Symposium on Brian Henry’s translation of Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things
The Book of Things, published in Slovenian in 2005, is Aleš Šteger’s fourth book of poetry in ten years, beginning with his Chessboards of Hours, published in 1995 when he was 22. Despite his many international awards, including the 2007 Rožančeva Award for best book of essays written in Slovenian, TBOT is his first collection to be translated into English. Translator Brian Henry, best known for his translation of Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices, praises “the philosophical and lyrical sophistication of [Šteger’s] poems,” and has achieved that same sophistication in translation. The book is structured in seven chapters of seven poems each, following the strange preface “A,” which Henry calls a “proem” though it is written in verse. The other forty-nine poems are titled after things with no obvious connection to each other, from the first poem “Egg” to the last poem “Candle,” with stops as varied as “Strobe Light” and “Cocker Spaniel.” The first set of seven is completed with “Knots,” “Stone,” “Grater,” “Cat,” “Sausage,” and “Urinal,” the last of which completes its well-developed imagery of the urinal as the mouth of a fish embedded in a restroom wall with a haunting testicular threat:
What kind of human voice is on the other side of the urinal?
Are people happier, more timeless there, fish Fa?
Or there is no other side,
Only the visions of drunks, tensed in fear
That you don’t close your thirsty mouth, Faronika,
As fair punishment for grinding your yellowed teeth.
And castrate us.
That complex layering, which combines metaphor and mythology—Faronika is a mythical fish from Slovenian folk songs—with the physical and contemporary—Fa is a popular brand of bathroom soap—is characteristic of Steger’s poems. In his preface Henry notes that Šteger’s use of couplets, tercets, and quatrains represents a notable departure from his freer first three collections. Their faux formality is a perfect medium for that layering.
Henry has done well to replicate the tone and sound play of the Slovenian originals, as in “Mint,” here in its entirety:
Mintafiction, minthane, mintabolism.
There the smell of mint grows out of bone,
Out of s neighbor’s thumb and a stranger’s shin.
No animal could do it, it’s not worth repeating.
Mintatax, mintasound, mintaphysics.
For what stays, when only plants try
To heal a musician’s rib and the mayor’s skull.
No laxative could do it, it’s not worth mentioning.
Even less who will remember, cannot forget.
Endless fields of mint, ruts, indifference.
Mintamen. Mintanight. Mintanaught.
No dictionary could do it, it’s not worth noting.
Šteger’s frequent mention of bones and stones remind me of Vasko Popa’s The Star Wizard’s Legacy, in the late Morton Marcus’ last translation, but Šteger’s Things achieve a greater density with their descriptive imagery. The wordplay Šteger employs to build novel mint-abstractions exemplifies his dry, observant humor. Elsewhere in the book he employs darker imagery to similar effect, as in “Coat,” which begins:
Do you remember the archivist who committed suicide
Because of one misplaced sheet?
The three librarians who never returned from the warehouse?
The history students who bit the professor’s neck in an exam
Because he could not remember the price of potato soup in May 1889?
The parrot who endlessly shouted Stalingrad, sexual revolution, self-
“Coat” exemplifies Šteger’s greatest achievement with The Book of Things, the subtle development of the lexicographer’s pathos, the impossibility of objectivity. It’s one of the best collections of poetry in translation in recent memory, a Balkanized encyclopedia of things carefully examined.
(The above text is reprinted from Three Percent, a resource for International Literature at the University of Rochester.)
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Dan Rosenberg On Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things
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 participants 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.
(Previously published in Kenyon Review Online)
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Adam Palumbo On Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things
Slovenian poet Ales Steger’s The Book of Things makes absurdish notions about, and through the eyes of, everyday objects all around us. These are dauntless, eccentric, and ambitious vignettes of verse that draw back the curtain and allow often-overlooked things their moment in the spotlight.
Formally, The Book of Things is rather simple to grasp: fifty poems, an introductory poem followed by seven sections of seven poems each. Thematically, however, Steger is far more elusive. His pointed wit crafts poems that can be tender in the most unexpected ways, as in “Tapeworm,” where the poem urges the parasite to sleep peacefully inside his host, away from the outside world which is “cold and famished.” Steger also has the ability to be downright unapologetic, especially politically. In “Sausage,” he reminds the reader of,
Six million kosher salami gassed in the second world war,
And a million hot sausages murdered fifty years later in the Balkans.
The extreme poles from which Steger operates are reflective of the philosophical and lyrical sophistication of his poems. The ignored or unspoken qualities are brought to light alongside the more obvious. Every object speaks its truth, flattering or not.
Steger has tact with language that goes beyond mere description, and he brings these objects into conversation with each other and, indeed, the reader. The universal presence of the objects he describes and his frequent use of the second person singular serve as methods of creating intimacy between the reader and the page, an effect in which the reader cannot help but take pleasure. In “Trumpet,” Steger gives his impression of the bursts of sound from the instrument, and the result is a medley of other associations for the reader to take in:
When the first tears, one hears a quiet fart of fear.
When the second tears, one hears a chuckling rogue.
When the third tears, from the father’s trumpet rush
trenches, elephants, wedding guests, two dancers, Trotamora, a radio.
The winner of the Best Translated Book Award from Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, Brian Henry delivers the world of Steger’s creation in a learned and highly commendable translation. The prickly and idiomatic phrases that Steger sometimes becomes fond of are deciphered and delivered faithfully by Henry. His foreword is a fitting introduction to Steger’s bizarre collection and an excellent primer on the dying art of literary translation.
As my advisor at the University of Richmond, Henry assigned After Babel by George Steiner, a seminal work on the study of language and translation. This one volume, more than any other from my undergraduate studies, has continued to occupy a place on my bookshelf and in my thoughts on language.
In his pioneering work, Steiner writes that translation is “the constant, necessary exemplification of…the at once welding and divisive nature of speech.” Translation is more than a tracing of another artist’s work, but is a conscious and measured remapping of the original author’s intention and meaning. Henry acknowledges this in his foreword when he states his objective of preserving the sound play, puns, and echoes of the Slovenian on a comparable English “linguistic scaffolding.” No easy feat, but Henry does so with systematic success.
In giving quotidian objects a voice in his poetry, Steger gives us a vision that is focused, omniscient, and obsessive. The strangeness of this Slovenian bard’s work is in fact a joy to behold, as is Henry’s translation. As the final sentence of his introduction says, “Of course, the ideal translation of these poems would not be other poems, but the thing themselves.”
(This review previously appeared in Rattle.com)
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Mouth Wide Shut
“In each shard, your mouth has you forthwith.”
If we would narrow Šteger’s poetry down to a single word, it would probably be the word “mouth”. It appears as if the title of the first poem his first poetry collection, Šahovnice ur (Chessboards of Hours, 1995), compresses all vectors of his poetic language before they break asunder into a coordinate system. The word often emerges throughout his later collections indicating not only a coincidental preference when it comes to the choice of motif, but poetological determinacy as well. The choice is predominately dictated by the strategic position of the mouth during the contact between body and language, one of the key themes of Šteger’s poetry, as the mouth represents the venue of a conflict even more fundamental than the one between ‘being’ and ‘having’, namely the conflict between ‘eating’ and ‘speaking’. Not only is the mouth a part of the body and language at the same time. It also represents a cavity in the body that hints at its vulnerability and dependency. The mouth is an orifice that can be shut, by which the bodily input and the verbal output can be suspended completely. Šteger’s poetry namely does not speak about nourishment or language. Instead, it is interested in famine (Čokolada / Chocolate) and silence (Vračanje tistega, kar bo prišlo / The Return of What Is to Come; Ena inpol / One And a Half; Na vasi smo se otroci / The Children in our Village…).
Šteger’s poetry is the heir of the fundamental shift in ownership relations that determines the modern understanding of language, according to which we do not speak the language anymore because the language speaks us. This shift is twisted further in Usta / The Mouth by its physical dimension. It reminds us that we cannot run to the body to seek refuge from language because it is revealed (the mouth breaks in the very first verse) that the body and language are nothing but two strings of shards. Šteger’s poetry, however, is no poetry of loss or abandonment that would lament over lost wholeness or cry for the Gods to return. It is a poetry that considers brokenness as a postulate, as the sole origin and horizon, as the time and place of its activity. “Neither the abyss nor hope.” (Sveča / the Candle) It is a poetry of limitations and impossible relationships, such as the relationship between words and bodies, which Šteger explores towards the end of his book Knjiga teles (The Book of Bodies, 2010): “Sometimes / The Body / Desires / To Be / A Word”. But even if it morphs into one, the opposite does not apply: “The Word / Never / Becomes / A Body”. The circle is not complete.
The insoluble enigma of the non-relationship between the body and language gets complicated further when a third element appears between them – the thing. The realm of things is the third dimension of Šteger’s poetic universe – “where the words fall silent, things speak.” The problem is already introduced in Uspavanka / Lullaby, a poem included in the volume Kašmir (Cashmere, 1997). Because the inspiration for a poem did not want to emerge, the poet would simply list the things surrounding him. As it turns out, the listing is never just pure listing as the things force themselves into metaphors or reproduce as bare numbers, through which ‘listing’ turns into ‘counting down’ that leads to ‘nothing’. These topics already announce the later “objective” poetry of Knjiga reči (The Book of Things, 2005) and the collection of “ontological” poetry, The Book of Bodies. In addition to silence and elimination (which with Šteger could be perceived rather in the Buddhist than in the nihilistic sense), we also encounter experiences described by Stoics – when we, for example, utter the word “cart” and a cart drives through our mouth. It is surprising how ‘oral’ The Book of Things actually is. It begins with breakfast (Jajce / Egg) and frequently returns to food (Klobasa / Sausage, Čokolada / Chocolate, Rozine / Raisins, Kruh / Bread, Žolca / Jelly, Sol / Salt, Krompir / Potato), only to go through all the trouble (Želodec / Stomach, Slina / Saliva, Zobotrebec / Toothpick) of making it to the other side (Drek / Shit). The mouth represents the centre of gravity of the triangle between words, bodies and things, the sides of which cannot connect: “Each thing is a fragment and no body is the language of a body.”
Documentation of Wounds
Through Usta / The Mouth, we become acquainted with the imaginarium that sets the tone(s) of Šteger’s debut collection of poetry: wounds, fire, darkness, silence. Nevertheless, the images from Chessboards of Hours detach from the themes of absence, fissure and agony. Silence is first and foremost the threshold that separates everyday language from its poetic use: “How keeps your silence – that teaches me to speak – silent”, “The word through the eyes of silence”, “whispering silence”… A silent word makes it possible for us to listen to the metamorphic play of the animate and the inanimate. The body dissolves, while nature is personified: “water opened its hand”, “The river runs / A needle through the eye”, “the light will, at any moment, cut / Our ripe skins”, “Your love is the belly of a crushed grape”… These transitions do not interest Šteger as marks of some sort of mysterious cosmic interconnectedness or as freestyle imagination exercises, but moreover as the possibilities for and limitations of transformation. During the course of the book, we find that transformations are not void of consequences – therefore, the ‘wound’ represents the basis for the poem’s access to the body
His next two collections could be considered as representative of Šteger “critical” phase, manifest in poetry that modifies the prerequisites for moving across the land established by Chessboards of Hours. The second and the third collection reflect on the process of ‘versifying’ itself and shatter its illusions. The mutual transition between the animate and the inanimate is replaced by the act of displacement throughout time and space, which sometimes become brutally constrict (“On Saturday at three, / In the supermarket.”), or by the act of travelling as a form of exile (Ptuj–Pragersko–Ljubljana) or an impossible escape (Vrnitev domov / The Return Home). The free flow of shards across the landscape becomes restricted – the body becomes less and less embedded in nature and more and more cast between things.
But Šteger’s criticism of poetic language is Kantian; its essence is not to persecute illusions but rather to ascertain the necessity of their origin. The criticism represents a reduction that exposes new possibilities. The movement between places and the arrangement among things can be violent; nevertheless, it reveals the landscapes of Cashmere that stand for purified spaces of the in-between (“here is not here”) and the void (“I hope you wake me at nothing”). Furthermore, the parting of the body from nature makes way for poetry that is neither subjective nor objective, neither an expression of the interior nor a description of the exterior. Poems like Tebi / To You and Oreh / Walnut proceed from such experience in the form of impersonal eavesdropping on the silent language of things. But as we will be able to see in The Book of Things, this “impersonality”, expressed through a transition from the second to the third person in Oreh /Walnut (“And the kernel becomes You. You squats and waits”), is nevertheless subjectively binding.
The further directions of Šteger’s poetic exploration are hinted at the title poem of the volume Protuberances. The word denotes both terminal bone tumours as well as eruptions on the surface of the Sun. The unfathomable dimensions of space often represent an imaginary means for diminishing the significance of human existence and consequently human mortality. Nevertheless, the emphasis of the poem lies elsewhere. Instead of the inevitability of death, the poem reveals a random outbreak of illness (which is not visible to the eye at first), an outbreak resembling “miraculous” phenomena of the Sun “without a clear cause”. The emissions of things and the relinquishment of the body to contingency will be the subject matter of Šteger’s following two books, the “method” of which (in the shape of his attitude to poetry) is hinted at in Protuberances by – the equalization of X-ray “fluoroscopy” and the “burning” of the sun with the poetic word: “Be the word length of the light waves, / That travel through memory and flesh, / So that by documenting wounds / We would cure the names for the deformities of this world.” Critical poetry cannot heal wounds but it can cure their names – it cannot guarantee any metamorphoses but it can capture the waves that disturb both bodies and things. Protuberances can be considered as the narrowest point of the neck of the hourglass that is Šteger’s poetry. The book can be understood as an urgent narrowing that facilitates passage to “the other side of the wound” (Ribež / Grater), explored by The Book of Things and The Book of Bodies. Things and bodies detach in order to only remain in contact by means of the exteriority of words.
“Timely, you blind him with bread crust.”
What kind of emissions does The Book of Things then detect? What is this “inanimate life of things”? In addition to the theoretical associations (particularly psychoanalytical –Freud’s and Lacan’s) that can be established in relation to the egg that returns the gaze and is later blinded by the bread crust, we can also identify a dual reference to the poetry of Gregor Strniša (Oko / Eye and Jajce / Egg are titles of two of his poetry collections), one of Šteger’s predecessors in exploring the poetics of things. In the foreword to his volume of selected poems, Šteger notes that Strniša shifted from anthropocentrism to anthropomorphism, what can also be applied Šteger’s own The Book of Things. One might expect that the discarding of anthropocentrism would postulate abjuration from everything human and particularly from the personification of things. However, it appears as if the attempt of complete Reismation, an immanent literal objectification of things, has led to a sort of overly human “imaginary identification” with objectivity.
Šteger describes his programme as follows: “We aspire to return to the state before the Creation of Man when the world was governed by things. Of course, all attempts are destined to fail. However, the book wagers on the movement of language in spite of defeat.” And it is the defeat of language in particular that represents the spot marked with X, where “critical” poetry starts digging and eventually completes its chore. And it is within the language’s defeat, at least since the days of Mallarmé, where the condition of possibility of the poetic word (that “compensates for the deficits of languages” ) lie. A paradoxical disparity between anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism is present in the core of Šteger’s auto-poetics. While on the one hand, it is aimed at things as completely independent from humans, on the other the things are defined precisely through language, a distinct feature of humans as speaking animals). Humans possess things and dominate over them. However, by naming them according to their needs, things gain power over them (“but through things, the “I” enters into a different relationship with the world.” ). The moment when language ceases to be a means, it can touch the mute language of things. As Walter Benjamin reasons, there is “no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not “in some way partake of language”. We can only gain an insight into the foreignness of the inanimate through language, which cannot escape personification and is therefore a defeated language (language as defeat), the very first tool that escapes control, the initial and fundamental defamiliarization.
However, by drawing such conclusions, we may have blinded the egg too soon. The idea of literature, written within things themselves, has a long tradition. Foucault notes that such “prose of the world” is the core of the knowledge paradigm, established during the Renaissance. The formation of knowledge within this paradigm is based on the principle of similarity that dwells within things and waits to be deciphered. “Nature sciences” have thus represented some kind of hermeneutics: “In its raw, historical sixteenth-century being, language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered.” Such a relationship between words and things became lost in the following centuries until it had been rediscovered by modern literature by means of a key shift: “But from the nineteenth century, literature began to bring language back to light once more in its own being: though not as it had still appeared at the end of the Renaissance.” Thus, in Sponka / Paper Clip, a poem “without an end”, the presence of a paper clip is indicated only through a silhouette on a piece paper – an imprint that “holds the rags of the world” together like an “invisible thread”. It is not clear how many pieces of paper have been lost, which is why no secret thread (paper clip) “can neither add to nor take from the world” – no paper clip can reassemble the world into a whole.
Foucault neatly describes the free roaming of modern poetic language. However, 19th century literature also rediscovers the mutual hermeneutics of words and things. When the main character of Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin (The Magic Skin) enters an antique shop, various objects bearing their own history and stories appear before him like an endless song. Some pages later, it is revealed that the greatest poet of the new era is Cuvier, the father of palaeontology, and not Byron. Modern hermeneutics no longer postulates the unity of creation, full of divine messages to man. It does, however, ascertain traces of history, evolution and production in the matter of natural and cultural objects (such as tracks left by the “Paper Clip”: “You slide over the imprint with your finger and begin to read again.”). According to Jacques Rancière, this lays the foundation for historical materialism and psychoanalysis as well: “So the poet becomes not only a naturalist or an archaeologist, excavating the fossils and unpacking their poetic potential. He also becomes a kind of symptomatologist, delving into the dark underside or the unconscious of a society to decipher the messages engraved in the very flesh of ordinary things.”
The defamiliarization of language is thus joined by the defamiliarization of history (the method of The Book of Things, as many poems prove, also lays the foundations for innovative social criticism), while both facilitate a thrilling and simultaneously comical stumbling of words against things and poetic experiments, which – during the process of abstaining from the “ego” – inject the “ego” into things, which reveal what the “ego” never wanted to know.
“At least there are names for what is not.”
At the beginning of The Book of Things, instead of referencing one of his poetic influences such as Celan or Strniša, Šteger included an unusual finding from the Dictionary of Standard Slovenian Language (SSKJ), namely “za vsako reč ne obstaja beseda” – there is not a word for every thing. Essentially, this particular example is supposed to illustrate the use of the first meaning of the word ‘thing’: “kar je, obstaja ali se misli, da je, obstaja, in se pojmuje kot enota” – ‘what is – exists – or is thought to be – to exist – and is perceived as a unit’. However, can a word not be easily found or coined for something that we already perceive? And is that, what we cannot perceive as a “unit”, not any “thing” at all? It would, of course, not be sensible to expect scholastically accurate philosophical statements from a dictionary entry. Still, it is precisely this kind of discursive immigrancy that gives charm to the introductory beat of Šteger’s book. It is self-evident that something exists for which we have no words, as, for example, there once was no denotation for the Higgs boson. Slavoj Žižek would refer to such cases as “unknown unknowns” – things we don’t even know we don’t know. Nonetheless, the elementary particle referred to first existed as an imperative dictated by theory and it had to be produced in order to be perceived. The word has, in a sense, preceded the thing.
The research/production of things has become the task of science – which possesses tools that are far more accurate for such purposes than words – and which has, as Šteger often mentions in interviews, long since surpassed poetry when it comes to imaginative potential. In turn, poetry renounces the imperialism of words and turns to deliberations about the actual relation between verbalization and things. Perhaps this shift manifests most clearly in Stefan George’s poem Das Wort (The Word, 1919), in which the lyrical subject brings strange things to the mythical creature Norna, for which it seeks words in its fountain. The poet can return a thing back to his world only after it had been given a proper word. One day, he brings a “frail treasure”, for which Norna cannot find a name. This essentially means that the lyrical subject cannot use this thing to bring joy to his land. Hence, the poet can only concede and exclaim in defeat: “Kein ding sei wo das wort gebricht” – “Where the word breaks off, no thing may be.”
George’s poem was highly revered by one particular philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who, to a certain extent, subordinated his philosophical thought to poetry. Heidegger asks himself the question: “What does Being mean here, that it appears like an endowment which is dedicated to the thing from the word?” The poet can only come to the realisation that language grants Being when they cannot find a word and are consequently deprived of possessing the unnamed thing. At the point, where one might think that the “frail treasure” is the name for unnameable Being, a key shift occurs. That what eludes language is twined under language itself. According to Heidegger, the treasure that the land of the poet never received is the word’s hidden essence. The frail treasure is a thing, for which there is no word. However, this “thing” is nothing else but an impossible word, enabling all other words to present things. Renunciation thus transforms into affirmation. That what is withdrawn, gives. From the place of incompatibility between “word” and “thing” arises the secret of their mutual affiliation.
Šteger’s reply to the dictionary entry and George’s poem can be identified in the poem Mravlja / Ant from The Book of Things. In this case, it is the ant that brings objects to its home. What is more, the ant builds its home from the objects it retrieves. Ants add objects to the home of language and thusly establish a boundary between “the safety of the tunnels and the unbearable vastness”. It is not about treasures and precious objects any more, since the ant – as the poem conveys – brings neither messages nor prophecies. The safety of the ever more complicated sentence that comes into existence is based particularly on the exclusion of the vastness; meaning that what has been named is not what it is any more. “And there are no names for that, what is. / When it disappears into its labyrinth, only the hope remains, / That there at least are names for that, that is not.” Even though the anthill of language can only be a safe harbour if it renounces the vastness of objects, which are randomly sown, it is the internal organization – the internal labyrinth that takes on the role of the secret. Word-ants, such as we are, cannot go out into the vastness by demolishing the home of our language, but by getting lost in its labyrinths. What lies beyond names is accessible to us only through the redundant names that do not fit the things. This poetry is not motivated by the original mutual affiliation of words and things, but rather by a double mismatch between words and things, the surplus of things beyond words and the surplus of words beyond things. It presents the documentation of poetic events, the momentary constellations of the poles of this non-relationship between words and things.
“Not in any place. / … / In its beyond.«
I must admit that I was taken aback when I opened The Book of Bodies for the very first time. All was rather well with The Book of Things – the first poem, titled A (presumably a letter is a thing as well), was followed by (an) egg, (a) stone, (a) grater etc., and my quest for consumerist satisfaction bore fruits as I found that I had gotten what was advertised on the cover. But the question “Where are the bodies?!” marked my experience of reading its sister book. Upon opening the book, one runs into numbers– and apparently someone spoke out during a public presentation, lamenting about this not being poetry, but mathematics. One thing is certain – if we expected for Šteger to return as a proverbial metaphysicist plagued by toothache, we were wrong.
The first section is titled To / This. What is ‘this’? Mathematics, ontology or preferably dialectics? Or am I reading a birth – the birth of a body or an entire cosmogony? The meeting of body and language? Why is ‘this’ a body and not a thing? Or is every body this body and there is no body as such? The following two sections: Tam / There and Tedaj / Then. Not “Space” and “Time” in general, but an assignation, a determination, although an elusive one (there is no certainty of “Here” and “Now”). Can poems be only traces of heres and nows? In the second section, the body nevertheless pulls itself together somehow. It has its place, it travels, it is born and it dies, it beholds and listens, but only to – as we come to realize in the third part – be “scattered”, shattered into words, into letters even (“and I shatter like the letters of an unknown alphabet”), into 25 poems about letters – each poem being dedicated its own letter.
It is anything but certain that a book of bodies should be a book about bodies. The body is this, it is there, it is then. It is also a number and a letter (even though the opposite does not apply). The body is thus neither the original weakness (thrownness into time and space) nor salvation (from letters, number, language). The body is no guarantor for authenticity – neither in its mortality nor in its pleasures – but moreover, particularly due to its limitations, represents –first and foremost – a possibility: “The body is finiteness. This is why we are safe when we touch the ceaseless,” as Šteger wrote on the cover (on the most bodily part of the book that is supposed to preserve it, but represents the most vulnerable part at the same time) of The Book of Bodies. We can picture the swarm of shards that constitute the body (without the postulate of primal or finite wholeness) like a cluster of orbiters, exploring the double universe of words and things. The body is not the third link that will connect words and things and establish a relationship between them, but rather an additional element in the non-relationship that reshapes the enigma into a triangle. Šteger’s dichotomies (thing–word, body–word, body–thing, time–place, etc.) do not hold the relationships together (there is no relationship). The relationships are held together – as if by paper clips – by the inner differences of each of the poles. “This body that I am, now, here, is merely the possibility of some body. Here is no place. Here is just the direction of loss. Now is not time (there is no time). Now is just a mimicry of the metamorphosis of the past.”
The body represents both a time-related and a space-related possibility. In Usta / The Mouth, time escapes from the bottle. The sand runs from the hourglass and slips through the fingers hinting at the physical, bodily dimension of time. Chessboards of Hours are full of sensual images of time, which is also linked to the actualization of the possibilities of the body. The poet addresses a woman, sleeping next to the “skyscraper of time”: “… you still don’t know which of / Your faces you will awaken in a moment.” The poem Spiš / You Sleep already features the body as time-related virtuality (“…when some / Body seeks balance within you”), which in The Book of Bodies secedes from the rich metamorphism of Šteger’s beginnings and focuses on time-spatial-syntactic possibilities. Two of the poems are dictated by ‘when’:: “When it deadens. /…/ When it steps out of you. /…/ When out of nothing. / When from nothing into another nothing.” or “When you bite through your breath.. /…/ When you are the wheezing. / Sometimes a body, almost.” With Šteger, the body is almost always centred around an orifice, a cavity – the mouth: “When we hide time / In each others’ mouths.”
In addition to a mass of faces in time, Šteger’s debut book also introduces a mass of bodies in the city: “Has the body thrown the dice in my mouth for me to / Voice the tally of our deaths? And is / Our death not the death of the city alike, a city that / Gives air through our nostrils, our mouths (…)” (Mesto / The City) Places are not just the main theme of Šteger’s later prose (novellike Peruvian travelogue, Berlin short prose, nomad essays), they also mark his poetry, which has, from the very beginning, been a representation of a search for impossible spaces – spaces with hidden lines between the inside and the outside; spaces of pure inbetweenness. The first collection: “That we are, when we are neither (Here, nor there, nor elsewhere.” (Včasih se zdi / Sometimes It Appears). The second collection: “Because here is not here.” (Kašmir / Cashmere). The third collection, in which Šteger undertakes a cold analysis of the poetic language – warns us that that, what we are running from, always waits for us to return (Vrnitev domov / The Return Home). But this also conveys another warning, namely that the place of poetry is actually a non-place: neither refuge nor salvation, but a task.
These themes continue in both Books as well: “Space in space in space opens up before you. / This poem has no end.” (Sponka / Paper Clip) From the body in time and space, we return back to the poem. The multiplication of space represents the common characteristic of scattered limbs and words: “The space of the finger next to the space of the palm next to the space of the forearm next to the space of the glenoid cavity next to the space of the right chest flank in the space of the torso. Individual words live for themselves. They are autonomous territories. Like the inhabitants of mountain farms they assemble into the body only during holidays and in wars.” How can we then merge them into the provisional units of bodies and poems? How can a stanza ” travel across time and join a pale cheekbone from Pontus with a crooked nose from Ravenna with a mutilated arm from Voronezh “? The possibilities of the body should not be confused with the arbitrariness of voluntary embodiment – the manifoldness of the body has namely already manifested its determinacy (Voronezh can never be discarded from the maimed hand). The body and the poem are held together just enough for them to be able to preserve the trace of their incompleteness, the binding mode of their repeated disintegration.
Šteger’s poetry reveals a dual movement of disembodiment and embodiment, a dual movement of dwelling in utopian inbetweenness and documenting the irreversible merging of body parts with things, moments and places. The seemingly opposite streams constitute two sides of the same method of searching for or constructing a non-place, which is ultimately the very place of the word. The word is in its place, but the place of the word is not there, as we find in The Book of Bodies. The word is “in no place”, but “in its beyond”. According to Gilles Deleuze, the limits of language are not determined by the exterior of things and bodies in time and space. The limits of language are also not harnessed by the visible and audible, as the limits of language are internalized: “The limit is not outside language, it is the outside of language. (…) They are the events at the edge of language.” Šteger’s poetry does not travel into the inside, where it might search for deeper correspondences. Šteger’s poetry moves along the joints of the outside (language, bodies, things), where words that do not possess a body of their own can be felt; where bodies – that do not have their own language can be read; and where inanimate things can come to life.
In a certain way, poetic events are similar to the aforementioned elementary particles. Although the poet does not create them or summon them at will, they have to be produced in some way, shape or form. In this sense, poetry resembles a particle accelerator and acts as coincidence-inducing practice. In The Book of Things, Šteger describes the will of poetry, irreducible to voluntarism, with the expression hočem reči –”what I want to say”. “‘What I want to say’ does not just stand for a stuttering desire to find the right word. ‘What I want to say’ is not just a filler expression. Without being consciously aware of it, when I utter ‘what I want to say …’, I am expressing a desire to access “the” perfectly accurate word.” The moment when a word becomes stuck, when it cannot move forward, also stands for the place of entry into its labyrinth, in which we encounter both bodies and things.