The Night of Akhenaton: Selected Poems by Ágnes Nemes Nagy

Let us allow the poem to take the leap forward.
— Ágnes Nemes Nagy

“I have no serious doubt,” observes George Szirtes in his ‘Introduction’ to this selection of her poetry, “that Ágnes Nemes Nagy is one of the great indispensable poets of the twentieth century.” Nagy, who died in 1991, lived just long enough to see Hungary emerge the other side of the Stalinist oppression that engulfed it politically from 1949, militarily from 1956. Her poetry is both a product of and a response to this historical reality. And yet, as Szirtes notes, her faith resides “not in people but in the forces and structures of nature that not only supply the missing moral dimension in human life but surpass it by mysterious moral laws of their own.”

Nagy is not an easy poet. Her work resists easy categorisation — late Romantic? Modernist? Feminist? She can’t be accommodated in any of these conventional historical or political categories. While I find echoes of other writers in English in her work (Yeats, in particular, and, as I’ll suggest later, Woolf), these may be traces of the translator’s input, rendering more familiar for English readers the terrain and reference-reservoir of the modern Hungarian poet.

George Szirtes is an accomplished translator, as well as being a significant poet, publishing since the 1970s work in English which addresses aspects of his dual Hungarian and English heritage. Nagy, along with other writers he’s translated, like Zsuzsa Rakovsky, is clearly a key figure in this heritage. The translations here are taut, clean, and sensitive, finding English rhyming and structural equivalents with an apparent ease that masks a deeper awareness of the difficulties of translation itself.

Indeed much of the ‘Introduction’ and of the essay by Nagy (‘The Poet’s Introduction’ to another translated selection from 1980) that closes this book, is taken up with considerations of the problems of translation for the poet. For Nagy, her native tongue is both a barrier and a liberating force:

If I were a linguist, I would sing hallelujahs from dawn to dusk for having been born a Hungarian and having been given one of the unusual languages of the Finno-Ugrian group at birth. As a poet, however, I am not always rejoicing. The Hungarian language is isolated, the Hungarian language means certain death in world literature. But the Hungarian language lends itself extremely well to poetry.

“All poetry is untranslatable. Hungarian poetry is even more untranslatable,” she continues, emphasising, perhaps, that the lessons of scholars like George Steiner (all interpretation is a kind of translation, and vice versa) have far-reaching implications for the act of literary communication. This contributes to the difficulties of Nagy’s poetry for English readers — her cryptic syntax, her constant “mythification” of Hungarian history, her awareness of the immensity of natural forces, all noted by Szirtes.

The poems selected here involve themselves with a range of issues represented in sometimes obscure symbolic terms. Nagy explores language as an interface between human and natural processes, employing scientific and mythological references to support an analytical poetic enquiry into Hungarian and, by extension, Western, modernity. Even a poem so implicitly “feminine” as ‘Female Landscape’ resists its own superficial implications, luring us straight away into “A lie of land so yielding, gentle, / you want to stroke it, to see it break.” The way the land lies, for Nagy, is all in how it deceives us into a position of masculine authority: “What can I do but stand and gaze?”

In ‘Notes on Fear’ this gazing reveals more mystery, more distance between viewer and world:

Over in the park, still bare,
the lately-planted saplings drowse.
Your eyes ascend along the boughs
and notice how it’s not yet night:
the sky is green, pink-velvet tipped,
ebony-rods of bald twigs scrawl
close letters in an unknown script,
and there in one green slice of sky
the pole star sparkles like live coal.

The central poems here, from ‘Akhenaton,’ seek in the Egyptian myth of the boy-king who becomes a god an allegory of how power and politics combine to create sublime moments of potential, which the poet must somehow tap into to generate her legislative commentary, condemning people’s abuses of the same powers and politics. These are, again, complex, difficult poems, which are nonetheless responsive to their specific history (“The night was very dark … And the tanks were already coming”). The key themes of history as closure, a kind of irreversible process sealed by death into a possibility of resurrection, are never far away in Nagy’s poetry.

In the short poem ‘Lazarus,’ the Biblical character symbolises the political and social resurrection Nagy’s poetry tries to express, and we see her aesthetic in condensed form:

As slowly he sat up the ache suffused
his whole left shoulder where his life lay bruised,
tearing his death away like gauze, section by section.
Since that is all there is to resurrection.

For Hungary post-1956, this poem states, the necessity of the “tearing away” of death is both simple and immensely difficult, requiring the banality and the miracle of action.

Szirtes has included in his selection some of Nagy’s prose poems, which offer another aspect of her project. These seem almost surrealist in their style, offering strangely evocative semi-narrations of objects and experiences. ‘A Walk Through the Museum’ is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s experimental piece ‘Kew Gardens’ in its meandering, colour-saturated stream-of-consciousness with embedded fragments of overheard conversation: “blues, copper-colours, patches, gradients, the dark-brown charges of night cavalry . . . ‘tomatoes with cabbage. Simpler.’ ‘I used to make it with peas.'”

Szirtes has presented a thoughtful and carefully structured selection of Nagy’s poetry. His ‘Introduction’ is beautifully crafted and informative without ever needing to resort to the baffling dialects of literary theory. His translations, as far as is possible, allow the poems to speak in their own terms as part of what Nagy calls “this uniform, universal language of poetry.”