Blackbox manifold

Issue 14: Jon Thompson

Metamorphic Cityscapes

Review of Ágnes Lehóczky’s Carillonneur

(Shearsman Books, 2014) 

Ágnes Lehóczky’s Carillonneur is a prose poetry collection made of poems that take the Northern town of Sheffield (and its environs) as its immediate, though perhaps not ultimate, subject. One can feel much that is literally true of Sheffield in them, though Lehóczky’s version of Sheffield leans towards its (post) industrial, rain-and-fog filled streets, and the longer histories of place behind it, rather than the shinier, up-and-coming aspects of the city that commercial interests might want emphasized. Not surprising, then, to find that her poems are full of the contemporary detritus of Sheffield, as well as the debris it has collected over hundreds of years.

At the same time that many of the poems are obsessed by the space of the city (sights, smells and sounds), there’s also an obsession with versions of the city as embodied in maps and even, as the first poem in the collection announces, the “stratigraphy” of Sheffield, which gestures to the geologic time “underneath” the various overlays of culture. As one reads the poems, one is quickly disabused of a number of assumptions.

First to go is the assumption that the physical detail in them is in the service of realism—of seeing the city as it is along the lines of fact-based disciplines of generalization, knowledge building, or in the case of literature, narrative. I next assumed that these poems were going to attach themselves to a more archaeological model of civic excavation, and there is indeed a sense of “drilling down” to earlier periods in these poems (one poem in the collection is written partly in Middle English), but that, too, is not a very full, or accurate, way of understanding what’s happening in this collection. “Place” here is key, but it is accompanied by a keen sense that place is always a version of a place, a map of it, and hence unreliable as a complete guide. And then there is the awareness that “place” as a framework for understanding a delimited space gets complicated by the histories that inform it, that quite literally make up that place, and separating all that out is nigh well impossible in any final sense.

 What one discovers as one reads this collection is its ultimate commitment to the literary principle of metamorphosis, which students of poetic history will recognize as a very old literary principle indeed. Let me illustrate this with the contemporary cityscape of Sheffield as envisioned in the opening poem:

through numerous lies this city unpeels its stratigraphy, by means of camouflage, by hiding, blending in long sequences of bus trips to and fro in late October rain between downtown and darkbricked alleyways. It’s mostly iron rain, which streams  down from the surrounding hills into the cracks of the concrete heart of this Northern settlement. When you do not know someone, like the way you don’t know the intricacies of unfamiliar bodies, impenetrable ginnels, untouched geographies, you trust whatever they offer, allowing yourself to plunge into flooded impasses and cul-de-sacs, rivers of unknown neighbours’ junk, cast-off children’s toys, blown up rubber tyres, winter spades

In the next poem in the collection, “The Sheffield Magus,” that version of Sheffield is elaborated on until unexpectedly, readers find themselves in an altogether different terrain:

                                     These yellow, pink and lilac light effects at night enveloping the carcass of the city, erecting the outline of another ghost town, you established, are nothing but simulacrum. Silky legerdemain. Although under the multihued flesh of this city apparition a concrete caricature quietly clanks and clatters in the dark. In the daytime, from a bird’s eye view if anything at all, the valley is industrious like an enormous workshop, a multitude of metal sawdust. But then it is the density of this iron debris, the valley filled with steel wool, copper wire, scrap aluminum items, which are magnestising. And we dived into comparisons with which we linked this geography to former and forgotten ones by mistake, from Bako to Miskolc, Warsaw to Dunaujvaros or Dresden…and then disappeared in the fluid afternoon through curvilinear glass pavilions of botanical  gardens and fiery Guy Fawkes nights’ crowded autumn fairgrounds, dizzying merry-go-rounds like the ones we’d seen at the edge of derelict seaside towns.

It’s not just that the cityscape morphs into one from an earlier time, but it also disappears into other ones entirely. The technique of Carillonneur is to start in something like the here-and-now of Sheffield and then to move backwards--or outwards—or at any rate, away into another imagined landscape, with a modus operandi not so different from the magical realists or the fabulation that defines the work of Calvino and Borges.

The question, of course, that comes to mind is why insist on place as a “phantasmagoria land”? To some, this insistence may seem perverse or simply pretentious. I do think Lehóczky’s technique allows for a rich staging of multiple senses of what any place is, or has been, and Sheffield has had many different incarnations in its several millennia-old history, and more than a few poems have as their pilgrimage the impossible search to identify “the soft core […] its delicate focal point.”

No doubt Lehóczky’s technique also allows for an emphasis on the primacy of the imagination in its engagement with place. But I think there’s more than that going on here. I think Carillonneur is most interested in exploring the transgressive, transmogrifying power of history that in the age of globalization and international trade and travel has only intensified its capacity to mash together different cultures, ethnicities, languages and practices. The fabulation of Carillonneur is a poetic witness to not only the disheveling power of history, but also an increasingly recognizable species of contemporary literary consciousness—the consciousness that finds itself defined by multiple histories and multiple ways of seeing the world, a literary consciousness that is by history or choice or both, hybridized.

As I see it, rooted in a single pace—Sheffield-- Carillonneur is a vision of the centrifugal forces of history converging upon the contemporary moment. We have seen this kind of consciousness conquer the world of fiction—we have only to think of Salman Rushdie and his brand of magical realism, to say nothing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others. We have not seen as much of this kind of literary consciousness in poetry.

Indeed, Ágnes Lehóczky’s poetry owes much to fiction—as I noted at the outset, her poetry is prose poetry. It has the kind of quality that one finds in postmodern, plotless fiction, in which the emphasis—the action, so to speak—is elsewhere, most often with language. One might be tempted to say that there are no characters here, but that is not quite the case either. Many of the poems feature a speaker and a “you” who is as shape-shifting as the city itself. Are the poems letters with a speaker and an addressee? Or is the “you” the speaker? Or the reader? I can’t tell, and perhaps the poems won’t let us know conclusively either, even if we read the notes at the back with their various dedications. The “you” in “The Sheffield Magus” might be Veronika Schandl—or it might be you. Or Lehóczky. If selves are not wholly distinct, no one is off the hook and everyone, including the reader, finds himself/herself touched by the transformations of the ordinary into the fantastic (which indeed may be phantasmorgic) that history and globalization now make commonplace.

Not to say that that Ágnes Lehóczky’s achievement in Carillonneur compares with the opus of Calvino or Rushdie; I’m not making that case. And I find the most arresting and challenging work is to be found in the first two sections of the collection. That said, I see (and hear) a poet in Carillonneur who doesn’t sound like anyone else, a poet with her own sensibility, and her own shape-shifting imaginative terrain, and all of that is unusual in the world of Anglo-American poetry. Not to mention music. The title refers to a particular kind of music maker, who plays a “carillion,” an instrument made up of bells and a keyboard. Ágnes Lehóczky can play some music too. A kind of mad music, mixing the beautiful and the painful, played on her own mad, antique instrument: “But there is no threshold in this city between the thought/and the said, only invisible rivers. And there is a difference/between howling and music. Music is what makes one sob.”

Bio: Jon Thompson’s first poetry collection was The Book of the Floating World and his next work was a collection of lyrical essays, After Paradise: Essays on the Fate of American Writing. His most recent book is the poetry collection, Landscape with Light (Shearsman Books, 2014). Thompson teaches in the English Department at North Carolina State University, where he edits the international online journal, Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics and the poetry series, Free Verse Editions, which now has 40 books on its list. More on him at: