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

In this poem, as in most of the book, the individual lines are incredibly strong. The poem is built of lines like components of a building. Exposing the foundation is simultaneously a mechanical and an emotional move. Here, and in other poems, the lines could read like the slogans of a Dada pseudo-politician. Or they could equally be the factual observations of a mad scientist. The sensible ravings of a poetic lunatic. It is the suggestion of meaning without the resolution of it that intrigues. The curtness of the lines is pulled against by the two enjambed lines, particularly “horizon” which is not only joyfully mimetic of the extension of the line, but also shifts the object from “the one” to “he” and the horizon from an infinite expansion to a commercial commitment. If one does not pledge, and here pledge reads to me as in the sense of a financial debt made, then what is he paying for? He would be paying because he did not pledge the horizon. He would be paying for falling short, for not taking the risk of the erosion into his own infinite space.

…Šalamun revels in the danger, celebrates the accident of language and its consequent power to threaten sense and reality.

Time also erodes into itself, subverting chronology and its narrative impulses. In this poem, and throughout the book, these quick-cut images are piled up like snippets of time shuffled and re-stitched. In the final line, “I’m from tonight,” Šalamun places himself in the eternal present of this confused history, and his place in time is his origin. Tonight takes the place of place; it is always tonight, and he is always from now. This self-referentality, the closed system of himself in the poems, appears again and again. “The frontier is my living body,” he writes in “Frontier.” But his living body is constructed in language, and “The language is ‘articulated’ and ‘mute’ at the / same time, it happens in tepid flashes” (“Amtrak, New York — Montreal, January 24, 1974″). There is a threat inherent in the words that construct both a thing and its opposite simultaneously. The language constructs and deconstructs him, and though as a reader I perceive control and intent in the language, for him “What makes language is accidental” (“The Shirt”). This might sound a bit like a poet who has lost his faith. Instead Šalamun revels in the danger, celebrates the accident of language and its consequent power to threaten sense and reality. Take the final stanzas from “The Body and Sea Level”:

…Is it

that even my friends tell young poets
I’m dangerous? That they should watch out. That I’m
dangerous. That I’m a pagan priest. That I’m

objectively dangerous. That my character,
my goals, relative responsibility,
a bloodthirstily well-kept line between spirit and

flesh (experience) don’t matter — it doesn’t
change the fact that I’m dangerous. That I can
change entire nations in a wisp of straw.

— “The Body and Sea-Level,” pp. 89-90

The erosion of the world into the deep interior space of the poet’s language is both a danger and a power. It is a threat to him, and to the world. But it is also contains the impulse of construction. Though much of the book is in this mode, there is another voice that emerges in the book. Scattered throughout are a series of mostly untitled aphoristic poems. Section Three of the book begins with one.

Eternity is
cruel and crystal.
It ruins

everything alive.
It replaces people and
loves and does not

the well. With your hand
you dust a glass,

you do not
break it. Let every

die as
a man does. Death
protects us.

— “(Eternity is),” p. 49

At first read this is a less disturbing poetic voice. It is poignant, accessible and universalized. This poem, and several of the others like it, were translated by Phillis Levin, and of the others none were translated by Thomas Kane. Even without consulting the handy “Translator’s Index” at the back it’s clear that there is a different voice here, yet it’s a testament to poetry’s capacity for heterogeneity that it is still recognizably Šalamun. And it is really only at the first reading that this voice is less difficult. Eternity’s cruelty, its beauty, its destructiveness aren’t difficult to imagine, but are still startling. But that “it does not / open / the well” is absolutely impossible. And yet, it makes sense. Eternity does not open, it is closed. It cannot provide access to water, to life. It is simultaneously connected to “your hand” which, reading around the punctuation, cannot be used to open the well, and is opposed to your hand’s concrete ability to act in the world. Eternity has none of that possibility. “Death protects us” from eternity, a terrifying state of stasis. This is more than some pithy poetic truth, it is the discovery made real that death is a kind of salvation. It is hard to bear, yet beautiful. Crystal and cruel.

There are several other translators who have lent their poetic skill to Šalamun’s work in this book. One piece that I am sorry not to have is an introduction by the translators. Knowing more about the process, the collaborative decisions and the personal investments of each translator, would add yet another level to the reading of this work in English. Reading this book in English we are unusually fortunate to have simultaneous access to the voice of Šalamun and to the chorus of his translators. Šalamun demands careful reading, and that careful reading is rewarded as lines that were closed begin to open up. But it is perhaps enough to have said this much.

…The scribe looks over his shoulder

and asks: shouldn’t we stop for today, as it seems
the spider’s belly will burst? And where shall we
go then? On the paper? With all this birth water?

— “The Bucolic One,” p. 37

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