Tomaž Šalamun is a poet of impressions. His poems read like collages where scraps of thought, fragments of images, and bits of memory all bump up against each other on the page. In his best poems, the whole adds up to far more than the sum of the parts, like some vast machine whose workings are as much fun to observe as their product. But Šalamun’s style is very much hit or miss. Andes, a new collection (ably and lovingly translated from the Slovenian by Jeffrey Young and Katarina Vladimirov Young) gives the English-speaking public access to the highs and the lows of Šalamun’s pointillism.
To begin with, plenty of readers will be turned off by Šalamun’s whimsical use of language. Plenty of the poetry in Andes totally frustrates meaning, to the point of seeming self-indulgent. Look at “Lunch and the Evening”:
O, my virgin kleptomaniac. You’re
Stepping on lilies. You’re aping divas,
With a tiny overcoat you cry, Kaput!
Kaput, the femur.
Yesterday I saw
A Korean woman . . .
The poem goes on, but the images never coalesce into a clear whole. Šalamun’s words simply have to be taken, or not taken, on their own terms.
Jeffrey Young describes the translation as a collaborative process. Because of Šalamun’s whimsical style, the translators had to check in with the poet again and again, making sure they dealt correctly with the book’s many “moments of untranslability.” Young’s long introduction details this process and is one of the great strengths of Andes.
Salamun’s strongest poems convey a sense of movement, like a parade of ideas all marching together in the same direction. Take “He Exclaimed”:
A cat creeps with
Not with shoes. We run and from
Us flutter little tassels.
. . . Stars protrude.
Birds break branches.
The stars smack with open
Mouths . . .
The images don’t fit together organically––poppies, kir, and the mysterious Otto seem to have nothing to do with one another. And they never intersect, either. Each image is perfectly discrete. And yet, together, they create an energetic landscape. It’s like climbing down a rabbit hole and landing in the author’s imagination. If you relax your guard and accept that there are no rules, then you can enjoy yourself.
Other poems are more frightening. “She had black and beautiful eyes” is at once the most coherent and the most disturbing of the collection:
Held her under
The table. Sometimes he
Pulled her out,
Did sex with her,
Shoved her back and
Painted all the time. She had
Black and beautiful eyes.
This is as close to narrative as Šalamun comes, and it’s still hard to follow his train of thought. Is he describing some scene of actual abuse? Is he talking about his own creative process? Is the lady with black and beautiful eyes a metaphor for his inspiration? Trying to impose logic doesn’t seem to work. Even at its most direct, Šalamun’s language exists slightly outside of meaning and needs to be taken on its own terms.
If Šalamun uses highly personal imagery to map the author’s mind, the Latvian writer Knuts Skujenieks employs the most universal language imaginable to describe his personal experience. The new collection Seed in Snow, newly translated from the Latvian by Bitite Vinklers, brings together the poems Skujenieks wrote while he was serving seven years in a Soviet prison camp.
Skujenieks uses direct, spare language and relies heavily on nature imagery to convey the mood of the gulag. This is from “I Hear:”
And I hear how the black pines
Shout against a yellow sky.
Roots revolt. Pines want to rise,
To fly on black wings.
And I hear how the sun, whispering sadly,
Burrows into blue ashes.
Skujenieks makes his own emotions so gigantic that even the trees and the sun itself share them. The pines themselves want to escape, the sun is saddened, and yet, because the landscape shares in the prisoners’ suffering, that suffering is made bearable.
Nature, fierce and simple, is always interwoven with emotions in these poems. In one of his untitled pieces, Skujenieks describes everyman’s struggle to survive the gulag emotionally intact:
If a man can count on his fingers the days
Before he goes mad in the wind and is lost,
Five or four or two or one,
He’ll break through snow up to his knees,
Gasp and sing and thirst and cough
And cry like a child,
His unending love of life frozen
Like the tears on his lashes . . .
The wind, the snow, and the frozen landscape are all inseparable from the poet’s experience here. And this makes the reader’s job easy. The reader doesn’t need to give up his sense of logic, and order, as when reading Šalamun’s poetry. He only needs to think about the snow, and the wind in order to imagine Skujeniek’s experience of the hopeless, frozen prison camp. The poems in Seed in Snow can use this sort of shared experience to transport the reader into a far-off reality most of us will never experience.
Skujenieks’ strength is his ability to universalize his experience. Not surprisingly, his weakest poems fail because they rely on overly-general language and lapse into cliché. Here is a passage from “Elegies on Snow:”
On the same branch, in the same bed of love
Lie youth and midlife. Famine and shame.
Why do you falter?
A skeleton and a flower,
There is nothing new here––famine, skeletons and daisies are all rather hackneyed images––and it’s hard to see where the author was trying to go. Fortunately, this sort of poem is rare in Seed in Snow, and most of the work manages to be both simple and unique, personal and universal, using generous, open-hearted language to guide the reader to new vistas. The reader who goes along for this ride will be grateful.