- Being Anywhere at All
Sonja Kravanja, trans.
112 Pages; Cloth, $25.00
The poems of Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun have always dazzled with their lyric agility. His ability to radically transform tonal registers and image systems from one line to the next is on full display in his third posthumous collection from Black Ocean, Druids, translated into English from Slovenian by Sonja Kravanja. The protean speakers of these poems seek a semblance of Slovenian history in snapshots and glimpses of striking, and sometimes terrifying, imagery that often seems to dissolve as soon as it appears, though images often return transmogrified, seen anew.
Druids is, first and foremost, an accomplished poet's swansong par excellence. Šalamun published dozens of poetry books in Slovenian and English over the course of his life, and his work is widely appreciated for its blending of European and American avant-garde sensibilities. In Druids, Šalamun rediscovers the origin of his genius—an ease in achieving a sense of continual metamorphosis—and breaks it down into its most basic material elements:
A treaty of greywith the heavenly hour—this is a cloud.
It is melting.Steamrises from the pavement.
The interplay between spirit and matter—spiritual temporality as "the heavenly hour" and the most basic components of the material world, simple "grey" and the baseline grounding that "pavement" provides—becomes both source and force in Šalamun's capacity to astonish. The poet recognizes that a truce between the material and spiritual realms can only be accessed through the senses, but with the caveat of impermanence, and yet atrophy and dissolution always give rise to new forms. The "cloud" of a liaison between the material and immaterial gives way to further possibilities for amalgamation, here as "Steam / ris[ing] from the pavement."
For Šalamun, poetic language's ability to constantly create and destroy forms constitutes order rather than chaos—an order this poet desperately wants to remain available to the generations of poets and seers to come; "Druid, / look at grass" he exhorts, "[i]t's been set ablaze by a white chalk from within." The desire Šalamun expresses throughout the book is for those of us still living on Earth to take up his refusal to overlook the perpetual miracle of being anywhere at all and to recognize the gift of being able to sense resonances between inner and outer worlds. Šalamun invites us to join him in becoming
…like a dark goldenvase,for this hourfor this nectarwhich we,the chosen ones, should only whisper aboutin secret because of the jealous shifting ofour armies on fieldsand the gifts of harvest.
Šalamun recognizes that in order to transform ourselves and our poems into containers for the divine, it can be necessary to resist the temptation of directly seeking after the "gifts" that poetry can generate, such as the ability to communicate a distaste for imperial technologies of violence. His poems successfully avoid the pitfalls of reducing poetry to its rhetorical components and, further, the subsequent endorsement of a standardized discourse that easily digestible argumentation can lead to, while leaving the system that is the subject of critique intact. Instead, Šalamun seeks an "order" in uncertainty through epiphanic utterance, and Druids ensures that his body of work can itself be read as "an order" that has revelatory potential—"Order according to cosmic dawns" rather than a deferral to the dogmatic aspects of tradition on the one hand or random assemblages of instances of overflowing lyric bravado on the other. The cohesion of Druids is achieved in its blending of personal and collective yearnings for fully experiencing the wondrousness of the present moment and preserving something of what we experience for the historical record.
Over the course of the book, the reader encounters a hybridity of personal and national myth-making as the poems offer an assortment of briefly glanced-at snapshots, and the effect of a loose assortment of images as a particular kind of order is highlighted by the book's organization: no titles appear above the mostly shorter-than-a-page poems, yet the reader is encouraged...