Look Back, Look Ahead, by Srečko Kosovel. (trans. Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Siegel Carson). Ugly Duckling Presse. 220pp., $17.00.
By about the third or fourth time I had read through Look Back, Look Ahead, I had no idea what was going on, not only within the collection, but also within my own head. I wasn’t quite sure whether to lust after the poet, the translators, or the publisher, or to loathe them all respectively. Turns out, I’m still not sure, and because of my utter confusion and apparent lack of thesis, I am deeming Look Back, Look Ahead a success.
Every time I get a new book I read a couple of lines or sentences at random just to get a sense of what I’ll be getting myself into when I find time to sit down and read the work in full. When I did this with Look Back, Look Ahead, Ugly Duckling Press’ recent collection of the work of Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel I was concerned not necessarily that I’d have to dole out a dismal review, but that I was in for a tedious read. Thankfully, though I am often quick to judge, just as often my judgments are shot down. Collections like Look Back, Look Ahead seem almost designed to shut the mouths of poets like me who tend to quit reading shortly after the first mention of a “rose” or “pines.”
There are pines in Srečko Kosovel’s poetry. His pines, however, are not the tired pines English-language poets have inherited from Frost or Whitman, but the imported pines of Slovenia, which, we discover, signify takeover and just cause for revolt. Kosovo’s “Pines” is not written to immortalize the beauty of his surroundings, but rather is an attempt to share his disgust for his environment, and incite that same disgust in others:
Pines, pines in silent horror,
pines, pines in mute horror,
pines, pines, pines, pines!
The repetition of “pines” reads not as referential refrain, but more as sardonic imitation of a fed-up Kosovel’s contemporaries; revealing that not only was Kosovel dissatisfied with his physical surroundings, but with his poetic surroundings as well.
While “Pines” might make one worry that Kosovel’s poetry is stuck on ruminations about nature, reading on in the collection reveals that Kosovel had a desire to pick poetry up and take it not simply out of the academy, as poets before him had demanded and even attempted but out of the damn forest as well. In “Rhyme,” he cites evidence for his contempt for his backwards contemporaries.
Rhyme’s lost its meaning.
Rhyme won’t convince.
Can you hear the friction of wheels?
Poem, be the friction of grief.
What to do with empty words, dear sir?
Shut them up in a museum.
These lines are exactly the kind of Rimbaudian energy and dissent that I was looking forward to receiving from the hands of a poet who died extremely young. Knowledge of Kosovel’s death at twenty-two from meningitis, leaves a reader with an enveloping sense of disappointment surrounding his poetic demands: we know as we read that he wouldn’t live to see his vision come to fruition. At twenty-three, I am unfortunately way too familiar with the ways that poetry—that of others and, more, my own—so often falls short of youthful ideals. While Kosovel may not have perfected the revolutionary voice for which he calls so desperately (the collection is, in fact, littered with signs of much more traditional verse), there is nothing sad about a twenty-two-year-old still working out the kinks of his craft. What is tragic, though, is the fact that the poetry Kosovel wanted to write and read eventually came and maybe even went after he was no longer around to witness it. The Beats, the New York School, and possibly even some of our contemporary “Internet writers” all had elements to their work which Kosovel could have not only supported, but recognized and built upon.,
While he may not have necessarily known exactly what he wanted from poetry, as shown by his reversion to the traditional even as he called for the entirely new, Kosovel knew what he disliked. What I mistakenly and lazily read initially as flat, tired poetics, are in fact Kosovel taking aim at the flat, tired poetics of his contemporaries. In “Cons. 5,” he seems to go after the position that the unpronounceable or visual is automatically equivalent to the experimental:
Manure is gold
and gold is manure.
Both = o.
0 = ∞
∞ = o
A B <
1, 2, 3.
Without a soul
you don't need gold.
With a soul
you don't need manure.
Although the title is actually a reference to constructivism, I can’t help but to want to believe Kosovel was aware of the implications of the word “con.” While he may not have had substantial knowledge of the English usage, he most definitely could have aligned himself with a camp that believed the more common readers outside of academia , the readers in “the streets”, were being conned by a poetry that read as code for wisdom but was essentially saying very little at all The translators of Kosovel chose to deploy one of the most tired rhymes in poetry, “soul” and “gold” not for lack of imagination but to further emphasize Kosovel’s point.” After issuing a decree for the abandonment of rhyme, the choice of a clichéd rhyme juxtaposed with faux-experimental unpronounceable visuals turns “Cons. 5″ into an indictment of the total absence of substance in both practices. That parts of this poem are not so easily pronounceable brings to mind the tendency of academia to speak in tongues that are unrecognizable to the general public—which then leads us to read the concluding “Ee-ah” as the braying of a donkey, likening the “experimental” to the universal ass.
Until about half way through Look Back, Look Ahead I was edging dangerously toward giving up (though there is no indication in the collection as to whether the poems are arranged chronologically in terms of creation, there is a drastic and exponential shift in terms of content and lineation as the book nears the end) but then a poem appeared that caused me to go back and re-read every earlier poem, wondering what the hell I had missed. “Poem NO. X” seems to be the closest Kosovel comes to achieving his “friction of grief.” Even the title provides an extreme and promising contrast to the traditionally lyric preceding ones such as “The Mountain At Dawn” or “Song of the Shamed.” The guts of the poem hold up against the assurance of the title:
Rat poison. Psss!
Psss, psss, psss, Kh
KH KH KH.
A rat is dying in the attic.
“Poem No. X” evinces a manic quality to that doesn’t appear in any poem that comes before it. While there so far seem to have been a few contradictions from poem to poem, the urgency we see here of senseless repetition followed by an otherwise boring statement offers a contradiction, for the first time, from within the poem itself. This contradiction represents an escape from the more narrative, focused, and single-subject poems that appear earlier in the collection, something that Kosovel seems to have been working toward but, until this poem, had not been able to achieve. The pattern continues;
>Snuff, snuff, snuff.
At 8 there’s a talk
on human ideals.
“Poem NO. X” shows attention paid to sound and instinct rather than focused ideal—and appears to be evidence of Kosovel’s potential to flesh out his desire for an entirely new voice.
Toward the end of Look Back, Look Ahead, Kosovel unexpectedly, briefly, and even hilariously explores the realm of the prose poem. “Honorarium,” for example, is a definition of and musing on, royalties.
For example if I were to get enough of an honorarium I could wade through the gray Ljubljana muck, but since I get none, when it rains I stay put. I could also save myself from cursing if I had an honorarium to buy myself bread. But I don’t, so I despise people. My only comfort is that I’m not fat and slow.
Even in such successful—and more experimental for their time —pieces as “Poem NO. X,” Kosovel sticks strictly to poetic line breaks and language, but “Honorarium” is presented as a poem in conversational, if essayistic, paragraph form. Considering how successful the book’s two prose poems are, it seems odd that there are no more. Did Kosovel abandon the form entirely, or did the editors of this collection deem the rest unnecessary?
What’s simultaneously most impressive and most sad about Look Back, Look Ahead is not necessarily the work represented, but the obvious potential that Kosovel did not have the opportunity to live out. Regardless of the fact that the demands he makes of himself and his contemporaries have pretty much been met by today’s poetics, Kosovel’s hunger for forward movement in poetics can never be tossed aside as sated. As much a call to action as a collection of poetry, Look Back, Look Ahead can perhaps best be summed up by these lines from “Destruction”:
All the pharaohs’ museums,
all the thrones of art.
Tear down. Rebuild. Tear down. Rebuild.
Joseph Goosey parks cars in Jacksonville, Florida. He has one chapbook available via Poptritus Press and one available via Shadow Archer.
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