Ágnes Lehóczky

 

from On Lathe Biosas, or on Dreams and Lies

 

 

It’s as if we were constantly waiting for life to happen, writer friend Ethel Maqeda said on a train journey in a frosty January morning back in 2019 as we were travelling in one of the four tiny coaches of a grotty old East Midlands train, as if in a compact time capsule, to a reading we were about to give in Norwich’s medieval Dragon Hall for the city’s Writer’s Centre to launch the international anthology J. T. Welsch and I entitled Wretched Strangers, a post Brexit collection of poems to commiserate recently reinstated national and political paranoia in the collective psyche of the British Isles about, among other things, physical and non-physical, fictional and non-fictional borders. The book of poems, which J. T. and I had planned or imagined to be a sort of virtual building or temporarily built house, accommodation, i.e. hall of poets’ residence, thematically assembled a collection of poetries on the reconfigured peculiar state, life and psyche of the post-modern bios xenikos, to borrow Aristotle’s term, i.e. that of the exiled human, who, both  as an insider and an outsider, i.e. re-enacting, mimicking the role of the spectator, lives as phantom citizen at lines of limits,  parameters, on outskirts, i.e. perpetually on edge. As if, as Hannah Arendt writes in the sub chapter ‘Where are We When We Think?’ in the book which never got to be finished in the author’s lifetime (even though who is to say what completion is) this sort of perpetual waiting Ethel mentioned on the train, locked us into a time continuum that made us live the present as some sort of life-long fight against the dead weight of the past and the fear of future, a waiting or life long struggle, or even grieving that essentially does not allow one to be able to comprehend the lived moment, because or thus, Arendt adds, somewhere in the same intricate sub-chapter in the The Life of the Mind, calling on Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception in which he explores the concept of le corps propre, i.e. one’s own body in the world, somewhat paradoxically, as perpetual openness, perceptual experience rather than, or perhaps exactly despite being a locked-in presence, one is not capable, perhaps because of this openness or fluidity or constant movement, of capturing, comprehending reality, namely, one’s own being in the present, taking place in a now, as qua reality, which  is precisely what, Arendt continues, again quoting Merleau-Ponty, makes one truly lonely; i.e. this is essentially the true source, or the focal point of one’s solitude. As if one were living one’s entire life in a fluid or liquified mourning it, paradoxically, in the house of a language that, at the same time, fails to, as Charles Bernstein writes in Shadowtime, a book in which the protagonist, aka Bernstein, morphs into a version of fictionalised Walter Benjamin, mourn, and thus fails to allow one to mourn, too. As if, as Ethel says, we spent our entire life waiting for life to happen at last, or as if, we were constantly on a train journey stuck, or perhaps more like floating, un-arrested, inside a cube, unsettled, anxious, agitated in some sort of final or finalised house, or language-shaped tabernacle, or sepulchre, almost as if one was buried, or certainly somehow preserved, inside alive, waiting for, or perhaps even dread, as we say, the light to appear at the other end of this so called tunnel, or corridor shaped space-time, one’s own bios, biographical, biological life time, or as if, it occurs me, one were living one’s life as if one were not herself but someone else. Or as if, it occurs to me one was non-biographically dreaming through one’s own biographical life. Or as if one were dreaming that one is living one’s own afterlife in one’s real life, a sort of afterlife life, for instance, Benjamin begins to live in Bernstein’s Shadowtime, as if having passed the limits of both before and afterlife after his own katabasis into this other life, having already lived his own real, or idiosyncratic life, turning back for a brief second, his face semi-lit, semi-concealed in the dark or in shade, in a cube or the darkness of a tabernacle, from the realm of an underworld he, i.e. Benjamin – turning back towards you, towards the reader, too, from inside and the depth of Bernstein’s book, (imagine it more like a) somewhat tomb-or crypt shaped script, he had composed, built, dramatized, set up, fictionalised for a fictitious Benjamin, long gone as a real one, were trying to say something  back to the living he may have forgotten or had no chance to say while still alive. Or as if one were dreaming that one was dreaming, as if, not so much, and perhaps there is no more to it than this, life itself, the one we live and the ones others live, were made of the strange substance dreams are made of, all or it, or certainly most of it ‘rounded in a [single] sleep’. Nevertheless, Arendt points out,  this life-as-dream is a concept or motif which goes back as far as ancient Asian philosophy and on the same page she recalls the well-known dreaming incident or scenario with Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu who, post dreaming – having just dreamt in a dream that he as a character called Chuang Chou was a happy butterfly – i.e. now being awake as Chuang Chou again carries on living his life not knowing anymore, or perhaps having become confused or even forgotten, whether he was really Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly or whether he actually was a butterfly who dreamt that he was Chuang Chou and thus, again post dreaming, Chuang Tzu adds as some sort of conclusion or resolution to the mystery, via Arendt, that there must be a distinction between the two of them, i.e. a two of him-selves somewhere, and off he goes spending the rest of his out of dream lifetime trying to work out an answer about the dream and/or his life as a dream. Or as if, I could add, one were some sort of a stranger, an intruder, an impostor even, a somewhat unwelcome nuisance guest, in one’s own company, and by one’s own company I mean the company of these two, what Arendt again refers to as the company of the Two-in-One Chuang Chou/Chuang Tzu. Or as if one were dreaming the dreams of someone else in one’s own dreams. Like I, too, often do. I, for instance, in one of the most recent Chuang Chou type of dreams, which happened, admittedly after having fallen asleep in the middle of reading three books at once late at night,  all three, needless to say set in a stifling setting of psychological wards (the first, Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, taken place in a claustrophobic Stalinist 1950s Moscow’s hospital which begins with the famous scene with secret Stalinist policeman Rusanov being hospitalised among patients who, as he complains, do not seem to look ill at all and thus he feels he does not quite belong to this hospitalised milieu whatsoever and spends the rest of his hospitalised time among those who only pretend to be sick, unbelonging, unwelcome, deformed by illness and injustice; the second, Saramago’s Blindness, in which the citizens of an anonymous city slowly lose their eyesight, a white blindness which feels different to real blindness, they claim, all ending up in a temporarily set up hospital which used to function as a mental asylum in which there is only one character, the doctor’s wife in the plot who never contracts the blinding virus and pretends all way through the novel she is in fact, truly and genuinely blind while all along being able to see among those who can’t; the third, Mann’s Magic Mountain, a book I keep returning to about once in a decade obsessing about not only the concept of paradoxes through which Mann fuses and confuses and thus refuses borders and boundaries of binaries, such as what we mean by illness and health, normality and psychosis, but the weird pull – i.e. some kind of pathological affection or irrational desire – and thus the roots of theia mania – which develops between Madame Chauchet and Hans Castorp in the course of the narrative, the latter character, relatively healthy, who voluntarily chooses to live his life in the highlands where the sanatorium is positioned somewhere in the Alps, among those genuinely ill – even though who is to say how genuine genuine is – while occasionally peeping into one of Maggie Nelson’s chapters ‘They Are Only Dolls’ in The Art of Cruelty, in which Nelson offers a relentless close reading, which you may call scrutiny, of Family Tyranny, a comedy sitcom in which Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley re-enact a psychopathic, sexually sadistic son-father relationship, selling it to the reader as some sort of normative relationship or intimacy between the two, in a way that the dramatization, the re-enactment of it is designed to stay with you and haunt you even in your dreams), was dreaming in my dream that I was someone else, that I was, or I became, or all at once I turned, inter alia, into a Denise figurine. Or more precisely, in the dream, as peculiar as it may sound – not so much for instance like Lisa Robertson’s female dandy author-protagonist in the recently published Baudelaire Fractal who announces in the opening chapter of the book that she, i.e. the female dandy author-protagonist, aka fictionalised Hazel Brown, aka non-biographical Robertson, is not so much Badelaire himself but, for a matter of fact, she, the protagonist of Robertson’s Baudelaire Fractal, is the author of Baudelaire’s entire oeuvre – but even if only for the duration of a few minutes of the dream or of the duration of a short-lived snooze or nap itself, I began to live the life of someone else, and thus, in this instance, I began to live the or ‘a’ version of the life of this so called Denise figurine. In or during the dream-narrative, as it happens, while there were two of me, one who is being chased and one who was re-enacting the chasing (in this instance the subject of the chase was this Denise figurine) there was a stiff distance between chaser and the one suffering the chase, i.e. between the two-of-us which during the course of the walk, which you may call stalking – and really by stalking I mean some sort of longing to be other than myself, in this case the one being chased, rather than the one who is doing the chasing, never shrank. It stayed with us, between the two-of-us, throughout the entire dream. The incident, itself was jammed in between two other uneasy dreams in which this I, and by I I don’t so much mean the horizontal I who was doing the dreaming but an alternative, pathological or irrational I who has been dreamt of, was having to face various imaginary scenarios of my voluntary and/or compulsory redundancies from my job in academia having been called in by senior members of staff to some sort of interrogation with the usual dramatized stereotypical theatrical prop and staged apparatus, something of a scene from the 1950s somewhere, nowhere-now, in Central Europe, bright desk lamp in a semi-lit, semi-concealed room of institutionalised tremor shoved into my face, piles of documents (paperwork i.e. worksheets and printed out poems from my teaching material) on the desk waiting to be all scrutinised, and finally the cathartic moment of confession to whether I have or not re- or mis-reconfigured the ancient discipline, as ancient as human civilization called writing into (what these days Anne Boyer in her Garments Against Women – or was it in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, calls) not-writing, also, calling, what for centuries sophists called creative, recently, in my newly introduced modules un-creative (after Kenneth Goldsmiths), or even destructive (after Denise) or, non plus ultra, self-destructive? that I should admit to teaching inappropriate pedagogies, that writing is eros and derives from the same source, force or energies or affection one invests into sex (see Phaedrus) or that writing is communally solitary and poets are collectively antisocial (non-conformists, agoraphobes or amoraphobes), or that the current minister of loneliness should quit and that I had coerced my own students to write a formal complaint which claimed that the current minister should be replaced with this Denise figurine I was dreaming of in my dream etc.). And just in the moment when I was told in the nightmare I was soon having to face the prospect of becoming jobless, i.e. some paperless citizen, I morphed into the philosopher of grief in the middle of one of her city flâneries, by now not so much stalking her but becoming her and by her not so much her, I mean, but the movement of the walk the philosopher took, or not so much the entire walk as experience or series of physical events but it was just that I became the walk’s trajectory, some sort of irregular map, random topography, she, this Denise figurine, as if my own, one could say, desired other, this inner stoic, some sort of soulmate or co-spirit, was choosing impromptu that day, the shape of her own random psychogeographical choices, the formation of her private decisions, or the decision making itself: her grief itself, the  traces of her thinking – or feeling even – in the moment, the flight of her being in the now, some kind of jetztzeit or no-time, that of a true situationist, these choices ‘taking place’ in some strangely weightless, liberating, self-liberating eloquence, silent persuasiveness, wordless articulacy, performed by an illusionary, disappearing, transmuting sense of self, a self in the process of undoing itself, as if by a skilled escapologist escaping not only a pinned down self of the self but being pinned down by a self, which could potentially become pinned down by purely writing itself down, which, nevertheless, despite this illusion or even magic of performance of dubbed escape or self-freeing from itself and language, in the dream somehow muted into my own weighty, archival, melancholic or, I could say, sepulchral drive or desire in order to pin my double down (back into) a piece of writing. The walk took off from a back garden in Angel with the short stroll around various plants, the viburnum, the Agapanthus, the buddleia, some rose bushes, the hydrangea, the geranium, the clematis,  the verbena, the salvia x, the iris leaves, then back through the house, passing by a timid cat called Shrew, it led out into the streets of Angel then off again, driven or directed by an inner impromptu compass, into the hidden city graveyards and memorial parks of the metropolis, by which time it was difficult to catch up with the Denise-spirit’s footsteps, traces  of her reveries meandering among half empty, half inhabited sepulchres, the crypts of Defoe, Blake and Bunyan in Bunhill Field, and later, but much earlier, with the even swifter flânerie into Postman Park, situated close to St Paul’s Cathedral, as if one’s own shadow, duplicating one’s footsteps around other nameless ‘heroic selves’ of ‘sacrifice’ –– where my inner escapologist, I could just about to catch up with, settled, or perhaps locked inside me safely, later, but much earlier, begins to take photographs[1] – which I knew, already in the dream, as if I were the incarnation of some delphic fear or dread or longing, or what you may call the process or ability of intuitive fore-dreaming embodied in my own dreamer dreaming this weird dream, too, for the sake of the poem, hereby, as discreetly as possible, I, aka, paper I (vis-à-vis being in ‘a’ reverie on the page), later, or earlier, i.e. outside where this non-event had taken or were ever to take place, will duplicate or confiscate, or re-appropriate, in a non-linear yet irreversible order or retro-futuristic, or even posthumous manner as if one, by which I mean I or she, my own inner magician, escape artist, telepathic other, fellow mourner, were walking around her, i.e. my own familiar, or domiciled future mausoleums.

 

[1] of [IMG_0271.JPG William Donald of Bayswater Aged 19, a railway clerk who drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed, July 16, 1876], or that of [see IMG_0274.JPG Amelia Kennedy, Aged 19 (too), who was trying to save her sister from their byrning house in Edward’s Lane Stoke Newington, Oct 18, 1871], or [see IMG_0276.JPG Frederick Alfred Croft, an inspector, died age 31, who saved a lunatic woman from suicide in Woolwich Arsenal Station but was himself run over by a train, Jan 11 1878], or of the memorial of [see IMG_0282.JPG Elisabeth Boxall aged 17 of Bethnal Green who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a runaway horse June  20 1888], or [see IMG_0283.JPG Herbert Maconoghue school boy from Wimbledon aged 13 – his parents absent in India, lost his life in vainly trying to rescue his two school fellows who were drowned at Glovers Pool, Croyde, North Devon, August 28 1882], or that of the memorial of [see IMG_0285.JPG Ernest Benning, Compositor, aged 22, Upset from a boat one dark night off Pimlico Pier grasped an oar with one hand supporting a woman with the other bvt sank as she was rescued, Aug 25 1883], or that of [see IMG_0289.JPG Thomas Simpson died of Exhaustion after saving many lives from the breaking ice at Highgate Ponds, Jan 25 1885], or that of [see IMG_0294.JPG Soloman Galaman aged 11 died of injuries Sept 6 1901 after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street ‘Mother I saved him but I could not save myself’]; all plaques carved by the artist [IMG_0297.JPG George Frederic Watts] for everyday heroes, because, as the last and central plaque reads, a text which must have been composed pre mortem but already virtually posthumously by the artist himself, [IMG_0298.JPG greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends]

 

Ágnes Lehóczky’s poetry collections published in the UK are Budapest to Babel (Egg Box Publishing, 2008), Rememberer (Egg Box Publishing, 2012), Carillonneur (Shearsman Books, 2014) and Swimming Pool (Shearsman, 2017). She has also three full poetry collections in Hungarian published in Budapest: Ikszedik stáció (Universitas, 2000), Medalion (Universitas, 2002) and Palimpszeszt (Magyar Napló, 2015). She is the author of the academic monograph on the poetry of Ágnes Nemes Nagy Poetry, the Geometry of Living Substance (2011). She was winner of the Jane Martin Prize for Poetry at Girton College, Cambridge, in 2011. Her pamphlet Pool Epitaphs and Other Love Letters was published by Boiler House in May 2017. She co-edited major international anthologies: the Sheffield AnthologyPoems from the City Imagined (Smith / Doorstop, 2012) with Adam Piette and recently The World Speaking Back to Denise Riley (Boiler House, 2017) with Zoe Skoulding and Wretched Strangers (Boiler House, 2018) with JT Welsch. She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing and Director of the Centre for Poetry and Poetics at the University of Sheffield.