By PETER RILEY.
THESE ARE TWO poets who have left central Europe to live in the West and now write in English — their ways of writing could hardly be more different. This doesn’t necessarily imply an opposition, for in the current poetry climate procedures can be extremely divergent without being inimical, since the claim to have encompassed all the possibilities is always open to question. We set poets in opposition and claim exclusivity by adopting polemical positions most of which are largely external to the poetry, whether the poets themselves subscribe to them or not.
Carmen Bugan’s family left Romania in November 1989 when she was nineteen (missing the fall of Ceaușescu by a month) following years of official persecution due to her father’s career as a “dissident”, about which she has written an incisive and endearing memoir, Burying the Typewriter: childhood under the eye of the secret police (Picador 2012). The poems of The House of Straw occupy a specific position in this history as a different view of those places and times, and the first section, which occupies two-thirds of the book, largely follows the sequence of the memoir, which could be used as a companion to the poems without having to be. The difference is that in the poems the picture is entirely positive.
In an interview with Kelvin Corcoran on the Shearsman Press website1 and in the essay “Why I do not write in my native language” in Modern Poetry in Translation III/22 she talks of the change to writing in English as a welcome release, which opened the experience of writing to senses of “freedom and exhilaration”, even happiness, by being able to write without an authority looking over your shoulder for a chance to pounce.3 A principal feature of the persecution the family underwent while the father was in prison was a meticulous constant surveillance day and night; the children’s toys were catalogued. She renounced Romanian because it had become a language tainted by experience, an experience that she wanted to put entirely behind her. Yet The House of Straw shows her nostalgically remembering episodes of her childhood with longing and affection and seems to be an effort to rescue Romania from her rejection of it by focussing on what can be remembered fondly.
Her account of her specific intent with this book is accurately reflected in the poems: “simple, clear-headed poems” which let the image “do all of the work”. “I step aside and let the experience do its job”. She also speaks of the “organic” growth of the poem, mentioning Coleridge. As a foreigner, she feels free of “responsibility towards the [English] literary canon.” I think she is speaking here of traditional formalities, for what happens is that she attaches a mode of English rural pastoral which feels familiar, and it comes as no surprise that since being here she has written a thesis and book on Seamus Heaney, except that his poems cannot, I find, be relied upon to be “simple and clear-headed” but are liable to harbour hinted cultural agendas.
In Romania, once you get away from the big cities, the distinction between urban and rural is not always clear. Bugan lived in a small town in Moldavia where many of the people would still be part-time smallholders producing a lot of their own food and alcohol, and grandparents who had remained in villages were very much part of the family, the children periodically living with them. Thus, as well as everyday events and people, the poems remember what she calls “farming rituals”, as familiar rather than exotic things. If there is a sense of loss it is loss to her, not to the world. I think this makes a crucial difference to the poem’s impact, and mitigates a superficial resemblance to British “my childhood in the bog” and other pastoral modes, where the rural scene is more or less fictive.
So we get “Making Wine”, “Harvesting Beans”, “Piling Hay”, “Summer”, “Gypsy Woman”, “Last Day in Our House”… and each title announces exactly where we are and many of the poems are delicately tailored accounts of such activities and no more. There are no explanations (she says that her earlier English poems had too many of them), in fact quite recondite things (to a non-Romanian) occur, including even a few words in Romanian from time to time (translated in notes) as if the emotional warmth of the poems has reconciled her even to the language, which she specifically vowed to have nothing more to do with. The substance of the poems is all action and image—
There she is, sifting bread flour
as if enacting an apparition
in a white cloud,
in the small clay kitchen:
I take a handful of flour,
blow its dust on the floor
then make barefoot prints: from
the table towards the opened door.
This enacts a moment of memory so stark as to fuse past and present. The calm, factual tone is the same in much more descriptive writing and there is a constant refusal to adopt a moral distance from the event. The opening of “Harvesting Beans”—
The garden strewn with dry bean-
Pods rattling on their stems
As we shook them out of sacks
Onto sheets spread on the grass.
and this mode is maintained to the last line (“As they fell, cleared of husks.”) and dominates a lot of the poems. But poetical flight is also possible; it depends on the memory. So “Gypsy Woman” begins “She whirled her pleated, frilled skirt / Through the wooden gates” but eight lines later,
After she told my fortune
she said to the wind, “Unbraid my hair,
Loosen the coins from my head, free me
From telling lies to those that need them.”
So the wind wound her in his arms
As he does with the willows,
A pile of coins flickered in the sun
Then sounded on the ground like bells.
and there is no certainty whether this is fact or imagination, a real memory or the poetry liberating itself.
WHAT SHE IS remembering is what was left of a cohesive central European peasant society, which she brings into the present through the cohesive and open medium of the well-crafted modern poem. And it is important because it is still knowable and its lessons are still learnable. This is strongly given in several poems of “farming ritual”, especially the title poem, which describes a Moldavian custom of building a straw house in the garden as a metaphor for the house you will occupy in the afterlife. But it is a double ritual offering that security while demanding reciprocal duties. The opening, preludial, stanza—
“In this world the house will be yours
But in the afterlife it shall be mine.”
So, when they were old, they joined
In the ritual of caring for the band
Of gypsies coming through the village,
Looking after parents left by children
At empty hearths. What you give away
Stays with you in eternity,
For heaven or hell will be received
In a familiar bed, at a table you know.
But she also remembers the inhering melancholy of the ritual, and of that society, which represents the final failure of a custom-bound society at a personal level, or its weakening hold, for death remains a threat whatever communal enactments deny it. The last two lines of the poem form a coda:
Then, in his room, my grandfather brought
A flask of wine, set it on the table, and cried.
There is throughout, including the latter third of the book which speaks of more recent experience, a chaste presentation of the self, a withholding from psychological self-depiction, there is that “stepping aside”. It is all her experience directly but it is not presented as an event of the selfhood (as much pastoral is in British poetry), rather the self is lost into the stories, and as one grandmother says to her, “You too will become a story.” The very cleanness with which these poems are entirely separated from her political history surely took some determination. Asked about this, she says, “We all go through Hell but the audience shouldn’t be made to suffer because of it.” I can think of British poetry enclaves where nobody has been through anything worth mentioning at all and the poets take particular pride in inflicting hurt on the reader. But I don’t know any reason why such a self-withdrawing position shouldn’t hold good in poetry a lot more complex and difficult than what Carmen Bugan chooses to write.
ÁGNES LEHÓCZKY’S POETRY resembles Carmen Bugan’s not at all, and she comes from a very different place, Budapest. Carillonneur contains only prose pieces, but referred to by the poet simply as “poems”. They come in chunks up to five pages long without paragraphing, arranged in groups or sequences and it is felt as a challenge just to view their obvious density in front of you asking to be read. Of the two earlier books only the first has about half its content in lineated writing.
Carillonneur represents the most developed form of her unique and intriguing way of writing. These big pieces are enticing and challenging, sometimes defeating, and they adopt a mass of strategies of indirection in figuration and verbal play. But first it should be said that they are in some respects ordinary. They are verbal explorations or elaborations of a place arrived at, in this case Sheffield, explored in a series of suburban walks (the city centre is avoided) and the things mentioned are what anybody might notice who does not know the place and has certain inclinations towards the back corners and their clutter. But they also become refusals to know the place as normally understood, for nothing that is mentioned is allowed to connect, and no linear account is allowed to develop. The survey is always fragmented and inconclusive, the wanderer is always lost “…walking into twilight I got lost following the instructions of a cacophonous map, its clandestine directions written over one another.” But there is enough plain account of being there, interwoven among the phantasmagoria, for the reader to retain a sense of being accompanied through the labyrinth.
It is a quest for the place through its details, an anti-guide which refuses the generalised view and instead catalogues particulars of every kind: things noticed, things told, accounts of its own procedures, real or unreal little scenarios, people (unnamed) and place names, the latter sometimes rewritten. Nether Edge becomes Never Edge, Wardsend becomes Warldesend and then Wordsend but it is typical that none of these coinages is allowed to develop into a definitive meaning beyond the single word at its place in the text; neither the end of the world nor the sending of words signifies anything beyond its monadic presence in the text at that point. We reach the end of the world and find we are a bus-stop away from where we were. Similarly the language will suddenly and momentarily become antiquated — “And from the stone bridge over the watyr of Dune neghe the castell of Sheffeld we saw the angle of the city as if we had always been pilgriming in reverse, crawling backwards towards the core.” It is as if the line of language is suddenly dipped into past time and then withdrawn from it without anything won from it, without any catch. It remains a linguistic experience, as does everything else; the city is catalogued as a collection of words. No symbols, no “depth”, and although the texture can become surrealistic there is no suggestion of reaching subconscious territory. All the experience is direct and specific. Language is its own narrative and will not tolerate any narrative intrusions from elsewhere. Thus the Sheffield suburb of Hillsborough is mentioned several times but there is not a hint of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989. That would be a public, mediated event and the world of these poems is a paradoxical construct of uniquely individual perception and stark detailed objectivity. Neither of these is exactly private; there are occasional hints of a personal narrative in an addressed “you” as likewise of occasional memories from elsewhere including Hungary, but these threads do not develop into explicit comparisons. They are borders across which the poet leans in search of the recognisable.
THERE IS A sense of ruthless progression, cataloguing the detail as if in search of something, some key or clue, naming everything from railways lines to the contents of charity shops as if there must be an answer somewhere; but the only answer is the unattainable total. The search is for a “core”, identified as a “focal point”, “soft core”, “delicate core”, “where everything happens”, which remains unlocated and perhaps illusory, and the quest continues. There is more than a hint here of the alienated political and social attitudes which must lie behind these exercises, involving the rejection of the actual administrative centre, where everything of importance is supposed to happen, and by implication a whole cultural structure, whose visible effects are “nothing but simulacrum”. No external discourse is accepted as a contribution to understanding either the place or experience itself. But there are several statements of method in relation to this which complicate the issue considerably. Paradoxically, her own atomised account of the city is itself recognised as untrustworthy, and as an obstacle; piece by piece it forms a map and all mapping is “lies”, every detail conceals or prevents a larger understanding and the accumulation does not add up to a conclusion. The first words of the book declare this in terms of a reciprocal unreliability between poet and city:
…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 dark bricked alleyways […] 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… (p.13)
And in another passage the worry is extended into a kind of necessary solipsism–
But the premeditated civic discourse turned out to be a paradox. A failure, almost fatal. The conversations. Clockwise. Anti-clockwise. The acrobatic attempt to kill or measure time. It was impossible to be a courier tugging on real news. As if tugging on plug-holes of unpluggable seas. Being pulled and dragged out tongueless from this bric-a-brac land. Which meant it was ill advised to synchronise, too. This meant you had to be you. So it soon turned into a solo-symphony contest in the end. (p.32)
The more you read the more you sense this thematic impulsion, the abandonment of all civic, topographical and temporal authority (There is even mention of “so-called Tuesday”), and the failure of the attempt to find a coherent replacement, yet as a felt discourse this is not what it’s all about. The piling up of details as verbal events is the central thing, the movement and extravagant reach of it, the sense of adventure which challenges senses of bewilderment and estrangement. The “failure” of “premeditated civic discourse” is not explicitly shown; it is assumed as an artistic platform. Much more interesting is the way the double tension, the conflicting and unresolvable discoveries which are also self-entrapments, release a remarkable fecundity which can deploy every known form of poetical figuration as well as total explicitness and total blockage. I called it a catalogue. It is not a catalogue. Every item leads on to the next by a narrative continuity which is strictly maintained and is tied into the whole book; it is in many ways a very disciplined writing. The opening of “The Carillonneur’s Song”–
Ye bells of forgotten belfries, damp Hillsborough bedsits. There is no word out of this labyrinth. Small spiralling spaces of forgotten foundries, mouldy firewalls drowned in thick January fog. A hazy afternoon when I took that sleety route towards Wereldesend. (p.40)
The speed with which the authorial eye moves! But also the ruthless pursuit of a discourse towards unknown ends. We start with the twinning of two massively distant sites, two resonant spaces past and present waiting to be realised. Then the “labyrinth” which I think is the union of these two silent and demanding places as they open into the cityscape. And then we are off into another Sheffield excursion through industrial waste lands which might lead us anywhere. All details are in the end integral, though it can be a matter of trust. The bells derive from the last line of the previous poem. The labyrinth is present in the whole book. The fog is a significant notation of the failure to perceive at several points of the book, or it might be what you disappear into when you have located the “core” — unable to see anything in particular. The world’s end whether conceived personally or apocalyptically is finally the only destination, shortly afterwards becoming again Wordsend as if these things, the ending and the sending, are the sum of it all.
The opening sentence occurs three more times, in whole or part, in this long poem, as if returning to base and starting again. These are more like refrains than repetitions, as are most of the recurring phrases throughout the book, and a musical analogy would be my way of understanding the organisation. Musical, but not lyrical except in moments caught up in the prose flux. This repetition of the opening words within a long poem has a kind of balladic effect without a narrative other than the narrative of the quest itself, and the verbal resources made possible by it, rather than anything leading to a summation which would halt the process.
BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS are equivalent. If we ask where any of these long poems reaches to in the end we can only say it is where it began but different. The whole discourse is ex nihil (there is rather puzzling reference to “Saint Zero” and “Saint Nil”, neither of whom ever existed, which perhaps acknowledges this) and where most pieces end is no more significant than where they started. The effect is of recurrence without accumulation, of nothing-to-be-said said again and again, though largely without a Beckettian simulacrum of despair. Beckett is mentioned once and it is tempting to think of his presence, but the texture of the writing is in fact lighter and less insistently and monotonously sardonic than in the only comparable Beckett texts, his early fictions. The process is not so much negative as neutral. I think there are things in Hungarian which might have been more important within traditions of anti-Romantic writing. I can’t specify, but the poet György Petri occurs to me4, and what was the name of that Hungarian film where it rained all the time and everyone betrayed everyone else?
The tension between public and private, open and closed, can reach breaking point. One moment you know exactly where you are (a street in Sheffield) the next you are faced with “the mad murderer and his two hundred Happisburgh virgins” (The mad murderer is part of a cemetery scene in progress; Happisburgh is an owl sanctuary in East Anglia which fits insofar as the central image of this poem is that of two tawny owls which perhaps live at Never Edge; “virgins” defeats me. Bluebeard’s castle might be invoked). Then you get “the veiled ghost of West Street, the Lindow Woman of this randomly designed map”. (West Street is identifiable enough but probably mentioned because it is where the poets Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk live, who feature elsewhere; Lindow Woman is extremely obscure — a preserved prehistoric bog body of which only part of the skull survives, found in the vicinity of the far better known Lindow Man).
I find it impossible to know to what extent the text invites this kind of annotation, or what is gained when it gets it. There is an extensive subjective input which is perhaps best left alone; the whole cast of the writing, the double refusal, rests the discourse on personal (though not intimate) authorial experience in a way which allows us to glide over such opacities without risk, and the scenes which pop up can be fantasy as easily as actual. If there is a resistant notation it will be repeated, perhaps always. Earlier in the same poem we get, “A large number of these solitary spectres seem to lurk in Αλβιον, bog men and bog women of the Isles, drifting from the North Pole to the South, from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth.” I don’t know why “Albion” remains in Greek but it is typical that any invocation of scale is denied and rendered paradoxical: the distances may be polar but the two towns are alphabetically next-door neighbours. But through these avenues and obstacles the figure reaches us powerfully, of a wandering ghost totally large and totally small and totally unknowable, as in some way a figure of the questing self. Here as elsewhere it is the way words and names accumulate and defeat each other which determines the welcome and denial of the discourse.
THE CENTRAL EXPERIENCE of this remarkable book is the mystery of human physical presence in earthly space, all the more mysterious for being sited in a foreign maze of house-lined streets, seedy pubs and pathetic charity shops peopled by homeless vagabonds postmen and sobbing toddlers in pushchairs. It is a mystery that can never be solved. The objects unearthed in the quest cannot define more than a glimpse of the place and its mysteries, more or less redeemed in the musical and individual analogues. It is simply incomprehensible that a viola appears in a charity shop window in Walkley, Sheffield, and it is even more incomprehensible that it is still there at night. No knowledge of how it actually got there would be anything but a false comfort. There is a self-frustration in these quests which is rather splendidly manifest in, for example, the last words of the main Sheffield sequence concerning the image of fog as something which defeats the search for significant objects and “drains the voice”—
It’s just an ad hoc item from the catalogue of unplanned cosmic events, I thought. A chance word, a transparent name filled with infinite space I wanted to shout into from the top of the Hillsborough hills. (p.44)
So it is not all meticulousness. The very next item after this one, the beginning of a different sequence, takes on a tone of advice, whether self-advice or not — it begins “Don’t be anxious.” The ending seems to recall the gesture just quoted — “There is some good in blinking into the last rays of winter sun. You might go so far as to call it love.” A modest version of a Wordsworthian moment crossed with the alienation of migrant labour; there is nothing else to do and no question of belonging but it could still be love.
A lot more could be said about Carillonneur. Every few words a transition is made which raises questions. And in the large scale there is more going on than I have indicated, and memory plays a bigger part than I have allowed — it is set in Sheffield but storks keep appearing for instance, and at the end it transfers its attention to a border crossing between Hungary and Serbia, evidently another place for lost souls to stand waiting. Borders are crucial to the experience of this book, they are what make you a stranger, and a massive political question could lurk there, but that is not the kind of writing that goes on here. The lesson is always “This is how it is” rather than “This is what could be done about it”. There is even a touch of resignation across the post-industrial suburbs of Sheffield and their various borders. There is certainly a creative determination born out of the contemplation of marginality.
It is a difficult work to write about because every effect it has is liable to be undermined, immediately or eventually, and the reading experience is unsettling as it evokes the restless awareness of a homelessness which the city cannot answer. But there is so much recurrence that many points of the text are recognised and can be felt as temporary homes in the restless weaving of the text. The state of constant paradox admits of a humour which is maintained most of the time at a gentle pitch: every transition is at least slightly humorous, as incompatible verbal epithets are made to sing duets.
At one point in the middle of Carillonneur I found myself asking, “Is this in fact postmodernism?” Am I, that is to say, at last face to face with what I always said doesn’t exist? It was the refusal of depth, of historical resonance or indeed anything whatsoever underlying the words, which prompted this question. I decided not to worry about it. But I don’t think it is postmodernism. The text relies too much, in its detail, on a realistic authenticity which, to my faulty understanding, postmodernists think they can dispense with by retreating into a literary echolalia. Lehóczky herself seems not to take the term very seriously: “Postmodern men and women, the scholar says in between two courses (between the fish soup and the stuffed cabbage), burn much longer these days in crematoria, from the quantity of E numbers they stuff down their throats.”5 For me, when you don’t really believe in either Modernism or Romanticism (though I use those words constantly), post-modernism (lower-case p preferred) becomes a dodgy proposition. Gymnasium exercises in retrospection all of them; on the ground the frontiers are invisible until massive walls are built.
Neither do I think she is a psychogeographer, nor that anybody is. We don’t need a new science to tell us that people live and move in and between places, and that there is a kind of dialogue and mutual moulding goes on between the place and its denizen. Most of the psychogeography I’ve seen has been too concerned to diminish the individual and decisive creative force by attributing most of its characteristics to its place on the map.
BUDAPEST TO BABEL6 shows, in the admixture of lineated writing, Lehóczky as more outwardly a “poet”, though never a lyrical poet. It is hardly “verse” at all, but a fast-moving minimally punctuated prosaic writing in lines, heavily enjambed, drawn out of perceptual questions in relation to language, and usually sited in particular places. Already major concerns are firmly in place–
castles and forts along the line dividing countries
on an infinite ridge we walk; and it is easier to balance
on a highway to and fro suspended in the air than on
invisible tightropes drawn between mother tongues
This is about as “poetic” as it gets, before the turn to prose released a stored-up armoury of poetical technique which required as its platform the extended, uninterrupted flow, without all the little question marks called “line endings”. This process is well in place in the prose poems which are mostly later in the book, and continues into the next.
Rememberer is an impressive little book in itself, in which we can see the prose-poetry moving relentlessly towards Carillonneur. Generally it is more like normal prose, or at any rate it is followable and by comparison explicit, though there are some obstructive sections. The most common manner is that additive technique where words or phrases punctuated as sentences are attached one by one. Like this. Frequently. Giving a feel of improvisation. Which Carillonneur has in more fluid form. There are pieces which seem to be pre-programmed, such as a set in which there is a rule that a P50 must be mentioned at some point in each poem.7 A preliminary method of achieving a sense of authorial anonymity. But against this there are poems more suggestive of personal experience through an addressed “you”. The main difference is that the poems of Rememberer are more likely to be founded on a concept, situation or problem rather than localised percepts.
To write about a place you need to gather its ashes into a ceramic pot. Or into some kind of a hollow, concave vessel. Then you want to tilt it, when it’s full to the brim. Or to drop it, as if it had accidentally slipped out of your hand. All at once.
There are passages like this in Carillonneur and the fragmented mapping there is clearly related to this proposal, and this is the first of ten poems sited at one place: Lake Balaton in Hungary. But in the later writing there is no distanced preludial statement of method; the authorial presence is already there, engaged with the writing process and with the found detail from the start. The detail of Balaton is neither as prolific nor as focussed. Lehóczky certainly made a “great leap forward” after Rememberer but we have here a thoughtful and (mostly) calm collection of prose-poems which engage with experience at a graceful distance.
IT MIGHT SEEM silly to engage in a comparison of Bugan and Lehóczky. It is certainly silly to consider them incompatible, as if you must choose one or the other. Carillonneur and The House of Straw are outwardly polar, but prolonged over-exposure to either book could make you long for the other. I’d insist in principle that in the end it is shared techniques of the poetical craft that secure the validity of both performances. In Bugan you get the presence of song in lineation and lyrical technique, the lyrical swoon; she also has the advantage of working in sentences as a consolidating force played against the lineation. In Lehóczky you get a narrative-like pressing forward (you really do start wanting to know what happens next) but the telling movement from one phrase to another, the almost constant faint or startling gift of surprise, is very much a poetry technique, including the faintly surprising poised fall into silence at the end. There is in both a guarded withdrawal of the self which prevents the poetry lapsing into an inner theatre and which paradoxically opens the individual experience fully onto the page, set aside from politics or any other distraction.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry. A collection of his Fortnightly Reviews is in preparation.
- At Shearsman.com. All self-comment by Bugan is from this source unless noted otherwise. ↩
- The issue is available from Impress here (£9.95) or online from the Poetry Library’s ‘Poetry Magazines’ site, here. ↩
- To those more familiar with the English poetry scene this sense of authorities (poets and critics) examining (or ignoring) everything you do and ever ready to pounce, is very common but has perhaps not reached her yet. May it never. ↩
- Eternal Monday, translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri, Bloodaxe 1999. As a “satirical” and “dissident” poet Petri (born 1943) has a gravitation towards urban boredom low down the social scale which might harmonise with Lehóczky’s project. ↩
- Stuffed cabbage, by the way, is in my experience distinctively a central European dish, something of an acquired taste. At the beginning of a playfully intense philosophical piece (p.56 of Carillonneur) ending “No symbols where none intended”, this fleeting localisation (there are storks later) serves, I find, to hold the discourse down to our sense of this particular author, who insists on finding everything on the ground. ↩
- A word is due about the fine production standards of Egg Box Publications, edited by Nathan Hamilton, a series of impressively designed small hardbacks deriving from the creative writing programmes at the University of East Anglia, from which a number of anthologies. Of the poets whose work I respect there are books by Sam Riviere, Matthew Welton and Vahni Capildeo. ↩
- A P50 is a three-wheeled microcar produced in Britain in the 1960s. Its function in this mock-narrative sequence is distinctly comic, even Chaplinesque, but the refusal to identify it in the text is a typical move of a determined modernist. ↩