Poetry at the Post: 14 Lessons From a Visit to the House of Terror Museum in Budapest with John Donne

April 3, 2015

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.

"Budapest Haus des Terrors" by Tbachner - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Budapest Haus des Terrors” by Tbachner – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The House of Terror is a museum in Budapest dedicated to the memory of the 50 years of totalitarian rule in Hungary.

Last July, I was in a university program on late antiquity studies and the waning years of the Roman Empire. Hungary had been the empire’s outer eastern limits, or limes. My mind was centuries away from the 20th but as the House of Terror Museum was almost on my doorsteps, I decided to make a visit. One floor is about the Nazis, another the Communists and in the basement are the actual “interrogation rooms” of the Hungarian Secret Police. It’s tough museum to visit.

Today is Good Friday, which in that funny way the mind works, I began to consider “suffering” and those two hours immersed in tales of persecution at this chilling museum.

Today’s NAPOWRIMO prompt is about the number 14 so I wrote a poem entitled “14 Lessons From a Visit to the House of Terror Museum.” Here are the first few lines:


14 Lessons From a Visit to the House of Terror Museum
Budapest, Hungary
July 2014

2. Peasants

anyone could be named a “kulak” —a public enemy,
the hunters’ prey



A portrait of Donne as a young man, c. 1595, artist unknown, in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London
A portrait of Donne as a young man, c. 1595, artist unknown, in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London

But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.

Poetry at the Post-Marfa: Coffee #2

[Over a cup of coffee]

Over a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench or
walking the dog, he would recall…

Monday morning I invited a friend for coffee at “Coffee + Toast+ Magic.”
The coffee I wanted. The magic I needed.

Marfa, Texas is a place that exists on its own time.
Like the Marfa Lights, sometimes things are there and sometimes they are not.
There was a handwritten note posted to the C+T+M’s metal door.
Be back on September 25th.

We headed to my friend’s casita instead. In a some ways, that was better.

In someone’s home, you can move around.
Coffee in the living area then at a table.
You can linger and allow the conversation to meander
to Taos and to Denver and across to Budapest and Berlin.

how he had left long ago to try his luck in
Argentina or Australia.

You dawdle in the present,
imagine the future. You are not rushed.
The time over coffee becomes a journey…

although he had no sense of being on a journey,
such memories made him realize how far he had

Poetry at the Post: It’s a Coronation!

A Crown of Autumn Leaves

Holding past summer’s hold,
Open and strong,
One of the leaves in the crown is gold…

"Buda Castles-Matthias Church". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
“Buda Castles-Matthias Church”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

A cool front moving through the West Texas desert makes me think of autumn.

Yet, it is summer. And, it was in the summer of 1867 when Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Empress Elisabeth, were crowned King and Queen of Hungary at St. Matthias Church in Budapest.

This was quite the event. The Coronation was one of the most spectacular pageants on the Continent and covered extensively in the papers of Paris and London.

The royal carriage covered
with gems and gold & drawn
by eight white horses, 182
aristocrats elegantly dressed,
a grand procession, maidens
in white with flowers..
St Stephen’s Crown
on a velvet cushion,
five days of banquets…

Even a special Coronation Mass was composed by famous Hungarian Franz Liszt. Here is a selection:

Liszt’s “Benedictus, the invocation for divine help and guidance, is rhythmic and trance-like, similar to a chant.

Annie Finch’s poem, “A Crown of Autumn Leaves” is from her book Calendars, a book of poems organized around ritual chants and the seasons.

This poem is so lovely with the repetition of the vowel sounds. The “o” summons the circling of the crown of fallen leaves.

Here is my crown
Of winding vine,
Of leaves that dropped,
That fingers twined,
another crown
to yield and shine

The crown of leaves shines…but like the King and Queen of Hungary, so soon it is nevermore.

Poetry at the Post: Life in a Roman Villa, The Seuso Treasure

“The Roman Villa” by Mervyn Lagden

Not only sheepmen, weavers, craftsmen
Lie under the Cotswald turf…

Seuso Hunting Plate in the  Hungarian Parliament Building Photo by Derzsi Elekes Andor - Own work CC by SA 3.0
Seuso Hunting Plate in the Hungarian Parliament Building
Photo by Derzsi Elekes Andor – Own work CC by SA 3.0

The story behind the Seuso Treasure, fourteen Roman-era silver worth perhaps as much as $200 million, is prime material for a blockbuster movie. Discovered more than 30 years ago, this treasure has been involved in a series of sales and acquisitions, illegal intrigue and possibly three murders.

Lake Balaton, July 2014
Lake Balaton, July 2014

When Sotheby’s put this treasure up for sale in New York in 1990, three countries came forward to claim ownership: Croatia, Hungary, and Lebanon.

Archeological features, however, indicate that the silver most likely was part of a 4th century Roman Villa in the Balaton region of modern day Hungary. (“Contributions to the Archeology of the Seuso Treasure” by Zsolt Visy)

Part now of the upland the the tools they used…

Roman Ruins Lake Balaton Region, July 2014
Roman Ruins Lake Balaton Region, July 2014

Early this year, seven pieces of this ancient Roman silver treasure were repatriated to Budapest with the logistical help of the Hungarian Counter Terrorism Center.

Penates and coloured pavements, ivory pins
And fingers that held them—warm brown mesh
Under the roots and the rabbit gins,

Poetry at the Post : Here Come The Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

I had one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities this summer to take a course at Central European University in Budapest. For one week, our group of twenty-six considered the transformation of the borders from the 2nd to 6th century CE.

I am still trying to unwrap the experience. The lone poet amidst a group of late antiquity scholars, I listened.

Day 1

“The relationship between the barbarians and the Roman Empire was never a neutral subject. Much less could it be today…” began Professor Rita Lizzi Testa. Yes, I think. Of course, here come the barbarians.

What caused the fall of the Roman Empire? Invasion and ruin?

Did Rome ever Fall? Or did the barbarians merely “seep” inside to be gradually accommodated?


In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” C.P. Cavafy, echoes the views of the late nineteenth century historians: “…the idea that the end of of the Roman Empire (or perhaps as Cavafy suggests all empires) was the result of a ‘fatal disease…'” or its own decadence.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians

For me the fall or “unfall” of the Roman Empire is of passing interest but I am bothered by borders and the concept of “barbarians.”

They are the ones on the other side of the wall, the limes.
They are “the others.”
What would happen if the borders disappeared? Cavafy had a theory.

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Poetry at the Post-Pécs: Roman Limes, An Almond Tree

[Record no oiled tongue, diary]

Note the almond
Tree overmuch with fruit. The almond
Pressed is oil sweet.

From the the ancient city of Aquincum,
the borders of Pannonia, across the limes,
the limits of the Rome, onward
to the Carpathian Basin of Pécs,
we traveled—
thirty-some seekers
of the ruins.

…Do you hear?
That pulse?

A whirl of images
the press of heat
the cool of blue
and the tree
of almonds…
dropping nuts
like bones.

In store the game of this land.

Poetry at the Post-Budapest: Fever 103°, A Heat Wave Is Coming!

Fever 103°

One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel,
Such yellow sullen

I bought a new yellow scarf…

“A heat wave is coming to Budapest!” That is what the sales clerk told me.

… & then a white blouse,cool.

“It will be oppressive,” she said. “Close to 40. The heat will just sit in the air.”

…They will not rise,
But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,

border shifts
regime changes.

I’ve taken
to touching
to feel
the shifts
of salt, of grit,
the cleansings.

In the end, whenever or wherever we lived or live, we must find the “I.”

The beads of hot metal fly, and I love, I

Poetry at the Post-Budapest: Meditations on Marcus Aurelius

“Marcus Aurelius Rose”

From the five good emperors
I have learned that there were five good emperors,

A trip to Aquincum, the ruins of an ancient city in Budapest, can lead one to other places. For me, the road circled back Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who perhaps wrote a part of his book Meditations at Aquincum

“Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.” (V. 8, trans. Gregory Hays)

“Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial” (V. 33, trans. Gregory Hays)

Remnants of antiquity remind me of the brevity of life. Breathe it in …hold it. And, then read this lovely poem by Lisa Jarnot.

From the window blinds, from the sun decayed,
from the heart, a brimming record braised and turned

Poetry at the Post-Budapest: Textiles, Connections & Natalia Toledo

“Huipil” by Natalia Toledo, as translated into English by Claire Sullivan

My skin bursts with the flowers etched upon my dress.

Anyone who has traveled to Mexico has seen a huipil, a traditional garment decorated by hand-woven designs, embroidery, ribbons or lace.

in Hungary there are beautiful embroidered blouses; many of the designs remind me of the huipeles or of Mexico. Some, depending on the region, are more decorated than others.

I am going to the fiestas to dance…

Photo courtesy of Comcast

There is one that is white with a few simple flowers at the collar that evoke the Mayan dress of the Yucatan. It causes one to consider the origins of the Mayas, their proposed Asian connection.

I don’t know anything about such matters except that when I try to decipher the indigenous languages of Mexico or Hungarian, I am totally confused.

Ruyadxie’ lii sica ruyadxi guragu’ guibá’,
ribaque chaahue’ lii ndaani’ guiña candanaxhi guiriziña

Poetry at the Post-Budapest: The Herend Royal Garden & Marianne Moore

“Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain” by Marianne Moore

through slender crescent leaves
of green or blue—or both

Stopping for afternoon tea at The Four Seasons Hotel on a steamy Budapest afternoon, I found coolness and calm in the restored 1906 art nouveau Gresham Palace. I also found porcelain.

The Herend Porcelain Manufactory was founded in 1826 and has been producing hand painted pottery pieces ever since.

Tea was served on porcelain in “The Royal Garden Pattern. ” This is a modern age variation of the Victoria pattern with a focus on the Peony. Purple is the traditional color for royalty and the tea was a nod to the regal after an afternoon enmeshed in the terrors of the Nazi and Communist years.

Sadly, as presented in Marianne Mooore’s hauntingly lovely poem “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain,” the peony like the “red/cheeked peach cannot aid the dead.”