Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems by Aleš Debeljak
With all, that within them finds Room,
“According to German translator and poet Paul Celan, one of Debeljak’s major influences,” writes translator Andrew Zawacki in his introduction to this intriguing collection, “a poem is always en route, moving ceaselessly toward a possible reception by someone else.” I thought about this idea as I read each of Debeljak’s poems, impressed both by the poems themselves and by the simple fact that I was reading them at all, given that they were originally written in Slovenian by a man whose life experience, whose frame of reference, could hardly be more different than my own. Of course what his poems insist, what all poems (even the cryptic scribblings of his hero Celan) insist, is that we—all of us—have more in common than we know. This is no mere platitude, for we, as humans beings, are also profoundly, even irreconcilably different, depending on our culture, nationality, politics, race, faith, class, creed, education, and particular fate. In my travels around the world, and in my wide-ranging hunger for books, nothing has been made clearer to me than the fact that people, people with the same number of limbs, with the same number of fingers and toes that I have, men and women who fall in love, work hard, raise children, watch television, pray to their god(s), and die, are often radically different in their essential conception of the world—of truth, of beauty, of the nature of reality itself. What the best writers in every language tap are the links within those very real, not-be-neutered distinctions that make us who we are. See how the content of this poem is both familiar and decidedly, enticingly strange:
You see everything: the breath flies, a teapot
whistling, a cartridge recklessly shot off at daybreak, a pattern
on the wallpaper, the gloom of a concert hall, dusty violins left
in haste on the floor, an inscription in the language of the two
prophets who came to the Slavs, things drowning in infinite
light, a scream tearing suddenly across the sky, gleaming metal,
a column of children and women carrying newborn babies, the scent
of basil in a garden, a trickle of plum juice oozing into the rutted
tracks left by retreating armies. Everything. You see graveyards.
And metastases of white-hot pyres. Here the world we know lets out
Its final gasp. The ancient order of violence is returning to the hearths.
The magic of words is dying out. And a girls’ choir stands in silence.
A trail points east, across a snowy pass. Nothing erases it.
Now you know the bell tolls for you and us.
One feels the weight of history here, a history at once general and localized, discrete. An no wonder: in Debeljak’s homeland the wounds of history are deep:
Debeljak’s earlier poems, composed when his homeland of Slovenia had just emerged form Josep Broz Tito’s reign as Marshal of Yugoslavia, are marked by solitude and acute metaphysical anxiety—not fear per se, but worry that knows no object. This anguish, a fracturing of identity as global as it was personal, seemed to eerily presage the Third Balkan war… The traumas of that conflict’s ethnic cleansing and sniper-fire, international pussyfooting and eventual disintegration, erupted on the edges of Slovenia in 1991. After centuries of dominance by foreign powers (Hapsburg, Austro-Hungarian, Napoleonic, Axis) and subsequent autonomy within the Socialist Federal republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia finally gained independence after a Ten Day War…
Here, too, the weight and illumination of the past:
Banks, flags, ships, holidays, cock fights, epaulets,
copper engravings of English horses, dead guards
and elite divisions. All this slides by. Disappears
like talk during an afternoon slumber.—
Face it. Arrival and desolate scenes are the same thing.
Instead of a planted tree an d pages of a will only a name
remains, which someone enters in a dictionary. Nothing
more. Oh, perhaps someone for a moment remembers
the metamorphosis from pale to purple: like old times with
lords. Otherwise it is really nothing.—Rip the crumpled
carnation off the chest, lean over the geometric granite
cubes, exhale. Now. Like those in the Stammheim Prison.
Finally, a mediation:
The Émigré Writer on the Dragon Bridge
An open suitcase, they used to say,
hides destinies unknown out here:
from hotel to the central station and farther,
through the many years of wind, the passengers
touch Orion above, looking for comfort
in rituals down here, in a sleep countryside,
a consolation they no longer get
from photographs and books about
the lives their ancestors led. The everyday
favor could now be a prayer, a cup of herbal tea,
patience with endless explanations,
and a silent handshake when language will not obey,
like scattered coins, or a ceiling so low
it suffocates, big things putting fear
in little souls. From the the south,
an alluring heat brings whiffs of memory,
for everyone, of course, is guiltiest
when love’s at stake.
The one thing they still hunger for
rises without a sound from the waiting-rooms
and chairs too stiff for mercy,
and hangs, deceptively, like haze above
a fence which groans and splits beneath him
and allows him, for a second only, to rise—
why would he be an exception?—
before he vanishes in the river’s waves
which swell against the banks and over,
taking with them the suitcases, carrying off
the books, toward a delta, a false reprieve,
a song that’s poorly sung.
Ljubljana, summer 1994
Aleš Debeljak is a poet, literary essayist, cultural critic, and translator. Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems is published by Persea Books.
Peter Adam Nash