Long Reverberations of Brutality: Books of Resistance and Expression

Almost by accident, not long ago I found myself living and teaching in the Baltic seaport town of Klaipeda, Lithuania, for several months. A few wealthy Mennonites from North America started an English-language liberal arts college there twenty-five years ago, and today LCC International University has 600-plus students from all over the Baltics and eastern Europe. As I encouraged my students to write essays, poems, and fiction that reflected on their lives, countries, and regions, and learned as much as I could about the history of Lithuania and the area, the remaining tatters of my schoolboy impression that the Soviet Union was a unitary collocation of fanatical Communists bent on world domination quickly fell away. If the Lithuanians and others from former Soviet states I met are united in anything, besides their appreciation for local beer, vodka, and potato pancakes, it’s the deepest possible mistrust of the Russian government. Fifty years of harsh occupation, forced deportations, suppression of dissent, and economic deprivation will do that to you. Nobody wants the tanks or the military base back in town. On the other hand, the ninety or so Russian students at LCC were by and large wonderful young people who got along just fine with the other students. The staff and faculty work hard and consciously at creating good relations across national and linguistic divisions. An emblematic encounter just before I arrived culminated in a Russian flag hanging from one dorm window, a Ukrainian flag next to it, with a large red heart drawn between them. It made the local paper, and reassured the locals at least a little about the strange English-speaking enclave on the northeast side of town.

My time in Klaipeda deepened my interest in the ongoing reverberations of the twentieth century’s astonishing brutalities—both wholesale and heartbreakingly personal and intimate—which hit this region with particular force. Yes, the borders of Europe have shifted often over the last centuries, and from a safe American distance such changes may seem regrettable but inevitable. Yet in the vast sweep of eastern Europe, from Finland to Turkey, Poland to Moscow, that history is no more past than is the Civil War in the American South—though its resonances and manifestations are if anything even more complex. As the books under review here remind us, millions of human beings have not shared the recent American middle-class luxury of choosing to ignore politics and history—a luxury that now shows every sign of vanishing for Americans as well. These wide-ranging works, with their varied stylistic and psychological responses to displacement, exile, and historical trauma of almost unimaginable magnitude, cast important if not always comforting light upon the continuing relevance of history.

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The slender anthology Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad is, first, a historical document of considerable interest: uncensored but long-suppressed poems written during and after the horrific World War II siege of Leningrad by the Nazi army, which resulted in at least a million Russian casualties and human suffering of an intensity and scale seldom equaled even in the gigantic cavalcade of suffering that was the war. The five poets collected between its covers—Gennady Gor, Pavel Zaltsman, Dmitry Maximov, Vladimir Sterligov, and Sergey Rudakov—all worked in the tradition of the OBERIU (Union of Real Art) group of the 1920s and ’30s, according to editor Polina Barskova’s introduction. The members of OBERIU flirted with surrealism, but as Barskova points out, the Siege created a “different, non-normative reality” in which “the task of the surrealist writer was not to invent, but to register and express.” The carnage and privation created by the siege was so spectacularly unnatural that naturalism and surrealism might be said to merge in a very peculiar form of plain representation in many of these poems.

Gennady Gor’s poems, read out of context, might seem the modestly shocking products of an imagination geared toward surprise and transgression, in the mode of Angela Carter or whole reams of contemporary horror writers. But, of course, these poems are as much documentary as they are horrific, whether literally “true” or not. Sometimes the horror is displaced onto natural objects, as in this brief, untitled piece: “The creek sick of speech / Told water it took no side. / The water sick of silence / At once began again to shriek.” Sometimes the displacement is temporal; a poem that begins with the shocking images of a dead boy “with a green face, like a cat,” and people who “keep treading on his legs, his eyes” as they pass by in pursuit of butter and bread, shifts away to a long-past childhood scene with geese, mountains, and a contented family sitting together. Sometimes there is only a stunned documentary style, as in this shockingly understated account of cannibalism:

I ate Rebecca the girl full of laughter

A raven looked down at my hideous dinner.

A raven looked down at me like at boredom

At how slowly this human was eating that human.

A raven looked down but it was for nothing.

I didn’t throw it that arm of Rebecca.

Among the most memorable of Dmitry Maksimov’s small selection of poems is one simply titled “War.” A note at the start places it: “December 1941. Leningrad. . . . My soul, to defend itself, pretended to be wooden.” The first section personifies war as a woman who “raises little spiders,” scarfs porridge, and empties souls. The final section speaks of “storms of reality / I’ve crossed” and of how “Dragging your feet / Without alarm, / By the time you get home / You’re someone else.” I was reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s “God of War,” written in German in 1938 but similarly skeptical: “In a loud voice he spoke of great times to come, and in a soft voice he taught women how to cook crows and seagulls.”

Sergey Rudakov was killed in action in 1944; his poem that begins “Smoke in the dugout” also reminded me of a parallel text from a very different perspective: The Diary of a Partisan, written by the Lithuanian Lionginas Baliukevičius (aka Dzūkas) during the first years of the postwar occupation, recounts the brave but futile struggle of a mere handful of partisans to hide in the woods and resist the Soviets. “Spring is coming but not to Lithuania,” Dzūkas writes, and Rudakov is nearly as fatalistic: “The poor heart is both happy and unhappy / To recognize in searchlight crosses, to the west, / The native sky of Leningrad.” Misery, hunger, and fear are much the same, no matter which side you’re fighting on.

Vladimir Sterligov was a prominent artist who returned to Leningrad after the war. He is represented here by poems that range considerably in approach. “Death” focuses relentlessly on mortality’s presence in every aspect of siege life, from eating to greeting friends to glimpses of goldfinches and leaves. “But I am king . . .” entertains a fantasy of out-of-body travel and a mind free to soar through walls: “As if with hands it touches objects, / As though there was no ban against it, / As though their skin were torn away.”

The final poet is Pavel Zaltsman, also an artist, who was evacuated to Alma-Ata in what is now Kazakhstan during the spring of 1942 and lived there until his death in 1985. His poems are sometimes earthy, often touched with dark, sardonic humor; “Growl” begins “I’m a fool, I’m shit, I’m a wretch, / I’d kill any man for sausage,” but ends with a twist: “I suffer, you hangmen, can’t you see / From urinary incontinency!” Zaltsman’s “The Apocalypse,” the final poem in the book, describes the usual horsemen as “four kids” who are themselves desperately weary:

The first of them is war,

He’s riddled with wounds.

The second lugs a sack of grain,

And even that’s in tatters.

 

The third kid is a crook,

Missing a hand, wielding a stick.

The fourth and last is slain,

He’s lying on the trash heap.

A war so terrible that the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are themselves destroyed by it? Enough to give us pause, perhaps, though the wars persist, as does the gap between, on one hand, official pronouncements of necessity and grand strategy, and on the other the experience of those caught up in the horrific reality of violence.

In a thoughtful afterword, poet and critic Ilya Kukulin points out that official Soviet poetry and literature were deeply teleological, as much so as Christianity: hope for a better future, however unrealistic, gave meaning to current suffering. But he also notes, crucially, that this “is only applicable to the loyal branches” of literature. Thus, poems like those in this anthology, whose authors were hardly true believers in Soviet triumphalism, display a “poetic phenomenology of pain and the absurd.” In a world where the social order has collapsed, Kukulin suggests, these authors invented “the aesthetics necessary to represent the endless suffering of both the collective body and individual bodies.”

A great (although not new) problem is brought into nearly unbearable focus by Written in the Dark: how do people respond when their governments and their enemies are ready to let them suffer and die, and/or kill them, for purposes far distant from the people themselves? Suffering is not much changed by the ideology or nationality of those who deliver it, and though it is tempting to identify the survivors with whatever ideology they happened to suffer under, things are often more complicated.

A minor anecdote may illustrate this point: some years ago I taught an American Studies class which included two international students from Belarus. When it came time to discuss the chapter on World War II in a history text I’d assigned, they objected loudly the moment I walked into the room. “Where are we in this narrative?” they demanded. “This was the Great Patriotic War, twenty million of us died, and yet this American author leaves us out entirely!” All I could do was to thank them for the reminder.

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Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems, like his life, demonstrate the difficulties of artists in repressive states and showcase his artistic resistance. Born in 1907, Tarkovsky won early renown as a translator and earned the friendship and praise of leading Russian poets of his day, including Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. But the political climate of the Soviet Union meant that his first book of poems did not appear until 1962. International recognition increased when his son, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, included some of his father’s poems in his films. This new volume, ably translated and introduced by Philip Metres and Dmitri Psurtsev, brings a generous selection of Tarkovsky’s poems into English under a single cover for the first time.

Even in his early work, Tarkovsky displays a brilliant eye for natural imagery and themes of love, betrayal, and ominous tension:

You’ve known how love is like a threat:

when I come back, you’ll wish you were dead.

The sky shivers in reply, holds a maple like a rose.

Let it burn hotter—till it almost reaches our eyes.

Tarkovsky’s World War II poems are stark and personal, uncompromising:

The shrieking pledges of a prophet

won’t remake a world torn apart. . . .

The tornado of fated battle

drowns out all promises. Words fail.

You’re a momentary ghost, I’m not immortal.

 

There’s nothing left: neither shelter nor peace . . .

There is more than one desolate poem in memory of Tsvetaeva, who killed herself during the war, with Tarkovsky’s rejection of her romantic advances perhaps at least a partial reason. “Curse me, torture me, but my God, / I can’t love you just because you hurt.”

A war wound led to Tarkovsky losing a leg, but he kept writing, and an increasingly mystical vein begins threading through his poems, even as they speak boldly and beautifully of bodily love. “First Times Together,” made famous by its inclusion in the film Mirror (1975), is a fine example:

While in the crystal sphere, rivers pulsed,

mountains smoked, seas dawned,

and in your palm you held

that crystal; your bed was a throne;

and—my God—you were mine.

The kicker comes after thirty-some such beautiful lines, when the last two shift abruptly: “while behind us, fate followed / like a madman with a razor in his hand.” If we read “fate” as “history,” as seems inevitable, the metaphor opens up powerfully.

How could the poems of anyone writing in such brutal times, in such a harsh country with such a grand, melancholy literary tradition, not be melancholy and elegiac themselves? I do not read Russian and cannot directly judge the translation, but Metres and Psurtsev wrestle the texts into supple, vivid English lines that often bring over at least some of the formal qualities of the originals. Consider the sestet of the sonnet they translate as “Manuscript,” dedicated to Akhmatova:

I was a person who lived in this age,

but it wasn’t me. I sang with everyone.

From the family of people and birds, I was the least—

 

simple genealogist of their lineage,

primal etymologist of rooted communion.

I won’t give up the earthly feast.

The modesty and wide-ranging generosity of this passage, and its resolution not to “give up the earthly feast” no matter how painful it may be, recur in a late poem that gives the volume its title.

I am a candle. I burned at the feast.

Gather my wax when morning arrives

so that this page will remind you

how to be proud and how to weep,

how to give away the last third

of happiness, and how to die with ease—

and beneath a temporary roof

to burn posthumously, like a word.

The poet as candle, consuming his own substance to illuminate, to offer the word as light, pushing back the darkness: the imagery is simple, indeed, but profound.

Philip Metres’ afterword quotes Charles Simic: “The lyric poet is almost by definition a traitor to his own people. He is the stranger who speaks the harsh truth that only individual lives are unique and therefore sacred. He may be loved by his people, but his example is also the one to be warned against.” Surely this is true, and an important reminder of why lyric poetry—and art—is necessary in the best of times and entirely vital in the worst, however unpopular and dangerous, however difficult the lives of those who bring it into being.

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Living in Lithuania, I discovered that Lithuanians consider the great poet Czesław Miłosz one of their own. He grew up, after all, in and around the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and remarked in his Nobel Prize address, “My family in the sixteenth century already spoke Polish . . . so I am a Polish not a Lithuanian poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me.”* Like many of his contemporaries he was forced into various exiles and compromises: living out World War II in Warsaw under the Nazis, eventually sent to Washington and Paris as cultural attaché for the postwar Polish Communist government before his 1951 defection, and then living in less-than-happy exile in California for several decades—returning to Poland only after his Nobel Prize made him a national hero, and thus untouchable.

Miłosz’s particular story, compelling as it is, is only one example of a life narrative whose main themes include exile, multiple dwelling places and languages, and hard-to-define identities. Such stories, generally without the Nobel, are very much the norm among the writers under review here. One instance is Turkish-American writer Erdağ Göknar, whose English translation of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red helped set Pamuk on the path to the Nobel. Göknar got degrees from Oregon and Washington, and now teaches at Duke. His first book of poems, Nomadologies, puts him decisively in the group of those who have crossed enough borders to never feel completely at ease anywhere. The book begins with a poem about the broken “scribal letters” that begin twenty-nine Koranic sayings called surahs. These mysterious, mystical symbols pose a challenge, writes Göknar: “embrace / a material silence / or recite.” I half-expected the rest of the book to be devoted to even more arcane obscurities, but instead Göknar writes against silence and the esoteric, offering narratives and lyrics that are dense with multicultural referents and language, yet readily accessible and full of human feeling.

Early on we encounter various explorations of memory and family history, shifting national identities and religious crossings. “Ibrahim/Abraham,” for example, tells of the poet’s grandfather:

                            Ibrahim lost

all he had, except his wife,

seven kids and the old-style

Ottoman-style house in Istanbul

overlooking the Bosporus, where

my baba slept on the top floor

balcony, Asia in the distance.

Complexities of genealogy, lineage, and legacy are repeatedly invoked:

You are

a descendant of Abraham, who

tried to kill his son, repeatedly.

You Ishmael, you exile, you

iconoclast, you Rostam, you

anti-Oedipus.

I dimly remembered Matthew Arnold’s poem “Sohrab and Rostam” from grad school, but had to look up the story: in Turkish lore, Rostam unknowingly kills his son Sohrab, so becoming an “anti-Oedipus.” How should the literal and figurative descendants of Abraham and Ishmael reckon with such a heritage? Göknar wrestles with this question, and a whole constellation of issues of exile and identity, throughout these poems.

In one he recounts his encounters as a nine-year-old with his grandmother during an Istanbul summer. Also present is his mother’s father Dede, lost in dementia now, but then a learned man who spoke Russian and Arabic and translated the Koran into old Turkish. In the final lines the boy and his mother head for the airport, and the grandmother’s final gesture explains, I think, the curious way the lines have been curled across the several pages of the poem:

                               She holds a bucket out the

                           window and pours water

                        after us. This is custom—

                    may you travel like water—

                but it seems untranslatable

              with dissolving meaning

           like Dede sitting

         in his chair

   calling out

for her

   touch:

         Ulvi

                  Ulvi

                            Ulvi

This book is filled with the exotic locations and anxious displacements of much immigrant writing, yet the particulars are placed with such deft precision and carry so much feeling that they never lapse into the predictable. The six sections of “Object Lessons” present Göknar’s father as “the Exalted” and his mother as a bird-woman, yet both are treated with an affection that softens and complicates these potentially harsh epithets. An artist, his father rarely speaks, works twelve-hour days, makes resin sculptures that seem “captured / moments of rapture, / of incommunicability.” One, left to decay in the backyard for years, “reveals nothing / of its origin / but a rusting post for memory.” Both parents carry an inscrutable sadness that the child-poet senses even when he cannot understand its particulars: he remarks, “I learned to hear double / two stories inside each one / fragmented and inscrutable.”

A book titled Nomadology makes us expect tales of travel and travelers, and Göknar delivers. Alma-Ata, in which some escapees from Leningrad settled, is mentioned in a dizzily inclusive poem that also invokes the poet’s grandfather, the Desert of Lop, Marco Polo, and other scattered places and persons, found or imagined through his study of atlases in bookstores near Union Square in New York City. In a wonderfully elaborated single line the poet laments, “I follow the sounds, the screech of metal, the clash of armor, hooves beating the earth, but find nothing in the fog of risen sands that turns East West and North South.”

Göknar writes in an admirably fluent, supple English that retains and incorporates bits of Turkish language, history, and culture. Some of these inclusions are nearly mystical, as when a honey seller somehow draws not blood but “liquefied amber” from a cut finger; others are jarring and difficult, memories of wartime atrocities and ethnic cleansings. Through it all, the mysteries of the world, of his entanglements with family, history, and place, are what perplex and fascinate Göknar, troubling and driving his poems. His work is full of knowledge, of names and details both personal and historical, but carries all this information with a remarkable lightness. Whether he writes of his child, his wife, his grandparents, or the sites of famous battles, the true energy of the writing is in its tenderness, curiosity, and compassion.

“Nomadology 5: Between Troy and Gallipoli” notices the trenches and excavations in both places, and envisions the bones of enemy soldiers “locked in a perverse embrace” beneath the earth, before reaching for a final, enigmatic resolution in the single line that stands as part three of the poem:

The trenches tell a story of world chess,

but there is nothing to die for

here on this idyllic peninsula.

At the front line, even, you can touch

your enemy’s hand.

                  3.

This is the palimpsest of our excavation.

Ana Božičević, author of Joy of Missing Out, also migrated to the U.S. (from Croatia in her case), but her poetry and her sensibility are wildly different from Göknar’s. Her work is full of verve and personality of a somewhat familiar type: hip, urban, tech-heavy, not quite young. The poems have titles like “No Filter,” “Carpe Damn,” and “The Night I Fucked William Carlos Williams,” the last of which is quite disappointing if you’re hoping for erotica, though intriguing enough in other ways. This is no outdated groupie account, but a thoroughly postmodern fantasy that begins by switching the famously macho poet’s gender: “I had to save him // have him to be, I / turned him to a girl.” The speaker and the now-female Williams carry on for a little while, we are told, with their relationship culminating in a memorably ambivalent epiphany:

Or suddenly, everything’s mildness

everything comes roses

I am because my little bitch fucks me—I—

 

William Carlos Williams

reached their legs up till they looked like arms

and confirmed to me in childhood that

layering’s good

 

Possibly it’s everything.

I read “they” as the preferred nonbinary pronoun, and though I suspect the good doctor would not be amused . . . well, he’s dead and gone, and has surely been the subject of sufficient hero-worship to survive this irreverence. The queering of Williams both unsettles and amuses me—which quite likely is the point.

Božičević has lived in New York since 1997. In many ways her poems seem prototypically metropolitan and American; only rarely does the whiff of an exotic accent emerge, as in these lines from “I’ll Never Forget the Way You Said ‘Sabine’ ”:

Will we marry like

We said or will I become

A less social Greta Garbo.

Today I made sex

Then worked all day in

Affordable housing

Worked like a sub then

Love like one.

Why am I so poor

And old.

The syntax is simple and direct, the tone both matter-of-fact and defiantly brusque, especially about sex, which is mentioned in many of these poems, usually unhappily. The poems seem at once confessional and oddly distant, speeding in a few brief lines over relationships that other writers would make whole novels of. “Afterbirth,” central enough that its last lines are reprinted on the back cover, might serve as the highly compressed autobiography of a woman alienated by her immigrant status and sexual preference, not to mention whatever general rebellious nature she might possess:

I wasn’t me with them

I was mad with them

Bc they loved my body only

Inside the institution

& I didn’t want that cash

 

Fuck you

For not loving me for

I was “crazy”

And wouldn’t “get a job”

Trying to love your lazy

 

Socialized ass was job enough
Run from the institutions

Run from your lovers

Run from currency

To the current

 

ocean

At first reading this poem struck me as a tad stagy and programmatic, even granted the appeal of the zippy phrasing, wordplay, and defiant obscenities. But as I read on with my best approximation of an open mind, I found myself drawn in by Božičević’s canny maneuverings through the brave new world of social media, with all its opportunities for instant but distanced connectivity: 

I should know.

I keep a shadow

Twitter for my depression

Where I blurb all the terrible things

I think and do not do

Because it’s all about not doing

I cry when I’m pretty

            Feelings are like filters

            Depression’s like love

            You’ll know her when you see her face

These poems are intensely personal and social; they inhabit their present moments very thoroughly, and for all their apparent frankness they offer surprisingly few details of the author’s history or context. One intriguing exception is “It Took So Long for the War to Catch Up,” which speaks elliptically of a “beautiful home” and “the hut of murder,” of a grandfather who cleared fields, of disaster and guilt:

To go to perish alone.

Two bloods

Two wounds

Two wives.

I beg forgiveness of the fields:

They were but I

Never was a real blonde.

The anxiety here, the fear of being inauthentic, of never being “a real blonde,” comes across as real, and makes the bravado elsewhere more understandable, perhaps more forgivable. At times the poems seem designed more for phone messaging than for the page; “The Best Text Message Poem in the World,” for example, offers a wittiness that seems only slightly desperate. In its entirety, it reads “As you read this, you realize you love me, but I’m dead.”

What often undergirds this book, it seems, is the melancholic yearning described by Julia Kristeva, Anne Carson, and others for a complete closure with the beloved. Kristeva argues that such closure is impossible in any full, enduring sense, precisely because we are individual, limited human beings. In Black Sun: Depression and Melancholy, she writes, “The depressed person has the impression of having been deprived of an unnamable, supreme good, of something unrepresentable, that perhaps only devouring might represent, or an invocation might point out, but no word could signify.” Yet these poems do push back, with considerable verve and energy, against the mere inertia of depression. The last lines of the title poem, which closes the book (as well as the title Joy of Missing Out itself), are memorable both for the melancholy lyricism of the mysterious “unsubstanced star” they invoke and for the last earthy, bodily, delightful gesture of defiance:

I glimpse that moment when

I will be

Forever the one

More absent

Forever the less desiring

And will have paid

The price of flesh

For the total randomness

Of my failures here on earth

Guided but not explained

By the light

Of an unsubstanced star

 

And I shake my ass

Born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1941, Tomaž Šalamun was soon taken by his parents to Slovenia after his father, a leftist sympathizer, learned that he was on a list of people slated to be liquidated by the Nazis. The family eventually settled in the coastal town of Koper, and Šalamun grew up speaking Slovenian—the language spoken by two and a half million or so members of that small but proud people who established independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Though he spent considerable time in the United States, listed the New York poets among his primary influences, and actively collaborated in translating his poems into English, Šalamun kept his primary home in Ljubljana, the capital and largest city of Slovenia, until his death in 2014.

A 1998 volume of Šalamun’s new and selected poems was titled Four Questions of Melancholy, but his work is not as directly confessional, as enmeshed in the minutiae of contemporary life, nor as frequently melancholy in tone as is Božičević’s. Šalamun is one of those writers we’re supposed to love—all the poets seem to love him—though encountering his work can be disorienting even for people who read poems all the time. The writing is confident, often exuberant, not archly obscure in the superior way of some hipster-ish contemporary writing, but rarely is there a sustained narrative, a stable speaker, or even a location that lasts for more than a few lines. Those who irritably reach after fact and reason may indeed be irritated by lines like these from “Among the Chestnuts,” which opens Šalamun’s posthumously released Andes:

I stepped on my broken finger on

the horse and ate a sweetie.

I raised and rounded my shoulders.

They called me Wilhelm von Tegetthoff,

who rolls in the dew.

But even though such whirly violations of orderly narrative are typical of these poems, to demand such order from Šalamun is not only ungenerous—it is to cheat ourselves of the productions of a brilliant, original, and generous human being whose unorthodox inner and outer perceptions won’t be contained within the usual literary boxes. Geoffrey Young, who collaborated with his wife Katarina Vladimirov and with Šalamun on the translation of this volume, provides a slightly chatty but useful foreword. He comments on the challenges of rendering the poems in English, adding that even classifying the writer’s national identity is complicated: “Šalamun was many things, and one of them was certainly a Yugoslav, or more specifically, a cosmopolitan southern Slav native to the windswept and sun-blessed coastline of the Adriatic, with its pearly outposts of Venetian culture and mercantilism wedged between the elemental mysteries of water, earth, and sky.” Such a sense of one’s location, firmly rooted in place on one hand and leaking across national and political boundaries on the other, is nearly commonplace in the cosmopolitan cities of Eastern Europe, but worth noting for those still stuck in the peculiar American conviction that our own odd hybridity is somehow both foreordained and superior.

Young also notes a key piece of advice from Šalamun about translating the poems: “Be as literal as possible, and don’t look for any meanings.” This approach is useful in reading these poems as well; as I went along with less straining for paraphrasable content, the poems opened out in many strange and lovely ways—a little like watching fireworks explode. The point is not the story, it’s the spectacle and the beauty of the colors and the suspense of each new, modestly unpredictable explosion. Šalamun confronts even the darkest realities of war, violence, and death with a beautiful, crafty exuberance, as in the last lines of “Who Doesn’t Hide Behind the Altar”:

            We draw a wall. We glue

snakes to trees. I’m deaf.

 

In my youth I held incorrect

opinions. I’m dying and

 

setting my bed on fire. It’s creamy.

I’m eternal, death says.

Yes, at once I want to read this as an account of stepping away from the “altar” of organized religion (with its “snakes” glued to trees and “incorrect opinions”) into a more open and generous sense of the world, one in which even fire and death become “creamy” and somehow, if not exactly cause for jubilation, at least endurable. “But,” I can hear the poet saying, “there you go after ‘meaning’ again.” Creamy rhymes with dreamy, I notice, though probably not in Slovenian. Still, I’m not letting go of that connection. 

This sustained sense of possibility and even ecstasy drew me into and through Andes—along with the antic turns of phrase and image. The experience of reading was something like sampling fancy chocolates from a box with no label; each poem offers something strange and sweet, even when the flavors are hard to identify. Šalamun is nearly as difficult to excerpt as he is to paraphrase; often there seems to be an occasion that sets the poem in motion, but that motion is reliably eccentric, carried along by Šalamun’s delight in the resources and surprises that language and imagination allow. He changes direction and speaker without warning, like a waterbug or a child on a playground, never resting anywhere for long, offering recognizable referents only to startle and reward us with unpredictable yet somehow satisfying turns: “An idiot / generalizes, // Blake said / long ago. / With drama, because he had / my teeth.”

Despite all this morphing, however, some themes do emerge. Plainly his own mortality was on Šalamun’s mind—along with the difficult history he has lived through—as he wrote these poems. In confronting his own death he is, typically, obliquely and even whimsically brave. “Immortality comes and goes, don’t blind yourself / young man. if you don’t grab it by // the horns, it will look. At the moon.”

To call Šalamun religious would be far too strong an assertion, yet his poems often hint at some sort of presence beyond the ordinary. One of my favorites in Andes, “From Stone,” opens the fifth and final section and is brief enough to quote whole:

I pushed him deeper into the slope.

The water was sweet and

 

tepid. For centuries the winch

hasn’t worked.

 

Sing-alongs go to dust.

Scent is powder.

 

Algae, handled, harnessed

first into waves,

 

then into shudder. Shudder, shudder,

shudder on the shore. On the

 

shore by the boat. When the

drum, the ring around the

 

the cosmos, melts. We’re inside a small house.

There’s a fingerbreadth of the Lord.

From stone, something emerges. People, a well. Then a shore, a sea, waves shuddering . . . a hint, perhaps, of a sexual shudder, and then the sudden, epiphanic melting, the small unexpected house and—even more unexpected—a “fingerbreadth of the Lord.” Ah.

A reviewer of one of my prose books accused me, rightly I think, of a reluctance to dwell too long on a single poem, a tendency to quote, comment briefly, and hurry onward. Perhaps I learned that habit writing reviews like this one; reading Šalamun, however, I feel strangely vindicated, not at all because the poems do not deserve and reward slow and repeated reading, but because such reading yields up inner landscapes and impressions that are not primarily verbal anyway. It seems right to dwell with them not quite silently but for certain quietly, resisting the impulse toward ponderous explanation—however risky that may be to my status as reviewer.

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Faced with such extremes of delight and pain, Šalamun suggests, what can we do but laugh and write and try to take care of each other—and then perhaps wonder what sort of laughter this is. Another of the great writers of Central Europe, the Czech Milan Kundera, described demonic laughter this way in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “It has something malicious about it (things suddenly turning out different from what they pretended to be), but to some extent also a beneficent relief (things are less weighty than they appeared to be, letting us live more freely, no longer oppressing us with their austere seriousness).” An angel, hearing this laughter—in Kundera, as in Blake, devils represent unbound energy, while angels are aligned with oppressive order—can only respond in kind: “whereas the devil’s laughter denoted the absurdity of things, the angel on the contrary meant to rejoice over how well ordered, wisely conceived, good, and meaningful everything here below was.” 

Kundera refuses to resolve this opposition, merely observing “There are two laughters, and we have no word to tell one from the other.” Perhaps the precise nature of our laughter is no more definable than is the proper and sufficient response to the beauty and misery of human life, or our immense capacities to inflict pain and suffering as well as to create and resist and find solidarity with one another. Is it all meaningless? Is it all wisely conceived to be the best of all possible worlds? Surely there are other options between these brutal absolutes, between mere anarchy and mere despotism. Poems that dance on the edge between, that refuse to choose either side, and the many small and large acts toward the flourishing of life and the survival of beauty that persist in this world despite all depravity and gloom, insist that it is so.

 

 

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*An essay-review of:

Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad: Gennady Gor, Dmitry Maksimov, Sergey Rudakov, Vladimir Sterligov, Pavel Zaltsman. Edited by Polina Barskova. Translated by Anand Dibble, Ben Felker-Quinn, Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebekah Smith, Charles Swank, Jason Wagner, and Matvei Yankelevich. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016. 159 pp. $18, paper.

I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky. Translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2015. 206 pp. $18, paper.

Nomadologies. By Erdağ Göknar. Brooklyn, NY: Turtle Point Press, 2017. 80 pp. $16, paper.

Joy of Missing Out. By Ana Božičević. Minneapolis, MN: Birds, LLC, 2017. 100 pp. $18, paper.

Andes. By Tomaž Šalamun. Translated by Jeffrey Young and Katarina Vladimirov Young. Boston, MA: Black Ocean, 2016. 135 pp. $18.95, cloth.

 

*See Aušra Paulauskienė’s Lost and Found: The Discovery of Lithuania in American Fiction. In a recent review in The Nation (19–26 June 2017), Steph Burt comments on Miłosz’s remark that “Wherever I am . . . I hide from people the conviction that I’m not from here”: “He meant that he did not wholly belong to this earth, but also that his actual country was the long-defunct, polyglot, pluralist Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which fell to the Russians in 1795.”

 

Jeff Gundy’s recent books include Abandoned Homeland (Bottom Dog, 2015) and Somewhere Near Defiance (Anhinga, 2014), for which he was named Ohio Poet of the Year. His new work is in Brevity, Saint Katherine Review, Terrain, and Forklift, Ohio. He spent recent sabbaticals as a Fulbright lecturer in Salzburg, Austria, and at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania.