Translated by Brian Henry. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2010. 92 pages. $16.00.
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Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things, winner of Three Percent’s 2011 Best Translated Book Award, opens with a proem on the most abstract “thing” in the book: “A” begins, “A died. And didn’t die. Like his father / A, like his grandfather he drowned in the village graveyard.” While the other poems in The Book of Things name concrete objects in their titles (“Stomach,” “Hat,” “Windshield Wipers,” “Cocker Spaniel”), this proem launches the book with a paean to the indefinite article. It gives a personal history of “A,” treating the letter as a proper name. When A is pronounced dead at the end of the poem, the speaker concludes, “Whoever thinks he sometimes hears him should listen with the other ear, / Whoever doesn’t hear him will go on listening in vain.” This proem’s unspecified object—“A” what?— has become a character who deserves our sustained attention. The transformation of unindividuated objects into singular subjects is central to this smart, startling, and wildly pleasurable book.
The problem with the reading I just offered is that the letter “A” is not an indefinite article in Slovene. There are no articles in Slovene. Instead, “A,” can mean “But” or “If,” in addition to being the first letter of both the alphabet and the poet’s name. Is this a moment when translation, by invoking the indefinite article, diverts us down the wrong path, or when it enriches the poem, adding fruitful new associations? I tend to believe the latter; my initial reading, though unavailable in the original, benefits our understanding of the project before us. By making us think about the relation in English between objectification (a thing) and indefiniteness (a thing), “A” may be an even better proem in English than it is in Slovene—a testament to both the deceptive lucidity of Brian Henry’s translation and the universality of Šteger’s poetry.
After the proem, Šteger divides the book into seven sections of seven poems each, creating a careful, rational architecture for his decidedly non-rational project: The Book of Things grants the non-human stuff of the world the same agency and importance as humanity; it insists on the souls of things. For example, “Egg” presents a basic breakfast scene—frying and eating an egg—but the poem’s main concern is the relationship between violence and viewing: “When you kill it at the edge of the pan, you don’t notice / That the egg grows an eye in death.” By violating the object, the speaker grants it vision, and vision grants the egg subjectivity. It looks right at the speaker, and, with the second person address the book typically uses, the egg’s gaze begins interrogating “your world”:
Does it see time, which moves carelessly through space?
Eyeballs, eyeballs, cracked shells, chaos or order?
Big questions for such a little eye at such an early hour.
And you—do you really want an answer?
Even the darkest and most serious of these poems are tempered with coy playfulness. Though Šteger says we “kill” the egg, ultimately blinding it with a crust of bread, how uncomfortable are we really supposed to be with this man-on-breakfast violence? The comic and disturbing bleed together in black humor that Šteger has celebrated in interviews as distinctively Eastern European. In “Urinal,” Šteger imagines the urinal as a gigantic, mythical fish, Faronika, “pushing her white head through / From the other side.” His exploration of this image leads to a disquieting conclusion:
. . . don’t close your thirsty mouth, Faronika,
As fair punishment for grinding your yellowed teeth,
And castrate us.
The notion of a urinal as a fish that might bite down on our genitals is somewhere between funny and horrifying. In fact, Šteger received an irate letter from a man who saw “Urinal” posted in a public bathroom and experienced performance anxiety, which speaks to these poems’ ability to reshape our perspectives on everyday subjects.
Though such metamorphoses might seem universal, Šteger’s lexicon is local: Slovenian proverbs, myths, and history pervade the poems. “Knives” showcases this interplay most clearly, offering an intimate portrait that opens into broader politics:
The butcher’s shop is a big family enterprise.
Two million butchers and customers.
Customers and butchers. You hardly discern them.
For some are others. And others are others.
In the unobtrusive Notes section in the back of the book, we learn that the Communists killed 15,000 Slovenians after World War II, when British troops turned them over to Tito’s forces. But even if we read this poem as an allegory of the horrors of recent Slovenian history, it offers a disaffected and ironic distance, rather than a partisan outcry. Though the “Two million butchers and customers” account for all Slovenians, the speaker belongs to no group; everyone is an other, and they are interchangeable in the butcher shop of history: “The buyer puts on the blood-stained apron. / The butcher opens a purse for a still twitching shoulder.”
By implicating everyone in his poem, Šteger tears down the division between complex subjects and one-dimensional objects, between winners and losers, that written history often emphasizes: “And when you speak, you also speak with the silence of the murdered. / They are stuck in your duodenum. // And when you need to go, you shit what was slaughtered before your birth.” In Slovenia, seeing “shit” (“gnoj”) in a poem immediately evokes Srečko Kosovel’s famous Constructivist poem, “Kons 5,” which begins, “Shit is gold.” Šteger’s poem is far from inciting the Constructivist goal of socio-political change, though; he rejects wholesale the partisan political energies that thrive on the objectification of the other. Instead, he offers a poetics of embrace, which treats even objects as pariticipants and witnesses, all watching and aware.
Because of this stance, Šteger’s poems are rarely too deeply rooted in their original language or culture to be transplanted directly into English. But when they are, Henry relies on the Notes section to clarify what has become obscure in translation. The line, “His time is yet to come, and you are running out of potato,” might give an English-language reader pause until he discovers that to run out of potato means (wonderfully!) to run out of luck. Similarly, the opening line of “Mint,” “Mintafiction, minthane, mintabolism,” can seem puzzling until we learn that the word for mint in Slovene is also the prefix meta-. Despite such brief moments of foreignness, these poems’ supranational sensibility and linguistic clarity generally allow them to inhabit English comfortably in Henry’s translations. Though the poems all share, as Henry notes in his introduction, “the attention of a singular mind,” they are fundamentally public, plural—poems of the world. They invite us to transcend the borders that divvy up the world even while acknowledging, “Without borders you have nowhere to go.” But maybe nowhere to go isn’t so bad once we understand here to be a world as strange and surprising as this one.