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Woods and Chalices, by Tomaž Šalamun

Woods and Chalices is the translated collection of poems by Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun.  I picked up a used copy at Riverby Books, having been intrigued by the blunt brevity of the poems inside.  Šalamun constructs verse with a disarming directness as he blends past and present, fantasy and nature, obscenity and sensuality, as well as the landscape of his home country.  Most of the poems in the collection are short, taking up less than a page, and they end abruptly, taking the audience through a roller coaster of images and leaving us hanging.  Many of the allusions are beyond me, often coming from Slovenia’s history, presumably, and Middle Eastern culture.  Even though I reach the end of many of them with only a patchy understanding of their meaning, the language in the poems is impactful alone.  His choppy verse is no-fuss; we get an image or scene, an action, and a cryptic ending.

One of my favorites reflects on the process of aging in a comparison to machinery, meanwhile inducing imagery of the body:

Perfection

Leather without history. Strength without

rickets. From a drawer. On the hand a wire. Blood

is silk. Walk silently. Blood is like

fruit. Here, too, is heated.

Shah’s tanks are entrenched. First we thrashed

ourselves. We roared and got excited.

Mirrors have to function as ovens. You see them

from the road. On the machines producing

dreams. Some read between them. The perfect

form springs up like an ear. I know

a chiropractor who can pull out your arm.

Five centimeters out of your shoulder.

Joints crunch. No need for oil. You spin

as you please. You leave when the tools fall asleep.

Another I enjoy well-exemplifies Šalamun’s work with its rich imagery that mixes elements of nature with contemporary setting and colloquialisms:

Odessa

You’re lazy, Fedor, stupid and godfearing.

If you look at the bottom, you don’t see crystals.

Crystals are bedsprings, they have noddles

in their robberies. As crooked as sea-

weed. It sways, sways and doesn’t go down.

The water levels it. Crystals are mouths

of sweethearts. An agave is cut down with a hatchet, too.

A stomach, a sweetheart, an artichoke.

The neighbor’s hand, clad in plastic,

cleaning up dog shit. We’re in front

of Barnes & Noble. In front of the pyramids.

Across the street you can buy wine,

and when going to JFK and changing

at Howard Beach you watch

whales or sea elephants again (fish

that flash) for which the artists drew

gold pears, beards that reach

to the airborne planes and to the depths of the sea.

Šalamun’s strength lies in his mastery of language and his direct and sometimes humorous tone. His tone is bold and simultaneously understated, leaving the reader to decode the mysteries Šalamun weaves throughout his deceptively straightforward prose.

Reviewed by Courtney Woodburn.