15th December 2021

Book in Focus

Seeking a Home for Poetry in a Nomadic World

Joseph Brodsky and Ágnes Lehóczky

By Silvia Panicieri

Following the Tracks of Psychogeography: A Way to Explore the City

By Silvia Panicieri

This enthralling path which has conducted me from approaching the work of the poet Ágnès Lehóczky to finding thematic and stylistic correspondence with the work of Joseph Brodsky passes through the theme of psychogeography, which underlies both authors, strictly connected to the literature of exile.

David Patterson, in his essay “From Exile to Affirmation: The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky,” (1993: 1) argues that, “Operating in a state of exile, the poet of exile finds that the completion of the poem precedes the condition it addresses. Thus, the poet of exile is continually struggling in a time that is too late and a place that is elsewhere.” All this seems to ultimately refer to “psychogeography”, a science inspired by the theories of the French Situationists, briefly synthetized as follows:

[…] psychogeography describes “the study of the specific effect of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”. And in broad terms, psychogeography is, as the name suggests, the point at which psychology and geography collide, a means of exploring the behavioural impact of urban place (Coverley 2010, 9-10).

Ágnès Lehóczky applies the principles of psychogeography in her “flâneuristic approach” to discover the urban environment of her new country, accompanying her readers in exploring the city, at first through the eyes of a tourist and then those of a new inhabitant, who, nevertheless, is never “definitely” settled, living in between her new city and her lost hometown, to which she regularly returns.

Lehóczky embodies a modern, unconventional flâneuse, a mediated figure and “something of the quality of oral tradition and bizarre urban myth” (Shield 94: 63). As a woman, she is further unconventional, since the flâneur has traditionally been a man, due to the social constraints which once prevented women from “indulgent practices such as late-night urban strolling” (Milburn 2009: 5). Flâneurism serves as “a way of reading urban texts, a methodology for uncovering the traces of social meaning embedded in the layered fabric of the city”, as well as being “a standpoint that helps to survive the shock and discontinuity experienced in the modern city” (Featherstone 1998: 910).

In her lonely wanderings, Lehóczky discovers the British cities—mainly the city of Sheffield—through many historical traces left from the past, a past which she fictionally elaborates in her verses, combining it with memories of her native Budapest.

The poem “Wrought iron girder railway bridge” offers a good representation of this: Blackfriars Bridge in London is compared to “some bridge crossing the Danube”, but, at a certain stage in the poem, the two places overlap, merging into a single image. The poem begins like this:

say Blackfriars today surfaced as some bridge
crossing the Danube its light electric trains were
obsolete […] melting into a metropolis anonymous for the
fare we stick to a hundred forint coin engraved in
the centre […] circular spinning / geography rotating topographic wits velocity of
thoughts random tête-a-têtes on St Paul’s Walk
opposite an iron bridge a wrought ornament of
imagination yet exchanging rivers may not craft a
home from the vagabond’s global tune in the
high street compressing and expanding the
bellows up and down time and again
the sound of the voyage is reassuring to you
although you mistake it for the winding resonance
of sentences […] we must get off here and
confide in a bridge that rises in absence alongside,
relics of eight cylindrical piers in progress of
disintegrating (Lehóczky 2008: 40)

The London and Budapest riverfronts strongly resemble each other, with their Parliament buildings both belonging to the Gothic Revival style and facing the rivers: a resemblance which creates in the poet the illusion of a single vision. In an interview, Lehóczky says: “[O]ur world in terms of interpretability, is built strata thus suggesting that a ‘specific place’ always ‘enbeds’ or ‘triggers’ memories of another one. I attempt to create a scenario where places can not only swap locations but become one in the mind (i.e., the Thames can be seen as the Danube etc.)” (Fowler 2010).

We get involved in a sort of treasure hunt set by Lehóczky through the city and its outskirts, described in poems that seem to follow de Certeau’s teachings to the letter, where the “space is a practiced place”. For De Certeau, “the perspective is determined by a ‘phenomenology’ of existing in the world. In short, space is a practiced place. Thus, the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers. In the same way, an act of reading is the space produced by the practice of a particular place: a written text, i.e. a place constituted by a system of signs” (De Certeau 1984: 117-118).

By means of similar strolls “à la derive” Joseph Brodsky discovers the real and the metaphorical places he visits in his “travelling exile”, in which Italy always retained a privileged place. If Rome and Florence embodied for Brodsky the concepts of “classicism” and “empire”, Venice stood for “a work of art, the greatest masterpiece our species produced” (Brodsky 1992: 116), a place in which he could feel the estrangement (in Russian ostranenie) he deemed necessary for an artist.

Brodsky visited Venice every Christmas for seventeen years—with one or two gaps due to ill-health—to “scan” the city’s face and present his original vision of it. In Venice, Brodsky celebrated his first Christmas in exile, in 1972, and his last, in December 1995, before his sudden death in New York in January 1996.

In his multicultural existence, Venice epitomizes Brodsky’s personal and artistic change, and Brodsky contextualizes it with his native St. Petersburg in a game of mirrors that indissolubly binds the two cities, thus recalling to our mind the principles of psychogeography.

I, too, once lived in a city where cornices used to court
clouds with statues, and where a local penseur, with his shrill “Pervert!”
Pervert!” and the trembling goatee, was mopping
avenues; and an infinite quay was rendering life myopic.
These days evening sun still blinds the tenement’s domino.
But those who have loved me more than themselves are no
longer alive. The bloodhounds, having lost their quarry,
with vengeance devour the left overs—herein the very
 strong resemblance to memory, to the fate of all things. The sun
sets. Faraway voices, exclamation like “Scum!
Leave me alone!” in a foreign tongue, but it stands to reason.
And the world’s best lagoon with its golden pigeon
coop gleams sharply enough to make the pupil run.
At the point where one can’t be loved any longer, one,
resentful of swimming against the current and too perceptive
of its strength, hides himself in perspective.

The poem has a symmetrical structure—four stanzas of four lines each, with the same rhyming scheme aabb—to reinforce the parallelism between the two cities. St. Petersburg represents the past “there”, as opposed to Venice, the present “here”.

Keeping in mind that Brodsky grew up in a city dominated by architecture—first neoclassical, then, during Soviet times, Constructivist and Stalinist—we see how he shows in his writings a thorough knowledge of the terms that refer to architecture—such as symmetry, reflections, perspectives, points of contact and escape—which he seems to employ in the similar work of “building” his compositions. It is a literary device that bears a resemblance to Lehóczky’s “building blocks”—a technique ultimately drawn from Heidegger’s theories, as “[a]ny inhabited place is formed also by its language”, a notion expressed in Poetry, Language, Thought. Lehóczky explicitly claims that, “Writing in a new language is very much like discovering a new city” (Fowler 2010), and, in her poetry, she presents both her achievements in a parallel path.

In his essay Watermark, an “emotional guidebook” (Donadio 2010: 1) of Venice, Brodsky accompanies the reader through the city’s hidden corners, described in dense prose, full of his brilliant observations. There is no plot, and the narration unfolds through unbound episodes, to communicate the sensation of discovering the city in a dream-like haze: like the author, the reader can only “perceive” the city, since grasping its whole essence is not possible.

From the very beginning, the author portrays himself as a gentleman in his Borsalino hat, in the dissolving darkness of the forthcoming night, while the narrative switches from the realistic into the metaphysical plane:

[I] felt I’d stepped into my own self-portrait in the cold air… The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops: a bridge arching over a body of water’s black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost, and here it was twenty meters away. It was very quiet. (Brodsky 1992: 7)

The assimilation of Brodsky with Venice is such that his own description can only proceed in parallel with the city. The passage which follows is one of the most quoted of the essay and shows the deep, metaphysical nature of Brodsky’s narrative: “The boat’s slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious” (Brodsky 1992: 39). In Venice, the Russian-American author undergoes a further transformation, becoming the Baudelairean character of the flâneur, who wanders around with the aim of getting lost in the uniqueness of the city, whose labyrinthine nature offers the ideal location for this.

For her part, Lehóczky emphasizes the labyrinthine nature of Venice and its elusiveness that puzzles the visitor: “The city too labyrinthine and you / got dizzy? Those canals on the map were / not to follow, nor to trust. [C]ountless sotoportegos, dark Misericordia” (Lehóczky 2008: 71).

Referring to my volume for further interesting observations that emerged from the reading of the two authors, let us briefly return to the figure of the flâneur and psychogeography, to conclude this short article.

We could say that the latest development of flâneurism can be found in “modern technologies [which, A/N] allow people to travel virtually and be a ‘digital nomad’ from the comfort of their own home” (Harrington 2013: 7). Milburn (2009: 10-11) summarises this point, introducing the newest figure of the “cyber flaneur”:

[T]he impulse for flânerie shows no sign of receding; we now just encounter it in new ways, as highlighted by those involved in studies of the cyber flâneur a figure who, it has been claimed, is free “in the mode of Baudelaire in 19th century Paris, to wander freely through the spaces of the cyber city listening in to other people’s conversation, perhaps choosing to participate, maybe opting simply to observe”.

Nowadays, cities have become virtual cities on the internet—reproductions of the real ones in three-dimensional maps—or fictional, as in science fiction videogames—a theme also hinted at in Lehóczky’s work.

When global connectivity goes hand in hand with the increasing isolation of the individual, we all become solitary explorers—“cyber-flâneurs”—of modern cities, drawing inspiration from our two authors, to form, this way, our new, “nomadic” identities. 

Silvia Panicieri teaches English at various secondary schools. After receiving her Master’s degree in Russian and English Languages and Literature, she worked for ten years for a number of international organizations. She obtained a PhD, together with the title of “Doctor Europaeus”, in Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Verona, Italy, in 2018. She has published three essays on the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky: “How Iosif Brodskij Definitely Became Joseph Brodsky: A Life-long Influence of English”; “Brodsky’s Travelling Exile Pays Homage to Venice”; and “Brodsky’s ‘An Immodest Proposal’: Contents and Outcomes of An Extraordinary Project”. Drawing from her teaching experience, she also published the essay “A Few Reflections on Specific Learning Disorders and Foreign Language Teaching in Italian Secondary Schools”.

Seeking a Home for Poetry in a Nomadic World: Joseph Brodsky and Ágnes Lehóczky is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount, Enter PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. 

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