Woods and Chalices, Tomaz Salamun. Harcourt. 96pp, $22.00.
Some poetry is meant to be read on the page—to take only the most prominent current example, Elizabeth Alexander’s presidential inaugural poem “Praise Song,” the merits of which are far more evident in print than they were at the podium. Other poetry is written to be read aloud, the snap and hiss of the sounds savored at least as much as the words they comprise.
The poems that make up Tomaz Salamun’s Woods and Chalices are the latter sort, their sonic qualities impossible to ignore, to the point that individual lines threaten to overwhelm the poems that, structurally at least, contain them. Take these lines, which open “Ferryman”:
I know you toil and loiter. The mourner
Or these, from “Boiling Throats”:
The cat and I, we scratch ourselves,
she will wreck my jacket.
Or my favorite lines in the whole book, from “Paleochora”:
The blueness didn’t start to tremble only around
birds, the bird itself turned blue,
These lines, with their near-palindromic arrangements of consonance and assonance, are unquestionably delicious when spoken; they are simply fun to say, to the point that even a child would understand why they qualify as poetry. But at the same time they suffer from their self-containment. The way they trip along their own paths prevents them from feeling fully integrated into the larger body of the poems in which they appear; in their perfection, they exemplify both the promise and the problems of Woods and Chalices.
For more than forty years, Salamun has been the voice of Slovenian poetry, writing an energetic, surreal, funny, ecstatic, personal, political verse that has found surprising success—and been surprisingly influential—in English translation. From his first published lines—”I grew tired of the image of my tribe / and moved out”—to the present, Salamun has followed his own path, happy to acknowledge his influences but at the same time perpetually declaring and re-declaring his independence. As far back as 1973, he was writing,
Hey, my regards to the Slovenians, and to your loved ones.
Tell them not to flap, everything is just and sufficient,
let it drip out as it will.
An overview of Salamun’s career offers an evolution from early Whitmanesque exuberance mixed with Rimbaudian rebellion—
Just like Clay who became a world champion
because there was something wrong with his leg
I’ll be a great poet
because they screwed me up
—to a more sonically attuned descendant of Ashbery and O’Hara, writing a remarkably conversational poetry rich in fleeting, unexpected imagery. Even as the literary establishment accepted, even praised him—he is now distinguished writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia-Richmond—Salamun’s poetry kicked against the system, becoming more difficult and occluded even as the praise mounted.
Which brings us back to his newest volume, Woods and Chalices, which is revelatory and frustrating in equal parts. Even once one allows for the fact that Salamun is approaching these poems from the automatic, subconscious perspective of surrealism, they are, quite simply, too often inscrutable. As a reader of poetry, I tend to be focused on sound and rhythm as much as anything, a tendency that frequently deforms even my prose writing. Yet far too often in these poems sound is the only value on offer. Take these lines from “Odessa”:
. . . Crystals are mouths
of sweethearts. An agave is cut down with a hatchet, too.
A stomach, a sweetheart, an artichoke.
Say it aloud—it’s unquestionably lovely, to the point that it makes me wish I had facing-page Slovenian so I would at least know, consonant by consonant, what to credit to translator Brian Henry and what to Salamun’s original. Yet though I’ve read the poem several times, I can’t quite figure out how those lines fit in the whole, what context or additional meaning is carried through to the later lines about Barnes & Noble as the modern-day pyramids or the whales seen from Howard Beach.
With his unexpected imagery Salamun intends to disrupt our habitual apprehension of the world, our natural tendency to link objects and events and feelings, then unquestioningly turn those things and relationships into words. Just as he may write fourteen-line poems without their quite being sonnets, Salamun uses familiar words without their quite having the properties we’d previously settled on them. When the writing is at its best, it startles us into a new attentiveness, opening our eyes to landscapes, nature, and questions of mortality. But at other times, the invention flags, and rather than a new awareness, Salamun’s juxtapositions generate only confusion.
Time and again, that is the problem presented by the poems of Woods and Chalices. The translation, assuming rough accuracy, is brilliant: the clicking of consonants and the humming of vowels is first-rate, joy-making, resulting in lines that are impossible to forget, let alone ignore. And individual images here and there are the same—like this, from “Olive Trees”:
. . . With every layer
of night a little coat is pulled on.
Or these, which close the first poem in the collection, “The Lucid Slovenian Green,” which considers the Irish influence on Western civilization:
They piled sagas at fire sites. Everything northern
(Styria). There, in the forests, live char men
with flashing eyes. They snack on the Book of Kells.
But for every one of the images that works—that, as surrealism at its best should do, seems to activate a subconscious, uncanny, even physical, response—there are a couple that seem almost arbitrary. Take these lines, from “Tiepolo Again”:
. . . We shelled
tweezers. Is there always skin under
the skin? Is the situation in the deep
Piranesi caves taken care of?
It’s not impossible to imagine a situation in which one could ascribe meaning, however fleeting, to the images conjured up in those lines. Piranesi caves, for example, are instantly clear as day, byzantine and unnavigable. But the surrounding poem barely acknowledges these images, running inexplicably through roe deer, Christ, Mormons, clouds, and a pet butterfly named Tasso (who, admittedly, clears up a confusing moment from an earlier poem, where the reader would be forgiven for wondering why Torquata Tasso, author of Jerusalem Unbound, would be killing a cricket).
There’s a degree to which these failures of meaning shouldn’t be all that frustrating. After all, poetry that simply sounds good, that understands the value of the interplay between meaning and noise, is worth appreciating—and I should be clear: I enjoyed this volume each time I read it, regardless of my criticisms. It does, unquestionably, offer substantial pleasures.
But Salamun is far too talented to settle for that, and it’s the poems where he succeeds in marrying sound and meaning, unusual imagery and emotional weight, that make the surrounding verse feel light. The occasional line—“love / is a red witness”; “The world wants to forget. / We want to forget / the dead and youth and freedom”; “diminutives strengthen, / they flood”–that rings true, the dozen or so poems that sustain a thought, they throw the rest into unflattering relief. They make us want more, whether it’s the moving elegy of “The Man I Respected,” which ends with “To pass from the world / means an earthquake. Yesterday he died”, or the ancient-seeming questioning of “The Dead,” which wonders whether “Maybe they press the buttons / to rescind the aberrations”, or the frozen urban scene of “Car,” which shows us the aftermath of a shooting, when “The young were worried. The police / were alert, as if they would train all night. / The air in the bus turned fresh.” These poems, along with a dozen or so others in the collection, achieve that synthesis of intellectual sense and gut response that the best surrealism, the best imagistic work offers—and they necessarily show up their less well-developed counterparts.
And yet I’ll admit to being unable to escape the question of whether this rational analysis is even appropriate. For, to return to the opening of this review, if some poems are meant to be read aloud, and some poems are meant to be read on the page, perhaps some poems are meant to be dreamed? As I sleepily rode the train home from work tonight, reading through Woods and Chalices for the third time, I found myself unwillingly drifting off . . . and as I hovered in that fertile borderland between sleep and waking, the images from the poems—so often images of nature, and of the awkward jointures we’ve forced between nature and human endeavor—flitted through my dreams, and in my dreams they made sense, perfect, natural, unquestionable sense. Perhaps Woods and Chalices is as much a dream book as a volume of poetry; all my criticisms aside, perhaps it deserves its place on the nightstand after all.
Levi Stahl is poetry editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
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