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.”
Christopher DeWeese, writing at Real Pants, gathered together responses from a coterie of terrific poets who assembled a gift basket of stories, analyses, and poems. “Once upon a time Tomaž brought me roses,” Dara Wier writes there.
Christopher Merrill, a longtime friend and translator, wrote a smart remembrance at The Huffington Post, and in his wonderful introduction to Šalamun’s selected poems, The Four Questions of Melancholy, he had this to say:
The four questions of melancholy, like the four directions of the wind, change with each telling. Hence the sheer variety of forms Šalamun employs. Here are surrealist lists, Whitmanic catalogues, sonnets, New York School-style improvisations. ‘Poetry is a parallel process to spiritual development,’ he said in an interview. ‘As in religion, you are trained how to be with the world as long as you can endure it.’ And what is remarkable about Šalamun is his willingness to follow the language to the border beyond which lie madness and suicide. ‘Why does the thread hold together?’ he asks in ‘Are Angels Green?’ Because, as he has discovered, sometimes language behaves ‘like a dolphin, it is pure grace, you just follow grace, and you have this feeling of water and light.’
I cannot offer here what others already have, but I can follow in Merrill’s footsteps and say that for a poet of such breadth, of such aggressive exploration, experimentation, absurdism—for a poet who will always surprise, and often haunt with dark themes—he is also one who leaves me feeling deeply welcomed. His intellect is warmed through with spirit and good will, a sense that kindness is the most important of all, because it can endure.
Šalamun leaves us the most incredible gift—many collections yet to be translated into English. I look forward to the first of these, Justice, due in October from Black Ocean.
In the meantime, I want to offer, as humbly as I can, this love list of lines, moments (all drawn from The Four Questions of Melancholy, which spans his work from 1966–1995) that have been with me these past nine months.
I was born in a wheat field snapping my fingers.
A white chalk ran across the green blackboard.
Dew made me lie on the ground
I played with pearls.
I leaned fields against my ear, and meadows.
The stars were crackling.
Under a bridge I carved an inscription: I don’t know how to read.1
I pluck my eye from the depths of the marsh.2
One day you realize that your arm
which after all is used to being an arm
has become inflated with its arm-ness
it looks at you dimly, used to being an arm
but what now and what will be the consequences3
Americans turn their eyes like humming-
birds and find a parking lot4
I am the people’s point of view, a cow,
the tropical wind, I sleep under the surface.
I am the aristocratic carnivore, I eat form.5
dead men, dead men
where the tusks flash and fairy tales rustle
where the highest art is to nail the slave in midair
where the corn is burned on the vast plains so that God can smell it
dead men, dead men,
where there are special churches for birds to teach them to bear the burdens of their souls
where the inhabitants at every meal snap their braces and step on sacred texts under the table
where the horses are black with soot6
I caress your wet hands.7
You catch water with a pin,
the water turns to slush.
You point at the tree with your hand.
the tree burns.
You divide lines with a shadow.
You open the door for love and death.8
sleds rust between winters, the sky gets lower
and grows damp
the earth bears strawberries
soldiers stand hungry
among daffodils yellow as night
a clear, pure guard9
When I am sad, I get up
and wander through the world.10
Light the fires,
beautiful people of the world,
light the fires.11
Things in their gazing seem closer,
but that is not the criterion. I repeat: things
are not the criterion. The criterion is
inside us, as the ultimate dispersion.12
From here the apple of
the world will pop out and roll over
You as well as I
stuffed bags in our eyes.
We cut down pine trees.
We scraped the rust from mouse traps.
We cut the black plasma’s teeth out.13
The North which looks toward the North
is strict and blunt as a photo flash.
Apparently sharp, mute, and swift as lighting,
aggressive and white, apparently full of magnesium,
a waterfall in the vacuum, I say.14
I, not you, Ezra Pound,
have lived to see the time of the commingling of all things.15
of heaven’s growth
is the movement
of each eyelid
born and unborn
To start with, he ate my sweater.
The wool was instantly
transformed into snow flakes, which fluttered
in the air as they fell to the pavement.
They produced a crystalline sound,
they seemed to be made of a wood, not snow,
farther back in the entryway they seemed to be cut out of poster board.
When they had formed a ground cover
about a foot deep,
he clapped his hands.
The mass of them hardened into a mirror.
At the mirror’s center a rectangular
gilt frame appeared—
it was very bright—
and a star began to rotate.17
Whoever reads me
will be guilty
The woman is crying like a dragon because I’m a poet. No
wonder. Poetry is a sacred machine, the lackey of
an unknown deity who kills as if by conveyer
Poetry, like beauty and
technology, is the field of perfect expression
of all forces in a void. Perfect love requires
no orgasm, the other three do,
they stop at nothing to get it.20
The Holy Ghost came down and kissed me.
Far, far off I hear an avalanche.21
With my tongue,
like a faithful, devoted
dog, I lick Your
Terrible is my
The soul is eternal, haven’t you heard?
It was me who told you that.23
To clean the field and run as far as the earth’s edge.
To carry in my breast the word: the crystal. At the door
The soap’s evaporating, the conflagration lit up the day.
To turn around, to turn around once more.24
Elsewhere I’ll pulsate for your bright bombs.25
Nailed to the cross, I spend your fruit.26
The moon is full. Look out! I’ve set a
trap for you.27
I know. You’re off to war now, off to trample flowers.
You’ll have dusty apples in your mouth. You’ll count
Your steps. You’ll be aware of all the drops bubbling
forth from under moss. I hear a siren. Like a pink
bow it falls across the mountain, and it boils, exciting
longing in others and the heavy black handfuls of silk pressed
under your shirt.28
Hummingbirds have blacked out the sun…29
I’m a pumpkin. I’m standing in the middle of the heart.
My limbs are Europe’s pair of compasses. I’ve made myself
as soft as the bread in Lisbon. Do you remember
how you shouted ten times in Ghent—without
feeling a thing. Smilja is blindfolding the crabs
so they’ll mate faster. Drink beer (Blanche) and dance!30
The word is dark, we do not see anything in it.
Oak leaves climb out of a mouth, we lift up
buckets from the sinking ships.31
The soul again hopes to sense its
ribs, the sap. The cold has done me good. If the wind
blows, and I walk and watch the cars, life
brings me back to itself.32
Poems and translators
Image courtesy of Black Ocean.