“My body knows unheard-of songs”- Hélène Cixous
In a world where the text has been so strongly de-materialised through its insertion in – some would say subjection to – cyberspace, the once-prevalent question of ‘écriture feminine’ may now strike the observer as almost quaint. Yet it is interesting to note that this literary practice, whether the work of men or women, is a phenomenon that has been discussed extensively within the context of “world languages” and almost never outside of them. Given that the very definition of ecriture feminine bears such a strong thematic relation to Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of a ‘minor language’, i.e. a subversive version of a language invariably created within the framework of a language of social hegemony, it could be of interest to investigate what forms of subversion a woman writer might produce working completely outside of the avowedly ‘major literary traditions’ and above all the ever-present dominant paradigm of global English.
The poetry of Krisztina Tóth (b. 1967) is usually, within the realm of Hungarian criticism, mentioned within the established context of women’s poetics, alongside her markedly strong bond to the immediate postwar Újhold generation of poets, largely characterized by poetic abstraction, free verse, and a heartfelt mission to grapple with the traumatic legacy of World War Two. Not insignificantly, the Újhold group was the first Hungarian literary generation in which women poets held an indisputably vital role. The range of heterogeneous, even divergent influences is wide: Tóth studied in France and has widely translated from French; moreover, she also has training in the applied arts and currently works as an artist in stained glass. Yet nonetheless, the legacy of the Újhold writers occupies a central position, less as a direct model than as a tradition thoroughly rewritten through a decidedly anti-epic stance, discerning and crystalising transient moments of everyday life and their deeper meanings. Like the fleeting play of briefly glimpsed lights and reflections in glass, Tóth’s poems remain apart from the primeval mythologies (e.g. the monumental “symphonic” narratives of Sándor Weöres), the wrenching existential dilemmas (e.g. János Pilinszky’s fusion of a Christian humanism with the horrors of the twentieth century) or even the monumental abstraction of Ágnes Nemes Nagy’s ‘objective lyricism’. Rather, they form delicate, exquisite miniatures in which seemingly banal instances of middle-class European daily life at the turn of the millennium are infused with sudden twists of meaning, at times gaining an almost mystical significance.
One example is the poem ‘Shadowgrass’:
I set about to put everything in order:
to mow the lawn, but first I had
to disentangle the twenty-five metres of extension cord.
One end I tied to an arbor vitae
(Oh, how the route passes from soul to soul)
with another (there were at least four).
I headed back to the house.
Evening closed in around me and I gave up.
Stay – I stood there – stay as it is,
let it grow ever further and scatter forth,
growing onto the sky, may the shadowgrass
scatter forth its seeds,
which I myself have cast.
Here, a perfectly ordinary event – the garden needing to be put in order – is deftly unraveled as the poet’s passing thought (“Oh, how the route passes from soul to soul”) seems to collaborate with that natural enemy of order, darkness. The intention to commence, on the face of it, the most quintessentially suburban of activities, mowing the lawn, is transformed into something more like a pagan invocation for the grass and the shadows to spread onwards. Why the fascination with darkness? One could speak of the enveloping darkness of the womb, of the darkness and mystery surrounding creation: “in the darkness, one moment is enough for everything to gain a new meaning”, she writes in “Ikrek helycseréje”. Darkness allows for surprising semantic shifts, the ambiguity that allows language to escape its assigned boundaries.
Other everyday images are enveloped still further in a pervasive sense of the Unheimlich: the Surrealist shock of recognition, the startling uncanniness of the subject put forth by the subconscious, is more than evident in such poems as “Tram Depot”, as the poem shifts with chilling abruptness from a late-night conversation inside a car to the startling image of a glove stuck on a tree branch, “like a frozen corpse playing the piano.”
Just how long did you think this could last?
Back up, it’s a one-way street.
Cap in hand, the drunkard sways,
it’s dawn, he has to leave, he knows,
just like that, into the nylon-coloured fog
the headlights fall asleep, instead of which
the cigarette burns, drifting to the ground,
silence, growing numb (do you love me)
(you idiot), I’m in the wrong place,
nothing moves in the evening snow,
the windshield-wiper jams (I get out of the car),
no need, he says, to rush (that’s fine by me)
next to the sidewalk, on a tree-branch jutting out,
a glove is stretched, perhaps someone lost it.
Like a frozen corpse playing the piano.
You shake it off, pull it halfway onto your hand.
Surrealism never, in the 1920s and 1930s, established itself as the essential part of the Hungarian cultural landscape that the movement held, for instance, in Czechoslovakia, hence the distinctly Surrealist “concrete irrationality” of Tóth’s latest volume (not to mention the cycle ‘Chiselled Meteor’ directly dedicated to Andre Breton) is a particularly fascinating aspect of her work.
In addition to its search for inspiration from the subconscious, Surrealism equally operated upon the creative principle of the inclusion of the random, the accidental, in other words the elements outside of immediate (conscious) authorial control and planning. As can be inferred from more than one interview, Tóth clearly makes chance one of the guiding principles for literary creation: an unexpected sighting or personal encounter often forms the seed from which the poem then germinates. Many of the poems contain “found” elements – fragments of casually overheard speech, incidental comments removed from their originally banal conversational exchanges.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating “found objects” (as one critic noted) is the title of the volume itself, a verbal assemblage generating a highly intricate halo of meanings. At first glance, the title, Síró ponyva, is mystifying: síró, the gerundive form of the verb sír (to weep), and ponyva designating rough canvas or other material used for protection from the elements, or by extension trash. Only that the phrase ponyvaregény also springs to mind: pulp literature, dime novels. According to the Magyar ertelmező kéziszótár, the origin of the phrase is that such literature was in bygone days sold atop canvas sheets spread on the ground at the Sunday market. “Síró ponyva” was actually a phrase glimpsed by Tóth on the back of a truck. “Síró”, for all its connotations of uncontrollable sorrow, was in fact the owner’s name (whom Tóth unsuccessfully tried to contact for the volume’s launch during the Budapest Book Week) and the merchandise, one supposes, canvas and other such fabrics. A strange verbal coincidence difficult to imagine in the English-speaking world – but not at all in that of Anglophone India, where the language is in fact subjected to a fascinating combination of British archaicisms and inflection or compound creation according to the rules of Hindi grammar. Here we may recall how the theme of the banality of everyday life has become the overriding subject for so many young writers within the Euro-Atlantic sphere – perhaps only appropriate for an era ‘beyond history’. Only that in Tóth’s reworkings, these quotidian instances, while losing none of their referentiality, convey the transcendence and mystery of the work of a poet like Emily Dickinson.
Tóth has mentioned in many interviews how she is inspired by what she sees and hears around her: the musical tones and assonance of a phrase used by a workman discussing the M0 ring-road, overheard while taking her son to nursery school, words and phrases from the environs of the Budapest metro. The unusual immediacy that these scraps of extra-literary fact bring into the poem has been noted by the critic Béla Bodor, who also mentions the performative aspects of the poetry, the synchronous bond between the present utterance of speech and the lived moment described in it: Tóth’s poetry “in a strange way does not describe, but rather speaks the images”. As Bodor goes on to add, Tóth avoids epic constructions; her poems are the production, the accumulation, the result of “given moments”. Fragmentation of structure – or in other words the fragmentalising structure – leads to what other critics have perceived as the strong decentralizing aspect of Tóth’s poetry. Perhaps influenced in part by her experience as a stained-glass artist, the anti-construction of a series of scattered, seemingly unrelated moments bears a distinct relation to the simultaneity of visual narrative, as opposed to the linearity of the verbal form. According to the author’s own statement, a poem is not only form or content, but an object in and of itself: “a poem has a surface like any other object perceptible by touch”.
Simultaneity and decentralization, as inherent qualities of lived experience (similar to the decentralizing female jouissance first discussed by Lacan and assumed by French feminist theory) would seem to indicate a different relation not only to space, but also to time and temporality. Julie Kristeva speaks of female subjectivity as related both to cyclical and mythical time; the mythological strain in Tóth’s poetry, permeated as it is with existentialism, is more glancing, more fleeting than the work of such a figure as Weöres. Her visions never truly leave the realm of the everyday, but rather infuse it, in nearly offhand fashion, with something ghostly and mysterious: “I know of course, of that haunted existence / but now the world beyond was communicating by scent” states the narrator of the title poem, almost as if whe were referring to a change in her cell-phone provider. Rather than making the mythic space banal and suburban, as the general tenor of Euro-Atlantic posthistoire would have it, these poems hover uncertainly between two or more worlds, as if unsure of their destination. And indeed, the theme of many of the verses is moving house, trying to navigate the side-streets of Pest by car, or “across the cordon, into the beyond”.
We went too far again, forgot to turn
to the right, I never was good
with directions, for I was dreaming, you know,
like the ant straying into the vacuum cleaner, I always went
only the light
led me farther, it was to the right
that we should have gone, too late, but you know,
no matter where,
all the roads will lead back home.
The cycle” Macabre,” termed a “dance of death” by one critic, treats the theme of a housewarming party in which the basement is referred to as Hell. These topological and symbolic shifts, which often take place in a car (in at least one verse, the car itself seems to feature ambiguously as a potential protagonist) are mirrored by the many semantic shifts (often occurring, as we have noted, under the protective cover of darkness). Meanings are twinned by mysterious doubles: in the poem “The Song of Tearfull’s Pulp” the phrase “we’ve met before somewhere, haven’t we” becomes, through the substitution of one consonant (találkoztunk/halálkoztunk) “we’ve died before already, I think”. In the poem “How Many Times Did I Implore” utterly banal fragments of conversation (“There are eggs at home…. What’s the ice cream for, your ass’s big enough”) are interspersed with solipsistic mutterings that uncannily look and sound like meaningful Hungarian words (some actually variations of real words with slight phonetic shifts), largely respecting the rules of vowel harmony but only bearing whatever semantic force the reader him- or herself is willing to impose. Under the weight of grief, of its own inability to communicate, language breaks down, but remains all the more eloquent for that. The sheer tactility and materiality of the poem is extraordinary. (Note, for instance, that a similar linguistic experiment was attempted by the prewar “comic genius” Frigyes Karinthy, for example in his stories “Melancholia” and “Prologue”).
Perhaps, by way of conclusion, it might be only apt to cite the poetic credo of Agnes Nemes Nagy on behalf of the “nameless ones”, from her essay of the same title:
“The poet is the expert of feelings. While practicing my profession, I have often felt that these so-called feelings are composed of at least two layers. The first layer carries feelings known to us and recognizable; and they have names: joy, terror, love, indignation. For the most part their meanings are commonly defined, they have a past, their own spheres of erudition, a literary history. They are the citizens of our heart. The second layer is the no-mans-land of the nameless ones. If at six o clock in the evening I stop on the corner of Kékgolyó u. (Blue Globe street), and I see how the edge of the sunlight is falling on the Castle at a certain angle, and how the olive trees of the Vérmező (Field of Blood) are casting their shadows in a certain way: I am always overwhelmed anew. There is no word for this state. However, everyone has stood on the corner of Kékgolyó u. at one time or another.
How many times have I been compelled to give these nameless emotions conventional designations! And not only because I am greasing the words to follow the logic of the screw of common usage. No. I myself in my uncomprehending obtuseness ruined it, and I splashed the Nameless One of Kékgolyó u. into a stagnant puddle of autumnal melancholy or a tepid bath of historical zeal. Because of course, autumnal melancholy or historical zeal are the citizens in good standing of our hearts. I believe that one of the poet’s obligations is to try to obtain citizenship for as many of the Nameless Ones as possible”.
Or in the words of Krisztina Tóth herself:
In the book of the poet, who lives no more,
next to a verse where he writes of a woman,
(she too lives no more), like a marigold
is preserved the pawprint of my cat:
stealthily creeping there, for the crack
between the pages was always exciting,
waiting for the mouse at once to come out,
(the cat too has long since gone missing)
and truly there in the depths of the paper’s secret
tunnel, something flutters, incessant:
something we have left between the leaves
the accidental there impressed.
© 2006 Ottilie Mulzet