Tomaž Šalamun’s On the Tracks of Wild Game reviewed by Kevin Kinsella

 

On the Tracks of Wild Game
Tomaž Šalamun
Translated by Sonja Kravanja
Ugly Duckling Presse (Eastern European Poets Series #29)
2012

Review by Kevin Kinsella


Too Strong a Word: Tomaž Šalamun’s “On the Tracks of Wild Game”

In 1964, the Yugoslavian literary journal Perspektive published a poem that mentioned a dead cat and the new editor was promptly arrested. It seems that Tito’s interior minister Maček (“cat”) thought the poem was about him, so he sentenced his maligner to 12 years in prison. But the arrest of Tomaž Šalamun set off such a hue and cry from the international literary and human rights communities that he was released after just five days.

While the dead cat reference was nothing more than a coincidence, Šalamun managed to come out of it all as something of a hero–a distinction he would later laugh off in Bomb Magazine in 2008 as “a very cheap glory.” Still, he realized that he would have to “become a really good poet to earn [his] fame.”

Following the dead cat affair, Šalamun, a poet and conceptual artist, went on with his brother Andraj to help found the Slovenian cell of the pan-Slavic avant-garde artist collective OHO. The central idea behind the OHO group–the name derived from a combination of the Slavic oko (eye) and uho (ear), and meant to visually suggest astonishment–is a striving to reach a world of things which could be perceived not according to their function and meaning for people but for themselves alone, an idea greatly influenced by the early linguistic or zaum experiments of Russian poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh decades earlier in which Russian was broken down into its fundamental sounds, the words stripped of meaning to expose the primal Slavic essence of the sounds themselves. Instead of words, OHO artists were applying this to objects.

Despite dressing like hippies, enjoying Bohemian lifestyles, condemning consumerism, and their belief in creative and political freedom, the OHO group all but flourished in the face of the repressive Yugoslav regime. The collective’s greatest success came in 1970 with its inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s Informations exhibit–the first major international survey of conceptual art–in New York. Nonconformist to the end, its members, realizing they were at risk of becoming too big for their own britches, decided to break up. Some went off to form splinter communities to live closer to nature and to explore spirituality, others drifted away. After his month in New York, Šalamun went to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa.

 

A Sacred Machine

Šalamun was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1941. When he was young, his father, a pediatrician and outspoken leftist, picked up the family and fled to Ljubljana, Slovenia, with the pro-Nazis government hot on his heels. Unlike the generation of Eastern European poets (Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa) marked by the war and its aftermath, Šalamun and his contemporaries (Joseph Brodsky, Charles Simic, Adam Zagajewski) came of age in the 1960s, amid the crushing material and intellectual poverty of the Communist postwar years. Still, while he shares with these contemporaries a sense of history and a commitment to personal liberty, Šalamun’s engagement with the avant garde remains undiminished to this day. As he told poet Charles Simic in Bomb, he never wanted to be a political poet:

I was fighting to be free within my writing. And just this was subversive, and therefore political… My second book, still published by myself, was about butterflies, about nothing. It was more subversive than if I would write protest poems, since the government needed to show its pluralism and democracy. One has to be very precise not to be corrupt or used.

The poems that comprise On the Tracks of Wild Game (Po sledheh divjadi) were written over the span of a few weeks in 1976, while Šalamun, still dogged by that dead cat, struggled to make ends meet back in Ljubljana. It was with this book, translated here from the Slovenian for the first-time by Sonja Kravanja and published as a part of Ugly Duckling Presse’s Eastern European Poets Series, that Šalamun made a complete transformation from artist to poet.

Šalamun’s poems can be playful and absurd with the language toggling at lightning speed between high and low registers–no doubt proving a translator’s nightmare for Kravanja, also the translator of Šalamun’s The Shepherd, The Hunter (Pedernal Press), which won the Columbia University Translation Prize in 1992. They’re stark and often funny, but sometimes also tender and soaring in historical gravitas. The shorter poems often suggest an immediacy that just isn’t there, luring the reader into an intense identification before suddenly shutting him out. Yet, far from being left frustrated and scratching his head on the wrong side of the door, the surprising new distance invites contemplation:

A daffodil lives in wood.
My face is a force upon a man.

Strike an egg, so that it shatters.
Let the scent of egg-white, a yolk,
a man and a dog surge.

Like Khlebnikov and the Russian Futurists, Šalamun’s poetry engages a strange and seemingly disconnected imagery not readily grasped. Still, his experience at the Writers’ Workshop, steeped then in the study of the New York School and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, has surely left its mark.

What is this
a wooden staff
catching flies in the name of the word
tarragon opens up into a yellow
slalom a rock pours out
kitsch

If a theme dominates On the Tracks of Wild Game, it is Poetry’s dueling tendencies of destruction and potential, which is understandable given that it was written while Šalamun was devoting himself wholesale to the enterprise:

I’m concentrating an explosion,
it unfolds like flower pollen.
At that moment when
the white parachute cuts through the air, when
the night spills between one violet and another.
A pike that hits granite in a silent
film, when this sound remains
behind, erased by my
hand.

Often, however, it is just the destructive aspect of poetry that reveals itself in these poems, which may be a byproduct of the intensity of his efforts, not to mention Šalamun’s poor circumstances at the time of writing them. As Šalamun writes in “Clumsy Guys,” which won a Pushcart Prize in 1993, “poetry is a sacred machine, the lack of / an unknown deity who kills as by conveyor belt.” The act of writing is so dangerous, the poet resists it, tries to ignore the dark muse’s call by doing anything else:

Fly, fly ahead, sacred
object, that’s not me I am reading
the Times and drinking coffee with workers in blue
coveralls.

because

Poets frequently
kill themselves. They scribble on a piece of paper:
I have been killed by too strong a word,
my vocabulary did this to me.

Certainly, the act of writing a poem can get you killed–it’s a cross between suicide and murder. Insisting upon the freedom to write honestly, to be honest with yourself and others, can get you killed, to a greater extent in some countries than others. And Poetry has many grim instruments at its disposal: political, emotional, and economic demands. “Any pedestrian can / kill himself if he doesn’t know what / a crosswalk is.”

The destructive force in Poetry killed a cat in 1960s Yugoslavia, and sent a poet to jail. But it was the potential within Poetry that freed him and showed him the crosswalks–or at least how to jaywalk without getting run over. Thirty-nine books later, and a lifetime dedicated to “fighting to be free within [his] writing,” Šalamun has earned his glory.


Kevin Kinsella is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Most recently, he is the translator (from Russian) of Sasha Chernyi’s Children’s Island. His writing about Russian and Eastern European art and literature appears regularly at Bomblog.