Tomaž Šalamun (1941–2014)

Tomaž Šalamun. Photo: Roman Šipić/Delo.

TOMAŽ ŠALAMUN IS DEAD. On the other hand, as he put it:

The worst imaginable kind of fascism would be
if the soul belonged only to the living
and not to the dust and stones!

On the subject of soul, he also wrote:

The drunk sells his coat.
The thief sells his mother.
Only the poet sells his soul to separate it
from the body that he loves.

And around the subject of stones:

Red flowers grow in the sky, there’s a shadow in the garden.
The light penetrates, there’s no light to be seen.
How then can the shadow be seen, there’s a shadow in the garden,
all around big white stones lie scattered, we can sit on them.

The dust and stones of his poetry are here, his soul is scattered here, so no, I don’t think he is dead. That’s all I have to say about that. Here are a few poets I asked who had something to say about him. There are many others who do too.
Abraham Adams is an artist based in Brooklyn.

I knew Tomaž Šalamun over a long time, but saw him relatively briefly on widely spaced occasions. Each time he came to New York we would get together for a little blast of Slovenian mirth and Sloveno-American poetry. And then he would be gone, leaving me with the illusion that a close friend had just come and left on another brilliant voyage. He seemed to be at home everywhere. Perhaps even Ljubljana, which to my regret I have never seen. They say it’s beautiful and sophisticated and yet obscure and off-the-radar, terms that might also apply to Tomaž and his crackling poetry.
—John Ashbery is a poet based in New York.

I have a hundred words. I met him in Slovenia, at Days of Poetry and Wine. There were dozens of us, drunk and full of sausages. “You are the strongest American poet” was the first thing he said to me. He was tanned and glowing, wearing white. I remember a brace and a cane. He had just come from China, where the Great Wall had somehow hurled itself against his leg. In the basement of a winery I pointed to his brow, with its elegant globule, and told him his third eye looked very auspicious. He pointed to my forehead and said, “Yours too.”
—Ariana Reines is a poet based in New York.

At the Movies with Louie & Purdey & Michael & Tomaž

It’s a new season starting
and they have to be in a different place.
—Au Hasard Balthazar

[a] Tomaž said, You’re Bob Dylan, but act like Llewyn Davis. [b] I cried afterwards in the bathroom. I thought if I left the room the insect in my head would leave too. I thought the room, I thought my eyeballs, the bee in my head would go away. [c] He told me I should go see it and that it reminded him of me. I thought how cool it would be to work at a little pie and coffee place underneath the track of an elevated train. We sat under a tree at night and remained silent for a while. [d] It was the first film I saw in French with no Subtitles. She’s eating spaghetti with sauce repeatedly and eating spaghetti with sauce and that’s delicious. She tongues her spaghetti off her face, and there is so much flesh she has to contain within her dungarees. She’s always pulling up her pants onto her hips, she has so much flesh she’s full of flesh it’s terrific. . . . [e] All I see are those coins bouncing in 3-D very slowly, like slow heavy rain. I was completely hypnotized the first twenty minutes, but we hated this movie. But it felt so good to see those first twenty minutes, it felt like a real life experience. And that’s the truth about it. [f] After we watched it, when I asked him what he thought about it he said the film made him really angry. The kids unbury the guns buried with the corpses on the beach. I left the classroom and cried in the bathroom for 15 minutes. [g] We saw it at Le Champot. [h] JFK in Asilah: “So this is America, this is how America really is.” “No sir, I heard three shots. Back, and to the left. Dadadadadadad you gotta go and get ‘em.” [i] El Topo was important. [j] I just remembered I was totally focused on the film. Remember there is a moment when his life passes and there is the snow falling? [k] The Social Network: Andrew Garfield drank a beer. [l] We saw this in Paris. The next day Tomaž and I ran into Werner Herzog eating chicken dinner in a train station brasserie. So when I came down the stairs, Daniel Payavis was saying they were chameleons in the scene, and I was saying they were iguanas, and then we couldn’t figure out what music there was that was playing.

[a. Inside Llewyn Davis b. Shutter Island c. My Blueberry Nights d. La Vie d'Adèle e. The Great Gatsby f. Come and See g. The Mirror h. JFK i. El Topo j. Un Prophète k. The Social Network l. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans]
—Michael Thomas Taren and Purdey Lord Kreiden are poets and cotranslators based in Aubagne, France.

Tomaž Šalamun was absurdly serious about poetry, about the absurdity of his pursuit, and about friendship in poetry. Of the great poets I’ve known that are recently gone, perhaps Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (if a little darker) had a similar seriously absurd spirit, which seems to require also uncanny generosity toward younger poets. What else of poetry can be passed on and who to pass it on to, if not those struggling to imagine a life in poetry, which is to say an absurd life with dubious honors? Tomaž was proud of the young poets he nurtured, whether close and constant in his life, or far away and fleeting—a modest patriarch recounting the talents of his progeny. At dinner he’d say, “Look what a great poet I found.” Yet, he never taught with his work and ironized any success of his own. Youthful, mischievous, and kind as an older brother, he was happy that young people dug him. He had seemingly no interest in his own talent—it was just there, he followed it, as if on “the tracks of wild game,” as he called an early collection, in which, as in Poker (2003), he was striking out on several paths at once. His poems are memories that come back and mix with the present. He transforms torments into lightness, but with a rocky weight, so you can feel it. After a bottle of Malvasia in the West Village, on a whim we ordered a second, and later stumbled out, smiling. With Tomaž, one felt like a poet. Or at least it made weird sense to keep trying.
—Matvei Yankelevich is a translator and writer, and a founding editor of Ugly Duckling Presse.

A memorial gathering with readings of poems by Tomaž Šalamun will take place at Ugly Duckling Presse on Sunday, March 8 at 4 p.m.