Stars Will Fall on Your Head: Tributes to Tomaž Šalamun
The great poet Tomaž Šalamun passed away on Dec. 27 in Ljubljana. As we know from his poem “History,” Šalamun was “a sphere rushing through the air.” As we know from his poem “The Tree of Life,” Šalamun was “born in a wheat field snapping [his] fingers.” He was an impossible gift to poetry. His work transcends camps or labels: it is strange, sincere, funny, tragic, large, true, and unmistakable. It is singular. As the news of his death spread, his readers forwarded each other favorite poems, recordings of Šalamun reading, scans of photographs. We walked to our bookshelves and pulled out his books, arranging them around us like magical perimeters of words. Over the past week and a half, as I reread his poems, almost every one seemed to hold an epitaph within. “God is my/reader.” “Do you hear grief through the language?” “Stars will fall on your head.” This is not to suggest that his poetry is morbid. It is, in fact, full of a spirited enthusiasm that feels trustworthy precisely for its ability to embrace the tragic as well as the ecstatic.
Šalamun’s work transcended cultural, stylistic, and political borders. His influence on generations of poets in Slovenia, America and elsewhere has been massive. Those who were lucky enough to hear him read his work aloud listened closely, and told others. There are several good videos and audio recordings of Šalamun reading available online. Some can be found here, here, and here. As part of this tribute to Šalamun and his work, we are glad to make public for the first time a very special recording of him reading at the University of Massachusetts’s Memorial Hall in 2003, recorded by Eric Baus (please go immediately to Laura Solomon’s section of this tribute to listen).
We can look forward to many more words both by and about Tomaž Šalamun over the coming years. Many of his thirty-nine books of poems have not yet been published in English translations, and his current US publisher, Black Ocean Press, has already stated its commitment to continue publishing new translations of his work. He touched the lives of an incredible number of American poets, and we will certainly be hearing more stories about this poet and his poems for many years. A moving piece about Šalamun by his friend and translator Christopher Merrill has already been published here. On February first, The Volta will be running a tribute of its own. To learn more about the unique working relationships Šalamun had with his many English translators, I highly recommend checking out this special issue of Transom Journal from 2012.
I asked some of Šalamun‘s friends and admirers if they might be interested in writing something for this tribute. Some wrote about favorite poems, some wrote about Šalamun himself, and others responded with poems of their own. I hope the variety of their responses reflects and honors Šalamun’s generous range and spirit. Thanks to Real Pants for hosting. Thanks too to Tomaž Šalamun, for charging the air that remains in and all around us.
Luke Bloomfield on “Young Cops”
Joshua Bolton: “Memories of Tomaž Šalamun of Blessed Memory”
Dan Chelotti: “Rabbit”
Carolina Ebeid “Paradise means an enclosed garden”
Terrance Hayes on Tomaž Šalamun
Brian Henry on “The Fish”
Richard Jackson: “The Word for That”
Paul Killebrew: “1/7/15”
Amy Lawless on “Triumphal Arch”
Timothy Liu on Tomaž Šalamun
Natalie Lyalin on Tomaž Šalamun
Ata Moharreri on “Painted Desert”
Matthew Rohrer “from SLOVENIA JOURNAL AUGUST 26 2001”
Dan Rosenberg on “The deer braids the turtle”
Lori Shine on Tomaž Šalamun
Laura Solomon on Tomaž Šalamun
Dara Wier on Tomaž Šalamun
The poem “Young Cops” from one of Tomaž Šalamun’s more recent books, The Book For My Brother, stands out from much of his poetry for its deliberate and conspicuous continuity. It begins “All young cops have soft / mild eyes” and diligently, quite tenderly, carries its subject through to the end: “Actually, they’re like camels riding / in the desert as if it were the wet palm of a hand.” This is a beautiful, playful poem, and, like all of his work, it is predicated on some idea of faith, in this case, faithfulness to its subject. In other poems, his faith is more subtle and discursive, but no less potent: I have always trusted Tomaž, and I have never doubted him. I discovered him at nineteen, before I was interested in poetry, when I saw him give a reading in UMass Amherst’s Memorial Hall. I remember Natalie Lyalin gave a shockingly beautiful introduction, most of which I sadly cannot remember. The one thing I do remember about the introduction, hopefully not incorrectly, was Natalie comparing Tomaž’s poetry to the soaring heights inside a cathedral, evoking that dizzying effect of gazing up into a vast, reverent space. Then Tomaž read from The Four Questions of Melancholy in his soft and precise voice, and it did have that dizzying effect, and for the first time, poetry came alive for me. I experienced then (as I have always since) the generosity of his poetry, and that his poems are as kind as they are challenging as they are weird as they are sublime. The current of faith that runs through them all and is myriad in its ways was an invitation to me at nineteen to join him in his world, and I did join him, in my way. And now, eleven years later, I’m seeing in the light of his passing that all that I have, I have because of him.
Memories of Tomaž Šalamun of Blessed Memory
I accompanied him to the grave of Dickinson where he spoke about ecstasy, nature, and death.
He always drank wine from small glasses.
He said that Dara Wier’s home was the Eastern Europe of his mind.
He would pause before any photograph to button his top shirt button.
He loved Antonio’s Pizza.
I once asked how he managed to be included in the collection, “Voices within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets.” I don’t recall his answer.
He had very particular ideas about breastfeeding.
He was fond of quoting Whitman, “Infinite are the new and orbic traits waiting to be launch’d forth in the firmament that is, and is to be, America” – though he would replace America with “Ljubljana.”
He loved plums and was always surprised that plums “aren’t a big thing” in the States.
His favorite joke: It was Easter dinner and the priest shows up very late – where was he???
He would say, “I have several poetic ‘handlers’ here in the States, they’re all men.”
His eyes reminded me of holly trees.
He was superstitious and his politics were conservative.
After his readings, it always felt so unusual to make small talk and nibble snacks – I had the idea we should remain seated and silent for at least five or ten minutes.
He once pulled a small ancient hymnal from his pocket and showed me his grandfather’s handwriting – the book always accompanied him.
He told me that “Hasidic tales” got him through some of the most difficult moments of his life.
I had lunch with him in Richmond, VA. We ate at Mamma ‘Zu. Afterwards we walked past the statue of Arthur Ashe. He played a lot of tennis in his youth.
There was a period when I was calling him so often that I ended up memorizing his phone number: +1-(24)-559-32-40
The one time I made it Slovenia he was not in the country. Through email, he suggested I go for a drink at “Mamluks” – I went and mentioned I knew “Tomaž” – the first round was on the house.
Like many Europeans, I never saw him eat apple skin.
I chew with my front four teeth.
I live on the turnpike. When I drag
My rosary from the hole, I ask
The hole, why can’t you forgive me?
What have I done to the world
That St. Joseph of Cupertino
Hasn’t? Fly, fly ahead, dumb world.
Higgs-Boson. Gravity. Television.
Why do you eat with only your
Fingertips? If I had hands I would
Use all of them. I would use
Every knuckle and I would eat
More than clover. I would eat
The concrete. I would eat
The cars. I would eat and eat
And after the orgy I would eat
The orgy. Dottie says that the dead
Would do anything to feel this envy,
To feel anything, and she is right.
I am closer to the dead than even
She is. I am a rabbit. I want to use
My whole mouth. But I can’t.
I am afraid of the wolf. I am afraid
Of sound. I am afraid of doors the most.
I run and run and fuck everything.
Sometimes I eat and fuck the thing
I am eating. If only I could devour
Myself. If only I could touch
The crystal madness of caterpillars.
If only I could keep my third eye open
And say it straight. If only in the end
It would be gently raining so someone
Would say it has ruined everything.
Chuckling Abraxas, delicious heather,
Crows of New Jersey, devour me.
Paradise means an enclosed garden
“We have a collection of Zoos / we keep them in an animal called memory” Martin Corless-Smith
Tomaž Šalamun was my professor at the Michener Center for Writers during the spring semester of 2011. He was invited to teach a literature course on contemporary European poetry. That semester, I also took a class with Mary Ruefle who was leading a workshop at UT. Tomaž and Mary formed a Friday night ritual of eating together at the Italian restaurant Vespaio on South Congress.
Tomaž’s class had a show-&-tell structure. He’d mailed to Texas a large box of books from his own library, out of which he would make for us photocopies of poem upon poem from all over Europe. A small forest of photocopies each week! He would begin each round of offerings, and we’d circle the table, each presenting the work of a poet, or movement. Beautiful forest. We talked about translation, war, censorship, exile, languages, painting, prison, and how no culture exists without poetry.
About one’s life as a reader, he said: It is food. You have to read what feeds you, no matter how unpopular the author or how obscure.
We would pronounce his name at least four different ways, and he’d reassure that each was correct.
My son, who has a diagnosis of autism, was six at the time when Tomaž and Mary were in Austin. Conversation was difficult for him, though he had a large vocabulary. We’d play a rhyming game where I’d say a word and he’d echo back another. Street. Feet.
One night we were having a small dinner party, and I told him that Caleb and Daisy were coming, and Tomaž and Mary were coming.
He rhymed Daisy to hazy, Mary to hairy. He said Tomaž was mirage. “Caleb” stumped him. I suggested May love. He eventually settled upon hayloft.
Tomaž apologized the first day of class claiming he’d never taught a literature course before. He would often remark that his English was poor. When my husband Jeff raised his glass to a future in which Tomaž wins the Nobel Prize, Tomaž said: no never, my work is too strange for them.
In class he encouraged us to share our own work. His responses were often not verbal, but made of expressive noises. In describing Claire’s poem, he stood up making the onomatopoeia for gigantic, spread out his limbs as though he were straddling two towers, and began taking steps like a walker on stilts, except these were building-sized stilts that made crushing sounds.
The night of Tomaž and Mary’s reading at UT was the night of cosmic news. Before the reading began, Mary gave the announcement that Dean’s heart had arrived. He would go into surgery at 10pm.
Tomaž read first, leaving a wake in which Mary quietly stepped into, and rather than saying Thank you for your stunning work, or What an honor to be here with you, she inclined her body in a long, formal bow to him.
After many glasses of champagne at the reception, we all went out on the lawn, a huge circle of writers, and we held hands, and Tomaž lead us in chanting Dean Dean Dean. A ring-around-the-rosie procession chanting doctors doctors doctors. Then nurses nurses nurses.
In my bestiary, Tomaž is the tree that grows peacocks from its branches.
He told me in my kitchen, Carolina, your son, there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with him, he’s fine.
About the afterlife, Shamala said: Tomaž has a beautiful soul––I am not worried for his afterlife.
About the afterlife, Jeff said: He’s made heaven sweeter and weirder.
About the afterlife, Dean said: Let his flaming head be forever telling us to be artists.
Much has and will rightly be made of Tomaž Šalamun’s squad of lucky translators. Anslem Hollo, Thomas Kane, Brian Henry, and Michael Biggins come quickly to my mind, though I recall after a refreshing glance at Transom, Issue 3, his rendezvous with Matthew Rohrer, Christopher Merrill, Peter Richards, and Phillis Levin. And then dreaming I think of my brilliant, depressive student who stalked Šalamun across Pittsburgh’s used bookstores during the 2005ish stretch he taught at the University of Pittsburgh: surely her translations wait to be written. My devilish cousin, “P the Devil,” my mother, a few strange hobos and brokers, Dean Young, Mary Ruefle. The Flemish poet I met in Brussels, she was a pathological smoker and surrealist, she hadn’t heard of Tomaž Šalamun. I could see reading her poems that she’d been reading him all her life.
Much has been said of his lucky translators. Midway through our very first conversation I had the feeling I too could, if I wanted, become one of his translators. It would require a cut in the winding line of aspiring Šalamun translators, I’d have to push and shove to put myself in a chair next to the wild and wildly generous poet. No, there were better eyes than my own. No, I could never translate you as well as you and your squad translate you, Man! I was thinking the way a woman or man thinks in anticipation of an invitation to dance– since he did not, in fact, invite me to translate his poems. But I’m sure he was flirting. One with an accent and expressiveness such as his seems to always be flirting. Flirting seems an almost apt recollection of my memories in the company of Tomaž Šalamun . I will not write something as cliche as “He had a love affair with American Poetry.” Nor will I add that I should likely say “Contemporary” rather than “American” poetry because Tomaž loved poetry wherever he encountered it. I will not say such things since almost every thought I have regarding this poet and his poetry is followed by a shade of uncertainty– or no, “intrigue,” which we’ll define as “pleasant uncertainty.” Certainly the poems are full of energy and intrigue. Is it the energy of collaboration, translation, conversation? I am uncertain. Is it the energy of Tomaž himself lugging a satchel of mercurial enchantments over myriad borders (linguistic, cultural, geographical)? I am uncertain, but not displeased by such thoughts.
I am certain Tomaž Šalamun told me America is a wonderful place for poetry. I could just about put quotes around it: America is the best place to be a poet. I’d said– this was after another of the poetry readings going on ongoingly in my city (probably yours too)– I’d said, there’s too much poetry, most of it bad, in America. I said it matter-of-factly. Tomaž did not reprimand me. He did not voice his disagreement explicitly. The best word here is bemused. Bemusedly he said, “America is a wonderful place to be a poet. There are so many publishers, so many poets.” In a bubble over his head I saw ancient tanks, decapitated trees, wailing young widows, orphans in the windows of Eastern Europe. But I’d been drinking, I could have imagined it. The bar was loud. Tomaž did not preach, he did not frown. He seemed only to telepathically ask me to reconsider my position. That is the only story I’d like to share about Tomaž Šalamun, poetry lover, lovely poet, loved by poets. That and one of the poems he sent me for the 2010 Ploughshares I edited. It later appeared in his book The Blue Tower (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
Honey and Holofernes
translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins with the author
I’ve invented a machine that, as soon as a goldfinch opens
its throat, starts dumping bags of concrete inside. Who licked the candies
into concrete, we don’t know. Who then brought
the concrete to life, we don’t know. The goldfinch sails. The goldfinch
sings. Where are you, Eugenijus? Racing across, opening
a hollow with your fingernails. You the pain of the contour, me
that of the train. Linda Bierds drives a car that comes
from the Tatras. The condor ripens the bird. My trousers smell like
gasoline. Do you see the pool? Do you see the pool? Do you see
the angel’s elbow? It led me to those cliffs arrayed
like Vikings. Zebras have scraped eyes.
Ibrahim, Drago and Miklavž are great guys.
Iodine boils a bird’s head. It dies in the mud. I
swallow bread. What did you see in the inner
darkness to earn it? A bifurcation for
both and the bent, silver-plated head of a
walking stick? Boxes of honey delivered
by parachute, which deer antlers
provided? Pythagoras is plunder. A cat licks
his ears all summer and winter. Pins directed
the blood flow of saints. Stones erode
on the shoals. I shove Diran’s head away from
the table. This clump is a tombolo. And that
pigeon on the plate. Mother of pearl. Gray head.
Damn. Rest in Peace, Tomaž.
—Terrance Hayes, Pittsburgh, 2015
There are four poetry readings that have recalibrated, even upended, the way I see and navigate the world. Two of them were given by Tomaž. The first, in Adelaide, Australia in March 1998, was actually the second time I’d seen him read. I first saw him read in 1997 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I earned my M.F.A. Before seeing him the first time, I had read his Selected Poems from Ecco, but I also was taking classes, studying for my exams, finishing my thesis, and working two part-time jobs, so perhaps I wasn’t truly ready—too scattered, not sufficiently present.
Before seeing him the second time, I had read and re-read the recently published The Four Questions of Melancholy: New and Selected Poems to prepare to interview Tomaž for Verse. Our first interview was (I thought) incredible, in part because he spoke candidly and at length about his imprisonment and about his breakdown at Yaddo. But afterward I discovered that the recording equipment I’d borrowed from a radio producer hadn’t been working, so I asked Tomaž if he’d do another interview. He agreed, but he wouldn’t talk about his experience in prison again, because “others suffered much more than I did.” He did revisit his Yaddo experience, though: “God can crush you, if you, as I do with language, try to reach the borders of everything possible, the borders of language, to go to total transgression, to go to total blasphemy—it can happen, and it happened to me in ’89. It was as if God took everything out of me, it was as if my head would explode, as if my brain would melt, and I was left in a completely dark, cold place, in total terror and feeling guilty and not being able to help myself, and I was not able to write for four and a half years after this happened to me.”
A day later, at his reading at the Adelaide festival, I sat in the audience, unable to comprehend what was happening to me as his poems gradually seared into my skull. By the time he read “The Fish,” as the poem’s “I” mutated and grew and stumbled, shifted from describing himself to describing his marriage to noticing what’s happened to his typewriter to noticing that he’s writing a poem, then to remembering his dentist’s appointment, then to noticing just about everything that actually matters, before rumbling toward the poem’s end, my scalp was burning. I of course thought of Emily Dickinson’s ‘definition’ of poetry (“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”), but instead of feeling pleased for making the connection, I was actually quite worried that something had happened to me: (I thought) I already knew what poems were and could do, and this had never happened before. So after the poem ended, after those final two and a half explosive, immortal lines, I reached up to touch the top of my head, moving my hand around slowly to make sure I was okay. I thought I was. In fact, nothing was ever the same again.
The Word For That
The trees are tempted. The moon is gagged.
Not everyone can live alone. On the via dei Sette Ponti
above Arezzo I tasted the light. What wasn’t
to love? I thought the pollen were butterflies.
I discovered what della Francesca’s Adam was keeping
secret as he watched his own burial. Their souls still
slither behind the paint. What does the river mean
by refusing reflections under Ponte Buriano?
Will the road correct itself? Will the wind believe
in itself once again? I am following the path
of some Roman legion. Tuscany is my fresco.
Everyone is his own saint. One sky sails behind
another sky. Stars pile up. Even the cinghiale have
their dreams. I can’t remember the word for them.
I am writing you from James Wright’s Anghiari.
It’s true I am brooding because the statues are hungry.
They no longer know what they mean. Do we?
Even now the soul finds another workshop.
I meant the moon is a rudder with no boat.
I meant the trees were snares. Adam looked lonely.
I’ve settled into Castiglion Fibocchi to wait.
At least there is fruit on the table. At least
the sky blinks. Jupiter keeps tempting the moon.
Someone else will have to close our eyes.
I didn’t really write
poems until 2001
during what I now
think of as happy hour
in the embarrassingly long
day of my adolescence
by which point
vague though they were
had taken hold
being a poet was
and appeared newly
by the force of Brian’s
enthusiasm and the possibilities
of the sudden world
of other poets
who all seemed to
know each other
for names on tiny spines
one of which
I had recently purchased
for the outrageous price
for 98 pages
Feast by Tomaž Šalamun
which I did not
in the way I read then
I tried to believe
I had absorbed
its finer essences
but by the time
Tomaž visited UGA
to teach a workshop
and give a reading
I had read
The Four Questions of Melancholy
and committed myself
principles that to some
degree explain what is
going on now
like being a poet
this would happen
all the time what
a life I had
to look forward to
how fortunate was I
to live it
but I was sick
the day of Tomaž’s workshop
and missed it
but made it
to the reading
and stayed long enough
to ask Tomaž to sign
the unappreciated but
dearly paid for Feast
he asked my name
and after I told him
said he was sorry I
was sick and missed
I was shocked
to have been regarded
addressed and had the concern
of Tomaž Šalamun
I had graduated
moved to New York
and went to hear
at the KGB Bar
which during crowded readings
John Ashbery said
reminded him of
the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
a joke I didn’t understand
when it was repeated to me
sometime that fall
and after the reading
I walked over
nervous and deliberate
to say hi to Tomaž
and would have been happy
to tell him it had been
a terrific reading
the delicate pleasantries
of his face and leave
but he asked me
if I was feeling better now
and introduced me
to his good friends
young New York
poets whose books
I’d been reading
and again it seemed like
this was how
in general I could
expect things to go
and probably is
went for Tomaž
carried off as he
seemed to be
by his own spirit now
this kind of thing
never happens which
is fine self-regard and anxiety
went so much
with it for me
I know I was awful
making the scene and
laughing too hard
which makes me
somewhat embarrassed that
Tomaž bestowed his kindness
upon a not particularly
worthwhile or attentive
subject I’m sure
he didn’t care
it was outside
of him to care
he looked too
beautifully at us
I don’t understand how
I saw him sporadically
over the years
never enough like
everybody and now
I won’t like god knows
how many others that’s
morbid I know terrible
that we can’t
see each other just
whenever so casual
like money I wish
I had enough to
see you all again
One evening years ago—early on in my path as a poet—I wandered into KGB Bar in the East Village of Manhattan to hear a poetry reading with a friend or two. The Monday night reading series at KGB Bar has a sisterhood with the graduate MFA program at the New School, which I attended.
At this time in my life, it could often be difficult for me to concentrate at poetry readings because I love joking around and sitting in the back rows of things (I’m a bad girl but I try). Before the reading began I was telling a long and ridiculous story. Like all of my stories, it had no beginning or ending and could probably go on forever. However, this evening something different occurred. As soon as Tomaž Šalamun began speaking and reading, I completely focused on his words. Every poem sounded prophetic to me. And his voice, his voice…
Hearing one poem in particular caused a transformative experience inside of me. I am quite different now. This poem is titled “Triumphal Arch,” which is published here (with audio) and appears in the collection Feast. I hope you listen here also and feel changed forever. You’re welcome. I listen to it all the time. You’re welcome. Listen.
Why even after a lady poet’s brunch last month, before I learned of Šalamun’s passing, I made four friends listen to it on my phone. It continues to live in my mind.
Thematically it’s perfect (to me). It taps into the consumptive or cannibalistic way love takes a person over. “I had drunk up his heart.” This is one of my major research concerns as a poet.
The sequence of events in this poem is both clear and unclear: Two people get lunch in Mexico. One of those people is Tomaž Šalamun. They are joined by a magician who shows the narrator and his friend his tricks. Afterwards they walk and talk for a while, and connect in a new way. They talk about evil. Love. They end up at the hotel of the friend of the narrator. There is a sexual subtext that is also a subtext about dying. One man takes a nap, or do they make love? Then there is crying and illumination, and the narrator leaves. The next day the narrator reads in the newspaper that a number of people were killed at Jim Jones’ compound in Guyana.
That description (which is limited by my own limits of thought and time) implies that maybe the poem is restricted to its narrative; however, it is not. It looms.
After Šalamun reads this poem, he says that this is a description of actual events.
I think a lot about how evil and the snake geographically are working here. How the arch is always on the left or right. How one might give the snake all of your power in order to live. Step aside.
I think about the quotidian descriptions of a day hung on the hammock of the complicated ideas.
I think a lot about drinking hearts. I think about who I let drink my heart, or who I want to drink the heart of. Or who to drink the heart of. I wonder if there’s anything better. I wonder if there’s anything worse.
By the end of hearing this poem, I’m convinced that a series of unique neural firings in the brains of audience members occurs. I can’t describe this further. I’m sorry, I’m not that kind of scientist. But in my mind it is scorched into permanence. And side note: I was so happy when the fantastic poet Seth Landman (who I have never met) commented on my recent post of this poem on my Facebook posting that when he heard Šalamun read “Triumphal Arch” at UMASS he “came very close to passing out. An incredible experience.” This poem is a magical object that holds a specific power. It is a charm.
It is said we will all die three deaths: first, when our hearts stop; second, when our bodies are burned/buried; and lastly, when there is no one left on earth to whisper our names.
For poets, here’s some additional food for thought: our immortality might be said to begin not when we drop dead but when everyone we personally knew also drop dead. Only after that will those who never had the chance to know us will be given the chance to prop us up anew, recite our verses from their hearts!
This past year, we have seen and mourned the passing of Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell, and Maxine Kumin among others. In my lifetime, I remember the exits made by Amy Clampitt, William Matthews, Larry Levis, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, Jack Gilbert, Stanley Kunitz, William Stafford, Czeslaw Milosz—folks whose poems I still continue to read and teach. Most of my students will have never met them but on the page! all of us still waiting for time to do its relentless sifting and winnowing of our own era.
How few of us will be spared!
Now over the recent holidays, Tomaž Šalamun has left the building. Farewell! For his genius, check out the silver Selected published by Ecco in 1988. And for his daring, check out Feast, published by Harcourt in 2000. Both volumes were edited by Charles Simic. I love love love both volumes dearly, but it is the latter (my very own cloth copy inscribed by the Master himself!) that I keep returning to.
Someday, the literary biography of Tomaž Šalamun will be written. Perhaps then, we will learn something about his secret (homo)erotic life. Of course, I couldn’t help but do some sleuthing of my own during the summer of 2004 while sojourning in Ljubljana! For now, we have ample clues sprinkled about in plain sight, lyrical crumbs that have fallen from the most wondrous and ample tables of life:
“In the mental vaults there is only a sexual / substance. There is no other.” (from “March 22, 1993”)
“The same view: from Keller’s bar, at the end of Christopher / Street, or freighters sliding on / the Hudson as here on the Loire. / Here Olympian and slow, there / juicy and fresh and black, / a black man who cried in my lap / brought me there. / The red mouths of black men are silkier than the mouths / of white men, softer, more terrifying, more / tender and deeper. More like the mouths of calves / from Karst, which die in innocence before / they’re slaughtered.” (from “Dolmen”)
“We drink, we start to address / each other, with tu. I want to read him, to / devour him, to give him back his arteries. // To carry him off like a barbarian. To cut softness, / respect and sadness out of him. I want to explain / to him the ardor pouring over one beyond this // door. Power and light, amour fou of ripe age. / And the enemy, logic and elegance, the beaten track / of the perfect instrument. You have to crush it, // to talk through it. I’ll give him all of this. / Breathe him, watch him, crush him to pieces. / Because I miss what I threw away. The weight // of the imprint. Even so I’m stronger than he is, / wilder, I can tell him more, I can lead him / better, and first I’ll almost kill him on the rapids // to restore his courage.” (from “Arrival, in Sainte-Nazaire”)
The thing I come back to is how he pronounced the word diaper (something close to dye-ah-pur). This was in Athens, GA. He read a poem where he talked about wrapping pine trees in diapers. It was crazy. It was perfect.
Tomaž smashed the language and repurposed it. His imagery was hallucinatory; his line breaks came out of nowhere. It was difficult to sit still but there was nowhere else to be. I was sitting next to my friends Seth Parker and Lyndsey Cohen Parker. Listening to Tomaž made me feel like I knew nothing, but in a nice way.
Even now, randomly opening to a page in Feast and reading the poem “Jure Detela” – it is startling to read these words, to sit with their ferocity.
Do you hear grief through the language? / You throw dust as Hindus do. / Who is wounding an insect? Your / stomach, and overgrown ruin in / Chateaubriand in the German woods. / Or Hugo in coach, registering everything / while violently fucking?
Tomaž Šalamun is perhaps the most widely read contemporary Slovenian poet. His poems use metaphors of space, but time does not figure in them very much. In a 1991 interview with poet Richard Jackson, Tomaž basically summed up his intention of going for the inexpressible, “trying to catch the sacred seed of everything, what is at the center of the fruit, and open it up.” Rather than a speaker, Tomaž was a coonhound, stalking the inexpressible like it was a jackrabbit in the woods that the hunter always knows only by its scented tracks.
A few times, I crossed paths with Tomaž Šalamun . The first time we met, he said, “Words have energy, man, and if you get the right words together, you can create electric currents which can energize people.” Another time we met, he told me, “Man, poetry is all about love, seducing a reader, being a good brother, a perfect lover.” Another Tomaž quote that flies to mind: “I want a poem to have a happy ending in the highest sense: it’s a relief; it’s peace.” I can remember Tomaž’s words, because he was quite a character, like a runaway from a circus, like a tightrope walker.
I never dropped acid with Tomaž, but whenever we met, I felt like we put a couple tabs of sunshine under our tongues. It’s hard to say which poem sticks out the most, which story calls up the brightest memory, or which time we laughed the hardest. I can easily admit that the few times we met burned a hole in my head. I think I’ll always remember the first Tomaž Šalamun poem I read, because it excited me. I had fun reading it. It was in a chapbook, published by Poetry Miscellany, which is reprinted with permission here.
translated by Michael Biggins, Bob Pearlman & Tomaž Šalamun
When we got to the Painted Desert
I remembered Heidegger.
And I said to Maruska: I want to run
naked in the sun through the desert
and I remembered Antonioni’s frightened
movie, but I still relished the idea
of being naked on the sand.
And Maruska said: don’t do that,
you asshole. Do you think I’ll watch
you disappear over the horizon
and chase you in the sand?
And I said, both of us will go.
And what about Ana?
We’ll leave her in the car and give
her cookie. Cookie was at that point
And I said, it’s really dangerous
but your maternal instincts are strong
enough and you will immediately run
back to Ana.
If I feel weak just chase me over the sand.
I remembered Heidegger and Ed Dorn.
Ouch! How hot was the sun, how dizzy.
The desert is a fantastic orgasm!
Ana really laughed. The sky was almost black.
The air was black.
The Painted Desert is pink. Its name
is the Painted Desert, but if you stay
on the sand, the sand is not pink
but demonic. If you stretch out
on the sand, the sand is demonic.
I remembered how once, when I still
lived in those huge rooms, I pretended
to be Gregor Samsa with such temperance
that Braco became really pale. And I
asked him for some salad, and both of us
went down to the street because Braco
thought I would sober up but I went on
and stopped a passer-by, and I told him
I was Gregor Samsa. Braco became a total
ash pastel, he was sure I’d flipped out,
and that’s true. If he hadn’t knocked me
down in front of the Nun’s church
and made me dizzy and enraged, but I was
grateful too, who knows if I would
have come down. And Braco vomited and
I saw he really loved me and I was sorry
and scared. I didn’t know things had
gone so far. I jumped back into the car.
Maruska was like a bronze and Ana,
aware that things weren’t funny, howled.
Maruska was totally self-controlled,
hardly trembling. She calmly drove the car
like a hearse thirty miles south on route 66,
and stopped at the gas station. And with
her hands still on the steering wheel she said:
put your clothes on. And I knew she was
not a witch, she loved me. Sometimes this
exhibitionism will sweep me away like
the wind brushes away a cotton ball.
And then we spent five days in the Grand
Canyon all calm and tender, and I was
taking pictures of Maruska all the time,
and so the most beautiful pictures
of America are those where Maruska stands
on the edge of the Grand Canyon in that beige
crocheted dress, which we bought on Stari
Trg, Ljubljana, and I also bought her
a Hopi bracelet and a Hopi ring,
and Ana a lot of ice cream.
from SLOVENIA JOURNAL AUGUST 26 2001
The morning goodbyes were drawn out too much, a little sad, mostly hung over in that mild way of Medana wine, mostly just tired. Only slept 4 hours for the last 4 nights, Zapruder even less because of Sineva, lying around with her under the stars, kissing, getting his confidence back. Finally Tomaž drove Beckman, Zapruder, Peter Zihaly & me to Duino, where Rilke wrote. We were to go swimming, but the shore was all large granite boulders with some slimy steps leading into the sea, and a slimy rope for climbing out. About 1/4 of the women were topless, which is exciting for about one minute. I definitely prefer the mystery of breasts. We all dove off a rock into the Adriatic and it was warm and amazing, we swam around an outcrop and found a cave we could swim into. I turned and looked out of the cave at all our heads wet and bobbing in the Adriatic and was struck. We were swimming with Tomaž Šalamun at Duino. We were about to have lunch. The water sparkled, we were in the shade of the cave. Then we sat and had a long lunch of ravioli with shrimp and grilled squid. And more wine. I couldn’t believe it, but it tasted wonderful. Later, though, when he dropped me off in Trieste, I gave my Movia wine to Tomaž. I’ll probably regret that, & can’t imagine when I’ll ever see Movia wine again, or be able to afford it. We went swimming again after lunch and I did cannonballs off the rocks & the Italians acted like they’d never seen someone do a cannonball before. My god it’s refreshing to be drinking this beer on the Acuadotto instead of wine. A guy in yellow shirt and yellow pants just walked by: what was he thinking? Tomaž parked in Trieste, got me the schedule for the bus to Rijeka, and got me a room at a really nice hotel he likes. The Movia was the least I could do. When they all left for Ljubljana, I walked along the waterfront and out to the end of a long pier & watched the sun set. It was huge & red & beautiful & you could look directly at it while it sank into the sea and slid behind some stringy clouds … it looked like a tiger leaving. The port was so busy with human commerce & tourists looking at the sun, and couples holding onto each other. I was struck, I was overwhelmed with love & bittersweet longing for every single thing before me, and there was no Time. And when I walked away I swear if someone had asked me where I was from I would have said Earth.
There is a broadside of a Tomaž poem hanging outside my bedroom. The poem (translated by Tomaž and Christopher Merrill) is just four lines:
The deer braids the turtle.
Only a sketch for a braid, since the turtle has no hair.
Oh, you can’t have everything.
A cow can’t harvest corn.
I’ve always thought this poem was kind of silly, and it is. And I’ve always loved it. How the poem proceeds, starting with an irrational moment, a surreal image, and then takes it seriously, twisting it in the mind: the problem with a deer braiding a turtle is clearly that turtles are hairless, so the solution is that the braid is only a sketch of one. The mind that moves like this is a mind I will follow anywhere. And then the epiphany, which in a lesser poet’s hands would come at the end – but here in line 3, it is merely the lead-in to the closing line, which like Shakespeare’s leaves in sonnet 73 gives us something through the act of taking it away, celebrating the imagination’s victory over reason even while sounding totally reasonable. Tomaž was always this for me – Hesperus and Phosphorus both, the morning star and the evening star, both of which are not actually stars at all but the planet Venus: love. You can get the broadside here.
Perhaps I’m an odd person to be writing a remembrance of Tomaž Šalamun. I never took a class with Tomaž. I never had a conversation with him beyond chatting at a party. I never visited him in Slovenia, or exchanged emails with him, as so many of my friends have. But his presence, nearly as much as his incredible poems, was so important to me. When I was working on my MFA at UMass from 2000-2004, Tomaž was nearly as much of a guiding spirit as the full-time faculty; even though he only visited for a semester, we all caught fire with his energy. It’s such a particular and rare sort of energy that I find it hard to describe, though I imagine everyone who knew Tomaž can nod with their own understanding, their own receptivity to his creative force.
For one thing, his actual embodiment, walking around with his tufts of white hair, one shoulder perpetually held lower by the bag slung over it—it meant that a person could make the earth-shattering, mind-altering art he made, and still retain their physical human form. You could do THAT, and not disintegrate into cosmic dust. Tomaž’s work is so forceful, so insistently defiant of norms, so searingly disruptive, that it was revelatory for me, as an apprentice to art-making, to be reminded that such power could be unleashed by a single mind, to understand what true fearlessness and commitment looked like.
My strongest memory of his compressed energy comes from a reading he gave in Memorial Hall at UMass. I can’t be sure of the year; anywhere between 2003-2007 would sound right. There was snow on the ground, but Memorial Hall was packed and overheated as usual. Tomaž read quietly, in his lightly accented English, holding onto the translated words in his mouth as he spoke them with intention and precision. Everyone in the room leaned forward on their folding chairs. No, they really did. I had the sensation of heat rising in my cheeks, and in the cheeks of everyone in the room, all of us rosying as the reading progressed, from a combination of the crowded room and the inferno of Tomaž’s imagination. Tomaž read Robi and, though I’d read it before, that night some limit of joy and love and surprise was breached in me by that poem. Tears fell all over the notebook I’d opened on my lap. The reading ended and a reception was to begin at the back of the room, but I walked outside in the snow and found a spot on a bench, away from the circles of streetlights, and sat in the snow for long minutes, dumbfounded, exhilarated, and grinning.
There are times when my confidence in the power of poetry wavers, and when it does, I go back to that moment. It is always there, waiting for me, challenging me. I’ll forever be grateful to Tomaž for that gift, among the many others he gave us.
Tomaž Šalamun was—is the baffling way so many of us whose lives were changed by his and who are now struggling to say something about that, what his presence and his work meant to us, does mean, are beginning our sentences—and I can’t help stumbling on that was immediately and coming to a full stop, not really wanting to get up but to just rest there in the middle of it, and let Tomaž be—whatever he was—poet, monster, clumsy guy, a poppy and a weed, sunflower, rooster, roe, a sea urchin, God’s strongbox, Robi, a box in which there is another Robi.
I don’t feel like Tomaž is gone. I feel like he’s moved away. I hear his voice, and I have heard it for so long that it has come to seem like something else—his physical voice I mean—that deeply human, rhythmic, living thing that was him, and though gone, does persist in recordings like this one made by Eric Baus at UMass-Amherst in 2003 and clutched privately among friends ever since. So many people love Tomaž’s poetry but have never heard him read, so I want to make this recording that I’ve listened to hundreds of times over the years available to everyone else. Eric agrees with me that this reading belongs in the world, and I thank him for preserving it. So, in the absence of Tomaž’s voice, there is Tomaž’s voice.
Once upon a time Tomaž brought me roses. They lasted forever. And then forever, forever and forever and maybe beyond forever, so much so I became alarmed by how long they were lasting, I couldn’t look them straight in the eye, though I rarely let them out of my sight, then I became fascinated by them, and they encouraged me, and they continued to last forever, there was no horizon where they were, and I wondered how they could do that, then everyday they were more beautiful, sometimes they would hypnotize me, other times they would lend me peace, then you could say I sometimes took them for granted, then I expected them to last forever, and they did.
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