Churning and Other Poems

Winner of the 2014 Close Approximations contest for emerging translators (Poetry)

Krisztina Tóth


Look where the coast curves in above the water
the circling wind rakes up all kinds of things
a plastic bag drifts down between the cliffs.
In the dark churning a silvery speck.
There is an inlet in the heart. This song
I thought up in my head. The tide goes out,
a single worn shoe rots here where the beach
abruptly springs forth from among the waves,
The wind curves in above the evening water:
This babbling song rakes up all kinds of things
a shoe drifts on the beach of sky cliffs,
and down among floating clouds the moon rots.


In the town where you didn't come with me
I arrived in the evening. Everyone was headed home:
women with locked faces, well-groomed men.
It was screamingly obvious I'm not from here
and dead tired.
It was a double bed,
but with just one sweet laid on the pillow.
At the reception
they had called my attention to the safe.
I wondered what I could put in it
that I'd leave behind as a souvenir, something
that's uncontainable, precious,
and from then on how I'd have to go on,
so that as soon as possible
I could forget the code.

In the town where you didn't come with me
it was cooler than home. I dandered
the length of windy streets, constantly checking the phone.
Among the shelves of a Chinese shop
I filled an hour. The suspicious shopkeeper
watched me from behind the cash till.
It was screamingly obvious
I'm not from here and
dead tired.
'How fragile we are,'
murmured Sting on the radio,
I paid, rummaging about for the change.
At home the robot, which survived the cargo-hold,
broke down straightaway.
It span around itself, keeled over
onto the carpet, and just stared, as though
—like my son said for batteries—
his heart had been ripped out.

Although when you did come it was never good.
In a different town a sore suddenly
appeared on your mouth in the night.
We couldn't think what the English is for 'herpesz.'
You pouted and pointed at your mouth in the pharmacy
leaning over the counter like a Romeo.
Finally the woman in uniform got it,
disgusted, she served us.
In a third town the toilet became blocked,
we stared at the toilet-bowl in our friend's apartment. There was the turd,
like the end of a tail on a lurking animal.
When we flushed the animal growled,
we didn't dare aggravate it further.
The Portuguese plumber asked where we're from,
perhaps weighing up whether we had flushing toilets there,
flap-levered flushes and the like.
If you don't feel them loathing you, they've already screwed you
—you said that night in bed. We were speaking
about plumbers instead of making love.

The town where you didn't come with me
I'd soon walked all over. On the main square an ornate clock
measured the time not spent with you.
In the hotel lift
a man with a laptop stared and stared,
early morning aftershave smell hung about him.
'I could love anyone, as long as it's not you,'
I thought at the time. We could go for a walk,
clumsily he'd hold the umbrella,
I'd lie that you're calling me from home
even though it was just my balance update.
I completely ran out
of everything, like I'd run out of reason, hanging off me
my bedraggled dress, my life.
It was screamingly obvious I'm not from here
and dead tired.
On the coffee machine I pressed at the wrong button,
I stepped back, the steam poured out,
there wasn't a clean table in sight.

The town where you didn't come with me
was sown with rain. Three years
it took for me to come back.
Since then the downpour had grown to seed:
between translucent stems cutting a path
with my umbrella, I made it to the shop.
The stock had barely changed.
I bought a purse, and the old one,
which you knew too,
I threw into a dumpster
in the hotel car park. Nobody
saw, but still I felt
like a pickpocket, who'd robbed
someone, who isn't even in this poem,
a cheat, who sets off with a rolling suitcase
leaving behind a past unpaid for.

The town where you didn't come with me
I remember well as a gap in my mind.
How many places I've been without you since!
To tell the truth it's you I can thank
that I became an expert tourist in my life,
I cross from year to year, never
forgetting that wherever I am sometime
I'll have to go home.
Until then
with a good map I do well,
I always make it, during sleepless nights
through crowded alleys of memories I roam,
I recall the continent of a past life,
where in a bygone bathroom, like an ageing
offended punk with cream dried into his white hair
standing there turned to the wall
your stupid electric toothbrush.


If you've passed forty years, your body will
suddenly start to speak about itself,
and every hidden image, which the years
have once tattooed onto your memory,
will be shown through your skin. Like when the sun
would cast a curtain's pattern on the floor.
You watch the slow procession of each vein,
how your body is unravelling a new,
approaching surface. You lie, eyes wide open,
and the tiniest thing comes to mind. How you stood
at a museum display with your son,
both watching how the water trickled slowly
out of a pipe onto the flattened sand.
You see, you said, it splits into small branches.
At which he asked: Yeah yeah, but where's the sea?


The line of paper lanterns burns deep red
and the reflection swings amidst the boats.
It's 8—a roaring wave is coming in,
the crowds are out well before dark sets in
pearls bob along and metal cables drift
silky stuffed dogs and glass-eyed baby dolls
are pulling at the leash and tugging hard
on Mummy's little finger to fish out
the ice cube swimming in the glass, the ball
stuck in the sunken pot of Oleander—
Sodom takes sips and reapplies lipstick,
and anxious now to get a better view,
Gomorrah makes off for the promenade
blundering past through the bright flashing stalls
where a pit-bull stands tied to a metal-pole
and looks up to the dull-faced distant moon.

Sodom is revelling, Gomorrah is wandering:
in hotels on the strand business is booming.
Orders brought up 'til 10, seafood platters
head up the stairs, outside's an evening ball now,
the weary sex-workers are keeping watch,
the candy floss man pours in a new flavour,
suddenly mobile phones all sing in chorus
and countless faces at once look to the sky:
the light pierces the night, when it arrives
the firework rains down with burning brimstone,
the needle-drops of pointed stars come forth
that all these lands are bathed in lava glow.
Sodom applauds and Gomorrah applauds,
opens champagne, then orders a fresh one
the lanterns above them go up in flames,
the grey-faced morning softly sprinkles ash.

Sodom is sleeping, Gomorrah is sleeping.
The sex-workers have all retired to bed,
the jelly's settled on the carpet frozen,
street lamps continue to burn unaware,
among clothes thrown off on the promenade
scrunched-up napkins, beer cans, a plastic cup
in the car park a ghost in a white T-shirt
blinking, it can't remember where it's parked,
the wafer moon and lightless disc are clear
at once above the concrete water-edge
a headless cap soaks in between the rocks,
a gull sweeps over the torn row of stalls,
beside the boats along the rocky shores
the low-tide of the lapping oily water
combs hairs: in unison they gracefully
sway to the rhythm of the night before.

translated from the Hungarian by Owen Good

Click here to read the Close Approximations judges' full citations.

Read the original in Hungarian

Read translator’s note

Krisztina Tóth is one of the most highly acclaimed Hungarian poets. She is the winner of several awards, including the Graves Prize (1996), the Déry Tibor Prize (1996), and the József Attila Prize (2000), and her poetry has been translated into many languages. Since the publication of her first collection of short stories in 2006, she has been listed among the best contemporary writers of Central Europe, and much of her poetry has been widely translated. She was recently awarded the Laureate Prize, one of the highest recognitions in Hungarian literature.

Her poems have strong connections with Hungarian and other European poetic traditions (she translates French poetry). Typically, her poems subtly combine strong visual elements, intellectual reflection and a very empathetic, yet often ironic, concern for everyday scenes, conflicts, and people.

Owen Good is a young translator living and working in Budapest. He began translating Hungarian fiction and poetry while completing his BA in Language and Culture at University College London, for which he majored in Hungarian studies (2007–2011). He grew up in Northern Ireland, without any particular connection to Central Europe or the Hungarian language, but he became intrigued by the odd language as he began his studies.

Good currently lives in Budapest, where he teaches English and drama. He participates in Eötvös Loránd University seminars and independent workshops on literature in translation, such as the Attila Jozsef Circle Literary Translation Camp (JAK Műfordító Tábor).

Currently, he is interested in the work of contemporary female poets in Hungary such as Virág Erdős, Krisztina Tóth, and Rakovszky Zsuzsa. 'Churning' is the first translation of Good's to appear in an English-language publication.

Krisztina Tóth's poetry tells of loneliness and intimate moments, made all the more powerful by her bare language. What I love about her poetry is how familiar and simple it appears; it's not difficult to take in, but beware, it has a kick. I tried to keep the language plain (even blunt) for those poignant, intimate scenes to really resonate. Having said that, every poem will offer up moments of fantasy. Take 'Churning,' which is built around one dreamlike image of jetsam caught in churning water, or 'Festival,' which slips over and again from the very real into the supernatural. For the translator, these are great opportunities to play.

One obstacle to overcome in Tóth's poetry is rhyme. Her rhyme is subtle and creative, a complex device employed with fantastic results, as you might see in the originals of 'Churning' and 'Festival' (Sodrás and Ünnep). The Hungarian language has a natural potential for rhyme (it's an agglutinating language; it has vowel harmony; its words have a simple 'CVCVC' structure); English rhyme simply cannot compare. In order for the English translator to achieve rhyme, significant sacrifices of content may have to be made, and even then it can lead to an end product which sounds either forced or limp. In many cases I use a firm metre to give a poem the kick it may lack without rhyme.

'Less is more' is another rule I follow. Hungarian has a greater capacity for a certain kind of detail than English does, because Hungarian verb prefixes and grammatical cases define the direction and frequency of every action. I like to prune a preposition here and there to clarify things. If one were to carry everything over from the Hungarian we would be left with a fantastically detailed English sentence that was fifty percent prepositions and impossible to read.