The Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest, Hungary.
Nature and Privation in Three Romani Poets
The “Gypsy question” rose to prominence following Hungary’s defeat in the Second World War and the establishment of the Hungarian People’s Republic.
Historically a travelling ethnic group without a homeland, Hungarian Roma had spent centuries on the periphery of society. Official reports documented the Roma as “avoiding work and living a vagrant lifestyle,” thereby validating in the eyes of party figures their harsh treatment.1 The identification of the Roma as “vagrant” was commonplace in many official documents.2
In 1959 reports estimated that the Roma population stood between 150,000 and 200,000. This population was categorized as follows: settled Roma; Roma dwelling on the outskirts of cities and villages; partially settled Roma; and nomadic Roma. According to Sándor Vendégh, the head of the Nationalities Department of the Ministry of Culture, the latter two groups constituted 80% of the Roma population.3 As only 20% of the population corresponded with the official perception of the ideal Roma, questions were raised as to what to do with the remainder.
On 21 June, 1961 a motion entitled “various tasks related to the improvement of the Gypsy populace” was passed by the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, which “laid the foundation for the single-party state’s policy of forced assimilation.”4 In terms of education and employment, records from the National Archives of Hungary showed that the latter two groups were believed to constitute a burden on society due to their “inability” to retain higher levels of education and adopt Hungarian culture.
Therefore, Hungarian officials wanted the Roma to be dispersed among the non-Roma population and work under an official employment framework.5 Specifically, the Political Committee noted: “Employment and settlement have a defining role in the evolution of the situation of the Gypsy population. The creation of these two prerequisites still meets many obstacles.”6
Despite the will of high-level officials (though consistent with the pessimism of the Political Committee), conflicts arose between local councils, the interests of the non-Roma population, and leaders in Budapest. By the 1980s, it had become clear that complete assimilation was not possible. Nevertheless, the question of settlement remained a fundamental one for the Roma across the second half of the 20th century. The forced transition from itinerance to settlement also saw pushback from Hungarian educational institutions, town councils, and companies, and Roma who accepted government edicts often faced animus from local Hungarians in their destination communities.7
Several generations of postwar Roma poets developed their artistic sensibilities against this challenging sociopolitical backdrop. Those who came of age shortly after the end of the war endured fascist persecution as children and socialist party pressures as adults. The generation born after the war was raised amidst the turmoil of social transformation, evolving governmental edicts, and the challenges of dwelling among often unwelcoming ethnic Hungarians. The poetry of these postwar Roma poets reflects these challenges.
This article focuses on the work of three such poets: Jozsef Choli Daróczi (b. 1939), Karoly Bari (b. 1952), and Gusztáv Nagy (b. 1953). While their work is variegated and wide-ranging, it also evinces commonalities — one example is the poets’ exploration of contemporary and historical Roma lifeways through the lens of nature. This article considers this lens comparatively, beginning with the work of Nagy, the youngest and least known of the three poets, followed by the work of Bari and the contrasting worldviews between his and Nagy’s narrators. Finally, the article turns to Daróczi to demonstrate that important themes in contemporary Roma poetry date back to the older generation. While all three poets are well known in Hungary — especially Daróczi and Bari — each deserves greater attention among anglophone readers. Hopefully, this article can contribute to fostering this attention, expanding even further the reach of a poetry reflective of the cultural and political experiences of the Roma people — and inseparably connected to the natural world.
Born into a family of eight children and raised by his uncle, Gusztáv Nagy’s childhood encompassed the lifestyles of both pre- and post-World War II Roma: travelling in the summer and remaining stationary in the winter. Summertime movement encouraged both familiarity with surrounding nature and interactions with other Roma families, playing an integral role in shaping Nagy’s perspective as a poet. In interviews, Nagy recalls riding in horse-drawn carriages and knowing “every tree and bush along the way” and how villagers “not only welcomed but were waiting for us[…]. When we met with different Roma groups, I heard and learned a lot from them.”8 This childhood familiarity with both natural and human worlds is reflected in the prophetic tone of his poem “Repeating Prophecy,” a symbolic reenactment of the forced assimilation imposed upon the Roma after World War II.
Like a wounded, falling bird
losing direction, powerlessly
you are stumbling,
to destroy you comes the greyhound,
you can’t escape, neither right nor left,
even the road’s center is closed as
the person who will be searching for you
will know that innocent blood has spilt on the wall,
because in this country,
the purebred pack
is incited against your blood.
Halfway to Neverland
We are three sisters: seventeen, fourteen, and seven.
by Noemi Elliott
In “Repeating Prophecy” the vulnerable position of the Hungarian Roma vis-à-vis the wider population is depicted through the predator/prey relationship. A bird flees from a pack of bloodthirsty hounds, but having lost the power of flight, it cannot escape their pursuit as the paths toward independence are closed off.
The bird might symbolize the Roma’s former freedom and their unshackled lives amongst nature — potentially contrasted with the restraints imposed by mid 20th-century Hungarian law. The connotation of the adjective “wounded” is twofold: the seeming inescapability of privation for the Roma and their “tainted” blood.
The latter contrasts sharply with the blood of the pack, described as “purebred;” there is an obvious racialized undertone in the contrast between these two adjectives, suggestive of how the Roma were considered by some to have darker skin than their Hungarian counterparts.9 “Purebred” could therefore also allude to Hungarian identitarian nationalism.
This impinges on the question of who the hounds are. In light of the long, fraught history of the “Roma question” in 20th-century Hungary, the hounds might represent Hungarian officials standing in the way of equality between Roma and non-Roma, exemplified by 21st-century anti-Roma legislation. Still, the emphasis on pure breeding within the poem suggests a wider reading and a focus on identity-based, as opposed to solely legislative, oppression.
The “prophecy” of the poem’s title reflects how oppression of the Roma is both historical fact and future inevitability. Packs of dogs chasing a wounded bird is nothing new, culturally; genocides have occurred across history. Although the Roma may be “stumbling” and looking for a better path, each road toward opportunity is “closed.” This cycle will persist for as long as one group arrogates superiority to itself; “innocent blood” will continue to be spilt. The bird is “unsavable” and readers must watch as the prophecy plays out, co-opted by the narrator’s tone of passivity and acceptance.
By contrast to the explicitly violent imagery in “Repeating Prophecy,” the obstacles to assimilation in Nagy’s “My Christmas Tree” are subtler. Whereas in “Prophecy,” ravening hounds embody anti-Roma elements in Hungarian society, in “My Christmas Tree” the eponymous decoration carries the hopes — and eventual disappointment — of the speaker and the Roma.
My Christmas Tree
My Christmas tree
didn’t have any decorations
and underneath there weren’t
My Christmas tree was decorated
by empty stares
and many, many memories
that were speaking without words,
yet were valuable to me.
There was an apple on the tree,
my father put walnuts on the tree,
and my mom kept busy and
My tree reached the sky,
underneath silence and desire lay,
nothing became better,
and eventually, the Christmas tree needles fell.
“My Christmas Tree” comprises two perspectives on the Roma’s future. Almost like a shortened sonnet, the poem has a volta, or shift in tone, after the first eight lines. At this point, the tone turns from the optimism of its opening to the despondency of its final four lines. Despite the poverty of his family, suggested by the lack of presents and decorations, the speaker emphasizes the happiness that surrounded this childhood tree. The lack of physical, material presents is overshadowed by the joyful act of the father’s placing of walnuts and apples on the tree. The tree and its simple decorations belong to the natural world, another reference to Roma people’s origins as travellers: the narrator’s family is bound by and connected through their historic roots. “Happily,” the final word of the first section, captures the family’s joy despite their poverty and might suggest that the future the author envisions for the Roma involves communities who “value” and take pride in their history.
On the other hand, the final four lines are drowned in hopelessness. Desires and dreams reach as far as the sky — they are of mythical dimensions — yet “nothing became better.” This points to how, throughout history, Hungarian Roma have been promised things — better living conditions, employment, education — yet those in positions of power have failed to follow through. The tree is a culmination of all these promises, from hundreds of years ago until today, and, as each year passes, more needles fall to the ground and become brittle and brown. As this idea is placed at the end of the poem, it overshadows the optimism of the first two-thirds; it rejects the bliss and inserts instead the bitter knowledge that conditions of oppression will persist.
In both of these poems by Nagy, the latter written with an intimate, first-person point of view, and the former written from an outsider, third-person perspective, we are able to discern an interest in addressing the Roma’s position in society through the use of imagery from the natural world. “Repeating Prophecy” suggests that Roma will remain prey, living on the fringes of society, while “My Christmas Tree” shows that their historic roots are a central source of solace amidst the discrimination that follows them generation after generation.
Born fifth into a family of seven children, Károly Bari published his first book of poetry, Holtak arca fölé (Over the Face of the Dead, 1971), at age seventeen, for which he was proclaimed an “oracle boy” by poet Sándor Csoóri.
Many historians consider Bari one of the most important figures in the formation of a Romani literary canon. He continued publishing poems in the ’70s and ’80s, alongside translations and compilations of traditionally oral Roma folklore. One of the few Roma poets who has been translated into English, Bari’s writing often engages with human suffering — as it does in “Mumbling,” where themes of environment and solitude come into play.
As if nothing had happened
my heart keeps working: a sunburnt day-laboring kid
of loneliness, lanced
by arrows, of veins, until death, amen, flame-antlered roosters,
letters scribbled with their curses, the frostbitten dawns arrive,
a desolate golden sphere hung on them
like a seal:
its mighty rays could raid my face, petrify me into gold
if it noticed me, but a fluffy frost has smudged
my flowerless window, no one can see inside,
not even autumn frozen on its hoary throne, in vain
does it scrape with nails screeching like foxes,
a gypsy girl, legs blue of cold, chases a bony horse,
the fog-scented forest rumbles from her whip,
wild coarse-throated birds shriek with fear,
the iron needles of her lashes glow from her fire-lit eyes,
her unwithering dowry:
her rosemary branch of evergreen poverty
doesn’t lure anyone, the creaking gypsy carts
in search for wives, avoid her,
it’s fall, autumn again, only frosted mornings come
our way, tall ebony-feathered nights,
young beggars, I sit on the floor of my room
sounding my copper plates,
“Mumbling” depicts contemporary Roma existence using images of nature’s cruelty. The sun (“desolate golden sphere;” “rays”) and night (“tall, ebony-feathered nights”) are commonly depicted on opposite poles of a spectrum — love and warmth on one end; cold and misery on the other — yet as the sun does not “notice” him, the speaker’s existence in daylight is enveloped by night’s frost. Even dawn, the cusp at which night becomes day, cannot save him: the hope and opportunities which coincide with the birth of a new day are overshadowed by the despair and suffering the cold creates — suffering which evokes a lack of proper housing and destitution.
The motif of bitter frost continues with the description of the Roma girl with “legs blue of cold,” which exemplifies one of the many attributes of housing poverty: cold leading to sickness.
The branch of “evergreen poverty” this girl holds is yet another reference to the natural world. The “evergreen” branch remains in the same state as one year flows into the next, for this hardship is a cycle. Similar to Nagy’s “Repeating Prophecy” depicting contemporary Roma living and social conditions in Hungary as eternal, this poem suggests that the speaker’s life — and the life of the Roma people by extension — is a cycle of endless autumns.
Above all, the poem speaks of the misery caused by isolation. Each character — the narrator and the girl — is alone and unable to find companionship in another. This theme of loneliness is apparent across many of Bari’s poems, particularly feelings of disconnection between him and his family. “Mother,” “Requiem,” and “The Screams of Violins” all depict children abandoning their mothers and looking for a better future. This migration and attempted escape from poverty are only achieved by separating oneself from one’s origins, both familial and ethnic, for the opportunity to find someplace better. It is apparent through the final lines of “Mumbling” that the Roma girl and the narrator’s inability to change is the ultimate cause of their suffering.
Villány, Hungarian wine country.
While “Mumbling” is a more modern depiction of suffering and isolation, Bari’s “Christmas” situates its narrator amidst war, and given the date of the author’s birth, perhaps even World War II. As in Nagy’s “My Christmas Tree,” the celebration of a holiday is the backdrop of the poem; unlike in Nagy’s version, however, this depiction of Christmas focuses on the cruel world experienced by the speaker’s mother.
On a ragged straw mat, my mother
pulls the night to her throat like a quilt,
uselessly. Dreams argue with her dense lashes.
She can’t sleep. No matter how.
Tulip soldiers from the garden barracks
are luring out the girls and calling for her.
They visit her in sleep to tell her news
that makes the whole world shiver:
The cold, even the cloud tripping wind itself,
is warmed by the breath of birds.
Shepherds rap moonlight on her window
and call my mother out under snow-rusty pines
and they weep.
The frost which locks the mucky huts of frogs,
frozen to green cakes, opens up its creaking rooms
to their rime-enameled tears.
Jesus is born, Savior of our world.
Behind the altars of his blood-red lips
candle teeth flicker.
Above his body chosen for the cross
time twangs the barbed wires of the cold
Oh, mother, dear mother, queen among shepherds,
don’t let him freeze. Yank under the gallows,
into the consuming fire, the hags with crow-caw brows
and the shivering trees. Burn both to ashes.
Sing black lullabies to Jesus.
Fear shall twist your tongue into hymn smoke,
for you know all too well:
we have scattered the thorns of our sins all over his path.
In “Christmas,” nature imagery is used in the jarring juxtaposition of domestic comforts with war. The poem begins by depicting a restless mother unable to hide from the cold that thwarts her sleep. Like the renewal associated with Christmas, dreams are a land of hope and fulfilment. However, both the oxymoronic “tulip soldiers” of the mother’s nightmare and the cold hold her back from reaching this restful state. These images of nature interfering with comfort are reminiscent of those used to depict the narrator’s suffering in “Mumbling.”
The second half of the poem contains imagery evocative of the concentration camps many Roma were sent to during World War II. From the “barbed wires” to “consuming fire,” the imagery evokes pain, privation, and suffering. Fear twists the mother’s tongue, with its hymns and prayers, into “smoke” suggesting simultaneously the priest’s censer and the burning of bodies. Here the sorrow of Jesus’ Passion exists alongside the wonder of his birth, and all the associated imagery oscillates from dark to light, participating in the “black lullabies” sung by the mother to the Christ Child.
Similar to Nagy’s poems, the pessimism surrounding the Roma’s future is here evident. While Nagy’s narrator experiences some happy moments with his family, Bari’s narrator has only the nightmare of his mother’s pain and loss. Ultimately, the characters in Bari’s poem are at war with their surroundings — human, natural, and spiritual — and they both reshape these surroundings and are reshaped by them in a cycle of pain and loss.
József Choli Daróczi
Writer, poet, translator, journalist, educator, and political activist József Choli Daróczi’s numerous novels and poems have been published in both Romani and Hungarian; he was the first to translate the first part of the New Testament into Romani.12 When he passed away in 2018, he was remembered as an important figure in the development and preservation of the Lovari dialect of Romani in Hungary.13 Daróczi’s “Song” uses the symbols of nature from the narrator’s surroundings to foresee the Roma’s future in Hungary.
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The sky above me was never blue,
smoke always covered the sun.
The stars above me not shining:
my father lived next to a cemetery.
The roads weren’t travelled before me:
every step is the first, mine.
The meadows in front of me are not green,
as I am the meadow, the rich soil.
I learned to pray from the crows,
my mother always hummed a sad song.
Composed of smoke upholstery, with my mother’s sad song,
the world galloped to me.
Flowers didn’t open in front of me,
dandelions flourished in the yard.
The personal, intimate tone Daróczi uses is reminiscent of both Nagy and Bari’s poems, particularly Bari’s “Mumbling,” as are the poem’s themes and imagery. However, whereas Bari’s poem depicts the lives of characters trapped by the stereotypes that surround their ethnicity and intergenerational poverty, “Song” represents the moment of freedom when one breaks free from these ties. As with Nagy, Daróczi employs the use of birds to depict this freedom: when the narrator “learn[s] to pray from the crows,” he chooses to leave and find a better path. Unlike “Repeating Prophecy” wherein the wounded bird figures the entrapment of the Roma at the fringes of society, the crows in “Song” are the mechanism by which independence is attained.
In “Song,” the repetition of the first three lines is particularly striking, as these lines show the prelude and beginning of the narrator’s journey: he begins as part of a family, but by the end rejects this community. The sun is the symbol of hope, as well as familial affection — this fails to touch the narrator, as “smoke” (a reference to the stereotype that Roma have darker skin) clouds this solar warmth. Even nighttime fails to provide possibilities for a new path; the lack of shining stars merely reinforces the narrator’s despair and hopelessness.
In their poetry, Daróczi, Bari, and Nagy each use nature imagery in considering the role of the Roma within Hungarian society.
From the use of birds as figures of both promise and curse – a kind of poetic haruspicy – to the repetition of smoke across these poems, as a figure of prayer and of burning, questions of ethnicity and free will surface. Can the Roma be free from the stereotypes and poverty that follow them from one generation to the next? While Nagy seems to suggest that the “purebred” hounds of racialized injustice are not only ineluctable but eternal, both Bari and Daróczi explore the implications of hope. Whether that hope can be found by staying within or departing from Roma communities is a provocative question still seeking an answer.