05. 02. 2014. 17:06

Cloven Skies (poems)

A terrible throne. It hovers above / the vortex of a pillar of fire. / Instead of seraphs and griffins, small figures / bustle below, their bones aglow. / Their brittle arms: a blighted forest / of flapping wings or flailing rods / gesticulating, lost in space / amidst the silent spokes of light.

The work of Magda Székely (19362007), the Kossuth Prize winning poet, is at last gaining robust worldwide exposure. The Attila József Literary Circle (JAK), an association of Hungarian writers, is about to hold a conference on Székely’s output. Her following five pieces will also appear in Survivors, an anthology of Hungarian Holocaust poetry in Thomas Ország-Land’s English translation, to be published by Smokestack Books in England on June 1.

Saving the Sodomites

I hold a solitary vigil
over this forsaken garden
of bones. The skulls have called my name.
It is my lot to guard them.

The Lord once called a prophet’s name.
He answered, and the ossified,
dead flesh began to grow again.
Behold, the hecatombs revived.

I do not possess the power
to grow live flesh upon dead bone.
This time, though, I call the questions.
No-one answers. I’m alone.

What’s the use of retribution
over swiftly passing time?
Can you exercise forgiveness
if all deny the crime?

The fragile stalk of trust can feed
from just thin air. I’ll never tire
to seek 10 righteous Sodomites
...to save this city from the fire.



A human being who managed
a hearty lunch, or observed
in comfort from the kerbside
the neighbours’ shrunken faces
during their faltering march,
isolated, deserted,
herded in hatred towards
the killing fields by the Danube -

how could such a person tell
upon what appalling shores,
and over what gaping abyss
I guard against missing a step
and what tenacious powers
tie me still to this place,
and what is the weight I must
carry in isolation?

I’m holding such human beings,
in truth, alone in my arms,
and if no-one prevents my fall
and if my strength should fail
and the final crumb of compassion
should at last be lost...
if no-one comes to my aid,
the abyss will swallow us all.


The Pyre

A terrible throne. It hovers above
the vortex of a pillar of fire.
Instead of seraphs and griffins, small figures
bustle below, their bones aglow.
Their brittle arms: a blighted forest
of flapping wings or flailing rods
gesticulating, lost in space
amidst the silent spokes of light.

The atmosphere grows dense and charged.
A beam shoots out, it tethers the earth
to heaven, tightens, divides into rungs
and becomes a ladder. I hold its base.
Below my feet, the ground gives way.
Above, the heaven, harder than steel.
It rings out sounds in rhythm and rhymes.

Thus sings the chorus of the saved:
Behold, I am holy and holy and holy,
devoid of flesh, comprising gas
and soap and gas and soap and gas
...holy and clothed in loathsome glory.

Each face: a yearning flame in the fire.
But who can recognize such faces?
The very sky is burning, burning...
ablaze with our naked decay of life.
And even she is among these cherubs,
these ruined cherubs of thirty kilos,
and even I cannot pick out her face
among six million flickering faces.

The ladder draws me. Radiant rungs
invite me upwards step by step
towards the flames of the heavenly pyre.
The ladder is leading into the fire

away from its narrowing base, the soil.
...And I’m seized by fear that drags
me upwards. I resist in vain.
I sink my teeth and pain and life
into the altar’s glowing embers.

Six million incandescent columns
of ore, like urns, consumed in the flames,
and who can say which was whose mother?
The fire licks and coils and leaps,
engulfing my bones. Behold, I’m here
beyond ravines, past hills, all obstacles,
and here I stand ablaze with them:
ablaze... for they are also burning.


The Sentence

I can’t relent, for I am alive in the place
of those who can’t forgive or change with time:
the slain... awaiting justice as obstinately
as stones are weighing down the earth.

But spring is bright. I eat, and I have grown.
My living flesh would reach towards the living.
I’d like to train my life around mundane
events like plants around a garden post –

yet must remain as resolutely faithful
and strain as unflinching as the dead are dead.
I must remain, like stones upon the earth,
unshaken in our righteousness.

Earth slowly heals the void left by their lives.
Their moaning spaces fill with new arrivals.
Their footprints disappear. My own survival
alone remains the last indictment.


Tablets of Stone


The past was horrible. Harsh rules
were imposed and quickly scrapped.
Live declarations writ in stone
and on the cross lit up the minds.
The roar of looming, cloven skies
shook the bones of timorous prophets.
Columns of fire and brilliant visions
illuminated the deserts’ gloom.

Far more confounding is the present.
Jonah defied the word of God,
but recognized the voice. He knew
the task, the flesh, the town, the desert.
Tarshish and Niniveh, brother cities,
like eggs, today they look alike...
Can you tell if you’re fleeing one, or
embarking on your task in the other?

These days, the sky turns grey. Divine
revelations fail to move us.
We wage our wars in silence. The voices
of cherished heralds don’t assist us.
Unaided, we must comprehend
our tasks in life and death – and if
we do not raise our voice in time
all earth and sky may perish with us.


Surrounded by the desert’s dust,
I feed on locusts and rare grasses.
The sound of breakers has retreated
along the distant, sandy beaches.
The leviathan spared me. But the heavens
yield no manna for my sake.
Above my head, a  burning crown.
Relentless sunshine beats me down.

My words are arid like the landscape.
There’s hope for help in every person
moved by the wish to warn the people
to mend their ways and to avert
the certainty of retribution.
But with the most appalling horror
discharged already in the past,
there is no caution left to issue.

There’s nothing more compelling than
a nightmare that has come to pass.
Each night, I guard a silent field
of bones beneath a broken altar.
The corpses hold me in their gaze
and I, who have survived alone,
must raise my voice. Words cannot help,
but they must not remain unspoken.

Translated by: Thomas Ország-Land

Tags: Magda Székely