Issue 31: Zoe Skoulding

Review: Ágnes Lehóczky, Lathe Biosas, or on Dreams & Lies (Crater Press 70).

 Ágnes Lehóczky’s new collection of prose poems is a delicately labyrinthine work of readerly poetics, a textual dérive that explores what belonging to the category of ‘women’ – always flexibly inhabited – does to the Baudelairean, Situationist and philosophical legacies that have emerged from the European city. Lathe Biosas, the Epicurean principle of a life lived in obscurity, is connected here with the shadow-play between literary identities, between reader and writer and the ways in which they inflect each other. Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal, with its fusion of fictional and non-fictional selves, is a significant point of departure; a reflection on Robertson’s female dandy and her ‘self-exile, anonymity and invisibility’ is woven through commentary on the work of Sarah Crewe, Denise Riley and Anne Boyer, and linked back to Robertson’s earlier work on ‘soft architecture’, which Lehóczky takes to be ‘bodies, by which I think I mean female bodies, by which I also presume I mean invisible female bodies, or the invisibility of such bodies…’ The deferred existence of the invisible body leads to a sense of being ‘non-presently present in my house, in my own room.’ This is the hidden life of the poem, a soft architecture that creates its own civic space and communities within it.

Softness, fluidity and deferral are also characteristics of the architecture of this text as a mobile, shifting representational space. Given its challenges, I think at first that despite its elegant typography and interleaved photographs, it might have benefited from a larger font size. Reading again, I wonder whether the physical exertion involved is part of the point: I get lost in the page, wandering back and forth over the recursive sentences that are the compositional basis of this work, and which keep blurring back into grey concrete blocks. They take you, by which I mean me, the dramatized reader, on a journey through different cities, from Sheffield to London to Budapest, but also through the twists and turns of a syntax that departs adventurously from conventional tenets of prose style, reminding you that it’s poetry after all as it picks you up and then deposits you (or me), a little dazed, half-way down the page, the form compounding whatever doubts might have been signalled by the alternative title’s reference not only to a 1999 exhibition at the UEA, Dreams [and] Lies, but also, possibly, to Nietzsche’s ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’, in which he writes: ‘Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal’, inaugurating a language in which nothing can ever be settled. For Lehóczky, ‘truth’ is replaced by the collective dream space of the poem, in which every equivalence is a relationship to be reimagined. Metaphor, which she considers in the light of Hannah Arendt and the Hungarian modernist poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy, is an architectural process that links disparate words and paradoxical spaces. Awareness of this linking process is intensified by Lehóczky’s experience as a Hungarian-born anglophone translingual writer in an overlay of maps and languages, living ‘inside and out’ of a ‘psychogeographical “rucksack”’, always on the move.

On most left-hand pages of the book there is an image, suggesting that the text on the right might relate to it, like a facing-page translation. However, the opening sentence breaks any illustrative association immediately, beginning ‘On the strangely bright, fluorescent green cover of I, Little Asylum, a lyrical account of a childhood spent in a psychiatric clinic disguised as a castle perched somewhere in the Loire Valley in France, written by the daughter of Félix Guattari, is a portrait of Emmanuelle Guattari as a child, the figurine, with her back exposed to the light…’ At the end of the page, the figure of Emmanuelle ‘enters you, little asylum’, through a mirror-haunted process of reading. On the facing page there is not a reproduction of the book cover in question, as there might be in a less interesting dialogue between text and image, but a photograph of a plaque in London inscribed: ‘Frederick Alfred Croft, Inspector, Aged 31, Saved A Lunatic Woman From Suicide At Woolwich Arsenal Station, But Was Himself Run Over By The Train, Jan 11 1878’, part of a series of memorials to ‘Heroic Self Sacrifice.’ The notes at the back reveal that this photograph was ‘taken by Denise during one of her numerous strolls’ in pandemic lockdown. Reading as a form of social poetics is not confined to the page, but opens into friendships and conversations that, in turn, open up further dimensions of the city.

As well as being a friend, Denise Riley is a centrally important authorial figure here as poet, ‘philosopher of grief’ and source of the term ‘destructive writing’, which might be the best way of describing this work and its preoccupations with the uncertain boundaries of the writing-reading self. At one point the protagonist dreams that one of her split selves is a ‘Denise figurine’ walking London, the reader merged with an author who is also, in the dream, a psychogeographical trajectory. The writers celebrated in this book are, of course, far from being figments of an urban dreamscape. The works of Riley, Robertson, and Alice Notley, whose magnificently subversive Disobedience is another of Lehóczky’s key reference points, are major landmarks that challenge the ways in which we know and inhabit (or think we know and inhabit) the polis. This field guide to passionate wandering belongs to the same city, rising to their challenge with determined irresolution and a generous companionship that crosses linguistic and temporal borders.

Zoë Skoulding is 

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