Ágnes Nemes Nagy was one of Europe’s greatest 20th-century poets. A Hungarian, she lived and wrote through the War, its aftermath, and the subsequent Communist takeover, dying in 1991. Monumental is a word often used to describe her work. It’s not that her poems in The Nights of Akhenaton are long or unwieldy, but that they rise up, tower high, even the shorter ones.
George Szirtes spent sixteen years translating these poems into English. In his introduction, he looks at Nemes Nagy’s life and writing. He also addresses the issues involved in translating another poet’s work.
The Nights of Akhenaton collection presents the poems in chronological order.
Female Landscape addresses the subject of the female body. But Nemes Nagy moves away from stereotyped descriptions into something more fantastic. The body reminds the poet of a place where children ride mosquitoes, where tortoises are being taught, “and thought flowers from my shoulder / with its stout unfurling bud.”
In the short poems of Journal, Nightmare stands out: “From a world of rotting rags and clout / the marsh-light of cold reason flashes out, / plays on the corpse, the softening skull beneath, / and illuminates its naked row of teeth.”
No Wish sees the poem’s narrator cleaving to life, although the years have stacked up against them. The thirst to live is still there, in spite of the bitterness years and experience have brought.
In Balaton, among the descriptions of nature and the landscape of the poem, a girl floats in the lake among the reeds, dead.
Statues appear repeatedly in Nemes Nagy’s work across the years. In an essay, she talks about the importance of objects in her poems: “I think it is the duty of the poet to obtain citizenship for an increasing horde of nameless emotions.” Objects are a means of transmitting the unknown and the nameless: “… a geyser, a branch, the fragment of a statue, a tram… may bring with them memories of war… or the experience of nature…”
The statues in Nemes Nagy’s poems are mysterious, heavy, implacable.
Statues I Carried is a perfect example of her lyrical simplicity. She creates the image of someone carrying statues onto a boat, to be taken to “the island where they should stand. / Between nose and ear there were ninety / degrees, measured precisely, / with no other sign of their rank. / Statues I carried on board, / and so I sank.”
Repetition, lyricism, and the mysterious nature of the statues are what makes this poem work.
From The Notebooks of Akhenaton deals with the Pharaoh who made himself a god, but also an idol, a statue: “heaven should be of rough cement.” The statue will “sit, stare, eternally in state.”
Then there’s When – “In carving myself a god, I kept in mind / to choose the hardest stone that I could find. / Harder than flesh and not given to wincing: / its consolation should appear convincing.”
It’s tempting to speculate on the repeating theme of statues. In the Communist Bloc, Stalin was something of a statue, an iconic figure for the population. And the Nazis had Hitler, giant rallies harking back to ancient Rome, plus a desire for a thousand-year Reich. The war would have been a major event in Nemes Nagy’s life. As she says in her essay, “war: the fundamental experience of my generation.”
Like the statues, death haunts the collection. In the dead girl floating in the lake, in poems like No Wish and Nightmare. And in Revenant, a beautiful and lyrical evocation of someone, now a ghost, in the place where they once lived.
Night Oak is one of the most memorable works. A walker out at night sees an oak tree in pursuit. The tree moves to catch up. Then it leans against a lamppost, pushing back its hair, where birds sleep in their nests.
There are prose poems, as well as later poems, plus informative essays by Szirtes and Nemes Nagy herself. It’s a credit to Szirtes, also a poet, that he’s produced such exquisite translations.
This review of The Nights of Akhenaton by Agnes Nemes Nagy was originally posted in 2004.