Remembering Tomaž Šalamun

12/29/2014 12:59 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015
Izbor slik z letošnjega pesniškega turnirja.
Izbor slik z letošnjega pesniškega turnirja.

Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014)

When Tomaž Šalamun arrived at a poetry festival in San Miguel de Allende two years ago with a bad back, which he had hurt tobogganing down the Great Wall of China, I was not surprised to learn that he had risked life and limb to have a little fun. The Slovenian poet seemed to possess the gift of eternal youth until he passed away on Saturday, at his home in Ljubljana. He was always alert to what young poets were doing -- they fed his imagination -- and they repaid him in kind with translations and imitations of his work; it is a great irony that although he wrote in a language spoken by less than two million people English versions of his poems have for several decades profoundly influenced American letters. What surprised me about his Chinese adventure was that he had not escaped unscathed. I had imagined him to be indestructible.

He was born in Zagreb, Croatia in 1941, raised in the coastal city of Koper south of Trieste, and studied art history at the University of Ljubljana. Jailed when he was 23 for editing a literary journal, he was released after five days, thanks in part to pressure from the international media, and in his newfound celebrity decided to devote his life to poetry. Robert Hass notes that his is "a poetics not of rebellion but of quest," influenced by Rimbaud and Lautréamont, French Surrealism, the Russian Futurists, and the New York School. In one of his first poems, "Eclipse," he established the terms of an aesthetic argument that he would conduct in his improvisatory style through scores of books: "I grew tired of the image of my tribe/ and moved out." His would be "a world of sharp edges./ Cruel and eternal." Here is the second section of "Eclipse":

I will take nails,

long nails

and hammer them into my body.

Very very gently,

very very slowly,

so it will last longer.

I will draw up a precise plan.

I will upholster myself every day,

say two square inches for instance.

Then I will set fire to everything.

It will burn for a long time,

it will burn for seven days.

Only the nails will remain,

all welded together and rusty.

So I will remain.

So I will survive everything.

He did indeed survive, though for some time the Yugoslav authorities forbade him from holding a regular job. At one point he was reduced to selling encyclopedias and how-to books door to door, without much success. One woman told him she was not interested in the books he was peddling. What do you like to read? he asked her. I only like Kafka, Proust, and Šalamun, she replied. I am Šalamun, he said. Meanwhile he exhibited environmental and conceptual art in Yugoslavia and at the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1970 he was awarded a fellowship to the University of Iowa's International Writing Program; the friendships he forged there with Anselm Hollo and Bob Perelman, who translated his poems into English, along with his discovery of the work of Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, expanded his sense of possibility. For the rest of his life he would take advantage of every opportunity to return to this country -- for residencies at artist colonies, visiting teaching positions, reading tours.

The vast spaces in America opened his cells, he said, insisting that his poems did not begin to breathe until they had been translated into English. The publication of an edited selection of his work in 1988 introduced him to American readers, just as Yugoslavia was imploding. It seemed as if he had prophesied the wars of succession: "No one is allowed on my land," he wrote in "Eclipse." And he was in despair when I met him in Ljubljana in the summer of 1992: Serbian-run concentration camps for Bosnian prisoners had come to light; the cruel, sharp-edged world he had glimpsed in a poem was taking shape all around him; he did not write for four years.

After the carnage ended, though, poetry returned to him, as he once said, dropping "like stones from the sky," and soon he was named the cultural attaché at the new Slovenian Consulate in New York City. "Tomaž Šalamun, please," was how he answered the phone, as if he were the Muse himself. I visited him on his first free day, which we spent translating his poems. His wife, the acclaimed painter Metka Krašovec, had warned him not to rent the first apartment we were shown after we had finished working, knowing that breathing life into his poems in English would leave him so exhilarated that his judgment about real estate would be impaired. Which is exactly what happened. Whenever I visited them in their small flat on 14th Street, Metka would tease me about our working methods, which sometimes resembled a comedy routine. If I asked Tomaž what a certain line or image meant, he might reply, "Apparently," or "I don't know." Rational logic was the enemy of his poems, which ricocheted in every direction:

Tomaž Šalamun is a monster.

Tomaž Šalamun is a sphere rushing through the air.

He lies down in twilight, he swims in twilight.

People and I, we both look at him amazed,

we wish him well, maybe he is a comet.

Maybe he is punishment from the gods,

the boundary stone of the world.

Tomaž Šalamun was in fact a gift from the gods, a soft-spoken man blessed with the gentlest soul, and this gift, his poems, will keep on giving for a very long time. They will survive.

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Christopher Merrill directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. His books include, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars (nonfiction), Boat (poetry), and, as editor, The Four Questions of Melancholy: New and Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun.