Six Poems by Ágnes Gergely

Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet.

Signal Lights

That strange body, standing close to me,

took hold of my arm,

the oblique rail-line in my head

said—the train was approaching.

Chilled to the bones by this knowledge,

Nothing now that can protect.

The bodies and hours are leaving,

The darkness turns to signs.

To Miklós Zrinyi

What should I do with the fortress of Sziget,
Drégely or Eger — what are they to me?
To the estimable raising of the flag   
I was never summoned.

What should I do with ancient Buda Castle—
guard its lock, its yataghan?
When the Sultan took over the key
I was not at hand.

What am I to do with Mohács,
with its empty-running brooks?
I stood in the Austrian death camps
beneath the mute shower taps.

What should I do with this sentence:
“To the Hungarian, do no harm!” 
Everyone I ever loved 
always perished in the end.

Notes: the fortress of Sziget: fortifications built in 1420; Drégely or Eger: Drégely is the site of fortifications built in the 13th century; Eger is home to a castle that experienced both Mongol and Ottoman invasions; yataghan: Ottoman sword; Mohács: the site of the definitive Hungarian defeat by Ottoman troops in 1526; “To the Hungarian, do no harm!” (in Hungarian: “Ne bantsd a Magyart!”): In 1661, Count Miklós Zrinyi wrote a tract entitled Medicament against Turkish Opium, castigating his fellow Hungarians for not sufficiently resisting Ottoman rule. It was reissued in 1790 under the title To the Hungarian, do no harm! The phrase become a rallying cry for Hungarian nationalism and independence.


The crooked street darkens
the city’s diseased lungs.
Drags to its entrance gates
the one unafraid of the heavens.

The stars’ great dream, lashing,
like the oracle signs of old.
Compass, mast, mizzen-sail:
the captain hovers there as well.

Where the shadows dart upwards,
mercy, burnt to its stump
reaps along the shore—
when the moon begins to sink,

The city, diseased, grows darker,
no nearby angel, no miracle,
the waves beat at the shore,
no matter who sent them there,

For everything recoils away,
Inconnu, the semi-darkness now speaks,
memory excised from body and soul,
memoir, diagnosis—subtracted,

if having stepped to prayer, to the bridge,
the crossing will never be made.
Mercy burnt down to its stump,
Inconnu, the trumpet sounds.

Shooting in Terézváros

Those deep entranceways.
So many flowers can fit in that ditch, you say.
So many screams, I answer.
The call for help ricocheting from wall to wall.
All around, the city is silent.
At the base of the stone cross, no one steals by,
wrapping a flowing cape around himself.
Soon it will be dark.
The bouquet turned to straw clatters down onto the stone pedestal.
The bell is tolling—it tolls for someone else here.
The execution is now over.

Psalm 137

We sat by the rivers of Babylon.
We wept. Babylon is without a sea.
Our harp is on the willow. Torment speaks with a different voice.
Sweat is needed from us, not passion.
And not principles—from our veins, for blood has flowed here.
May Amen be inscribed on my right arm grown cold,
if I forget you, Jerusalem.

The people claw our sign into the wall.
Who incites them—they don’t know why they do it.
A royal sign, it has outlived many other signs.
Do not blame them, my Lord, their transgression!
Do not thrown your beautiful infants to the wall…!
May my face, its suffering, be convulsed onto my mouth,
If I forget you, János Arany.

Note: János Arany (1817-1882): Hungarian writer and epic poet (see his Toldi ballads, about the 14th-century hero), and pioneering translator of Shakespeare.

Interpretation of Dreams

The dust is incandescent on the prison wall.
“So tell us, Joseph, since you are the seer …”
The stone was on fire, the earth, the crockery of squalor.
The cup-bearer and the baker stood trembling.

Joseph looked at the prison bars; he spoke to them,
gently: “Three times the sun shall turn.
The Lord will save the life of one of you —
the other will be devoured by birds.”

Did he know what he was saying? And whence
the intimation of this infallible fever?
Did he know—silence too was an answer?

But he spoke. The one sent to live—lived,
the one sentenced to death—a corpse.
From the word that is seen, none may ever hide.

Ágnes Gergely (1933-) is the author of more than 15 volumes of poetry and six novels. Gergely’s work is an unsparing confrontation with the legacy of the Holocaust, but also with the fate of being a female poet in Hungary. Gergely interrogates her literary predecessors from the viewpoint of a Hungarian Jewish woman standing both inside and outside of tradition.

Ottilie Mulzet translates from from Hungarian and Mongolian, and writes literary criticism. Her latest translation is Szilárd Borbély’s Final Matters, Selected Poems: 2004-2010, published by Princeton University Press.

Published on June 11, 2019.


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