If you come to a book by Tomaž Šalamun expecting a straightforward story, a clear narrative, a mind that progresses like the mind of a depressed newspaperman, I pity you for the frustration you will feel upon reading one of the most important contemporary European poets.
But if you feel, in some secret part of your gut, that violets should indeed carry mythological importance, that the metaphysical is hiding poorly in the everyday, reading Šalamun’s latest book, There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair, will be like gargling soda from the Fountain of Youth. In these poems, Šalamun continues to engage in the kind of serious play that has inspired a generation of young American poets and won him awards and praise from all over the globe.
“The frontier is my living body,” Šalamun declares, and indeed the landscape he creates in this book is as promised. It is a frontier in that we are on the edge (of reason, of beauty, of coherence, of the divine):
It has to do with the race.
Who is faster.
God with his sand or we with our tongue.
Sand is the tongue of fire.
Tongue is the fire of sand.
Fire is the sand of God.
And throughout the book we are located in the landscape of Šalamun’s “living body”: he pulls into his poems everything around him, be that friends and family, dreams and visions, chance occurrences, whatever he’s reading at the moment; the bodies of these poems are living because they are honest to the actual, perceived world, as if seeing (true seeing) were a kind of religion.
All this is to say that Šalamun’s poems don’t read like anyone else’s poems, despite the fact that many poets turn to him as a kind of untethered patriarch (I’ll admit to combating dry spells in my writing by bathing in his). He takes the wild leaps and juxtapositions of surrealism and infuses them with the philosophical and metaphysical weight of someone who feels the heavy hand of history on the back of his neck.
We can play the game of “what if,” and say Šalamun is what would have happened if Whitman had been born into a politically unstable Eastern Europe, or if Tzara had grown up at all, and then grown deliberately and joyfully senile while traveling the globe. But ultimately the only way to understand Šalamun’s poems is to dive into them. There is playfulness here (one poem, “Afternoon, at the Table, above the Underworld,” begins, “I sewed pants, / I sewed pants and tore off the thread with my teeth”), but the playfulness often turns dire, rendering the poem a necessary utterance instead of an exercise (later in the same poem: “I sewed pants and blinded you in an instant”).
At his best, Šalamun creates this sense of necessity in his work through unexpected precision. We get the sense that his poems are stallions, not quite broken; he’s partly riding them and partly just holding on. The friction between those two poles – between the fact that Šalamun is the creator of little worlds and the entirely likely probability that he’s as surprised by them as we are – generates an energy unique to Šalamun’s work. This is the first stanza of “Sun That Heats the Other Sun”:
Goddess who took me
and dispersed me as powdery snow,
ate me as an apple and
forged me in the tree,
Kill somewhere else. I
regret. Do you hear me,
I regret now, I regret!
And here is the last stanza:
My palm poisoned all living waters,
me, who is your
orgasm, white beauty.
My mind is cardboard,
you, who are nothing, whose paw was
hidden in joy and
a hurricane that resembled a
small sunny bird.
Depending on your taste, he can sometimes slip too far toward either pole, appearing too controlled and clever, or too chaotic and directionless, but those slippages are the danger and the price of striving for greatness. When he succeeds, which is far more often than anyone should succeed, his poems invite almost Biblical readings; every turn, every syllable, opens itself up for exploration: “You sigh like bellows, but everyone already / fled the bellows.” And we are implicated; we are launched in medias res; we have been emptied of everyone before we even had a chance to know they were with us. No wonder this poem ends with repeated, obsessive warnings that he, the voice, the poet, is dangerous. Šalamun empowers language. It’s risky stuff.
As a book, There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair hangs together more than most of the other collections of his poems we have in English, though it feels less unified than the wonderful The Book for My Brother. The poems range in length from a couple of lines to a couple of pages. They range in tone from joking to earnest to prophetic. They reference cultures from all over the world as well as Šalamun’s private life. This diversity, held together by an authoritative voice that is comfortable everywhere, makes the book feel like an entire cosmos.
This collection benefits greatly from offering poems translated by nine different translators, all poets themselves, since approaching Šalamun through a variety of lenses allows us to get closer to him than we could in the hands of a single translator. Šalamun’s voice is a chorus (sometimes a Greek chorus, sometimes a Whitmanian multitude) by itself, and these translators have each channeled it in their own unique ways. They have worked admirably to give us texts that feel like Šalamun in all his protean splendor.
Each poem invites the reader into a strange new world where the divine meets despair, where “Women and death are sisters,” where a poem can end, delightfully, comically, and somehow (How does he do this?) honestly, with the line, “I am hugging you.” Because, ultimately, in the worlds of Šalamun’s poems, the human and the divine, the ecstatic voice and the analytical voice are one. As he proclaims at the conclusion of “Poem,” his little worlds embrace and revel in the contradictions of a fallen humanity, created in the image of God: “My poetry is no longer credible, / not for a long time. // It rots from the sheer glowing.” This may not be philosophy, or science, or religion, but I believe in it anyway.
Dan Rosenberg’s chapbook, A Thread of Hands, was published by Tilt Press. His poems have appeared recently in Verse Daily; Third Coast; 6X6; Conduit; and elsewhere. He is a Ph.D. candidate at UGA in Athens, Georgia.