05. 14. 2007. 07:42

The ultimate clarity of situations

Magda Székely (1936–2007)

For Magda Székely, the memory of the scandal of genocide never came to an end. She lived through the horrors over and over again so as to offer some sort of an answer to those who died.

Magda Székely, truly one of the last of her kind, made one believe that there was still humanity on earth. Her poetry is a string of true pearls – as soon as you start reading them you feel that each of them is numbered, each unique in its own right and yet meaningfully positioned in the overall oeuvre.
Székely was nine years old when the war ended. It is not hard to guess how little childhood she had had. Later she was to say: I was not an eight-year-old child but an eight-year-old Jew. This is a heavy sentence. For her the memory of the scandal of genocide never came to an end. Her mother and a number of her relatives were murdered. She survived the terrors in a Catholic convent which was actually little better than a reform school.
The devastating experience of war was to define her entire life. In the 1950’s she studied Literature and Bulgarian at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. For decades afterwards she worked as an editor for publishing houses, publishing only two books of poetry, with a significant period of silence between the two. Later on two volumes of selected poetry appeared, to be followed by the Collected Poems in a number of different versions. Besides her poems, worryingly few and far between, there appeared a thin book of memoirs, Eden, published in 1994. This is her body of work, just over two hundred pages.
What occurs in the depths of this art, in the workings of a poet’s consciousness?
In her oeuvre, Magda Székely lives through the horrors over and over again so as to offer some sort of an answer to those who died. I wanted to experience the whole thing, she explains later, the marches, the flapping of boots, the starvation, the barking of the dogs. For decades on end she imposed on herself an abstinence from life. In the poems, too, she marginalized her own person, feeling that she was only living in order to keep the memory of the martyrs alive. In an odd sequence before gaining any life experience of her own, before coming to understand her own suffering, her words already took the form of a ritual guarding the memory of the dead like a commemorative flame burning in front of a highly sensitive medium. The scorching heat of her poems comes from the survivor submitting her conscience to never-ending surveys. Her psalm-like diction and hard poetic manner set Magda Székely apart from all other poetic voices right from the beginning. (Later she was to say: I press poems together just as you squeeze wet curd.)
In terms of subject matter, Magda Székely’s early grand poetry is built on grave, eternally valid themes. Her poetic manner is personal and impersonal at the same time, and the guilt that radiates from her work is free of dogmatic theological principles; it does not volunteer any sort of ultimate biblical wisdom. What at first appears to be the memory of a series of tragic historical events (although a physical conclusion to something that had been known for thousands of years), later proves to have been a partial, if significant, pretext for a complex experience of the world.
Grave and hopeless: the rich, organically constructed visions in Kotábla (Stone Tablet) published in 1962, still bear the apotheosis of those killed on racial grounds. Székely did not write occasional poems – to her an occasion is always the materialisation of some ancient crime. The figures of those innocent and still guilty of the holocaust embody her personal anxieties.
This knowledge means that the poet has but a single theme; however, this gives her a universal explanation to apply to all other human or metaphysical relationships. Magda Székely’s world is static, motionless: she fixes the poetic meaning in a still picture, so as to preserve it and never betray it. She records history as an infinitely tragic tableau which also paralyses her own life. The reader feels that she denies herself any relief, almost to the point of denying herself the mere relief of breathing.
In her repentance the lyrical I levels a charge against the invisible collective in the name of her own mother. The charge also speaks in the name of the other collective – that of the victims. As there is no resolution, consciousness fades into a timeless scar. Yet the accusation does not come from the pulpit of some religious belief, but with the validity of a lay ethos. The poems clearly declare that God can no longer participate in creating ethical balance any more: the descendants need to do this for themselves, each alone. Székely mentions only once that nobody is pleading guilty to this crime. In other words, there is no repentance on behalf of the perpetrators. It seems as if even this has to be done by the victims, their offspring or some invisible moral salvation army. The poet herself volunteers self-recrimination and self-torment even though she is unable to justify her sense of guilt.
Two more features enhance the unique impact of this holocaust poetry: its foundation in trust and its touches that reflect some elements of Christian mythology. Székely’s entire thinking, life and poetry are characterised by a will to the Good, to love. She perpetually bears in mind the emergence of trust. This alone is enough to lend a unique balance and the air of some sacred faith to her poems. Furthermore, from the very outset, she perhaps unconsciously uses certain predominantly Christian patterns of ideas and expressions which point toward a certain poetic ecumenism. The motto at the beginning of her books (“You may strike me down. I shall not strike back”) rings in an undeniably New Testament tone. It is also noticeable that this poetry is unmistakeably a corpus of vulnerability, in the sense of Jesus’ teachings, even though at the outset hatred is listed as part of its emotional repertoire.
Magda Székely did not stylise her pain, but tried to talk about it in the language of grand scale poetry. Clearly, the initial Biblical standpoint becomes less rigid, and the poems start looking for new sources of support, new channels, lay registers. In the 1970’s some sort of shell seems to have cracked around her, and she set off, as I think of it, toward the severe unfolding of her art. (Paul Celan, for instance, set off towards some kind of dynamic laconism, sharp speechlessness after “Death Fugue”.) She moved closer to the concrete, to the world of objects as well as of fundamental but unknown emotions. The texts grow shorter and shorter, things appear in ever greater numbers, and yet in this poetry everything gains a sacred meaning.
What she rescues from the radiance of higher considerations are intimations of the metaphysical looming behind the visible world. The tone records personal life events and avoids emotional language. It depicts a lyrical being who desires nothing more than a tangential contact with the world through devotion, the beauty of motionless movements, a kind of futile but happy teleology. These pieces gain their strength from their very artlessness. The rhymes grow rough, lines are no longer articulated by punctuation marks, an elliptic form of expression becomes prevalent, and the use of metaphors, ever uneasy, seems to come to an end. Abstractions confirm our old suspicion: this art finds its roots in ethical insights and the proclamation of such. Székely would readily give up any artistic claim in return for an ounce of true ethical purity for the actual world. Witnessing this near speechless union of poetry and ethics, the reader also feels more than willing to give up the sole claim for artistic truth in return for an incorruptible lyrical and moral purity. Magda Székely, while she was alive, was invisible; now that she is no more, she will become ever more visible through her poetry.
Her universal meekness and, paradoxically, truly Christian behaviour find their centre of gravity in an ethics of powerlessness, a total freedom from lust for retaliation or revenge. The aforementioned motto at the beginning of her volumes shows her strength and at the same time her weakness.
You may strike me down. I will not strike back.
My hand is feeble for ill.
In place of the slumping body, unswayable
my true body stands strong.
(translated by Thomas Cooper)
Her poetry only opened up to the real world with the caution of a convalescent. Ever hesitant to touch the concrete, her hands seem to shake as she accepts the gifts of this earth. It was clearly inevitable that even this soul, filled with archaic emotional patterns, should sooner or later discover earthly joy, the serene moments of a simple practice of life as distinct from mere survival; ordinary, small-scale exchanges of human life. Her stark later poetry still mainly speaks of the sorrow of existence, stations through which we pass out of this world, events of depression and deterioration. Nevertheless, there is a faint but distinctive trait which only appears at this later stage: the wide-ranging emphasis on the Good. Even before, most of her poems were held together by the archaic notion of the struggle between Good and Evil. At this point some experience or some other impact must have prompted her to incorporate Good and related traits of life into her poetry. It is the Good that remains, she said shortly before her death. Far be it from me to envelop her in some halo of old age tenderness; however, I can declare that, ambivalent as she was, she will always exhort that you can and must distinguish Good from Evil. Let me quote the second passage of “Súlytalanság” (Weightlessness): "hardly a shade of difference / between the coward and the brave man / but then whence / the ultimate clarity of situations".
In Budapest, her city of birth, she only gave one full-length poetry reading, in autumn 2005, when she was almost seventy. That evening was a miracle. Not only was it unique and unrepeatable, but it also made us believe that great poetry lives on even when it is invisible.
Csaba Báthori

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