Through this spring and summer, I’ve been reading and re-reading Tomaž Šalamun’s 1976 On the Tracks of Wild Game, reissued by Ugly Duckling in 2012. Written in Ljubljana, Slovenia, during an era of Yugoslav oppression and following his first experience in America, as an invitee of International Writer’s Program at the University of Iowa, the one hundred pages or so are, quite literally, be-wildering; alternately buffoonish, vulnerable, terrifying, and exact, they chart a path of liberation and ruination through the unsound and uncanny.
Reading On the Tracks is a strange, and strangely affective experience. In search of its prey it runs in every direction, a series of kaleidoscopic turns through the narrative, paratactic, confessional, surreal, political, and absurd; the sum of its parts is a kind of radical harmony, capable, perhaps, of reframing what might be an increasingly outdated dialectic between lyric and conceptual poetries.
The book reads to me like a Gunslinger for my generation, and that bothers me. Why should a book written in Slovenian nearly forty years ago feel more relevant to me, a native son of California, than Ed Dorn’s slathering epic of the American West? Is my comfort in derangement trumping my poetics of place?
I have both books open on my table; in Šalamun’s book I see elements of Dorn’s spaghetti western, the space opera, the painfully constricted pupils – it’s all there. I think of Dorn’s gun in the hand of a stockholder:
Not so, Lil!
the Slinger observed.
Your vulgarity is flawless
but you are the slave
of appearances –
this Stockholder will find
that his gun cannot speak
that he has been Described
And realize that gun, fending off the threat of description, might as well be this discussion of Šalamun’s book. Violence is the unspeakable, at war with the peace and order of description and of naming. If we want to remake the world, we have to rename it [ ]. And if violence is the phenomenology of growth, of what breaks open and out, of even the tectonic forces at work in a baby’s skin, Šalamun’s poetry feels as violently generative, as violently alive as any.
I think Šalamun has been ghosting the American academy for about two decades? Seeing Šalamun read is an unforgettable experience, a reminder that with a page and a pen, anything and everything is still possible; he’s as much a cartographer as he is a poet.
When I first attended a reading in 2003, I was so dumbfounded by the expanse of territory suddenly available that I went home to write into it rather than attend the after-party and meet the poet; I arrived as he was leaving, and, too timid to introduce myself, watched from behind a hedge as he said smiling, head-bobbing good-byes to braver grad students. With his luminous pate under a streetlight, glinting beady eyes, and collar buttoned to the top in the Slavic style, he stood, slightly hunched in the summer night air, like a librarian nailed to a warlock.
When I took my spouse to see him read in Denver several years ago I sat completely engrossed, and, after the applause, turned to discover copious tears flowing down my partner’s puffy face. The following evening I went for a double dip and attended a second reading at the University of Colorado in Boulder, with two published and well-read poets; after the reading concluded, I was astonished to turn and see, again, more tears running down more cheeks. The poem that had that night moved us to see the absolute constraint, moved on us like a spell, reads as follows:
cruel and crystal.
It replaces people and
loves and does not
the well. With a hand
you dust a glass
you do not
break it. Let every
a man does. Death
*Image courtesy of Ben Gocker/PPow Gallery