Lifesaving Lines: History, by Tomaž Šalamun

A black and white photo of the poet Tomaž Šalamun sitting cross legged on the floor.

The other day I bumped into Tomaž Šalamun. I was enjoying the last few hours of walking around Ljubljana, took a wrong turn down a side street, and there he was, sitting cross-legged in black and white at the entrance to a poetry centre named after him. I felt a mixture of emotions on meeting him. Surprise, awe, and a kind of annoyance that I had completely forgotten his connection to the city. Had I remembered, I would have taken my copy of Homage to Hat and Uncle Guido and Eliot: Selected Poems (Arc Publications, 2005) with me, in my own act of homage.

I asked if I could take his photo and he said I could, but not much more. I stood there for a moment, looking at him, then said goodbye, then stepped out again into the bustling street outside. It was very hot.

Later in the ariport while we waited for our delayed plane home I thought of him again. Eeking out my last bit of phone battery, I read his poem History (translated by Tomaž Šalamun and Bob Perleman). I recalled how for a brief moment, sometime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Šalamun had had the appearance of being all the rage in British poetry magazines, books and commentary. I used his poems in some of my workshops. Nearby some children were playing noisily in a designated soft-play area, one of whom was too big for the equipment, much to the delight of her friends. It was still very hot.

In the embers of my holiday, I wondered about Šalamun’s poem. I recalled how when I first read it, nearly twenty years ago, it seemed to me a feat of magical hyper-realism. It made me feel as though I could (and should) write 20 poems before breakfast each day for a year. Reflecting on the dry and self-aware humour of the city’s waiters and tour guides, I wondered if the poem might after all be a piece of documentary naturalism: ‘The city is fantastic,/ shot through with people on the make,/ the wind is mild.’ I was pleased to meet again his zany, over-caffeinated voice. It made me wonder about the gaps in my reading of him, how and why that had happened, what his voice represented to me, and how it now caused within me a feeling of longing, as though I had (re)discovered something I felt I had been missing out on.

And then my phone died and our plane was called and I queued with the others, none of whom had been reading Tomaž Šalamun and somehow this was history.

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