The Book of Things (Lannan Translations Selections)
by Ales Steger
Reviewed by Amy Groshek
In poetry, there is no true still life -- in order to be interesting, a poem needs at least a hint of syntax. Syntax conveys logic, narrative, and value; it establishes the relationships between things. Even with a classic Imagist poem like "The Red Wheelbarrow," what lends immediacy is not the wheelbarrow and chickens but the value statement "so much depends / upon." The poet, however invisible he intends to be, is still saying something, and that's why we read. When William Carlos Williams wrote "no ideas but in things," he did not mean, "if you have no ideas, simply list off things."
One has to wonder, therefore, when Brian Henry, in the translator's preface to Ales Steger's The Book of Things, claims "the ideal translation of these poems would not be other poems, but the things themselves." That is not the task Steger set for himself -- at least one hopes. A reader does not pick up a poem about a chair in order to learn the dimensions of the seat under her own ass. There are modes of perception far better suited to "the objects themselves." Implying otherwise discounts Steger's talent, and the challenge he undertook.
Steger is perhaps at a point in his career that necessitates challenges. His first volume was published when he was twenty-two; in the subsequent fifteen years, he has written three volumes of poetry and two of prose, winning Slovenia's prestigious Rozanceva Award in 2007. Steger is not given to leading his reader by the hand, and he therefore fights his own instincts with this project. His website asserts that "each text, written by my hand, all the more confirms [the] old suspicion that there [is] only text, not the author who writes under them a name." (Even via Google Translate, the statement is easily recognizable as New Criticism throwback.) The lead poem in The Book of Things, featuring a character identified as "A," which one might cautiously read as "Ales," declares that, "Whoever doesn't hear him will go on listening in vain." Such a poet must walk the tightrope between the reader's need for meaning and his own inclination to the expansion of meaning through extrapolation and figurative leap.
Steger has a tremendous capacity for juxtaposition, and the poems offer a great many startlingly moments. His figures also deploy repeated, identifiable strategies. Most notable are the upending of visual perspective, the heavy use of visceral imagery, and an absurd system of psychological exchange.
The alteration of visual perspective is an unusual but not uncommon gesture among poets. Steger's flair is in not pausing at the virtuoso moment, but brushing past as it drops. In "Umbrella," "the sky watches you blackly from puddles." Shoes, "protect you / So the road presses softly on you." The potato grows with its "anus, temperate against the sky."
The use of viscera is a more jarring and perhaps more juvenile technique. Chocolate has "sweet entrails," and blinds "carve [a window's] abdomen into thin slices." Steger's most disturbing use of this strategy is in "Sausage," a poem which declares "Six million kosher salami gassed in the second world war / And a million hot sausages murdered fifty years later in the Balkans." The misanthropic tone is unmistakable, and the ending dares the reader further into the trope, not an activist's plea but a nihilist's summons:
Is your stomach rumbling again? Come, put it in your mouth. Between the anus and the mouth the appetite of a body for a body.
Bulimic mass, caught in the bowel of language. Hurt it. Take it. Let the words burst between your teeth.
Entrails and offal dovetail nicely with Steger's third tactic, his otherworldly metaphysic, wherein guilts and debts arise out of commonplace domestic activity -- such that a loaf of bread has "made you into a crematory of guilt. / When he feeds you, you speak and instantly are more famished." Chocolate "died in order to be a bar of chocolate in front of you," and as you partake, it "breaks and feeds on you." Even the inedible bandage, "owing no one, . . . must pay everyone." Unfortunately, these relationships are never plumbed to their economic, agricultural, or political roots, and so rather than adding resonance to the poems, they further insulate them -- in a distantly Freudian manner -- from the world.
Having examined the poet's virtuosity, one must lament that it often rises in single lines and couplets from pieces that read more like a bulleted list of brainstorms than a succinct whole. The poems succeed when the poet stays his strangemaking hand and meaning is mercifully preserved. "Knots," both touching and relevant, is such a poem. The second-person perspective of the translation further impresses the ineluctability of family ties, "like someone / Secretly led a rope through your ear." While far simpler than other tropes in the book, the images of "mothers, woven into tattered sweaters," of "fathers, tossing at night in their own traps" are both tender and telling, the kind of prescient images the reader sees reflected in her own life. Gone is the speaker who urged us to take our bowels in our teeth. The tone is precocious but gentle: "Be patient with the knots, / Let them grow, let them tighten in peace."
Steger holds this trope steady to the end, with brilliant results. The poetic still life has ceased to be so; the poem is about people -- about, even, the reader. We Americans know what is coming, faster now than it has come in nearly a century, with millions of people uninsured, with food pantries across the country running out of funds, with our safety net of government programs threatened by privatization or collapsing under their own underfunded weight. The day will come when we are called to account for our kin, when "the rope rises up in drowsy silence."