The Mother

Dear logophilic friend, collector of letters, the lepidopterist
continues in another half-composed epistole, despite its
mistake of being in the wrong place, gathering the wrong
things, tumbling towards the wrong source of enlightenment,
the poem today shows, unmistakably, a strong tendency to fall
towards silence. Propelled towards the pool. Is any man wiser
than Socrates or Celan sat in lotus pose wordless at opposite
ends writing in air or water, the rhetorical question we might
ask, one writing at the dawn, the other at the closure of writing
against writing. O the absolute rhetoric of the anti-scribe. The
poem, their message says, no matter how murky, should be as
transparent as the pool. Composing letters, Nabokov, the
philatelist claims, is a blend of dejection and high spirits, a
torture and a pastime. On the other hand, he who loathes
writing writing down longs for a new career as a guardian of
dead moths, unsent postcards, coralised butterflies. He longs to
be a museum attendant, a three-headed, multi-souled hellhound
who guards an entrance no-one ever enters in fallen Saint
Petersburg or clandestine Prague for a life-time or for as long
as the museum is open, in other words until it shuts. Therefore
I too must, o mottephilic friend, seek the core of the fear of my
other, o wing-phobia, o fluttering lover, do not write on the
body of the butterfly. Knowledge of any thing that partakes in
being may help ease our fear of the things it fears. Meditation
or other structured breathing exercise. And you, breathless
beginner of fearing, you must free your dead moth, the no
chance moth struggling on glass. The estranged, furry self
agonising on the border between inside and outside. Dear X,
enframer of the world. A being is a being that is being. There is
no simpler mediator between the moth and nothing than
nothing. The moth thinks we can’t see what it is being because
it does not belong either to the frame, the world, or to you. No
absolute pen that could navigate the poem in the writing
exercise. At the bottom of this swimming pool you won’t find
any pre-meditated, painted lines. The body, in here lost, we
could almost think, is free. And the poem continues to be never
found. For what is found is already misplaced. And there we
were, remember, at the edge of the pool amongst bronze
figures illuminated in an imagined source of light, unsure
whether at the beginning or at the end of what was to take
place in between. And to pass the waiting time we were talking
of a melancholic mother all summer – her terror of talking of
her terror of talking. It is a bit like, she says in the end, when
Panna the sheepdog died. The day she became tongue-tied. The
tumour chewing a bit of her body away each day advancing a
day closer to what by now is far too far. The growth, then,
although invisible to the eye, we knew, existed because the dog
does not exist anymore. In a dog’s invisible life the speed of
gnawing, the unnoticed non-being gnaws seven times swifter.
O phlegmatic old dog. There is another dog seven times faster
than the dog inside the dog inside. And we were there again at
the edge of the pool to understand the speed of time seven
times speedier, the speed of sadness speeding seven times
faster. Dear gatherer, we frame the world so it can be seen or
understood or found. And we saw that it was already autumn, a
liminal season. The pool was not quite yet escaping its own
momentum, in there time was seven times slower than real
time, seven times idler, I thought in the sauna, because I was
there at the edge of the melancholic pool. And I saw my
reflections on the glass. And through the glass I watched
bronze bodies swimming up and down to and froing between
two tiled walls like trafficking dark tree logs, o all the Y-shaped
non-swimmers floating down the dark Danube. Multiple and
simultaneous realities of pool-water. Dear fictitious friend,
Ottlik thinks we who partake in being in the real world can
imagine this world always already unreal. Being non-being, in
other words. He imagines his protagonists to be invisible to
others. So he spends most of his time in an imaginary pool
thinking he too is unseen. But in a pool clarity, in a pool
enlightenment and transparency pool’s always static and
already idle no matter how fast you swim. There is another
poem seven times faster inside the poem inside. And in the
pool another pool. The same pool. In this pool the poem is a
poem unmoving you. Dear unmoved Y. A blue tiled concrete
basin filled with chlorine and water is the same tiled and
concrete basin filled with chlorine and water you bathed in the
other day, no matter what David Hockney says. And it is where
we stood at the edge of the season with bronze bodies
illuminated in otherwordly light. There were no warning signs
to warn us but the pool. Despite loud loudspeakers urging
swimmers to get out of the water, you, madam, as well, in the
pink swim cap, sir, in stripy trunks, the rules apply to you too.
A light summer storm came with muffled thunder and Y shaped
lightning above the water. And we had to leave the pool that,
despite the disruptions, remained the same. And with us the bus
meandered across Water Town, the old Buda district in the
summer storm that wouldn’t soften or ease down. Soon cones
and conkers were falling on the roof, each minute stronger and
louder until we thought war must make this sound. Outside the
summer streets were white, flooded with thick ice, hailstones
the size of cherries or pomegranates. Contours of the world
melted, blurred as if this world were the extension of the pool.
A water world in which everything could become everything
else. And at this border crossing of beings the city became a
river, as if the city had always been this river or more precisely
as if the city had never existed before and after the flood, and
in this river city the cars and the trams had to learn to drive on.
There’s another city seven times faster in the city inside. And
then the outside became invisible. And inside utterly silent.
Needless to say the metamorphosis didn’t last longer than a
quarter of an hour, almost as long as it takes to narrate it all to
you, a quarter of an hour where I knew I belonged. Then the
sun shone, the sky turned blue and the city continued to
navigate on. Dear visible other, now imagine the terror of an
imagined mother floating somewhere in the middle of events,
the dying sheepdog, the moth on the glass, the bus that was
drowning, writing contra writing and lovers of words against
love, remember the hail storm, like an erasure that can turn the
city into ice. The night butterfly, that agonises in another
language. Dead moths who can reinvent their lives in this one.
O loather of lexis. We stood there at the edge of the pool
talking of sleepless nights we spent with shutters shut. The
collective fear of night apparitions, the triangular dark body on
our white walls. The fan-shaped fear’s night visit. The bizarre
genus camouflaged on the black window-glass. Body flattened,
as if it could make us think it were only glass. As if it were
darkness. Unbelonging to the world or to you. Dear moth-
fearer. Overcome your fear and be a mother, an Aurelian, the
bronze-bodied swimmer, golden, like the colour of chrysalis or
the drooling sun in sunset. A collector of lepke, a day or night
time butterfly in my mother’s tongue. Dear museophile friend,
collector of clutter. Everyone collects pools in the end. But in
their centre all pools have a plug through which they regularly
escape. To overcome the obsession we must suspend the
writing it all down. Walk, or write, like lepke on the surface of
rough terrains, Ottlik reasons, without clothes, barefoot
amongst thorn bushes and gigantic water melons. Moths are
bizarre creatures, Woolf, the moth-murderer writes in her essay
on the plane back to England at the end of one summer, her
aircraft tossed around in turmoil. Sebald, the moth mourner,
encounters it in his grotty B&B room on the East Anglian
shoreline. They have, he claims, an angular relationship to a
bright celestial light such as the Moon. But those celestial
objects are so far away, that even after travelling great
distances the change in angle between the moth and the light
source is negligible. In other words they think the lamp,
towards which they come plummeting downwards in a spiral
flight, is the Moon. There is no right word to change the mind
of the lost genus, to explain that they are mistaken, that they
made a fatal navigational error. Their innate longing for both
darkness and light. The moth, of course, is the poem. And the
poem, of course is a swimmer in the pool during front crawl.
Head facing down towards the tiled bottom. Head turning
skywards when out for a breath. The alternating arms’ rolling
movement, the experts say, prepare the body for an easier
recovery compared to butterfly. Dear longing writer. Adam
thinks moth is a sign of writing flowing smoothly. The room is
a room in another room. Imago moulting into imago waiting to
become. Dear Adam. The old photograph you sent me with the
image of the Underwater Swimmer was taken in a Budapest
pool in 1917. Swimmer Underwater, the dormant swimmer
waiting to be woken, which I came across much later from
1978, seems to be to me the perfect reflection of its model;
Hockney’s version of the swimmer perhaps somewhat lighter
or darker than its prototype; however, in both, spiky reflections
strike the water in electric bolts of light as their swimmers
glide, curious creatures, disembodied crab claws, the online
photo albums guide the eye. Or perhaps like headless Rilke
torsos. Only the striped trunks ensure us the body of
Underwater Swimmer is human as the head disappears in the
movement of the water. It casts a deep shadow of Swimmer
Underwater, the dormant swimmer waiting to be woken on the
shallow bottom, while other tiny shadows melt into the fluid
scene, circling his body like newly hatched tadpoles, orbiting
around its miniature self. In the split-second exposure, the
swimmer’s extended body seems to hover suspended in the
water. A floating faun. Contours of a fluid angel drawn from
violin strings. Shooting a horizontal skywards. Distancing.
Distancing. Slowly. Slowly. Away from itself. A melancholy
tulip. But at what point does meaning become distortion. There
is meaning inside inside. Dear liminal moth on the glass.
Márai, the headless author, unseen and unheard of, in his
studies on Turkish spas of old Buda districts sketched in the
1940s argues, that humanity can only sustain itself if it steps
out of history. It must swim out of its old shell. The dark
Danube. To exist you must exit, he adds in the notebook, at
which stage he’s still living in the country not having quite left,
beheaded or bereft of love yet, nor deprived of the accent on
his laurel crown, by then peripatetically cocooned in the coat of
another writer in a country that does not recognise or see him.
His overnight train at this stage of the narrative had not yet
crossed any visible border. He, the invisible prophet in exile
inside and outside, thinks, the wise perform aquatic thinking in
the inner domes of steam rooms away from the public. For the
hooded writer the spa is an aquatic monastery for fluid
thinking. The fool, he reiterates, exposed to the world, scorch
their skin outdoors in the midday sun. In the milieu of
indifference, the anonymous author adds, for the self to survive
you must write to a reader always already dead. Dear composer
of chaos. At what point does distortion remain beautiful. At
what point is origin original? Where did we begin this actual
discourse? And at what point of our loving it does the body, the
poem, the thing, the subject of our affection and attention
become hideous or repulsive? Socrates thinks it is when a thing
becomes unhidden, that is, found. Dear terror-ridden reader, we
must hope this book is not going to terrorise anyone. Look,
worshipper of blue sky and sun. We know that moths will burn
their wings, which proves that light is good for them, or else
they had flown not where they agonise, the poem within the
poem says. The source of light, a Tungsram light bulb with
filament made from tungsten instead of carbon. The inscription
reads 1910: wire lamp with a drawn wire and a light
indestructible. The globe, the old advert adds, is as small as the
bulb. The bulb as great as the globe, is what they mean. There
is a globe within the bulb, is what they really think. Talking of
swimming pools shrinks the Earth. It turns the poem into a
photo essay. The narratives of terror and affection, always
turning backwards, towards darkrooms, but already propelling
towards safe neon light. The limbo between affinity and
aversion. The see-sawing: when you are up in the air I am
always already on the ground. In moments when the clouds
close in above one’s skull and hooded crows begin their
necessary seasonal discourse so that one’s major organs quiver.
Dear x-rayed reader. Socrates, sat still, in a pupa-position at the
margin thinks, we don’t need to laminate the globe. Stay in
darkness, invisible, he reasons, do not illuminate the room.
There is a secret path of writing without a turn. Be atropos, the
moth-enthusiast, the cosmic, he says, whose mind is the Moon,
eyes the Sun. It stares skywards. It has a thousand heads and a
thousand feet like a universal insect. Be tautology; darkness
inside another darkness inside. Dear illuminator. Let there be
light inside the light. Look. Ottlik sets his protagonists in the
milieu of Lukács spa in Budapest where the two friends spend
whole days in silence. For the men, who occasionally hum or
nod, pool is a perfect place for pool and people watching, idly,
cocooned in sunshine, waiting for a freed up sunbed or
eavesdropping carefree banter about the results of the water
polo final. The unreliable narrator tells us a few pages later that
the friends say nothing because at the time they thought of
nothing else except nothing. Except the anchor of a lost ship at
Trieste Bay. Near the bay is Rilke’s dark and lonely castle.
Dear numb child the child inside the numb. In the novel’s
public pool the two protagonists of course eventually speak.
The subject is a manuscript a dead friend had left behind. What
hope do we have left, the dead friend reasons on the page, if
not even a mother can read writing without writing. O lost
moth-finder. Don’t break me, the moth says: my head is made
of glass. Can you see what I am thinking? Or perhaps it says:
can you see what I am.





[Ágnes Lehóczky is an Hungarian-born poet, scholar and translator originally from Budapest. Her poetry collections published in the UK: Budapest to Babel (Egg Box Publishing, 2008); Rememberer (Egg Box Publishing, 2012) and Carillonneur (2014, Shearsman Books). She also has three poetry collections in Hungarian: Station X (Universitas, 2000) and Medallion (Universitas, Budapest, 2002) and Palimpszeszt (Magyar Napló, Budapest, 2015). She was the winner of the Arthur Welton Poetry Award 2010 and the inaugural winner of the Jane Martin Prize for Poetry at Girton College, Cambridge, in 2011. She was Hungary's representative poet for Poetry Parnassus at Southbank Centre during London's Cultural Olympiad in Summer 2012. Her collection of essays on the poetry of Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Poetry: the Geometry of Living Substance, was published in 2011 by Cambridge Scholars, and a libretto of hers was commissioned by Writers' Centre Norwich for The Voice Project at Norwich Cathedral as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2011. A sequence of her prose poems Parasite of Town, on psycho-geographic aspects of Sheffield, was commissioned by Citybooks Sheffield in 2011. She co-edited Sheffield Anthology; Poems from the City Imagined (Smith / Doorstop, 2012) with Adam Piette. She currently works as a lecturer and teaches creative writing at the University of Sheffield. Her new poetry collection on swimming pools is scheduled for 2017. A small fraction of the pool poems have also been published in a chapbook Poems from the Swimming Pool (Constitutional Information, Sheffield, 2015).


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