Since Tomaž Šalamun’s death at the end of last year, I have been living with his poetry, walking around with it, running my hands back and forth across its lines, coming to find in its voice a friend, even though I never took a class with him, never spoke a word to him, and hardly even know about his life. He is the kind of poet who has this effect. Many tributes were erected when he passed. André Naffis-Sahely wrote a moving obituary at The Paris Review, in which he follows Šalamun’s poetry along its “tightrope between ecstasy and despair, the rational and the irrational, the sublime and the horrible.”
Since my last post, I’ve said goodbye to my twenties. One minute I was a flower opening, the next I’m not allowed to carry a children’s lunch pail or purchase fake Uggs anymore. I’m reluctant to buy into the notion that thirty is the age when you should become the person you’ll be until you die, and the age at which you should stop wearing glitter. But if the rest of the world expects age to herald change, there are a few habits I’d like to tilt toward or away from in the writing department–and not because my youthful metabolism will soon grind to a halt.
“What immediately began to intrigue me when reading the source material was the focus on domestic space; they literally teach you how to make an operating room in a dining room, using a raincoat to cover the table. Before the modern hospital, often the most sterile environment was your own home. Once the idea of surgery and the actual theater of the operation became domestic in my mind, the liminality of the body came next. The body at home is the body in a relationship; it is the barrier between one and other; it is the egress the other is always trying to cross, not just in a physically intimate way, but in an empathetic way. The futile desire to know the other completely is unstoppable; but the metaphorical notion of surgery—of cutting open the other to peer inside—offers a solution. Yet, at the same time, what intrigued me when looking at the slides was that in their images the body, the most personal, individual piece, was unidentifiable. Would you know your lungs or your brain by looking at them in an X-ray? Would you say, ‘Oh look there, that wrinkle in the left lobe, that’s so me?’ Though I want to look inside you, the deeper inside you I look, the more anonymous you become.”
Now seems an apt time to talk about persona. Remarkably, America has recently been talking about how we perform our selves: culturally, racially, gender-wise. How do you know you are a woman? What are the surface markers of race and culture, and how do they relate to the deep, lived experience of those things? These are questions many anthropology and gender-studies professors never thought they would see outside of their classrooms. For writers, they are also design questions: how might we enter another’s consciousness without stealing? Why do we feel moved to write in someone else’s voice?
These poems certainly elicit skepticism, but they are more than simple conceptual or design exercises. They have an oddly effective way of opening up. This is the sort of art you think you could easily make, but when you sit down to it, you make something of horribly poorer quality. Artful elimination requires a deeply tuned dedication, a kind of mental conditioning. This is how John Beer—former assistant to Lax and editor of this collection—roughly describes it in his wonderful introduction: during the writing of these poems, Lax led a spare, if not ascetic life on the Greek islands, handwriting notebooks worth of work—several poems a day—from which he would later select and typeset only the very best “worthy of preservation.”