Objectively Dangerous: There's the Hand and There's the Arid Chair by Tomaž Šalamun

There's the Hand and There's the Arid Chair

There's the Hand
and There's the Arid Chair

BY Tomaž Šalamun
(Counterpath Press, 2009)

Tomaž Šalamun’s latest book of poems to be translated into English, There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair, is as difficult as the title suggests. The book has to be read slowly, carefully, over and over for it to unfurl; the poetry is not immediately accessible and requires commitment, dedication. It is demanding, complex and strange. It can’t be absorbed in the span of a single read. Rather, this is the kind of book that I want to come back to over the next year, or ten. The kind of book I want to live with. The language leaves the reader with little choice in the matter — Šalamun’s work is jammed with lines and phrases that stick in the mind, resurfacing in moments of quiet reflection, or on the train when the mind loosens in the press of the everyday. And that press is what Šalamun’s work, especially in this book, evokes.

At the same time he is incredibly interior. That conflation of the internal and external is strange and at times grotesque. As though there is a secret code to his images, his poems do not unfold their meaning immediately. But reading them for meaning is a mistake. With all great poetry there are layers of the reading (meaning, sound, rhythm and allusion just to name a few). Many readers are in the habit of reading primarily for meaning, or at least to read first for meaning and then to delve carefully into the “poetics” — the other layers — that support the poem. Šalamun’s poetry prohibits this kind of reading: he foregrounds the sensual experience of reading, demanding that the reader resist the urge to make sense out of these poems. In fact, his poetry is so dense that rather than talk about the book as a whole, I would like to focus on a few poems as examples of how a reader might slide into the work as a whole.

The book is split into four sections. My favorite poem in the book is “Beauty of Man,” the second poem of the first section.

Beauty of man is the furthest history.
We have pressed peaches.
Nobody is coming out from little huts.
We know, squeezed.

The building eroded into its horizon.
I didn’t propel anything that wouldn’t go to pasture.
I kneaded round kerchiefs inscribed above the fresco.
The one who doesn’t pledge the horizon,
how would he pay for it?

The tones don’t know what apples are.
The defense knows.
It bites the serene one.

The great blindness tells iodine:
dress up, stay.
Your little barrel is the arrogant’s clay.
And: on the white sand the grass grows.

I’m from tonight.

— “Beauty of Man,” p. 4

This poem, like most in the book, was translated by the author with Thomas Kane (though there are other translators peppered throughout). As a translator, Kane clearly emphasizes the rhythm of the lines. The condensed, declarative statements generate the force that pulls a reader through, lend the authority to make nonsensical statements that quaver with the beauty of language, but refuse to fully signify. Articles are used with special care in this poem; notice the absent “the” in the first stanza which makes ambiguous the specificity or universality of “beauty” and “history.” In this way, the poem can tackle these expansive subjects so often fraught with cliché. Even when “the” is introduced before the objects of the next few lines, the gesture of specificity inherent in the definite article points to the extractable generality of the image. “The building” is really any building. Kane’s deft manipulation of articles makes potent the tension between the currents of internal and external, specific and general.

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