You should bring a poem,” he adds. I tell him that all my work is in English. He says it won’t be a problem. I don’t believe him. I take a poem anyway, one of the ones that Marci looked over years ago now, and my name goes in the hat. When I get up on the stage, my whole body is vibrating. My foot pounds the stage as if I were playing drums. I’m afraid this tightly packed crowd of 200+ Hungarians won’t understand the poem.

I’m totally wrong. They laugh where they’re supposed to, groan where they’re supposed, and erupt in such applause at the end that it makes my stomach bubble with joy. I take first place. Afterwards, when Péter congratulates me, he encourages that I start writing in Hungarian. “I think I’ll write bilingual poems,” I say. A month later, I go up on stage at Anker’t with this poem.

A week later, I’m having dinner with Marci and his girlfriend at their place when Marci asks, “Did I see on the Hungarian Slam Poetry page that you won a slam open mic?” I can’t help but laugh. Then, we get to work, putting finishing touches on the poems and deciding on which twenty-five we want to keep of the twenty-nine I’ve translated. We lay out all the printed poems on the floor, pull some out and put some back in, as if we’re trading playing cards. Once we agree on the twenty-five, Marci starts shuffling them, feeling his way into the order. I suggest changes and alterations, where I see fit. It’s very much a group effort. Even Marci’s girlfriend’s cat, János, wants to play a hand. Each time a paper is moved, he runs up and pounces, sometimes ripping into them with his claws. When I leave there that night, I clutch the stack of papers with the cat’s claw marks to my chest and imagine how decades from now, when Marci will be dead and I will be an old woman, someone from the Petőfi Literary Museum will call me up and tell me they’re curating an exhibit in Márton Simon’s honor and ask whether I have anything to contribute, and the greatest artifact I’ll have to offer will be these cat-clawed pages. A few months later, moving across the city for the third time, the reality of my nomadic life finally outweighs the fantasy: I throw the papers away.

Budapest, Fall 2020

I’ve been looking for a press to take Songs for 3:45 AM for the last year, but I’ve been looking especially hard since this past summer, when I announced to Marci over the phone: “Rain or shine, this is happening. I am going to publish this.” Still, nothing but rejections. Or silence. Funny, I had thought that publishing a translated poetry chapbook would be more lucrative. Or easier, anyway. Then, on a magical fall day, The Offending Adam Press finds me. And they’re looking specifically for a poetry chapbook in translation. I send them the manuscript, and weeks later, I get word that they love it. I cry on the bus heading down Rákoczi Boulevard for what I’m sure will not be the last time.

deres coverMeanwhile, I’ve started writing poems in Hungarian. Ones meant for the page, not the stage, now that the pandemic has effectively shut down the slam poetry scene in Budapest. I don’t hear Marci’s voice in my head anymore. It’s like I’ve digested him fully. He’ll continue to have an impact on my writing in some way, certainly, as all writers whom I’ve spent this much time with on the page do. But the effect is not so obvious anymore. This is not to say that I’ve found or established my own poetic voice either. I’m still not as independent in this sense with poetry as I am with fiction, where I have two feet firmly planted, my voice booming from my diaphragm. Rather, I guess you could say I’ve outgrown Marci and have moved on to other poets with whom I work, namely Kornélia Deres. Here is a taste of her:


Egy kádban ébredek aznap éjjel.

Hátam mögött egy férfi, a víz felett
megtart. Ismerős a nappali világból,
de nem túlságosan. Elvétjük egymást.
Miért merek most
nekidőlni, milyen húrokat
penget az arctalan?

Előre figyelek. Mert egy másik épp víz alá csúszik.
Minden erőmmel fogom, de csak nem változik
csecsemővé. Meg kéne menteni ezt a pompás testet.
Foglak, egyetlen. Még meddig is?

A fiúkra jobban kell vigyázni. Gyöngék. Merülősek.

Kifogásokból diplomáztunk. De akárhonnan nézem,
ez egy kétemberes kád. Foglald el végre a helyed.
Arról már nem is beszélek, hogy így a kezed is
a rossz irányból érzem.


I wake in a bathtub that night.

Behind my back is a man, holding me
above water. He’s familiar from my daily life,
but not that much. We always just miss each other.
Why do I allow myself
to lean against him now,
what tunes does this faceless man play?

I face forward, because another is slipping underwater.
I hold him with all my strength, but he won’t turn
into an infant. This splendid body should be saved.
I’m holding you, one and only. But for how long?

Boys need to be watched over more closely. They’re weak. Sinking types.

We majored in excuses. But either way I look at it,
this is a two-person tub. Take your place, finally.
That’s not even to speak of how, this way,
I feel your hand
from the wrong direction.

This habit of holding another poet’s hand as a way of guiding me through a poem, as a child learning to walk grips her mother’s strong fingers, feels especially necessary given that I’m writing in Hungarian. These poets are the hand leading me through the dark tunnel. As Hungarian is a language that was largely embedded in my mind as a child, I use it by instinct. I feel my way through that tunnel, and they redirect me when needed. It might always be this way as long as I write in Hungarian. It might always be this way as long as I write poetry, in fact. I’ve grown to accept this, as I’ve grown to accept that I won’t ever speak my mother tongue the way I would had my parents decided to remain in Budapest all those years ago. These identities, poet and Hungarian, both bridge the other half of me, fiction writer and American. I’m learning, day by day, to embrace them all.


“3:45 AM” is forthcoming in the next issue of Trafika Europe
“Életünk napjai” appears in Dalok a magasföldszintről
Songs for 3:45 AM is forthcoming with The Offending Adam Press in spring of 2021
“Season of Empty Tastes” first appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation’s issue called In a Winter City: Focus on Hungary and Ted Hughes
“Ballaszt” was published in Tempevölgy
“Ballast” appears in issue 54.3 of Denver Quarterly

Timea Sipos is a Hungarian-American writer, poet, and translator with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing appears in Prairie Schooner, Passages North, Juked, and elsewhere. Her translations appear in The Washington Square Review, The Offing, Asymptote, Two Lines, among others. She has received support from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, Tin House, and elsewhere. Learn more about the online translation workshops she offers at timea-sipos.com.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 9, 2021

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