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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Review of Tomaž Šalamun's Woods and Chalices by Maria Garcia Teutsch

The Republic of Tomaž

            Reading Woods and Chalices is akin to entering another world of phantasmagorical renderings of reality, or non-reality. There is a rejection of syntactical cohesiveness that is clearly intentional. In this regard he reminds me of bell hooks who disregards rules governing language as a rebellion against the “slavemaster’s tongue.”  Šalamun takes his syntactical rebellion a couple of steps further. His poems are like a vast canvas by Pollock or Kandinsky, who create first and then worry about meaning, or, more to the point, allow their audiences to shape their own meaning without imposition beyond the artist’s impulse to create.
            Translating such an amphigouric artist from his native Slovenian into English seems a daunting task at best. Pierre Joris translated Paul Celan’s later work and produced an English version of Threadsuns in all of its disjointed beauty. What is remarkable in the translation of Woods and Chalices is the integrity of the word play and the wonderful sounds and at times anagrammatic expressions.  The translator, Brian Henry said of translating Woods and Chalices “Another difficulty, perhaps just a personal one for me, was that Salamun views the beginnings of lines as more important than the endings (thus the prevalence of traditionally weak line breaks throughout the book), whereas in English-language poetry, line endings tend to be more important. So I had to constantly battle my own poetic instincts with line breaks” (Letter to the author).
            The first few poems immediately engage the reader’s ear. In “The Clouds of Tiepolo” the alliterative lines and partial consonance of the first stanza bring you to the land of Šalamun, “The flock fell behind a hill. God/tottered. I chased a stall. Faded . . . (4)  His skill with language is apparent; no small feat for a translation piece where the cleverness of the poet as wordsmith is often lost. The same is true in “The Edge from Where we Measure’ with the assonance and partial rhyme of “wheat /cleaved” (5); and in “Ferryman” “toil and loiter” and the partial consonance in “then within vineyards” that ends the piece.  When I read translations like this I always wonder if the translator changed the original words to make them more poetic. 
            What is also true is that the rhetoric of the republic of Šalamun, unlike the harmony found in Walt Whitman’s poetry, is an element of disharmony. There appears to be a conscious effort to play a discordant chord on the cello of history; how else to prod people out of their collective stupor? For its conventional object, the Šalamunian subject substitutes a new object such as in “Fiery Chariot:”
            The bull’s berry walks on wires.
            The windowpanes are wounds.
            They hiss when the jet streams from the silver
            Kettle and a giant flings a discus.
            It turns its head. The helmet touches the tip.  (51)
Šalamun takes the “I” out of the equation, and by so doing allows his reader into his world of unconventionality. It is the everyday experience he turns upside down, sideways or looks at through a lens made of Jello. His poetics is an anti-poetics. Like the great Byronic hero, his speaker is a mischievous satyr playing with all preconceived notions of reality, whether sacred or profane.  His poetry reminds me of a Dionysian orgy where one gorges on different visions of a world at once familiar and frightening.
            The reading of Woods and Chalices has given me a freedom in my writing to stay true to my own sometimes warped and wobbling rendering of reality. It also gives me hope as a future translator of texts that I will be able to craft, in conjunction with the poet, an English version that retains the poem’s intent while also dazzling the reader with the beauty of the text.
photo credit: Jon Howell