The Book of Things (Lannan Translations Selections)
by Ales Steger
Reviewed by David Shook
The Book of Things, published in Slovenian in 2005, is Ales Steger's fourth book of poetry in ten years, beginning with his Chessboards of Hours, published in 1995 when he was 22. Despite his many international awards, including the 2007 Rozanceva Award for best book of essays written in Slovenian, TBOT is his first collection to be translated into English. Translator Brian Henry, best known for his translation of Tomaz Salamun's Woods and Chalices, praises "the philosophical and lyrical sophistication of [Steger's] poems," and has achieved that same sophistication in translation. The book is structured in seven chapters of seven poems each, following the strange preface "A," which Henry calls a "proem" though it is written in verse. The other forty-nine poems are titled after things with no obvious connection to each other, from the first poem "Egg" to the last poem "Candle," with stops as varied as "Strobe Light" and "Cocker Spaniel." The first set of seven is completed with "Knots," "Stone," "Grater," "Cat," "Sausage," and "Urinal," the last of which completes its well-developed imagery of the urinal as the mouth of a fish embedded in a restroom wall with a haunting testicular threat:
What kind of human voice is on the other side of the urinal?
Are people happier, more timeless there, fish Fa?
Or there is no other side,
Only the visions of drunks, tensed in fear
That you don't close your thirsty mouth, Faronika,
As fair punishment for grinding your yellowed teeth.
And castrate us.
That complex layering, which combines metaphor and mythology -- Faronika is a mythical fish from Slovenian folk songs -- with the physical and contemporary -- Fa is a popular brand of bathroom soap -- is characteristic of Steger's poems. In his preface Henry notes that Steger's use of couplets, tercets, and quatrains represents a notable departure from his freer first three collections. Their faux formality is a perfect medium for that layering.
Henry has done well to replicate the tone and sound play of the Slovenian originals, as in "Mint," here in its entirety:
Mintafiction, minthane, mintabolism.
There the smell of mint grows out of bone,
Out of s neighbor's thumb and a stranger's shin.
No animal could do it, it's not worth repeating.
Mintatax, mintasound, mintaphysics.
For what stays, when only plants try
To heal a musician's rib and the mayor's skull.
No laxative could do it, it's not worth mentioning.
Even less who will remember, cannot forget.
Endless fields of mint, ruts, indifference.
Mintamen. Mintanight. Mintanaught.
No dictionary could do it, it's not worth noting.
Steger's frequent mention of bones and stones remind me of Vasko Popa's The Star Wizard's Legacy, in the late Morton Marcus' last translation, but Steger's Things achieve a greater density with their descriptive imagery. The wordplay Steger employs to build novel mint-abstractions exemplifies his dry, observant humor. Elsewhere in the book he employs darker imagery to similar effect, as in "Coat," which begins:
Do you remember the archivist who committed suicide
Because of one misplaced sheet?
The three librarians who never returned from the warehouse?
The history students who bit the professor's neck in an exam
Because he could not remember the price of potato soup in May 1889?
The parrot who endlessly shouted Stalingrad, sexual revolution, self-
"Coat" exemplifies Steger's greatest achievement with The Book of Things
, the subtle development of the lexicographer's pathos, the impossibility of objectivity. It's one of the best collections of poetry in translation in recent memory, a Balkanized encyclopedia of things carefully examined. This review was originally published by Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester.