‘Justice’ by Tomaž Šalamun

  • COLDFRONT RATING: four-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: Black Ocean
  • REVIEW BY: Gino Figlio


“…whales will annihilate my life”


justiceWe are not likely to encounter another poet so simultaneously grim yet fanciful, crass yet sincere, and old yet so young as the late Tomaž Šalamun. This posthumous collection of 104 previously untranslated and frequently untitled Slovenian poems comes to us in Michael Thomas Taren’s translation, offering readers old and new a final, valuable glimpse into the genius inner workings of the Zagreb-born masterpoet’s bevy of linguistic stylings. Reading this book for a second, third, and fourth time has taken me through great lengths of rediscovered appreciation for the high absurd. Justice everywhere evinces Šalamun’s insatiable penchant for bizarre, and oftentimes erotic, surrealism. It’s readily apparent, moreover, that his waves (or waterfalls, as it were) of choice imagery are merely a vehicle to drive home the socially and politically charged convictions for which he, over the course of nearly 50 years, rightfully received high international literary praise.

In the book’s first section, ‘The Waterfall,’ Šalamun takes the reader on a journey of equal parts agony, intimacy, and self-aware, near-audacious humor. Perhaps the clearest example, from “[There are pithy grapes]:”

I stay pinned.
It rains.
It rains from your fingers.
We both rose.
We both met.
We both stopped.
I will flutter.
I will flutter another time.

Šalamun’s reliance on short, pronoun-heavy phrases establishes a succinct tone, formally balancing a preponderance of nostalgia; 20 of the poem’s 29 lines begin with a pronoun. Further, and especially noteworthy in such a short piece, no less than eight tense shifts force the reader into constant chronological disorientation, occupying new space for each handful of verses. It is the most submissive work in this collection, parroting the meek “I stay pinned” several times, a wholly willful appeal to divide “me and you from me and you” (pronouns, again). The poem closes with the risen sea, a product of the cascading rain. It is a temporally distorted apocalyptic invocation, ripened by the fittingly conclusive couplet: “The bridge is walked through. / There are no doormen.” In other words, the speaker has entered into a new state of being. What once was, simply was, and as Justice presses onward, there can be no return to that unequivocal, once-fleeting moment.

As the arc of the book unfolds, a recurring theme emerges: how to deal with the passage of time. The section ‘I Value My Semen’ hones in most on this concern, the title itself a microcosm of his talent for delivering thought-provoking and unapologetically earned visceral images straight to the limbic system. It’s vintage Šalamun diction, preoccupied with youth and vitality, embracing the rawness of the signifier “semen” even as it provokes. This can build to defiance against the natural order of things, as in “[Storm away, waterfall, storm away],” presented here in its entirety:

Storm away, waterfall, storm away.
To rub in one’s veins and the movie.

Storm away, waterfall, storm away.
The flesh flows. Staccato flesh.

The hour light. Goethe light.
Her and white stockings.

It’s inescapable. Wildly.
The dots on the doge’s head.

The central little cats.
The dots on the doge’s head.

The central little cats.
To insert the ore in the birch’s shine.

Here the house breathes and sleeps.
I value my semen.

To comment on this 14-line sore thumb of a modern sonnet as a standalone is a terribly enticing idea. Šalamun’s tireless obsession with the cats and the dogs (or ‘doges’) of the scenery lends itself nicely to his not-so-cryptic adoration of Symbolism; there’s his Baudelaire. Personification runs amok in the house that breathes. The speaker haphazardly pleads with the storm to continue, welcoming the destruction to come in wistful hopes for promised renewal. There’s pivotal precursor Williams’s Paterson, whose cascading verse directly mimics the great falls of the Passaic River, a necessary destruction of both societal and hierarchical institutions in order to make way for innovation and prosperity. Strong cases can also be made for the influence of New York poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara on Šalamun’s leaps, lines, and beguiling deadpan. And, of course, Šalamun’s explicit nod to Goethe. There is a clear comparison to draw: the Absurdist and his Romantic forebear square off, the two prolific poets’ bodies of work ending up sharing much in common: color study, minerology, the life of plants, egocentric eroticism, and religious introspection are just a few. Indeed, at times we can read Šalamun as a postmodern rendering of Goethe, a learned representative man operating under the humble guise of virtuosic poet.

Nonetheless, he carried the poetry torch for central Europe for the bulk of his career in ways hardly imaginable to poets further west. “Parataxis” suggests political suppression: “a cripple leaning on a Barnes & Noble // paneling, . . . Whales will annihilate my life.” He grapples with bald spiritual themes of the Exodus in “The Boat:” “I’m more religious than the dust in the desert.” And finally, a metacognitive breakdown of Continental Cartesian mind-body dualism in “[Lord, I ask you humbly],” emblematic of his mature style in its impassioned address, its anaphora, and its radical visuals—being brutally torn from its body:

Lord, I ask you humbly, push me away!
Liquidate my head and my wrists.
Let me be a torso vomiting blood.
Enough for me.

Let my head and palms look at each other outside of me.
Let them be kicked, let them spin round above the fountain.
Let someone with a lighter come closer.
Let them shoot in the sky above the cathedral.