The Night of Akhenaton – Selected Poems

By Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Translated by George Szirtes
Bloodaxe Books, £8.95

Reviewed by Adam Ford

Before I started reading this collection, I didn’t know much about the poetry of Ágnes Nemes Nagy. Born in Hungary during the 1920s, her career spanned several decades, and the Soviet authorities in Budapest considered her work important enough to ban. Much of Nagy’s poetry has been translated since the fall of the iron curtain, and in this collection George Szirtes does the honours.

I found that many of the themes addressed in Nagy’s anthology appealed, dwelling as she does in the realms of nature, myth and history. And occasionally the odd word - such as ‘mist’ and ‘eternity’ - leapt off the page, as if it was about to form part of a poem that I might enjoy reading, but few whole lines seemed to make any kind of sense. I was particularly looking forward to the series of poems about Akhenaton – the Egyptian pharaoh who invented an entire new religion – but these too left me cold. It was only when I came to her prose poems - which presumably haven’t been forced through the grinder of English rhymes and structure - that I found the book anything other than an ordeal.

So I still don’t know much about the poetry of Ágnes Nemes Nagy. Introducing a previous edition, the writer claimed that “all poetry is untranslatable, Hungarian poetry is even more untranslatable” - and so it goes to prove. If you’re sufficiently interested in the work of the poet who gave Stalin sleepless nights, I suggest you start learning Hungarian.