Remembering Tomaž Šalamun.
I had written to tell Tomaž Šalamun he’d changed my life—thanks to him, I’d begun to put down roots in a new continent, and met the woman I was going to marry. I had at least assumed I could take him out to dinner on his next visit to the U.S. The letter went unanswered for a couple of weeks and then a reply materialized in my inbox. “With my last strength I greet you,” he wrote, dictating the letter to his wife, the painter Metka Krašovec, “enjoy the States, I think this is the best place for you.” Five weeks later, on December 27, 2014, Šalamun passed away in his beloved Ljubljana.
I had only met him once, at a festival on a wine estate outside Stellenbosch in 2013, but he had made an immediate and lasting impression. It took me a few days to shape my speechlessness into an answer. “He is calm and patient,” Metka assured me in her postscript, “and he accepted his death the moment he found out about his cancer.” I had assumed he was all but immortal, sustained by the unfettered vitality that electrified all of his poems. After all, this was the man who beat Lucretius up his ass, thought killing smelled good, stuffed Mitteleuropa with shine and “cut off [her] claustrophobic head with a clasp knife”; who paused halfway through a poem to wonder how he would make love that day, “will I be like a pasha, a conquistador, will I/tremble, amazed and quiet?” It was thus greatly distressing to learn he’d spent the last three months of his life suffering from such vertigo that it left him unable to read, write, or walk by himself. I had sensed a hint of frailty during our time in South Africa. During a weekend at a farm on the banks of the Berg River, our host had offered to take us on a ride through his holdings, and although I’d seen Tomaž eye the horse somewhat longingly, he’d excused himself saying he’d hurt his back, but didn’t tell us how. I wish he had: as Christopher Merrill informed us in his elegant tribute, Tomaž injured himself tobogganing down the Great Wall of China. Of course he had.
Famously wild with his words, Tomaž was also renowned for his generosity toward younger poets. During the festival, I’d mentioned how I’d grown tired of Europe, and believed the continent was sleepwalking into a form of creeping fascism; he immediately suggested I apply to various American artists’ colonies, and when I replied that I hated the thought of asking anyone for a reference, he slapped me on the shoulder and said he’d take care of it. True to his word, I found a parcel of references waiting for me on my return from South Africa, and a couple of months later I left Europe for good. Helping younger writers wasn’t mere kindness—it was part and parcel with his vision of the world, an acknowledgement that each generation constituted a vital vertebra in the backbone of humanity. A few pages into The Revolt of the Young, the Egyptian writer Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm makes an impassioned plea: “Intellectuals, before all others, should look ahead to the intellectual life of the years to come and make preparations for others to take their place, paving the way for new talents to appear and ripen. The question, ever in the mind is, what will happen in the next ten or twenty years?”
Few poets understood this better than Tomaž Šalamun. In “Duma ’64,” the celebrated poem which earned him five days in prison—mostly because he’d unwittingly lampooned the Minister of the Interior by calling him a “dead cat”—he had satirized his country’s “fawning intellectuals” and their “small sweaty hands,” frustrated by “rectors with muzzles on [their] snouts,” and “mummies who applaud[ed] passions and sufferings in an academic way.” Poets had to do more than that. Raised in a country that pompously declared five-year plans could be achieved in four, Tomaž insisted on highly individual poems that irreverently bared all our cruelty, hypocrisy and callowness for all to see. Dictatorships have always despised comedians and poets, and with good reason: as James Baldwin once wrote, “for power to feel truly menaced, it must somehow sense itself in the presence of another power—or, more accurately, an energy—which it has not known how to define and therefore does not really know how to control.”
Adults tend to find children creepy—even worse, uncontrollable—which perhaps explains why they feature so heavily in our horror films, and Tomaž took the notion of the enfant terrible to its logical conclusion. Much of his genius lay in unearthing the childlike sense of wonder most adults tend to suppress in order to help steer our minds towards uncomfortable truths. Tomaž’s children could be cruel, gleeful, or scared, but they were never anything less than human. He could also accomplish this with great humor. Take the opening lines of “Duomo”: “When they gave orders to make me pants for first/communion they cut them as shorts. So I went to/confirmation as a boy scout too. On the way, I kept/killing rats with my keys. I was afraid they would eat my/bike.”
Inspired in equal parts by Russian futurists, French surrealists, and New York School poets, as Colm Tóibín noted, Tomaž was nevertheless too slippery to be compared to anything. His poems will continue to defy categorization, but they will be remembered for the way they walked the tightrope between ecstasy and despair, the rational and the irrational, the sublime and the horrible. At his finest, Tomaž could even achieve this in less than twenty-five words:
It rained during the night.
Did the snails sleep or paddle?
The pine tree strained itself and grew for a millimeter
and there, far away, Lebanon was bombed.
Published in 1985, but only translated into English in 2014, the poems in Soy Realidad were some of the last Tomaž would write for a while. By his own admission, he didn’t pen a single poem from 1989 to 1994, and even suffered a breakdown while in residence at Yaddo. He, too, had his problems, but he held fast to his sense of adventure, both personally and creatively. Though I didn’t know him for long, I will miss him greatly.
Over the past few weeks I’ve thought of that old proverbial rhyme, “for want of a nail,” whereby the loss of a horseshoe cripples a horse, toppling a knight whose dispatch then isn’t delivered—turning the tide of the battle and ending in the loss of a kingdom. “Well, maybe the kingdom was ruled by an evil dictator,” Tomaž might have said. He believed poems should have happy endings. “It is strange,” Metka wrote in a recent letter, “isn’t it, how life brings people together even for a very brief moment and how that can change a lot of things.”
ABOUT HEAVEN AND EARTH
In the post-Šalamunian period,
in the year of our Lord three,
while cooking chicken as per Metka’s
instructions, to save a little, and
to need not go to the earth
I watch the sunset and tell
myself: I know,
the sun is in my chest.
What will they do
if I don’t give it back.
Better throw this counting
in their head.
Call the number, the taxi will
take you to the plane.
Soy Realidad: Poems, translated by Michael Thomas Taren and Tomaž Šalamun, was published in September 2014.
A marathon reading of texts and poems in honor of Tomaž Šalamun will be held at the Mini Teater in Ljubljana on February 3. The event will be broadcast on RTV Slovenija and globally via Skype.
André Naffis-Sahely’s poetry was most recently featured in The Best British Poetry 2014. His latest translation is The Physiology of the Employee by Honoré de Balzac.