from The Budapest Notebooks by Karla Kelsey


SHE WALKS THE TUNNEL CUTTING THROUGH CASTLE HILL lined with little gold mosaic tiles illuminated by traffic-rush, an intravenous form of light developing a theory of history carbon-thick with exhaust, faltering economies, governments, borders. All the while what has been fought for fades in the bottom vault of the castle, archive basement, hospital created in a cave carved by thermal waters into limestone and marl geology. History thrusting us forward and then to have been pulled back to uncertainty, a ribbon attaching her waist to the Architect on the other side of the Danube. Does this make of her the puppet of a puppet while above the city the fat black Turul bird lingers?

What sounds articulate the feeling-tones of her body as she moves through the tunnel lined with small gold birds and tries to close her mind? Close not her body but her mind as if she could divide them but of course no-no, the phrase no-no rippling thought, pebble dropped, she cannot. To stand at the base of the monument perched on the hill is to wait with your arms flung out for the bird to come carry you. But what is the posture of travelling through, which differs from being consumed by the folds of day, the pastry having been devoured, the coffee cool in its cup. To unravel cognition, such is the essence of moving through rock when envisioning beyond the exit is like falling asleep in a near- stranger’s house and waking to a glass door opening upon a slender balcony and the span of roofs layering the city into a vantage you cannot recognize. As if she had to undergo relocation in order to pry open her eyes. The district that sleeps most heavily during the day is alert with night, the rush of traffic, waking up and taking the funicular to the apex of the hill to catch the dawn. Rhinestones, crushed velvet, the river cellophane. And between stone and stone a ribbon of mortar made of ground shells. Danube grist, her cheekbones chiseled to catch shadows.

Who wants to be victor if wining the small medal that attaches to the breast requires acts that flush cheeks with shame when you wear it. Even decades from now. She sees this in the quality of light, presiding emotion ceased, bridge coming into focus resuming its daylight place, cradle of the city, cradle of her breast. Because she, a bird, perched in the distance had flown away from the city and zooming down became the fields of the Great Hungarian Plane, folding through fertile earth, and then making her way back to the city along subterranean waterways. And this is, she tells herself, how to become a self alone, arriving to stand on a street corner with a basket loaded with wild flowers and strange fruit.

She had been wondering the Alföld for days she told the Architect and he had said this must have been dream, and she had said yes and then no. Ruffled by wind, coins no longer worth the metal in which they are forged and so drill into each a small hole and affix them to the hem. A weight to carry her to the bottom of the river, thus to the sea. If dream, then where did the dress, its jingling coins, come from? A gap of communication because they were speaking the same language but from such different locations that regardless of dialog the story tore in the middle, dress twisted into a knot and pushed to the back of the armoire. And then to notice the body, what the shoulders do when one of the satin straps slips and then the breast revealed.

If she had to articulate her current idealization of what it means to exist she might say as if a statue but not in a museum. Rather in a courtyard abandoned. Because the context alters if coming upon an immaculate marble body, apartment windows curtained around you, nobody looking, would she run her fingers over the face, chest, thigh before her? Press her body chest to chest. She would she would not. A quivering of lace in the window. Because some things are forged by waking in a room empty of all bodies empty even of her own body only inhabited by the mechanical bird that stops singing at the strike of twelve and then takes up its song again at half past six, address caught in the delicacy of window hangings and the heat underneath blue silk. Vision as this, city as this, self as this.

Because we end with the end of enchantment. The referent more than a city on a map, how two riverbanks meet without negating the river is a sentence is a bridge. To become a little startled prick of light after nutrition floods out of the body replace what courses through with the minerality of thermal waters. She had just returned from Lake Balaton where there had been a group of friendly acquaintances, their invitation to circumnavigate the lake by bike, stopping to pick berries and sleep under the moon, under the freshness of lavender and what will be summer wheat. Shore dotted with sweet villages, Balaton had been the premier Communist-era vacation spot. Smelling of lavender still so sweet but a shift in weather and the wind current pushes you under, pushes boats under. She had wanted their bitter mint, sweet Tokaj wine, orange rind but the outing would have been too intimate for one who had such a meager grasp. To lightly decline: I have to get back to Budapest which differs from the story where they crouch as near as possible to what divides them trading stories with a series of tapping, slipping notes through the chink they had weathered, the absence of a common language an expansion of body and world into readable signs. But such communication requires at least two. There’s no illusion in skinned knuckles, right hand tied with an indigo-dyed cloth and the city recognizing this recognized her. Wound to wound. It was not wound she silent-says to the passing cars and little gold tiles but poultice.

This way of creating dialog with event that did or didn’t happen or did happen but on an alternate plane than this. And then catching her eye the tunnel wall graffitied with a beautiful folkart bird. To be held by its iridescence, by her continued sense she cannot grasp the many vectors of its symbol. A Turul bird only exists in myth and so must borrow the form of the hawk or the falcon. To be held by the word’s syllables, by the Turkic roots of the name. Because arrival entailed more than a trans-Atlantic crossing or traveling the Carpathian basin for days, entailed discovering a secret address, converting all her currency and breathing through her mouth when overwhelmed by the tunnel’s exhaust, faltering economies, governments, borders. Overwhelmed by the rose and the orange. By the metallic river in her mouth so strong she felt as if she could pick up his mother’s needle and complete the memorial flag for the fallen hero, the poet taken by his own hand. But there would be irrecoverable discrepancy where the evenness of the widow’s stitch lapses into the jagged features of her own. This was thought enhanced by the architecture of the tunnel, allegiance to what in each of us is kin to geological time and rock.


TO FEEL ALWAYS ACCOMPANIED BY AN UNCONTROLLABLE piece of grief- speech. And so the only way to test the voice is to construct a sentence patterned like the brocade on the mannequin, a near-match to the brocade in the painting which predates it. The face of the wristwatch matching the face of the mantle clock. The Turkish carpet pattern called Holbein because of the many Turkish carpets woven with this pattern depicted in the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s 16th-century interiors. For example the carpet on the table under The Ambassador’s celestial and terrestrial globes, portable sundial, sheet music, instruments. For example cascading under the Virgin’s feet in Holbein’s Darmstadt Madonna.

The lives of paintings carry on in the National Museum of Art above her, whispering through 170 meters of limestone and marl, the tunnel through Castle Hill exactly as long as the Chain Bridge which spills from its mouth. The rock opens a conduit to a flood of images. Watching, until revealed: the Architect’s identification with a man in frayed trousers, pockets turned inside out, a Rezső Seress figure. 1933, out of unrequited love’s despair Seress composes music so devastating a rumor begins that his song prompts listeners to commit suicide. During World War II Seress, Jewish, is deported by Hungary to a Ukrainian forced labor camp. A survivor until 1968 when he commits suicide in Budapest. His song becomes world famous in 1941 when Billie Holiday sings her version, Gloomy Sunday, with the ripped-silk tones of Strange Fruit. Bjork, dressed in ostrich feathers and angel wings performs Holiday’s song for Alexander McQueen’s funeral, Saint Paul’s Cathedral 2010. Voice hollow, organ echoing. Documented only by a shaking handheld camera, uploaded on YouTube over 90,000 views.

Or the voice moving into the conduit, editing out all but the most crystalline states of being. And then doing the opposite, obsessed with spaces between objects flooding the imagination, the mind’s eye which includes both personal and cultural memory. In thought, as in architecture, reconstruction will never achieve complete fidelity to the original. This doesn’t negate the constraints of engineering or fact. The dancer balances on top of the piano, performs a flawless pirouette. A raveling piece of grief-speech written along the wings of the small gold bird flying into a theater and flickering there, over black-and- white images providing their own illumination. In and out of the light revealing territories of complexity. There is no thing as general existence, which she knows by the way the city shifts from one side of the river to the other. The way of Buda’s hills and villas, the Royal Palace and the Citadel an armature built up as in barnacles on a large rock. This vs. the Pest promenade lined neo-baroque, neo-renaissance, and plate glass. The Gothic Parliament and Pest’s flat landscape leading east to the Great Hungarian Plane. She has her idea and he has his. We have the figurative side of the coin and we have the numerical. The long golden intestine tunnel cuts a path through the hill. Through which birds fly, cars drive, she walks. To pass from the Danube-side of Buda to its interior stretching west is simple she says through traffic-roar and exhaust in the voice of her mother: just walk.

Under Buda hills runs a labyrinth of tunnels and over 200 caves carved by thermal waters. Used as wine cellars, masonry mines, hospital, bunker, chapel, 15th-century prison where King Matthias Corvinus once held captive the Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes. Take a tour by lantern don’t startle at the figures only mannequins. If you know how to look you will see they act out companion scenes to the paintings in the National Gallery hosed in the palace above. The tour guide reports archeological evidence suggests one of the caves might have been a harem during the century and a half of Ottoman occupation, women past their prime drowned in the labyrinth’s boiling pools.


MURMURING THROUGH THE PARQUETTED FLOORS of the gallery, down through the rock above her the paintings bloom through in extraordinary ways. The stark-white face and hands of Jósef Rippl-Rónai’s solitary Woman with a Birdcage (1892), luminous the little gold bird, deep green and black background suggesting interior settee and arch-backed chair. She holds the cage at chest height an offering. The gold and green singing through the rock. On an altar panel Saint Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary curve into each other, whispering The Visitation, from Selmecbánya 1506, robes undulating with the landscape, its lines and colors, the barren rocks and trees with twisted trunks speak the passion while the iris and the sun-rose inscribe a secret philosophy describing what happens after the adders are released from their box. First there was the artificial scent of apple blossom but maintaining this required a vision of walking as a people through the streets arm and arm. What tender sloping valleys left behind. What a lovely shield of light we thought would stand in front of us. What a gallant white horse, mythological and actual hear it gallop hear it breathe hear its body heavy when it falls at death.

The individual psyche is at times akin to the bee trapped under glass. Can we find an equivalent written in the books of the National Library also housed in the palace complex above? All the world’s touch preserved in volumes and volumes of poems she cannot read. Written into the center of the city, the rail yard neighboring the mall, the station’s royal waiting room preserved as it had been in the 19th century. The city’s layers have the power to evoke something new, to allow the self to expand rather than contract when coming upon the shock-pink rose bushes in the midst of Communist-era block buildings. Then bending down to take in the flowers’ perfume and finding a pig’s head wedged in its branches.

The unexpected requires the unreadable, a series of gestures exceeding any given form. And so returning to the rose each day to study the nature of decay. Animal and vegetal. Self and other. He and she. I-you. Inevitable, the experience doesn’t fit on either side of the coin, exceeds what awaits behind the doors of the treasury, economic or spiritual. While the experience was infused with chance and had therefore not been solely personal it felt personally significant and unobserved by anyone other than herself.

Can there be a common territory between two surfaces that doesn’t result in subsuming them both? What do Turkish art historians call the Holbein pattern, the lineage of textiles made in this tradition for surely they haven’t named it after a 16th-century German. When she wanders the city alone she is absorbed in its material texture. When she wanders the city with the Architect she learns narratives that course hot within her, narratives she never entirely understands. And therefore, over them, she has little control. What response had he hoped she would make to the stone woman on the balcony walled in and why does the figure generate such fascination? I can take no lesson from this she thinks to the tunnel walls and so it lingers like a riddle as she also thinks of standing within the wooden lungs of Imre Makovecz’s architecture, building-being, mythological creature. Makovecz was a fascist V had said when she told her about the breathing building, the proximity to the sacred she had felt there. Far- right, ultra-nationalist, anti-Semite I can’t believe he took you out of the city for that V had said, flicking through flower-print dresses, hangers clicking angrily on their rack. Embarrassed she thought but didn’t say: and yet the sensation of wood ribs and light remains in my belly, my sternum, the crown of my head.

Who gets to survey the land to decide what gets sacrificed? To them I say feed me to the beast but keep me safe from devouring forms of fidelity. Who gets to decide which points of the landscape become linked by a bridge? If she writes of Budapest merely as a metaphor she betrays its autonomy, a city outside her, outside thought. A city gesturing not only towards the meaning of the metaphor but also along vectors in opposite and various directions. If she writes of Budapest as a city that exists external to its inhabitants she betrays the extent to which she has herself become gold-lined, plaster, the rose bushes and the small animal still bleeding. The extent to which what happens in Budapest is linked to interior and exterior global complexities, the named and unnamed features of all organisms. The brocade on a mannequin in New York matching the brocade in a painting in Budapest and the wonderment of noticing this, working into representation in increasingly self-altering ways.


Karla Kelsey is author of three books of poetry, most recently A Conjoined Book published by Omnidawn in 2014. Her book of experimental essays, Of Sphere, will be published by Essay Press in 2017. Along with Aaron McCollough she co-publishes SplitLevel Texts.