On the Tracks of Wild Game
Tomaž Šalamun (Translated by Sonja Kravanja)
Ugly Duckling Presse, 1979/2012
108 pages / $14.00 buy from Ugly Duckling
It’s fairly disarming to think of the poetry in Tomaž Šalamun’s On the Tracks of Wild Game as over thirty years old. The poet’s approach to and manipulation of language is frequently unexpected, exciting. Fresh. He sets the bar, here, not only as we look back retrospectively on what the poetry world was approaching at the end of the twentieth century, but also as we ourselves presently work to create and maintain unique, innovative voices. I can imagine this book would generate about as much enthusiasm and dialogue, if published tomorrow, as it has as a translation. The work marks a pivotal appreciation for the Slovenian writer, but more importantly to literature outside the Western canon in general.
The brevity of the majority of the poems is particularly exciting. Šalamun strikes hard with the saying as much with as little as one is able. To me, the untitled poems, fleeting yet devastatingly moving in their images and volatile turns of language, reminded me of Bashō and other Japanese poetry I’ve read translated by Kenneth Rexroth.
The simplicity drives the purpose behind the works. Šalamun is able to transform the direction and force of these moments usually in one or two words. Notably it is the function of the ending, which takes a good poem and makes it an awesome poem. “When will I be captured / by the breadth of this honey?” (8) and “where did your women hide / as you fled to this tree?” (9) are early examples of how powerful a tiny image, a markedly heretofore unestablished or dramatically appearing image is responsible for the weight and reaction of the poem. Ending, here, on a question, is complex: it operates as a turn from writer to speaker to reader, an introspection on the speaker’s part, and an endowment of agency and participation from the literary context to the reader.
Other significant moments that similarly reflect this perspective or approach, appear throughout the collection: “A whip cracks. I’m not / the shepherd” (20), “a man and dog surge” (35), “he who truly sees nature / unravels the glove” (47), “a mailman never breaks through dusk” (61), “a sack of sand is the first secret police” (67).” These endings act as huge aesthetic breakthroughs. Tiny epiphanies that alter the course of how we see Šalamun, how Šalamun sees, or understands what he sees. Poems, completely working by and even more indebted to the natural, silent, solitary space, which I’ve come to associate with classical Japanese style, appear on pages 32 (“Granaries have ripened, wheat.”), 52 (“I compare a caliph with / a birth tree”), 68 (“A lake is evaporating,”), 93 (Ripen, bloom!), and 106 (Killing sounds / authentic, love—less authentic), among other places.
There is a great deal of poetry that stands alone, however, outside this form, not indebted to anything really. These are the poems of life and interaction, working in opposition to and reconciliation with the sole, imagistic pieces discussed above. Poems like “Good Day, Iztok” represent a radically different understanding of the everyday—a life filled with action and interaction, rather than observance and contemplation. These poems present an acknowledgement of and ever-expanding anxiety toward the artistic lifestyle. There is an urgency to articulate and realize the self in terms with the massive, notably Western, context. This is achieved both in the content of the action, but also in the form: a string of language, constantly pushing forward, seeming to fill as much as its capable, as much as it desires to feel and communicate: “you are burroughs I said he saw what I meant said yes” (14), “then I put on jim morrison and danced and fell into / a trance my cells expanded I put my arms up I hardly / moved I danced wildly and then we went back to…” (15), “I was barely awake when I wanted to talk about iztok’s poetry again” (15).
This desire to work and resolve aesthetic choices and progress appears persistently, when the speaker tries to redefine Yeats: “Spiritus Mundi is / a box out of which come also human / legs they lighten like erotica like a trick.” (19); and in “Clumsy Guys”: “Poetry is a sacred machine, the lackey of / an unknown deity who kills as if by conveyer / belt…”; “Poets frequently / kill themselves. They scribble on a piece of paper: / I have been killed by too strong a word” (88). Perhaps the most touching and hilarious moment with regard to the artist’s purpose and ambition occurs on page 39, a jab both at the community at large, and himself: “but to be honest he wasn’t really showing me / the painting he was showing me his / weenie.”
One great achievement in this collection is the reappropriation of syntax and the general lack of regular punctuation. This makes the few moments in which regular punctuation and capitalization appear stand out. Significantly, the first poem in “Plato, Islam, Barnett Newman” does this, and through it seems to achieve an antidote to the anxiety previously discussed: “Do not touch me. / The way I am, I’m the biggest asset.” (45); “I’m dizzy. I understand nothing. / I know.” (45); “I am a pure dark blossom, / tranquil on the water’s surface. / Untouchable and untouched. / Terrifying” (46). These moments seem to address the multiple perspectives—assurance and dread, insight and oblivion—on which the collection functions as a whole. The first poem in “A Visit” is also presented in this way, and, as I noted while reading, is a summation of the purpose, style and approach of Šalamun’s book. It is a violent, political piece, working against the serenity and expectation of the majority of the poems. But it is also an address to the madness of existence, the disturbing nature of interaction and humanity:
Fascism, then, is
nature in its most
aesthetic, it’s most
supreme rage. But you are naïve
to believe this rage to be visible. Wrong: it
arrives as a mountain, as
enlightenment in a young deity, as
emptiness, as the one who
breathes. He doesn’t give a shit. As usual. He who gives
the least shit hold the key to
the world in his hands” (75).
Šalamun is He who gives the least shit, and He who understands the interaction between terror, beauty, peace and strangeness. I will be honest: there were moments in which I felt the poet did get carried away with the novelty of being weird and supposedly unexpected (still, it was the 70’s): “Your teeth are my soul” (94), “murmurs are gazelles running on / an eraser” (51), “a festival / of glowing human blood” (66). But then there are the moments when this strangeness meets this calmness. In these instances, the whole misery of existence, while present, is held at bay:
a snake’s neck is the breast of a silent blueberry
we measure the volume of heaven with threads
here death is like a pile of gravel
up higher is not any higher
because the gravel shifts
as a man adds more gravel
on the tracks of wild game (69)
Šalamun’s poetry is here, is available now for the entire English-speaking world, and he “won’t / allow you to become a fascist” (76). Fortunately, and incredibly, he is able to achieve this objective through “a surge of the scent of daffodils” (23).
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At the risk of sounding fascist myself, go out and buy it or take it out from your library if your library has it.