Issue 25: Ágnes Lehóczky


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, as if additionally, so chronologically at post photo date, it had been added later, after the main photo had been taken, cut and pasted on top of the black and white photograph, as if she were standing a good hundred metres from the facade of La Borde, not quite directly in front, but aslant as if the building she was seeing were not aware of being seen by her at all, the psychiatric ward Guattari co-directed from 1951 until 1992 with Jean Oury, an at the time enigmatic, controversial experimental ward operating incognito in which both Residents, aka Madmen and the La Borde Kids, coexisted for many years in some alternative collective symbiosis, which I might picture more like a scene from an unconventional play, in what you may call a timeless or extended present, and some otherworldly, eccentric harmony. Emmanuelle Guattari on the cover photo is turning away from the camera, i.e. from the viewer, photographer, reader, with her face, in fact her whole body turning towards the walls of the sanatorium, which she believes cannot see her, i.e. all the while trusting she remains unseen, staring at the hospital, disguised as an old castle, most of which, at the moment of the photo being taken, is bathing in the late summer sunset while the body of the child, Emmanuelle, who is turning her back to you while watching the building at sunset facing the wall, is partially lit and partially in shade. Half of her body concealed; half unconcealed. And because she is hiding her face from this side of her world, staring into the inside of her own, she, from this side of our own world, seems almost faceless. A few pages into the book the figure of the child Emmanuelle reappears in full light and turns to you with the contours of her body, standing almost stiffly upright, tense, gradually motioning toward you, to you, who all the way through thought you were seeing her, yourself unseen. Emmanuelle’s face is now illuminated by the late summer sunset, almost blindingly so. Then she, seemingly artlessly, as if part of her daily routine, enters you, little asylum.

Woman by the Window is a 1952 Picasso painting framed within a poster I received in 2010 from Sokratis as, he said then, some sort of a reward for passing my Viva with minor corrections so heroically, for the thesis I wrote on the modernist poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy. The thesis was called ‘Poetry, The Geometry of Living Substance’, a concept Nemes Nagy borrows, re-appropriates from one of Goethe’s essays on the correlation between organic and abstract entities suggesting that the ‘order, the form, of poems takes shape as unfailingly, almost as violently, as the symmetry of living organisms. We just have to pay attention to their regulators, and with all our creative force we have to work out that structure, the valid one’. The retro poster which frames, as frame within frame, a painting within the poster within the room, within the house, within the poem, i. e. Picasso’s woman at the window, was a design by UEA’s Sainsbury Centre from 1999 – to promote the Centre’s exhibition entitled Dreams [and] Lies, with a typography in which the connective ‘and’ –  a mono or micro syllable which yet has some macro power to bridge disparate lexical/semantic entities, i.e. to establish a sort of interdependence of meaning between these seemingly random, solitary and otherwise hermetic objects, a what you and by ‘you’ I also mean I might call window, or in other words, a margin of brief opportunity such a micro word can ever offer so that the world we are looking at can appear more ‘total’ than a bunch of random parts or fractals, which you might also call a significant or even quietly dramatic ‘occasion’, a revivifying ‘opening’ or even liberating ‘break’, which you might go as far as to call a ‘prospect’ or ‘panorama’, was so faded the word became almost invisible. Picasso’s Woman in/at the Window from the angle I am looking at her is standing by the window looking out at the world, not quite taking part, or half taking part, half hiding, visible and invisible, depending, or so I assume, on how much the woman at the window wishes to reveal or conceal of herself, a choice, Hannah Arendt suggests, of, I will add, some sort of self-exile, that is entirely and ultimately yours [and] not mine. At times, the black and white face of this Woman in the Window disappears and re-appears again, depending on the angle of the sun as well as on Picasso’s choice at that predetermined moment, the outline of the body fractures and, shredding its own origin, morphs into its own obscure double, into the contours of someone else, a stranger, an Eleatic visitor perhaps, who has all the while been waiting for her to join, to reunite with her; like some multi headed anonymity; it has two or more of everything, foreheads, pairs of giant eyes, and earlobes, monstrously large black hands, each finger and thumb multiplied, breasts with pointy nipples, chins, noses, two of all internal organs, lungs and pancreas, her soul doubled, too, now a twin-room, which turns into her future or prospective tomb, as promise or dream fulfilled in Augustine’s City of God, even her scales-patterned blouse appears twice, both times, half-unbuttoned and her guilt – or is it rage, or lust or fury or desire – too, perhaps, re-appears, quasi unveiled, all at once, duplicate, invisible contours of some facsimile shame, some silent historic aversion, resistance, confrontation even, the whole performance you and I might think of as some kind of lonely, inaudible solo-act of disobedience performed – in some aroused state of oblivion –  as a double act on canvas, while there is one and only body it seems as if it were multi-tasking with a multiple-presence, one of her standing inside, the other standing outside and the one vision of the whole figure or face is that of unity, symbiosis of these two seemingly disparate and yet similar movements, which, for now, I will call the woman’s choice of being in two places at once. Later, when you look again, and when I say ‘you’ I also mean I, the woman, by now both animate and inanimate, by which I also mean both concrete and abstract, who was standing behind the window has already gone, entered the outside so she is not so much looking at the outside from the inside but, having been inside for so long, she is now still standing there, just now behind the same glass, on the other side, looking back at the same and only glass the woman at the window inside is looking at, not so much looking inside but looking at the inside with a semi dreamy gaze, in a moment which you may call the moment of recognition, which remains, at this point, only a promise or a chance, i.e. it remains only an intuition of the nameless woman standing at the window, who appears, as if, for a second, she were made of [this] glass.

In one of the hallucinatory snapshots of the book I, Little Asylum the memoirist Emmanuelle Guattari recalls a dream (even though it is difficult to say whether this dream as event takes place post institutionalised childhood time or during or whether the act of recalling occurs somewhere between analepsis and prolepsis, i. e. in some imaginary or fictionalised narrating present or in or from the viewpoint of some a-chronological outside) in which this other phantom-like Emmanuelle, as if she were made of some strange dream-like substance, too, while getting lost in the vast premises of the psychiatric ward of La Borde disguised as a castle situated somewhere in the Loire Valley in France in the second half of the past century, spots one ‘resident’, aka ‘insane’, standing outside the building, also wandering looking a little lost in the rain. It takes Emmanuelle long moments to recognise that the figure of the madman, wandering seemingly lost in the same rain she is lost in, the aka insane resident is actually her father, the very former and by then posthumous therapist himself. The moment of recognition, which you may call intuition, naturally, is the moment of terror and tremor fused with confusion since Emmanuelle knows, or all at once remembers, after or during the actual event, or non-event given it was taking place as a dream, that her father, aka madman, former and by now posthumous,  yet in the dream still pre-mortem psychiatrist, is meant to be already long dead, yet this figure, lost and wandering in the rain, who wears the contours of her father, looking half dead half alive, ghost-like, is insisting he is, hic et nunc, real, that he is ‘literally’ here, being caught up or arrested in what Walter Benjamin would refer to as the momentum of a so called jetzzeit or ‘nowtime’, even if, Emmanuelle recalls, his apartment was sold a long time ago. The epiphany, or catharsis – or the anti or lack thereof – is not so much in the dreaminess of the dream but the sense of new reality, which does not belong to either the present or the past, a kind of hyperreality, with which it wakes Emmanuelle and enters your own dreaming. And from this moment on, which is not quite your own choice, you cease to be the reader and become part or more precisely a character/protagonist, memoirist (even) of Emmanuelle’s own fictional memoir, so much so that the same fear or dread of the dream Emmanuelle feared is passed on to you so much so that when you wake from Emmanuelle’s own terror, which is now yours, post dream, post memoir, post actual or hyperreal event, somehow the tremor stays with you for days or weeks or even longer, so much so that you begin fearing the return of Emmanuelle’s spectral father returning not only to Emmanuelle’s life and memoir but to yours, too, who is by now, in your darkest dread, standing on your threshold, wearing only a hospital gown half open with its left sleeve reaching out toward yours, moving an inch closer, stepping inside from the outside, insisting he has just been literally taken off the mechanical ventilator, the breathing machine, in other words, that he, and by ‘he’ I mean the spectre, is here to rearrange the structure of your life and arrange it all back to how it used to be, all will be fine, you’ll soon get used to it, you’ll see; the whole scenario is an implausible, a hollow, by which I mean strictly speaking eventless, or even timeless event or more like eerie interlocution which takes place, of course, by now your own inner memoirist insists, much later, or in fact much earlier than you actually recall or can at all remember this non-event, which yet still feels like a concrete or real encounter since you can recall it taking place even if it took place in a dream. But then isn’t this you – and by you I also mean I, who is trying to remember an event correctly and accurately and even more so acutely (by which I mean in accordance with what really had taken place in the past) and even more so paradoxically, which took place only as non-event, a dream –, like the eleatic visitor (of your own dreams) in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, a figure of a stranger she re-appropriates from Plato, who sees things, and by things I assume Plato also means people, and by people I, and by the pronoun I I also mean Plato, means ghosts, and in fact by ghosts I also mean the apparition or manifestation of one’s own phantom self or selves, in a dream and thinks that he knows them perfectly and then when he wakes up, all confused and lost he finds that he knows absolutely nothing. 

In Lisa Robertson’s recently published The Baudelaire Fractal there is a passage in which the female dandy author, a fusion of fictional non-fictional Hazel Brown and auto-non-biographical Robertson, as the novel’s protagonist, moves to a hotel room in Paris in a basement positioned near the communal bathroom and describes her main character feeling a sense of uncontrolled freedom of floating, being ‘unattended’, no weight, no companion, some sort of absolute bliss of self-exile, anonymity and invisibility, a state of, what Denise might also refer to as, an ‘uncertain and floating sense of self’, which can be ‘pinned down only by the work the writer happened to have written’: the bookmark, marking page 33 where you can find this scene, is a bookmark which Liverpool poet Sarah Crewe posted to my university address after a high-spirited, by which I mean maximally furious winter performance, and by fury I mean an emotional hybrid made out of Sarah’s own personal and impersonal rage, one, I recall, as if performed by a Nordic avatar in the aim of demonstrating, verbally and non-verbally, bodily and vocally, i.e. performatively, unapologetic solidarity with some collective feisty sisterhood, which took place in the rather  dispirited lecture space of the Humanities Research Institute, a space Audre Lorde in her essays written in the late 1970s, early 1980s part of which was read out for a conference organised by the National Women’s Studies Association, might refer to as the one which exists within the ‘Master’s House’ which you can’t dismantle even by using the secret master’s tools which had originally built it, one dark and rainy Sheffield evening attended by the usual, small but dedicated group of students of a discipline which Kenneth Goldsmith calls in a set of short manifesto statements for the blog of the venerable Poetry Foundation of America ‘uncreative’ or which Denise in her Words of Selves named ‘destructive’ or what you, and by ‘you’ I also mean ‘I’, in the pages of this book, may refer to as ‘self-destructive’ writing; so the bookmark, an actual postcard I find on page 33 in Robertson’s novel, depicts a female warrior or goddess standing in front of the House of Commons, blindfolded with a Roman gladius at her side, pinned on the gate a message: ‘Reform Bill Debate Men Only’. It also depicts Justice and another message: ‘but I, surely, am not excluded’. On the back: under ‘LSE Library’, what is now called ‘The Women’s Library’, Sarah sends her love. But to feel excluded, it occurs to me, suggests that one wants to take part in what one is excluded from. But then often or at least just from time to time one must wonder: in what does one actually and ultimately want to take part? Athanatoi. This self-exile, this choice is what elsewhere Robertson calls the choice of living in the house, or polis, or civic space made of ‘soft architecture’, by which she means bodies, by which I think I mean female bodies, by which I also mean invisible female bodies, or the invisibility of such bodies, what Anne Boyer in The Undying refers to as a mode of life lived within a body as if this body were already an alternative body which lives its life in an afterlife, or what Boyer later on in the same text refers to as a certain mode of lived or living (of) life which (re)lives the afterlife in this posthumous body, a peculiar yet familiar modus [post] vivendi, a being behind the construction of an imaginary universal weeping wall, designed mostly for weeping women bodies, the type of women who simply cannot stop weeping for some reason, or what Nietzsche alludes to as the paradox of a body which is living its life in some kind of perpetual or unending survival, or what I, by which I also mean you, might describe as a life lived as if it were some posthumous or retrospective or restorative act of false remembrance; as if I were remembering someone else’s memoir, as if my body, by which I also mean mind, by which I also mean psyche, were not mine but someone else’s, as if I were non-presently present in my house, in my own room.

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 Anthology; Poems 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 and Director of the Centre for Poetry and Poetics at the University of Sheffield.

Copyright © 2021 by Ágnes Lehóczky, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.