Over the past two decades, Tomaz Salamun has won an American following of a size and warmth rarely enjoyed by contemporary poets not writing in English and hailing from a country few U.S. readers could reliably locate on a map. It was not luck (alone) but the sustained, multifront effort of publishers, editors, translators, and institutions that brought about this happy state of affairs. Volumes of selected poems first appeared from small presses such as the Pedernal Press of Santa Fe and the White Pine Press of Fredonia before being taken up by bigger dogs like Ecco and (apotheosis) Harcourt. These selections varied in length, tone, and composition; were edited by, among others, Chris Merrill and Charles Simic; prefaced variously by Merrill, Robert Hass, and Edward Hirsch; blurbed by Jorie Graham, Robert Creeley, James Tate, and the invisible hand of The New Yorker; and translated, finally, by a dogged and diverse troop of poets and translators whose many names ride SRO on the far back pages of the books.
Now, it’s time to start over. Now that we know Tomaz Salamun as the loony, messianic humanist/humorist who can write, deliciously, “I got tired of the image of my tribe/and moved out,” and, “Tomaz Salamun is a monster./ Tomaz Salamun is a sphere rushing through the air,” it’s time to get past the sound-bite Salamun and get our grubby, monolingual hands on his individual volumes. Unsurprisingly, small, independent presses are once again doing the hard work and reinventing Salamun in his own image. In 2001, A Ballad for Metka Krasovec appeared from Twisted Spoon Press; 2003 brought us a Poker from Ugly Duckling, and just now Saturnalia Books has put its shoulder to the wheel and published Blackboards, a collaboration between Le Maitre and the artist Metka Krasovec which initiates a series of mixed-genre books to be published by that press.
The text might also be seen, of course, as a collaboration between Salamun and his co-translator, Michael Biggins. Biggins also translated A Ballad for Metka Krasovec and individual poems of Salamun’s. He seems especially able in this role; the tone of his translations are less staid and reverent than some, yet more flexible than the understandably youthful diction Joshua Beckman used in the translation of Salamun’s first collection, Poker. The gunslinger charm of that volume might not have sustained the European flavor and allusiveness of Blackboards.
What do we get from single volumes that we can’t derive from the numerous Selecteds? For one thing, matters of form become clearer when the pressure to excerpt is removed. Blackboards does not contain the long Eliotic series of Poker or diaristic sequences of Ballad; instead, it is made up of sonnets and tercet-based lyrics, plus a pair of striking groups of 2-4 line stanzas which read and look like Western translations of haiku sequences:
We’ve stung the subjugated.
Who are the birds that fly and fly?
Blueness is black and pealike and dim.
Larry Rivers didn’t lose his composure.
We too have endured
an enormous amount of harsh criticism.
Here we have many of the characteristic moves of the poet, without the flights of voice to either rush the reader or draw a neat bagatellish bow around the whole. Moreover, there is a great deal of formal control here; the deft transformation of “the subjugated” into “birds that fly and fly” is enabled by the concision of the two-line form as well as the wealth of white space around it; the enjambment at “endured” allows a typical joke at the expense of the ‘witness’ role that poets of Salamun’s generation and region are generally expected to perform. This punch line also collapses the scale implied by the grave first line to something more mundane.
Meanwhile, the reference to Larry Rivers suggests another quality which is even more overt in this volume than in his selected works: Salamun’s indebtedness to and affinity with O’Hara. Not only does O’Hara spring up as an occasional subject, but these poems are redolent with the miscellaneousness, spontaneity, and speed of O’Hara’s oeuvre.
I stare at a shop window in Arezzo. My fingers rest on
the glass. A tunnel devours coffee, a triumphal arc is full
of tiny lights. A belltower rises from stone to seam, from
stone to seam, but then you spit with the birds from
If the method and pace recall O’Hara, the hallucinatory shrinking and swelling scale of this poem, the way the casual energy of the first two lines goes haywire and fragmented beyond the miscellaneousness that would dramatize a single jumpy mind, departs from the O’Hara mode. This manicness then sinks into a violent/erotic conclusion:
I’m covered in basil. My campanile daydreams. I park
like an animal. I yank my catch up the stairs,
Metka. I break down the door and fling her on the couch so it hurts her,
it hurts her, it hurts her, till she groans like a deer. Deer
stand on ice, watching the sunset, and sing.
The ‘I do this, I do that’ of O’Hara reasserts itself here, while the darkness and violence of this passage dampens any effervescence. Meanwhile the final deflection to the deer and their unnatural ‘singing’ imparts a queasy crypto-political question to the reader: are the deer singing out of innocence or do they embody a false note? Are they ignorant of or ignoring the adjacent suffering of others?
In fact, if there are any consistent victims in Salamun’s catalog they are the animals that find themselves tangled up in the human world: “a deer wrenches its knee;” “a tadpole floats in a tachometer’s white shaft;” “I’ve studied/my devastated cities. I even petted/Attila’s cat when his coat burned up.” The pain of animals seems an embodiment and deflection of the pain of humans, but also illustrates human vindictiveness, carelessness, and perhaps ultimate predicament, trapped as our race is in its own petty and competing schemes.
Though Salamun’s images and juxtapositions are always loaded, reading an entire volume by this poet also allows themes to develop and inquiries to resonate beyond a single image, poem, or soundbite. Blackboards’ allusions to Thales, Zeno, and other early philosophers highlights a preoccupation with the flux and flow of time and its implications for human emotions and endeavors. This concern has its analog in the speedy, fragmented pace of the poems and also in their consciousness of their own madeness. In the sonnet ‘To Sink,’ the speaker addresses his sleeping son, and concludes:
[…]I’ve pasted several bands of
time together to enhance your saliva, to prolong your
intrusion, your dance, your horror, and to light up the cave.
This speaks not just to the construction of the poem as an amalgamation of times, but to the status of time as a mutable, flexible thing which does not bind the speaker/poet. Instead, time is that which the poet is free to observe and cause to bend, squirm, and mutate. Thus the world itself is a moldable thing; as one poem reads, “In any case, this slash is hilarious,/ because in it you can re-knead the world and/try it again in a shape that’s more round.” History is a similarly flexible shape. In “Science,”
[…]History shapes itself into little spheres, it
forms like a new mutant animal species. First
your beak grows for millions of years, shakes and gets distorted
at a transition, then it pours into crystal. […]
If History, time, and the world itself can mutate, so can one body, one element into another. This is a sometimes marvelous, sometimes terrifying, always enthralling habit of Salamun’s thought, and allows the breakneck diversity of the poems.
In this anarchic and perilously mutable state, in which God and the gods are listed with the wounded (“God’s muzzle will tear up”), what kind of organizing principle is possible to orient humanity (and give shape to the book)? The answer, paradoxically, is people— not people in their collectivity, but individually. Blackboards is brimming with personal address, quasi-panegyric, reference and allusion. Yo Yo Ma receives special praise in an eponymous poem:
[…] The numbers stop racing in one direction,
[…] They’re wrapped in a sheet and stored away
to shine in oblivion. Everything changes,
comfort. We draw glory out of every
bit of youth. Those with slightly
smeary crusts (deers, doves, also little
pigs and cellists), Yo Yo Ma, see how he
gives. He shines in the master class. The sugar
just flies from his head, he can train in any
stable. The juice of life forces this abundance
of sound, laughter, love, and endless
joyful patience. […]
When time and order are permanently out of joint, the life force flows through Yo Yo Ma. Atom Egoyan is praised repeatedly, Mark Levine seems to represent the focus and resolve of youth. Even when “thinkers have stopped/patching the metaphysical pool,” Fellini is painted on a wall like a totem: “Fellini shines in the sun./Above all, he shines.” Even poems that are not in honor of someone are oriented around an individual, such as poems for the poet Ralph Angel, several schoolboys, historical figures and artists, Larry Rivers, Brad Gooch, The Last Lighthouse Keeper, etc. These figures seem to allow Salamun to organize a humanism despite his entropic method and themes.
This complex allusivity is also reflected in the geographies and nations Salamun accesses in these poems, which complicate the Eastern European and American textures one expects to find in his work. Since the volume was written during a residency in Umbria, it is understandable that Italian and Western European referents might flavor the book—but this is still a surprisingly strong flavor. Moreover, in “Fjords,” Scandinavia enjoys an adjacency with both Portugal and the Puebla, while France, Nebraska, and Eastern Europe appear shoulder to shoulder in a poem entitled “Auden.” This sweeping scope is not shaded with the rootlessness of exile but reflects a global vision of networked localities, a populated, boisterous, and hardly solid Earth.
Against the rambunctious and certainly worldly textures of Salamun’s poems, the artwork of Metka Krasovec provides an ethereal counterpoint, appearing almost musically throughout the volume, sometimes faintly, sometimes in two-page color spreads. The images are taken from a painted scroll and show stylized human forms in pairs, in processions, relaxing under palm trees, bent ambiguously over each other, following each other off the page. These delicately shaded emanences feel so different from the dense, noisy conditions of Salamun’s poems that they seem to depict an entire other world, another story, another way of being. These are figures made from water and light, figures which show regard and concern for each other, figures which seem made up of that which ‘shines’ beatifically from the most humane figures in Salamun’s world.
Ultimately, this collaboration is an immersive and fascinating reading experience, in which the many facets of both artists’ work combine to form nothing so mundane as a whole. Instead, the teeming world of Blackboards keeps exceeding itself, correcting and complicating, fraying and remounting its energies. When we arrive at the dateline at the end of the book (“Civitella Ranieri, summer 1997″) we feel we have encountered an outpouring of creative energy akin to that of the Duino Elegies—but even as we form this thought, we recall that this volume contains the cryptic poem “Those and Those,” in which “Duino doesn’t appear and makes a hole in our food.”
Whatever the mercurial status of this volume as a whole, however, it is a great boon to be able to encounter Salamun’s books as single works, as they explore markedly different forms, voices, tones, and preoccupations. Blackboards is the most various and urbane of the three so far available in English, with only a trace of the prophetic utterance of Poker, or the obsession with the building and dismantling of the poet’s persona in Ballad. In Blackboards, we see a poet concocting a world from the distressed and therefore flexible materials of History, space and time (with individual people in the roles of the gods), and an artist who conceives of a Utopian strata built on that world’s erasure. It is this aspect of volume-as-world, or volume-as-staging-ground-for-competing-contingent-worlds, that even comprehensive selecteds cannot recreate, and that small presses will hopefully continue to provide—both for Salamun and for lesser-known contemporary international poets.