Reviewed by Erica Mena
Tomaz Salamun'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 -- Salamun'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 Salamun'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. Salamun'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 cliche. 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.
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.
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," Salamun 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 Salamun 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":
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.
cruel and crystal.
It replaces people and
loves and does not
the well. With your hand
you dust a glass,
you do not
break it. Let every
a man does. Death
-- "(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 Salamun. 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 Salamun'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 Salamun and to the chorus of his translators. Salamun 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
Erica Mena is a poet, translator, designer and printer. She is pursuing her MFA in Translation at the University of Iowa. Her poems have appeared in The Dos Passos Review, Arrowsmith Press and Pressed Wafer, and her translations have been published most recently in Words Without Borders. She also co-hosts the Reading the World podcast on literary translation.
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.
Books mentioned in this post