A collection of poems from Mész (Mortar)
by Peter Závada
translated from Hungarian by Mark Baczoni
accompanied by replicas of paintings and an object by Manuel Mathieu
The prettier the coastline,
the deadlier it is;
so you used to say.
This time of year,
the pulmonary patients
from the sanatorium
come here for their
It gets cold at night,
cold as the relative tense.
We sit in silence,
as if by the coast;
and then I think of
those water rescue dogs
that stop you swimming.
And how I can’t stand
when something sinks.
It is not grief, diffusing through me,
but emptiness; and what the blind see
isn’t darkness, but nothing.
But we can’t imagine nothing,
and in fact even a vacuum
is never completely empty. Just think:
for years they thought there was nothing
around the moon but a vacuum
yet it, too, has
a thin, rare atmosphere. The lighter atoms
are blown away by the solar wind
but some of the heavier ones remain
near the surface.
In dreams, I look for you in the bustling street
but it’s like searching the cosmos for signs of life.
What if you’re one of those civilisations that
destroy themselves before we even know they exist?
But if we did meet, I would tell you
what’s been on my mind:
that the night is nothing but the shadow that our planet casts on us
and that your memory, is like
a thin atmosphere –
just substantial enough to suffocate in.
There is little doubt that all forms of limestone, including some of your bones,
were once in solution in the sea, mother.
So said the illustrated magazine I read, sitting next to you at the hairdresser’s,
the dome of your dryer humming reassuringly. Natural processes gave you
form, and little creatures helped secrete you. Rainwater, high in carbon
dioxide, ate away at the earth’s outer crust, it said, and I concluded that you’d
been washed into the sea as a big wave of highly concentrated liquid. The
humming of the dryer was like the murmur of the sea. Sometimes, there was
so much limestone in the water it was deposited as lime mud. There’s still
quite a lot about, even deep underground. You’ve been building up all this
time. Limestone is good for building with; whitewash is made from builder’s
lime. When you died, dad told them to make the house all white. Builder’s
lime is mostly limestone; calcium carbonate, by another name. You are made
of little crystals of calcium, mother.
Heated to a thousand degrees centigrade, or thereabouts, you separate into
carbon dioxide and calcium oxide. The carbon dioxide is your soul that passes,
what remains is the solid calcium oxide; burnt lime.
Dad and I took your burned-up bones and your immolated blood and softly,
softly as a pagan mason sacrificing to his mother earth, mixed you into our
mortar to make it set; although you were there already.
Every brick we laid that day
The themes and focus of Závada’s poetry have developed significantly over the course of his career. His early poems were more playful, searching for form, while his second collection, Mész, was dominated by the themes of mourning and loss arising from the poet’s mothers suicide at an early age.
His more recent poems published in Wreck in Lee are focussed on greater, more universal themes counterpoised with the precision (both conceptual and linguistic) of science and its terminology. Thus, themes as broad as Greek mythology and Christology are married to mathematics and geometry.
The poems are accompanied by replicas of paintings by Manuel Mathieu. Manuel once said that he is interested in the lost souls of this world, but more so he is interested in altered states of consciousness, transitions and different temporalities.