In We Build A City the Hungarian poet Kinga Toth reassembles, almost as an architect /builder, both language and genre: she is a ‘(sound) poet illustrator, translator, frontwoman, performer, songwriter’ who writes in Hungarian, German and English, living now between Hungary and Germany. Her work has won several important prizes. This book was originally published in Germany in 2019 and has been co-translated by the poet herself into English: the edition is sleek and elegant with a grey industrial landscape as its cover, however the dominant image, a rounded breast-shaped silo, hints at the deep gender concerns raised within.
Originally a philologist, her work signals a deep fascination with language per se ,
and she is not afraid to mould and transform it , experimentally stress its materials to breaking-point in order to create new structures. This is an ambitious collection: the poems and graphics are collective in their range, remind us of plans and maps of unrecognisable sites, slash vertically and horizontally, and imagine strange and provoking structural relationships between the (obliquely gendered female) body as metaphor for a city in both biomorphic and mechanistic terms. Toth regards the poet as part machine and language as self-generating: meaning is always fluid, elusive, and words run together as hybrids – ‘newdeed’, ‘foldstool’, ‘tormentbelts’. The effect is powerful and sometimes menacing. Here is the beginning of the poem ‘WOMAN’ :
the woman is the container’s part
on her head a yellow snapped helmet
the channels crackle outside
squirming as a maze
not every one of them
gets back inside the body
In a breakthrough poem ‘Ballerina’ from her collection All Machine, 2014, Toth evokes a rotating, robotic figure, a model dancer activated on the top of a music box by a key, and We Build A City would appear to explore this trope further. Poems here evoke the perplexing realities of being seen as a performer, a female receiver of the public gaze, while at the same time imagining ways in which linguistic imagery can evoke consciousness as a mechanistic system, partly human and partly human-made (as we all are to some extent now in the 21st century due to contemporary surgical and technological interventions within the body). Toth’s work also considers how bodies (and consciousness) are impacted by disability and illness. In contrast with the architectural project to create a perfected whole, this perhaps more compelling sub-text offers glimpses of the fragmented/broken, incomplete / unfinished in constant process. The graphics consist of images and patterns made from faded and sometimes smudged letters from vintage typewriter keys: there is a disjoint between the modern and the anachronistic but without any trace of nostalgia. By the end of the book, language as text disappears almost entirely and we have only smudged and disjointed single letters within these eerie diagrams.
Pippa Little 31st August 2022