He left us the same way he lived—with a gentle smile: Tomaž Šalamun in memoriam

Aleš Debeljak

It was Wednesday afternoon, and I had shown up at the door of the apartment on the second floor of number 11 Dalmatin Street in Ljubljana for a short visit. I sat for a while at the bedside of my dying friend, who lay beneath some big, evocative canvases painted by Metka Krašovec, his life companion, inspiration and helpmate, an artist of surfaces, colors and lines. Although the speech of the 73-year-old poet had already taken on muted tones, this was a perfectly distinct whisper, expressing affection and framed in a smile. I slid a few drops of water onto his faintly parched lips and stroked his cheek, which was as flawlessly smooth-shaven as ever. I gave him a kiss on the forehead and said goodbye.

By Saturday afternoon I was driving on the freeway toward Gorizia, just over the border in Italy. I was going there to make an appearance at an evening event marking the first anniversary of SMO, the “Slovene Media Outlet,” an ingenious museum of storytelling that the ethnic Slovene population there founded in the village of Špeter (Italian San Pietro) at the entrance to the Natisone Valley. As I got close, a phone call from Metka confirmed for me what we had sensed—no—known for some time already, that Tomaž had left us. He had been battling cancer since fall of the previous year.

2014 was coming to an end, and so had Tomaž Šalamun’s life.

He was born in Zagreb on the 4th of July 1941, spent his childhood and youth in Koper on the Slovene Adriatic coast and his student years in Ljubljana, and then lived in Mexico and the U.S. for several years each, while making regular appearances at prestigious international poetry festivals and readings. In his very first book of poems, Poker (1966), he began blazing his uniquely Šalamunian creative path. He used the razor-sharp machete of his language to hack his way through to various cultural treasure troves and his charismatic personal presence to test all manner of societal and aesthetic norms. He died at home, surrounded by his beloved and loving Metka, daughter Ana and son David. He left us the way he had lived: with his eyes attentive, his smile gentle, and his hands open.

The ceremony at the Špeter museum that Saturday evening unfolded before an audience of roughly a hundred, beginning with a roundtable discussion and then moving on to the showing of a documentary film about Slovene poetry from the time of its romantic first pioneer all the way down to modern-day school kids learning to write. Slovene poetry begins with France Prešeren (1800-1849). Its lineage after that gets shunted into tradition with the arrival of Tomaž Šalamun, when modernism claimed its right to be heard. Today we can sit at home and read what it had to say in forty-one separate collections of poetry, countless translations made by a host of translators from—literally—all over the world, including both Americas and China. Never before has Slovenia produced an aesthetic with the worldwide trajectory that Šalamun’s work has achieved, winning countless awards in Slovenia and internationally, including last year’s “South Slavic Nobel Prize,” the Njegoš Award.

In his introductory remarks in Špeter, Miha Obid, a Slovene poet from Čedad (Italian Cividale del Friuli) and the organizer of the event at SMO, reminded the audience of Šalamun’s significance as a poet, and thus the news of the poet’s death found its way to a live audience, as opposed to a mediated one, at the far edge of Slovene cultural space possibly even before it reached any other audience. How perfectly apt and fitting!

For in his work as an artist Šalamun was constantly crossing frontiers, dividing lines and boundaries, partly because he lived in so many different languages, cultures and personalities. He was a walking paradox—in his poetry he set high explosives at the very heart of the national culture and made fun of the “high mass of the Slovene language,” despite the vituperation and other unpleasant consequences that inevitably incurred, but in everyday life he would turn back into a gentleman with impeccable Viennese manners and a Mediterranean serenity. Never ruffled, he always turned the other cheek and selflessly supported the work of young poets, inviting them out to lunch and providing them with books, ideas and contacts. 

Šalamun had something that academic specialists in literary studies are particularly unable to digest: an unshakable faith in a total artistic calling, faith in the power of art to set chronological time in parentheses and shove us out of our rigid relationship to the world, drawing us into its magic circle and showing us the difference between a vocation on the one hand and a profession on the other.

A vocation is a sacred calling, while a profession is little more than the worldly observance of certain norms and standards. The calling in Šalamun’s work reveals itself through its style, which enables the work of art to hover between “no longer” and “not yet.” While searching for such a style he famously got tired of the image of his tribe and moved out, and then began to collect and process images of global immediacy.

It’s no wonder that traditional humanists and rigid nationalists don’t like him: while he may write in Slovene, the bounds of his artistic language are by no means the bounds of his experiential and representational world. He uses Slovene antennae to touch a broad array of traditions, from among which he selects words and descriptions in order to give them a poetic shape through which the beauty of something “completely other” can flash. This shape acquired the characteristics of a map used by someone both curious and generous of spirit, who eagerly, passionately noted down the manifold transformations of the everyday world, filtering them through a sieve of personal experience and original insight in order to contemplate fleeting moments and eternity all at once.

As for me, I was just contemplating the road through the windshield of my Xsara Picasso on my way home from Špeter the following day. As I drove through the windy Vipava Valley, suddenly I noticed the exit for Šempas covered in snow...and I thought of the early 1970s, when the OHO art collective, which Tomaž belonged to, tried out communal living at the edge of that village. I drove through mad blasts of the bora past Postojna...and I thought of the early '80s, when the two of us had a reading in the public library there. Then I drove past Vrhnika ... and thought of the early '90s and how much fun we had over lunch beside the headwaters of the Ljubljanica, or what was left of them by July. I drove and I thought of the length of our lives, which is short, and I rushed home so I could immerse myself yet again.

In what? In a book titled Infants, the last of his books that the author ever held in his hands (a further collection titled Orgies is just about to be published by the Student Press). How do I know this? Because my copy of this book by Tomaž Šalamun boasts an inscription by the author. It was written with an unsteady hand, in gratitude for the very brief book report I gave him after reading it:  I read the poems in Infants so I can change into a body awash in an afternoon shower of minute crystals and barely perceptible needles that bring me indistinguishable feelings of pain, amazement and bliss. The briefest of reports from a vast terrain that the poet’s spirit moves through, continually cohering and then evaporating again like patterns on wet skin as it gradually dries. I read Infants with gratitude at its revelation of the diverse shades of an agile spirit and its hovering words, which precisely for that reason are so appropriate to the world disintegrating around us.

Though the poet has left us, his poem goes on, extending the boundaries of what can be said. Over and over again it expresses that which resists expression. Or in other words, the things we’re unable to talk about have to be talked about over and over again, precisely the way we hear them expressed in Orgies

You lift up the grass.
You lift up the cliffs. 

You lift up the sky.

Translated from the Slovene by Michael Biggins

Aleš Debeljak is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Ljubljana. 
Michael E. Biggins is Affiliate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Washington.