Online Edition: Winter 2004

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Tomaz Salamun on Tomaz Salamun

a review of

Blackboards

Tomaz Salamun and Metka Krasovec

Translated by Michael Biggins with the author

Saturnalia Books ($16)

by John Bradley

Tomaz Salamun, you've done it again!

I'm only kidding, of course. I NEVER review my own books, and I would have obeyed this commandment if it were not for the overgenerous kindness of this damn editor, flogging me with so many flattering e-mails. And so I promise I will write this review as if I have never heard of this poet or seen these poems before.

What a wacky fellow, this Salamun. He can make you think you had too much espresso and cough medicine and cell phonage when you read this stuff. Take, for instance "Stefanel Jacket." He talks about "broiling gilthead bream. Hardy meat shot through the sea." Okay, but then watch--all of a sudden he says, "I'm covered in basil." Is Salamun about to be sacrificed? Is this the bream speaking? Help! Then he tells us, "I yank my catch up the stairs. . ." Fine. But look what he does to us next: He adds to the end of that sentence the name "Metka," his wife, the artist whose artwork complicates terribly this book. Look at what he does to her--"I break down the door and fling her on the couch so it hurts her, / it hurts her, it hurts her, till she groans like a deer." Not to pry into the private life of this internationally respected poet, but why is he exposing for the world his deviant sexual activities? Has the fishing turned him into a rutting animal? Or are we supposed to think the "her" tossed on the couch is the fish and that's who he is hurting? Could this man be a sadist? What have the poor bream done to him lately? I find this very, very scary, but poetry like this is supposed to be scary, no?

In the closing poem, "Heated Passions," we find out why his passions are so heated. He writes here about a castle (I imagine spray-painted on a wall: "Franz Was Here"), and speculates on what a castle represents--apertures, soldiers, power. Ah, the P-word! Here is the key to the castle, to the poem, and who knows, maybe the whole book: "Power chews at everything." And so, even the great Tomaz Salamun must arrive at this sad truth (if it is truly true). Power attacks the castle, power in the form of nature, aided by the filth that comes out of humans and their creations, so that even stone erodes, erodes, erodes over time. But power also comes from the castle, the power of authority, words, rules. Thou shalt obey. This power chews on us all, even the poet with a nice grant to live and write in Umbria, who herds his dislocated words onto a blackboard, which means all his words keep changing, molting, goofing on him and us. Why are the lines so dislocated? Power rattles through the poet and messes everything up. It sprinkles him with basil. It makes the poet mount his wife on the couch. More than once!

This leads us to the very last line of the book: "What we've carved out will fall." Meaning, the very poems and illustrations in this book, all "carved" by Salamun and Biggins (is this a real person, or a play on "Begin, Big One"?) and Metka, who I shall assail in a moment. All words are destined, by the very fact of their wordness, to fail. Even the words of such a clever and horny guy as this Salamun. Note how the last line flashes us back to the second poem of the book, "Pumpkin." (Do they really have pumpkins in the Republic of Slovenia? Or is this code for rutabaga?) Here the book is more hopeful--"The pumpkin is aspirin," "I lean on the birds' / song," and "Cream your belly as you jump." So power giveth and power taketh away, but poetry is power, too--at least when power kindly gooses the poet.

Visual art can also be jazzed and jazzifying. Take the curious figures that Metka Salamun set loose on these pages: These humanesque creatures are lean, bereft of arms, leaping about like a human flea. Usually hopping up, but a few times also down. In the larger, color illustrations, there are sometimes two figures who hint at a silent story. The picture that kicks me in the head is where a bluish figure (a "she" person?) bends over a collapsed pinkish figure (a "he" person?). She seems to be mourning his collapsed-on-the-groundness, while just above her head four poplars sprout from a snakey stick of earth. But wait. From a distance these four slender trees are green exclamation marks springing from the blue person's thoughts! Will her grief, her song awaken him? She needs to read Blackboards to him. Eurydice bringing Orpheus back from the dead.

Do not read this book, however, on a train or bus or car or plane. It will create motion sickness, even if you do not suffer from that malady. You would toss up the lines, though they might reappear in splendid—probably more splendid than in this book—new shapes and combinations. That is the power of this (I almost said "my"!) book. To make you say to yourself, Leave me in a room alone with Language. Let me see what I can do with her. And she with me. And she and me and Biggins. And she and me and Biggins and Metka, if Metka will go for that kind of thing. (She says probably not.)

My name is Tomaz Salamun and I approve the dissolve of these words.

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Winter 2004 Table of Contents