“La syntaxe est une faculté de l’ame.”
So opens ‘The Bird Dove’, with a Paul Valéry quotation, in the French.
One of my favourites of the contradictory things Walter Benjamin says about translation is: “all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of language.”
This isn’t merely relevant because Soy Realidad was written in Slovenian, and appears in English here for the first time; only the ninth of Šalamun’s almost forty collections to do so, it’s a small glimpse of his work for those who speak only English, where translation is of course only anyway a partial and oblique glimpsing.
Soy Realidad wasn’t written in Slovenian, or not only in Slovenian. It’s littered also with French, Latin, a lot of Spanish, just as its poems are rooted across the world, from Russia to South America. There are quotations given in their original language, and those which have left their original and travelled through Slovenian to us. ‘Dangerous Thoughts’ is a translation of Cavafy, in which the direct speech which makes up the main part of the poem appears to be someone else’s translation of Cavafy, from Greek to English (though I don’t know how it was presented in Šalamun’s original). Only the opening lines which set the scene are ‘translated’ from Alexandria to Mexico, staging the poem as directed to a character of Šalamun himself.
Especially when we consider that Šalamun co-translated Soy Realidad, questions which are general to translated poetry take on a specific relevance to this work, and are articulated back to us in playful and sophisticated forms: Is a Spanish quotation in a Slovenian poem rendered with greater fidelity if its foreignness is retained? (There is no fidelity.) What then of the different relation of Spanish to English than to Slovenian? If a line is in a language we don’t understand, and is left untranslated, are we to seek out its English meaning? And so on.
There are three poems which are presented – as the work of a Mexican student, Francisco – entirely in Spanish. To an English reader especially, being so much less likely to speak other common European languages than most Europeans, these poems present a certain challenge. I find myself unable to converse with them in my usual ways, and unwilling to attempt to translate them when they are presented in this way. I am at once shamed for my ignorance, and dared to attempt to commit wholly to a partial encounter, with short glimpses of understanding, and a sense of the poem as an oblique, sounded thing. The challenge is whether the poem can reach me, or I it, despite this.
As these poems bring the difficulties of multi-lingual communication to the fore, this becomes a question about communicability in general. The last stanzas of the collection’s first poem, ‘Childhood Mine, Palm Yours’:
And also, if I turn the clock
ahead and watch the grass and the earth
on my grave, for I always
enjoy my memories:
Where is what could
ruin our fraternity?
Why don’t you feel that I’m dew, too?
The dew is fine.
These poems frequently suggest an addressee, sometimes named, sometimes implied by grammatical function. Their self-conscious troubling of the elliptical nature of translated language becomes a staging of language acts, direct speech, poems spoken to or for another, which long to be consummated as successful communications, as the possibility of understanding another human person. Translation as a point at which language meets the basic emotional need for companionship:
How sweet to meet the childlike soul resting in God!
Eyeballs, lakes, and black hair as a beast might have.
The neck you can hold better than a steering wheel
and the laugh the cannibals laughed that I saw in
a movie when I was little. And your scent is real,
Michelangelo’s slaves are not as fragrant as you, Francisco.
You shouldn’t cry, I cry. Look, even so, everything
hangs by a tiny hair. How could I explain this to any reasonable
being and to your mom. Do you really think that you’re not
handsome, ashamed to watch yourself
in the mirror? Stop carrying your comb so primitively
in your pocket. You breathe like bloom and
rower. I like everything you like.
I’ve never made love listening to Tchaikovsky.
Que te pasa niño!
How do you make it so the air crunches and rustles
for us both, and fall asleep like a dew,
so we swim and in the morning you tell me
your dreams and they confirm
you were truly where I had been.
“I like everything you like.” The poetry is too clever and too self-aware for there to be any question of simple lyrical sincerity here, but the emotional content of this line thus presented, looking wryly and sadly at itself with the knowledge that it can’t be true, is stronger for that. One of the best poems of a great collection, ‘Full Moon’ shows us Šalamun the name-function, the fictionalised poet-speaker, crying out for confirmation that his cries can be heard. But to say you were where another had been doesn’t make it so.
‘The Bird Dove’ ends: “she is/a baroque compass that then collapses so you can/row in peace on the lake and say quietly://I love you.” A brave way to end a poem, but the words are not said, only named as a possibility. The poem wishes to create and imagine circumstances where these words could be said, and also ogle sceptically its own imaginings.
I don’t mean to suggest this work is wholly melancholic. It’s tender as it’s melancholic about the difficulties of tenderness, and it is playful, clashing objects, images and utterances together in a series of dream-like glimpsed moments, within poems and from each to the next. See, for example, the opening to ‘Poppy’:
Cover the people when I step in the area.
Throw on them blankets, tents, and powdered milk.
Dig them into the earth, I am a hamster.
Wrap them in gauze.
The poems combine pronouncements, often phrased almost as adages, with a strangeness of juxtapositions verging on nonsense, to create dream-like faux fables. “The turtle, with her poison/geography and hard shell/can alone breast-feed the star.” Animals and people meet disparate objects, conflicts and the vast universe, creating stories like those we tell ourselves to make sense of the world (the appearance of Aesop in ‘Swallow The Marbles Then!’ makes the already implied connection), but without the final step of sense-making.
It’s in this context that I see the frequent religious references of the work. Though the poems deal with God and with Catholic ritual recurrently, they also touch on numerous other religious traditions, real or imagined. Religious articulations are parodied or ridiculed, as in ‘Sierra Nevada’: “My body hair sets the cosmos to delight…. I’m the body hair./I’m the body hair’s father.” Yet this turns out to touch on the same constellations of problems as the rest of the work. As Aztec meets Catholic in Mexico City, the issue is again one of translation. Parodied religions, amongst fables and dreams, become one of many cultural and linguistic ways to encounter the enormity of the world; unable to answer questions of the sky itself, Šalamun writes, “I spin it with a swift and religious/gesture”, and “gesture” is the key here. The problems of comprehending the universe turn back to that wish to communicate with other people, to meet half way their different languages of comprehension.
The calling out towards other beings, shown to be always interrupted by the problems of translating one another’s languages, is then also a calling out to the world itself, where comprehension and emotional connection are the same action, in the face of the same vastness and impossibility. In ‘To The Heart’ Šalamun writes, “You think I’ll feed you like an hourglass/that can be rotated by eternity?” But the addressee of the poem – not his heart, but implicitly aligned with it – is “Raucous black sky, my intimate!” These poems go so far as to extend the longing for tenderness towards the sky itself, towards the very insurmountability of existence.
I must note with sadness that Tomaž Šalamun has died since this collection was published. Without wishing to add too much biography or sentimentality to poems that resist any simple form of either, it seems fitting to end with the final offering of ‘To The Heart’, to the sky and the world which, in facing the longing for comprehension, these poems refuse to do anything so easy as to actually comprehend.
Do you see these damp curved paws?
They’re yours if you agree to the rules of the game.
Melancholie should flow like a river through us both!