Review by Marc Jaffee
THE BLUE TOWER
by Tomaž Šalamun
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
215 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10003
2011, 96 pp., $22.00
Why do I love poetry? (What a loaded question.) I love it, for one, because the world is strange and surprising, and poetry illuminates the experience of perception. But ignore that for a moment. Reading The Blue Tower, I felt a renewal of my initial thrill at discovering what poetry can do–that thrill I felt before trying, later in life, to articulate it.
In expressing reality through its inexpressible side, Tomaž Šalamun joins the lineage of surrealism (a Tristan Tzara quote nests within one poem). Yet he also has the conversational intimacy of the beat poets: “My bow of little rags doesn’t symbolize / black ones. Bow of little rags? / ‘What do you mean by that?’ Let’s say a / lasso, let’s say a net.” The speaker is confiding in me, and that feeling of intimacy is one of the great strengths of this collection. All too often, poetry with surrealist overtones can seem opaque and off-putting, yet here it truly becomes a way of seeing, of working through mystification, of finding joy in oddity. The off-kilter way in which Šalamun deploys language is counterbalanced by his clear, declarative sentences. “Brothers can’t sleep with each other,” he tells us cheekily.
Šalamun has a giddy fascination with words; he revels in language’s allusive and elusive charms. “A deep well and a shallow one,” he writes, “see how they / kiss. In-lining fox furs. Birds and flesh, / pierced with a wooden tip. You lick your lips.” Some readers might be tempted to tease out a concrete meaning in these lines, but I feel that explication, for Šalamun, would be at best redundant. The way the words respond to each other, the way the lines zip effortlessly down the page, and ideas jump from one to the next–there is an internal logic here, casual yet persuasive.
In one poem, I find the phrase “the caro anita of mankind.” Naturally it mystifies me, and I’m drawn to it. Clearly it must mean something. A cursory google search gave me no concrete explanation of “caro anita.” In Italian it means dear Anita; it could perhaps refer to a French painter named Anita de Caro. Because the speaker is so approachable, the multiplicity of meanings broadens, rather than restricts, the scope and pleasure of the poem. I can see how some readers might be frustrated by this kind of ambiguity, but to me, it suggests an unfolding of worlds (and of words) within the world we know.
One of the remarkable feats of this collection is the way in which, despite the aleatory style, a narrative is being told–not a conventional narrative, but a narrative nonetheless. Place-names abound, characters reappear, images recur like emblems, words become leitmotifs. There is a fullness of scope which beautifully complements the conversational tone. The poems cross-pollinate.
The mysteriousness of caro anita of mankind suggests a kind of mental stand-off between wanting to characterize experience and having no real frame of reference in which to do so. What poetry can do, and what Šalamun does amazingly well, is to bring us closer to experience, to show us the mystery of reality (e.g., Keats’ concept of negative capability), revealing meaning in mere perception. Šalamun doesn’t shy away from paradoxes–beauty and ugliness, pleasure and violence, memory and the momentary. Death belies our everyday concerns; the poem “Strange Dreams” closes: “Silken lives end with ‘I wouldn’t wish you a / splendid breakfast and a wretched supper,’ as / Professor Menase warned me. God warns me with death.”
Šalamun’s surprising, deft, and often delirious poems could be seen as meditations on a poetics of perception–-but that would seem to diminish the deep emotion that drives them. Things themselves have no inherent value; it is how we feel about them that determines their worth, their weight and luster. Expertly translated by Michael Biggins and the author, The Blue Tower is not only an essential work by Šalamun, it is quite simply an essential book of poems. Seldom is amazement conveyed with such gravity and such gusto. That caro anita, whatever it may be, is why we love poetry.
Marc Jaffee is a poet and freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2004, Storyscape, The Saint Ann’s Review, and Spork.