An edited version of the Romania Literara article given as a short (10-15 minute) paper. I have modified it but it isn't quite right. I am still thinking about that 'palace of nerves' or as it might be, the 'neural palace'. Such images appear as they would in poetry because they seem right and persuasive, but they are not fully comprehensible and might be misleading.
But exile is too easy a term. It suggests a political act of which the exile is the subject. Expelled from his or her home, the poet loses contact not only with his language but with the society whose language has been his own and, perhaps just as importantly, with all those elements that add up to an identity. We haven’t to go far of course to look for the nearest and most famous exile, Ovidius Naso.
I live in a place encircled by countless enemies.The imagination is presented as dulled and harmed by long disuse: the field unploughed. Ovid was writing this from exile of course, in his original language, and plainly the Tristia are not merely weeds and brambles.
And add to that, my imagination’s dulled, harmed
by long disuse, and much inferior to what it once was.
A field that’s not refreshed by constant ploughing
will produce nothing but weeds and brambles.
- Tristia, Book V, Part XII
Dante too was exiled, and there is a long list of poets and other writers writing from beyond home, beyond the field, beyond the emperor’s palace, the terrain a writer must internalise in order to inhabit his own neural field and construct his own neural palace.
The language we overhear sounds to us fresh, new, and slightly unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity – the exoticism we find in Nabokov, the elegance we discover in Hoffman – may be compared to our first sense of language as we learn it in childhood. It can make us clumsy at times, but can register with a brightness and clarity undulled by common usage. The new writing language glows as we grow into it. It is the delicious new toy, a habitable palace of nerves.
Speaking for myself I was just a child when we left our home. Being inside exile – that is if I accept that grand romantic term - makes it hard to speak about it. I sometimes suspect the poems I build in English, my palace of nerves, looks rather like the Budapest tenement building we lived in. I sometimes fear it sits oddly in the English landscape.
The half open door, the overheard words, the river, the cold water, the ploughed field, the palace of nerves - a poet’s natural recourse to metaphors is both an advantage and a burden. We do not escape the first realities of our childhood in terms of both physicality and language. My other metaphor, the trace in the universe, is, however, bigger than my Budapest tenement or the palace of nerves. The person waiting at the door, overhearing language addressing him, is reminded that his condition is being outside. In that sense we are all in exile.