Saturday Poem: ‘The French Prisoner’ by Janos Pilinszky

If only I could forget him, the Frenchman
I saw outside our quarters, creeping round
near daybreak in that density of garden
as if he’d almost grown into the ground.
He was just looking back, peering about him
to check that he was safe here and alone:
once he was sure, his plunder was all his!
Whatever chanced, he’d not be moving on.
He was already eating. He was wolfing
a pilfered turnip hidden in his rags.
Eating raw cattle feed. But he’d no sooner
swallowed a mouthful than it made him gag;
and the sweet food encountered on his tongue
delight and then disgust, as it might be
the unhappy and the happy, meeting in
their bodies’ all-consuming ecstasy.
Only forget that body. . . Shoulder blades
trembling, and a hand all skin and bone,
the palm cramming his mouth in such a way
that it too seemed to feed in clinging on.
And then the furious and desperate shame
of organs galled with one another, forced
to tear from one another what should bind them
together in community at last.
The way his clumsy feet had been left out
of all that gibbering bestial joy; and how
they stood splayed out and paralyzed beneath
the body’s torture and fierce rapture now.
And his look too—if I could forget that!
Retching, he went on gobbling as if driven
on and on, just to eat, no matter what,
anything, this or that, himself even.
Why go on? It turned out that he’d escaped
from the prison camp nearby—guards came for him.
I wander, as I did then in that garden,
among my garden shadows here at home.
“If only I could forget him, the Frenchman”—
I’m looking through my notes, I read one out,
and from my ears, my eyes, my mouth, the seething
memory boils over in his shout:
“I’m hungry!” And immediately I feel
the undying hunger which this wretched creature
has long since ceased to feel, for which there is
no mitigating nourishment in nature.
He feeds on me. More and more hungrily!
And I’m less and less sufficient, for my part.
Now he, who would have been contented once
with any kind of food, demands my heart.

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