- Thirst for Freedom
Black Lawrence Press
122 Pages; Print, $16.00
Methodically, step by horrifying step, Michele Battiste, the daughter and granddaughter of Hungarians, takes her readers through the history of the modern Soviet occupation of Hungary. She is a poet, and she makes poems out of starvation, political disaster, Soviet and Hungarian labor camps (gulags), and all the personal happenings that brought her immediate relatives out of Hungary to the West.
She begins with “Learning the Dead Language,” an amusing poem in which she, a child, learns, by misusing the word, that picsa means not pizza, but “pussy”:
She almost spit when I asked for another piece of pussy, then turned to smack her husband’s back to keep him from choking.
At once, the poems turn back to November 29, 1944 when the Russians are marching, the Hungarians are hiding in coal cellars, and her grandmother Jutka is nursing her first-born daughter and conceives her second daughter:
Morning comes with gray light silvering the window Joska is gone,
a kiss to her palm her skirt smoothed to her ankles. Left behind: a sack of apples, bread, a snapped-neck chicken and my conception—a pre-emptive strike.
In “Outlaw Dreams of Budapest” she writes a sonnet-like poem from the viewpoint of her grandfather, Joska, who confesses: Jutka, I was such a bad soldier. Captured twice /…But I’m not clever. I hide. From here, I see the Palace rubble, the Danube / flowing south like a coward and I envy it. Every bridge is ruined…The grandmother’s sonnet-like reply, in “Addressing the Captain,” denounces the Russian Bolshevik captain as being so ignorant, he threw a perch into the toilet instead of the sink. And yet, as her husband had said in his previous letter, she had been “safe and not starving.” In wartime, what more could one wish? In June of 1945, Jutka is going by train to Kecskemet with a suitcase full of linens to try to barter for all the foods she has fantasized about: butter, peppers, pork, flour, eggs, noodles, and cream. On the train are the new men: “young Communists awkward / with privilege, pink-skinned and snuffling” just like pigs. This becomes a leitmotif for the rest of the book—the engorgement of the party bureaucrats at the expense of the ordinary Hungarians who cannot even get drunk to celebrate the end of the war. Only Communists can come by the bottles of plum, apricot, pear, or peach brandy called palinka with the stress on the first syllable.
In “The Republic of Hope,” Joska entertains the hope of land reform, less inflation, Socialist industry, and Nagy dismantling the “feudal system.” In short, all the propaganda, including “My daughters will wear smartly trimmed suits…,” is shortly to be undercut by the Treaty of Paris allowing Hungary to be independent, while also allowing occupation by Russia. In “Slicing up Parties like Salami,” dated June 15, 1947, Battiste writes a fully political poem about a Hungarian democracy in which the Soviets can “claim conspiracy, exile Ferenc Nagy, vanish Kovacs/somewhere in Siberia.”
Combining her research into Hungarian history with the family stories, Battiste moves systematically from year to year through the forties and fifties, chronicling her grandfather’s unsatisfactory job at a shipyard, her grandmother’s dangerous job at a steel factory, and her father’s inability to receive a Party card so necessary to survival. In the section “Budapest Voices, 1951” this poet dramatizes a whole theater full of individual tragedies—the triumph of the Rumanian murderer who starts to work for the Hungarian secret police; the mother deported to a small village because of her foreign connection; a daughter in Ocean City, New Jersey; the Hungarian farmer who travels in a delegation to Moscow to praise Stalin’s genius in creating Hungarian agricultural surplus, when there is no butter to put on bread in the home country; the woman who tries to buy a nightgown in a department [End Page 20] store, only to find there are none to be had; and the Orthodox priest whose church doors read: “Closed for the lack...