Ágnes Nemes Nagy: Between

"I have no serious doubt," observed George Szirtes in his Introduction to The Night of Akhenaton, a selection of her poetry, "that Ágnes Nemes Nagy is one of the great indispensable poets of the twentieth century." Agnes Nemes Nagy (1922-1991) was a Hungarian poet, author, political writer and activist, whose life, as for so many of her generation, was defined by the Second World War, and particularly by the friends she knew who died in Auschwitz. Between by Agnes Nemes Nagy and translated by Hugh Maxton comprises the largest translated collection of Nagy’s work into English, and is published by Dedalus in Dublin and Corvina in Budapest.

Angels are always terrifying in Nagy and often allied to tree and branch symbols. Her imagery in general is often 'off-centre'; she wrote about the process of writing as “I think it is the duty of the poet to obtain citizenship for an increasing horde of nameless emotions”.

On board ship carried Statues,
Huge faces unrecognised
On board ship carried statues
To stand on the island.
Between nose and ears
Perfect right angle
Otherwise blank.
On board ship carried statues
And so I sank
- 'I Carried Statues'

“Terraced Landscape' is a prose piece which visually describes movement through time through the poem's 34 separate planes or terraces:

Zero Plane.
                  Now nothing is visible.Yet something continues
To sound, in a fragmentary fashion, breaking down,
Swelling. Do you hear it? Up there somewhere,
Towering little domes like the roofing of a city, unknown bells inside”

Zero Plane is the poem's introduction, while the overall structure is cyclical, so that the white noise at the end of Level 34 seques back to the beginning, Zero Plane. Not all the levels are described, yet all things acquire depth and shape, everyday objects swell and become, they lose their flatness. This reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s 'I love the thingness of things’, and of how familiar objects become so alien or so intimate to the observer that they acquire a symbolic importance.

The poem ‘Lazarus’ –

‘Round his left shoulder, as he got up slowly
Every day’s Muscle gathered in agony
His death was flayed off him like a gauze
Because second birth has such harsh laws

– recalls Leonard Baskin’s Hanged Man’, a lithograph from the Fifties of the Hanged man from the Tarot deck, an image not only of torture but also a warning that the poet and artist must consistently engage with the world whatever the cost.

Between is divided into short poems and cycles, two essays and some prose, with Nagy herself contributing the foreword. Hugh Maxton talks of the translation / collaboration process at the back of the book, but between intro and postscript the images and words create, for this reader, visual monuments, portals into a mythos and an often sublime awareness.

Hanged Man

Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Between, (Dedalus Press), translated by Hugh Maxton.

Christine Murray is a poet, web developer, and qualified conservation stone cutter. 

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