05. 02. 2011. 12:44

Mona Lisa among the rocks

Ágnes Nemes Nagy (1922-1991) is one of the genuinely important European poets of the twentieth century. But how is that to be proved to an anglophone reader? Anyone can make claims, and people do so all the time. – George Szirtes's Introduction to Ágnes Lehóczky's new book on Ágnes Nemes Nagy.

One can try to do it by providing the evidence of good translations and hope there are enough of them available to prove the case. That is assuming one knows the original language – Hungarian in this instance – well enough to venture a judgment.

In my own, admittedly curious, position, that is to say of someone reabsorbing the lost Hungarian of his childhood as an adult, in fact as a poet of his second language, I came to Nemes Nagy’s poetry in three ways. Firstly, through reading translations of her work by the Irish poet, Hugh Maxton; secondly, by reading her in Hungarian; and thirdly, by meeting her and talking over aspects of her work, as well as of poetry in general.

Critical texts on Nemes Nagy in English were pretty well non-existent until the 1998 publication of the hard-to-find On Poetry, a Hungarian Perspective, edited by Győző Ferencz and John Hobbs in 1998: other than that there were only the introductions to the available translations: those  by Bruce Berlind, and those by Hugh Maxton. There was a growing list of material in Hungarian, chiefly in the form of magazine articles, especially since the mid-eighties re-launch of Újhold  (New Moon), the magazine with which she was most closely associated after the war, this time in an annual anthology form.

Újhold had been closed down by the Stalinist regime in 1949 for ‘bourgeois individualism’. It was a magazine where progressive, liberal writers could meet, explore and experiment, while retaining connections with a broadly intelligent public, but its ideology was out of key with what the regime required so it had to be suppressed. Nemes Nagy was one of a group of major figures suffering this fate. Having published her first book in 1946, she was silenced for thirteen years, allowed to work in schools and write verses for children, but no more. This experience stayed with her for the rest of her life. The resentment burned on in her. As she wrote:

He who cannot take revenge
nor forgive must find redress
in burning forever the low flame
of his unquenchable bitterness.
            (from Journal)

Hungarian grammar is genderless – for he read she if you prefer, since it is a she who is writing, albeit at an avowedly impersonal distance, something she insisted on. Nemes Nagy made sure the low flame was kept burning. She was not the forgiving type. Her husband and fellow Újhold writer, the critic Balázs Lengyel, was imprisoned after 1949, but when she found out he had been unfaithful to her, she threw him out on his release. For all that he remained constant to both her and her work, constant, that is, to the poet, rather than to the woman.

The low flame was intense. Her feelings were strong and people felt strongly about her: either deeply devoted to her as a figure, as a poet and a thinker, or fearing and rejecting her. She was not a compromiser of any sort. She felt contemptuous of compromisers and would not forgive them.

But the fury in her poems was not personally directed, nor personally sourced. No names are named and one looks in vain for expressions of personal regret at betrayal (as she saw it) by this or that person, or for the bemoaning of lost opportunities.  Very few people appear in her poems. Some of her last unpublished poems do refer to her personal condition or state of mind, but only as a kind of aside.

Strange afternoon, I doubt now whether
I’d felt so dull before or ever
known a distress so dislocated.
I was a child, uncomplicated
by adult terrors. Now I fear
that happy child might reappear.
Have I improved? I might have done.
But its another scent I’m on,
I’m different. Of that not-me sense
this poem is the evidence.
            (Strange Afternoon)

It is primarily, and potently,  the ‘not-me’ sense we encounter in her work. There is nothing overtly or directly political in not-me. Not-me comments on both the personal and political  realm by way of philosophical scorn for whatever is passing and is more locatable in terms of  geology and sidereal time  than in terms of human society. It is as if Nemes Nagy had undertaken the role of Walter Pater’s ‘Mona Lisa’, turning herself into  a figure older than the rocks among which she sits,  the rocks that are her true home on the great rock that is the Earth. The Earth, for her, is mountains, geysers, woods, lakes and the wind, with the odd spectral figure, more statue than human, moving among them. But it is the powers and objects of nature rather than nature herself that she wants to inhabit. It is phenomenon that fascinates her rather than schema.

Only in the person of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaton, does she find a human  correlative. The religious autocratic rebel who tried in vain to overthrow polytheism in favour of monotheism and set to building a new city, a new culture, a new art, beginning everything anew, is a model large enough and distant enough to embody her sense of distance and power. Whether Akhenaton is friend or enemy is unclear: it is the realm Akhenaton inhabits that matters. The realm of Akhenaton overlaps with Nemes Nagy’s own time and place. So scenes from the Uprising of 1956 are the setting for ‘The Night of Akhenaton’ and a narrow gauge railway runs through ‘Akhenaton in Heaven’. Even so, the Akhenaton poems do not offer themselves as political allegory. Nemes Nagy is after something beyond politics or realism: it is existential reality she is after, and the two short key poems, ‘The Objects’ and ‘Above the Objects’ that point to the true area she’d wish to occupy.

The Objects

Look, look up to the massed blocks. In noon-light they stand,  apart.
The objects are at peace within my heart.

Above the Objects

Because the head of every object glows,
trees glisten like arctic circles. In long rows
all 92 elements stand, frozen in endless white,
each wearing its own curious cap of light,
on each one’s brow its likeness and reflection -
so body, I trust, shall rise in resurrection.

The consideration of  things-in-themselves demands a capacity for intellectual discipline. The discipline in Nemes Nagy’s earlier poems was chiefly formal in terms of prosody, but extended to a kind of tight-lipped mysticism (the body rising in resurrection), in which objects were surmised to be living entities of sorts. Hungarian poetry had not paid much attention to objects before: it had been inclined to declaration and display, whether in the form of personal and political passion or of melancholy and withdrawal, objects being secondary to identity.  Nemes Nagy’s verse rejected both identity and display. Her poetry is composed of significant understatement, its power latent rather than displayed, power held at tension.

The fascination with objecthood took a dramatic turn with the production of a series of prose poems that appeared in 1981 under the title Egy pályaudvar átalakítása (Transformation of a Railway Station). Here it is vanishings that dominate the world of objects. Life is fragmentary, in disjointed conversation with itself. The poet moves through the building site of a railway station, down a street, in and out of a museum, and over an extraordinary terraced landscape. These places are not sites for human narrative: they are phenomena composed of impersonal precisions that are nevertheless bursting with human passion.  It is just that the passion is in the things, transferred by an enormous, all but passive, act of the will.

It is these paradoxes that Ágnes Lehóczky seeks to explore in this important study. In what way does Nemes Nagy’s work fit into the world as described by Beckett and Rilke? into a sacred space abandoned by the sacred? a poetic space, as Lehóczky puts it ,‘deprived of “presence”’ and populated by ‘negative statues’?

It is a realm of feeling we understand instinctively but can rarely construct as a world. Nemes Nagy’s achievement is to produce such a world, complete with geology and force field, in which identity is continued as language in the spaces between statements about the world. Lehóczky seeks not only to understand that world – as a poet she herself inhabits it – but also to establish a place in English consciousness for Nemes Nagy’s construction of that world.

Nemes Nagy was not a productive poet.  Of the twenty-six books listed under her name, eight were critical works belonging to the latter part of her life, nine were books for children, three were Selected or Collected Poems with a few new poems included. Only five books were collections of new poems.  The posthumous Hungarian edition of the Collected Poems has 132 pages of poems published in book form in her life time, the rest of the 300 odd pages being unpublished, posthumously collected work composed of sketches, commemorative verses and some reflections. They throw light on her as a person and confirm her status as a prosodist of remarkable talent, but do not substantially change the balance of her oeuvre.

Reading her, even in translation, one cannot help but be struck by the fierce intellect, the high seriousness, and absolute concentration manifest in her poetry. It is an intellect that, however, does not work upon us in terms of ideas, but of sensibility. Had she written in English, German or French her work would now be perceived as central to mid- and late-twentieth century consciousness and beyond. It would have lodged in our consciousness as a marker in the way we feel the world. As it is we hear her through other voices. Lehóczky goes to the core, negotiating her interpreters, but probing the elements of the work in the original Hungarian. The result is the uncovering of a major figure, as relevant to us now as she was in her own, partly silenced, lifetime.

This text was originally published as Introduction to Poetry, the Geometry of the Living Substance: Four Essays on Ágnes Nemes Nagy by Ágnes Lehóczky (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011)

George Szirtes

Tags: Újhold, Ágnes Nemes Nagy (1922–1991), George Szirtes