Parallel Universe



Blackboards
by Tomaz Salamun and Metka Krasovec (Saturnalia Books)



Before Eastern Europe became an easier place to visit, I used to have a pen friend in Prague, who I met through mail art. He and I swopped records, books and posters for many years. I haven't heard from Ivan for many years, but still have most of what he sent over. What always amazed me about the artefacts he sent over was that they came from a parallel universe, where things had evolved differently. Progrock still seemed to have a hold in the music scene, along with some demented hybrid of national folk musics crossed with punk, photography was still resolutely concerned with nude portraiture and optical effects, art had come out of old graphics and a secondhand take on abstract expressionism.

I thought of all this when Blackboards arrived, because I was so disappointed, and it seemed something similar might be going on in contemporary poetry in Eastern Europe. It's taken me a while to warm to Salamun's poetry, in fact I only really found myself enjoying his work when I picked up an American New and Selected Poems last year [The Four Questions of Melancholy]. But Blackboards has lost me again. Firstly because of the awful, fey watercolours sprinkled throughout the book - multicoloured naïve stick-people silhouettes, which are repeated in black and white soft tone behind some of the other poems. I can find no relation between the text and images at all.

Secondly, of course, is the poetry itself. Maybe it's the translation - I don't read Slovenian, and even if I did there's no parallel text offered - but to my way of thinking these poems simply have no shape or form or reason. Now, I like disruptive syntax, and I like difficult poems that ask the reader to grapple with them, encourage the reader to assemble meaning and co-create. But I've little time for surrealism which thinks juxtaposition of unconnected phrases or images is interesting.

That doesn't man, of course, there aren't fantastic phrases to be found in these poems. I love the opening of 'Quid Pro Quo': 'Perfect sentence, shake seed into my hail.' But then we're off into a series of vignettes, little stories and asides, which we are expected to subsume, I think, into an idea of 'History'. At least, I assume that's what this finale suggests:

                                        Tucked away in
     boxes and in niches, don't you think there are more
     elements here than a candy? History

Nice beginning, nice ending, shame about the middle.

Elsewhere though we come across clichés like 'blasted, gaping oak' [the sort of thing I would immediately suggest any writing student of mine dropped] or the banality of 'I fidget on a chair and somehow doze off'. When these lines aren't developed into an associative, or surrealistic non-/un- associative poem of fragmented images, they become little narrative stories, which meander across and down the page towards a deflated ending. The poem 'What All I've Forgotten', whose line about fidgeting on a chair I quoted earlier, ends up 'Pinakothek or paninothek, it really doesn't matter.' And he's right, I couldn't care less, especially after trying to cope with a poem that meanders through heaven palm trees dancing a rhumba, barefoot nuns stomping, pears and dumplings...  Maybe I just don't have the right sense of humour? Or maybe I simply don't have the right points of reference?

But let's look at the poem 'Stefanel Jacket' which takes place in Arezzo, a town in Italy I know well. Maybe that will help? The narrator is staring in a shop window there. Yes, I can do that. I can rest my fingers on the glass too. 'A tunnel devours coffee.'  Hmm - a metaphor for swallowing coffee? Perhaps, bit clumsy if so. 'A belltower rises from stone to seam'? Yes I like that. 'And then you spit with the birds from Badia.' Ah. Enter an unnamed and previously unmentioned character, who spits with the birds. I've never seen birds spit. Or is it the slang English term for women, that kind of 'bird'? I wouldn't think so! Where's Badia? Should I know? Is it worth digging an atlas out for? Soon, after images of shot wild boar and 'gilthead bream', peasants and basil, the narrator mentions his 'campanile daydreams'. Oh, that old get out clause 'I dreamed it all'; 'He woke up and realised he had been dreaming' Come on, you can't be serious about trying to use that device in a poem?

Then there's one of the clumsiest phrases I've read for a long time: 'I park like an animal.' When did you last see an animal driving and parking? Even if he wants to suggest an ungainly animal sitting down it doesn't quite match with the worst driving I've encountered. Then the narrator runs upstairs with 'his catch' which is 'thrown on the couch so it hurts her'. At first I thought we were in the land of sexual encounter, and starting to mutter about the non-PC-ness of it all, but I realised of course it is the jacket of the title, his new purchase. But then we're back in the land of dreams, for the jacket 'groans like a deer'. As you do [not]. For it's final line the poem then jumps to 'Deer / stand on the ice, watching the sunset, and sing.'

Just what poetry doesn't need: an inappropriate, epiphanic ending, to an unfocussed poem which manages to make one of the most beautiful towns in Italy banal, try to conjure up Italian cuisine with quick mentions of boar, fish and basil, and then anthromorphosizes his new coat into a deer. I don't get it at all.

In his poem 'A Goalie and Why', Salamun suggests '...language must push a hiker uphill.' In
Blackboards language is simply rolling downhill fast, picking up stories and fragments as it go, a giant snowball that has melted on the page. It's all a bit of a damp squib, I'm afraid.

      Rupert Loydell 2005