In the Belly of Words: A piece by Durs Grünbein on Aleš Steger

In the Belly of Words

By Durs Grünbein

An Essay in Honor of Aleš Steger

 

A few days ago, I was surprised by a news report. In the article, I read that there is now a »World Stroke Day« (it’s on October 29th). It is observed just like the »World Toilet Day«, just like the »World Refugee Day« is observed. And of late now there is also a »World Poetry Day«, which makes it official: Every year on March 21st, poetry is commemorated like a beloved relative within the system of literature, which deserves to have its place among all the immensely important catchword days that bamboozle humanity throughout the circle of the year.

What could take a poet by surprise? This question should be a point of departure, because I think that Aleš Steger is someone who likes to take himself by surprise and also enjoys to be taken by surprise in the tide of events. Ever since I have first begun reading his work, I felt that here is somebody who has taken coincidence head-on. He braves constellations that illuminate life’s dazzling diversity in a flash. His poetry, his prose (one may not be sundered from the other in his case) is in search of immediate insight, among philosophers also commonly referred to as evidence. The image-complex is at the core of his poetics. The image contains an abundance of vantage points, an entire gallery of images. In his texts one may wander about like in a Baroque cabinet of wonders, a hermitage with walls covered from top to bottom with paintings in the style of the Petersburg Hanging.

This is hard to grasp, the onlooker is overwhelmed.He is confronted with more than he may be able to decode in the blink of an eye. But one may follow Aleš Steger, however, by concentrating on what he himself once has termed as entrances. The reader is pointed towards some of these entrances, others need to be discovered. His texts, especially his poems, rely on being read repeatedly. But they also do not close themselves off – in the end they always remain accessible. They just happen to deny a premature, rushed understanding. In this sense, they conform to a strategy that may be familiar to us from the Surrealist period. The difference being that in his case readability isn’t a gamble, a Vabanque, with the stakes unknown. This, of course, is as possible in literature as it is in the art history: If one is lucky, original positions ought to be reconsidered, initially incited expectations are fulfilled. A new navigator might suddenly appear, he may clean the instruments, and voilà: One learns to behold the apparent obscurity. »I am learning to see« was the creed, to which young Rilke subscribed to in his »The Notebooks of MalteLauridsBrigge«. »I’m not certain why, but everything enters deeper into me and doesn’t stop where it otherwise used to come to an end. I’ve got an interior, of which I knew nothing. Everything now goes there. I don’t know what happens there.«

There, it, then[1] are keywords here, the adverbs offering a sense of direction. In such a way, these terms resurface in AlešStegers»Book of Bodies«, as chapter headings, each one of them part in the triptych comprised of poems and prose poems. They lead straight into the writing process embraced by this Slovenian poet. Aleš Steger is someone who little by little learned to see with greater clarity. In his poetry everyday life with its coincidences – a news report, a visit to the museum, the death of close friends, a walk in the environs of Cambridge with his partner – emerges at the right time. But the one registering all of these things is precarious at every step. He doesn’t have a firm standpoint, from which he could receive the world as if were a newsfeed, phenomena just goes through him.

»There is a discrepancy between me and him writing this. We both inhabit one body. An I, a He, and a body. From all three of them comes forth the mystery of the body. Between me, the blind person, and him who is not in the mood of seeing, he never comes to me and I only occasionally come to him. A sleepy bathroom mirror, the body is the vapor that fogs him over.«

The author thus stands beside himself, he listens in on the dialogue of body and soul – just like his predecessors did, the Metaphysical Poets of the Baroque period. He splits up and is split up by a moment’s force which signals to him his own mortality.

»If I am He, I write. If I am me, I am beholding what is writ. By nature, I am a heretic creature. Chaos is stored away in my socks.«

Naturally, to someone who writes in such a way, crafting poetry turns into a confrontation with each, most recent situation as it arises amongst the shocking events in society and everyday life. At the same time, however, he imperturbably is pursuing an imaginary poetical arc. This arc is the bond that holds together each and every surprise, as long as the coincidental man, who is writing, understands how to gather up the signs. What do we read in his »Book of Bodies«?

»Only the terror
Of coincidences«
Is defined sufficiently.
And the edges
Distinctly
Ascertainable
With intelligent nonsense.
(…)
Just like hands
Fold
Paper,
So too
Does time
Fold
Words.«

This strikes a chord, a program has been outlined, a logic is set down. It seems to be a type of logic that has been an eager student in the linguistic school of Ludwig Wittgenstein, in which words initially emerge as their own reality, before psycho tropes expose their magic in a second step.

Steger is a methodical poet. In his work, words bring along their own full weight, their own right. They stand isolated in the space of a poem and point to their position within the lexicon. As such, they belong to an order that is ascribed to them by the alphabet and by definition. But the human being, Aleš Steger, is fortunately not content with that. He doesn’t remain at the degree zero of words, at their unemotional functionality, at language skepticism as a matter of principle, as it is known from authors of the Vienna Group. In Aleš Steger’s work, words do not remain as dried plants in a Verbarium. On the contrary, he makes sure that they are liberated, soar, and return in time (psychic time as well as historical time). In his sentences, words are transformed into a beehive with their meaning buzzing in and out – just like those little pollen-gathering winged insects. In doing so, however, words also are part of the world and of common, scarcely fathomable life. There is forever a modicum of insecurity left, whenever a writer – as he does – dispatches words as testing probes with their definitive lexical purity on the one hand and a magical supercharge on the other. This modicum is beyond any theory of language. It always comes from the individual, who always stays an individual, whenever engaging the very coincidence presented by the next blink of an eye. In order to do so, he doesn’t even need be a poet, although that certainly wouldn’t make it easier either. For after history has dragged language through the 20th century on the heels of totalitarian ideologies that organized human hatred and brought about death and destruction, after all these terrible experiences, the poet has become someone who no longer may place his affairs on firm ground. This is why the poet H. C. Artmann was right when in his »Eight-Point-Proclamation of the Poetic Act declared«: »There is one sentence that is unassailable, namely that you are capable of being a poet without even ever once having spelled out or spoken a word (…). As long as you meet one condition: more or less desiring to act poetically.«

The poetic act itself thus makes poets of us. Aleš Steger, in doing so, has gotten far. He is a poetic actor, before anything else. He knows well the lifestyle, attitude and deportment that defines the poet. This is how he was able to plan out each and every one of his books, structurally devising them down to the individual word. TERROR, COINCIDENCE, and PAPER make up an insightful tirade in the founding principle at the core of the writing process.

There was once a period, in the long-gone middle ages, in which philosophers debated the opposition of nominalism and realism. Their dispute was concentrated on the question whether universals existed, that is, whether general ideas existed (such as the idea of the apricot, of the porcupine, of the computer), or whether they were just arbitrary names, terms, which we simply happen to use as members of a community based on language. The apricot? – has always been around; the porcupine was known depending on region and culture. But what about the computer? A friend of mine, a painter, once said to me: »I don’t read poetry if it uses the word refrigerator.« Interesting: Which is he, realist or nominalist? New things – as unknowns they fly towards us, and we construct a new world by using them. In it, time is quarreling with ontology. The dam doesn’t belong to worldview of the inhabitants of Pompeii, nor does the stroboscope or the hand dryer. This is where Plato’s doctrine of ideas goes awry.

There is no such thing as a non-temporal existence of things. They enter the stage as inventions, whenever their time has come. While the ancient bard says discus and obelisk, we say highway and machine gun. Whenever modern man says ballpoint pen, Horace sadly shakes his head. Determining when and how something enters into our imagination, isn’t a trivial matter.

In Aleš Steger’s poetry collection »Kaschmir«, there is a piece that offers a clairvoyant reflection on of all this: »On the Realistic and Romantic School«. There we read: »After we have gathered up the snow pearls, the mysteries began to thaw. Even though there was no sun, the white mountains metamorphosed into a torrential river of brown mud. We stood at the waterside and saw how angels (who until now had been sleeping beneath the snow) were washed away along with empty bottles and shreds of timber.«

The poet is quite familiar with literary schools. But he forgets them as soon as he enters the writing scene, as if for the first time. He moves about in a world that is at once natural and artificial. By approaching his work deliberately and consciously, he is one with the masters of the Renaissance, an Artifex, a craftsman of the visual arts. Perhaps the fact that each of Aleš Steger’s is an event in itself, is caused by this deliberate, conscious attentiveness. Every single one of them, an expedition into the unknown. The relationships between things and their names, between phenomena and their descriptions keep his critical mind going, because understanding doesn’t go without saying. He is in search of a poetic meta-language, capable of refreshing the act of naming things.Its result are fantastical realities.

In his work, he often pursues a general idea. This holds true for his poetry as much as it does for his prose, his travel literature, and narrative essays. They are – and this quickly becomes apparent – arranged along the lines of an imagined order. There is his »Book of Things,«, the »Book of Bodies«, a »Logbook of the Present«.

The »Book of Things«, a cycle of poems in 49+1 sections, brings together various objects, such as a windshield wiper, a cork, a doormat, a paper clip, a tapeworm, a toothpick, or a wheelbarrow. This list is random, but the reader might already get the sense that the poet´s choice isn’t particularly systematic. He gives a voice to natural phenomena – such as the stone, the ant, or the potato – as much as he offers up things made by human beings to the realm of language. This is not the work of a stickler for order, not the work of a pedantic cataloger of things.Instead, we will discover an artist, a pioneer operating in the physical space of meanings, who has been shaken by modern aesthetics as much as the theory of relativity has revolutionized our understanding of matter.

No object without the historical meaning that dwells within it. The »Sausage«, featured in his »Book of Things«, is an especially drastic example of this. This is a poem that one ought to savor slowly, as it is intended to be. If gobbled up hastily, its words might burst like a sausage casing.

 

»Sausage

Did you see? Two hundred thousand Frankfurters
are demonstrating for labor rights.

Six million salamis, the kosher kind, gassed to death during World War II
And one million spicy sausages from the Balkans done in fifty years later.

At the same time, fear prevails. The number of fat mortadella is on the rise.
Somebody ought to immediately take measures against gonorrhea in black pudding.

And, wow, what exceptional treatment for hot dogs in miniskirts.
And those Hungarian stilettos. With quilting seams and Wonderbra.

Mixed meat made of lies, fear, hesitation, lust.
But from where this love, this fearful concept?

Is your stomach rumbling? C’mon, just stuff it into yourself.
Between anus and mouth – the body’s appetite for bodies.

Bulimic masses, trapped in the bowels of language.
Hurt it. Grab it. Let the words burst between your teeth.«

 

This is grotesque in a terrifying way and intensely concrete, at the same time. You begin to feel a bit queasy when you consider that nutrition and genocide, sexism as well as eating disorders are put in juxtaposition here. Is poetry allowed to do that? Should such mental leaps, such mixed motifs be allowed? »The body’s appetite for bodies« – the terror of the abyss culminates in this final sentence, an abyss into which all our delicate distinctions come crashing down and are all smashed up together. What’s the beef in the poem »Sausage«? Is it about eating and being eaten, about the war of anthropomorphic sausages, about a nation of sausage-eaters and their food chain? Is it about slaughtering human beings and animals? Does it drag all our cultural ideals down a gory trail of blood, while it transforms all of us, us bodily creatures, into egotistical devourers? Are we just an intermediary stage in a metabolism that forces an entire society down some universal bowel movement? Concrete thought puts away with those false attributions of introspection and external affairs. Human dignity has its limits – in gorging oneself senseless. Thus, the sausage has become a scandal to the spirit – as it besmirches everything that is beautiful, noble, and true. But who is speaking in this poem? Hopefully not the author himself?

Aleš Steger sets off into the belly of words. His creed: »Matters are written in using your eyes, things in using your ears.« In doing so, the border traffic usually used when writing poetry has been suspended, the rules governing the most sensitive form of reflection on language are gone. The canny as well as the uncanny nature of things.Behind our backs, they lead their own lives, conspire, and in the end testify against us.

What remains, is disturbingly wicked – but disturbing our comfortable »Order of Things« is the explicit principle of such verse. In this poetry of things, we bear witness to a double somersault. Not only the view upon objects, their clearly defined materiality, but also their names are put into limbo. He is testing a flick-flack, a back handspring, during which familiar conditions start dancing and opposites come to know the miracle of their suspension – inside and outside, here and there, I you he she it … are suddenly, instantly swapped and shuffled among themselves by this acrobat of words. Metamorphoses are slumbering within things – a »chair« morphs into a four-legged creature, one of our predecessors in the animal kingdom; a »toothpick« transforms into a miniature Robespierre trapped in the jaws of Polyphemus; and a »stroboscope« might repeat the entire evolution all over, the evolution of the one twisting and gyrating on the dancefloor. Objects live to see their personification, by turning into moody people like the »umbrella« that is discussed like a friendly uncle.

 

»Whenever he takes you by the hand, the world revolves.
Outside he unbuttons the tuxedo that got pretty tight.«

Or subjects are suddenly captured, boxed up, geologized, as we may read in the poem entitled »stone«:

»What you bear within, nobody will hear.
You, solitary inhabitant of your stone.«

 

This isn’t a universe of fixed conditions. Everything here is in constant flux and on the go, everything is in a circular flow, a link in a chain of being. Accordingly, there is a lot of talk about incorporation, about digestion, and about the metabolism. The titles given to the poems already poignantly hint towards the existence of some central complex: »stomach«, »tapeworm«, »salvia«, and »feces«. Is it really necessary to note that he gets closer to hidden reality than any literary convention, which (out of sheer social hygiene) prefers to stay at the surface? Steger’s poetry peers deep into the intestines. He is interested in the stages of development. »I try to image cell division, try to imagine growth, the individual phases, during which the organs develop, eyes, both hands, fingers… What kind of impulse initiates a regular pulse in a few cells? What potential is vested in those minuscular elements that language might deem insignificant? Isn’t every diacritical sign, every particle of dust, every ever so fleeting thought potentially the heart of a fetus?« Steger raises such questions in his »Book of Bodies«. This implies asking what the tiny hook above the letter »s« means in the poets first name (in Slovenian it’s called strešica). The hook then becomes an indicator for differences within one language. It marks the plethora of potential options. Speaking with Ernst Bloch, it vouches for »tendency, latency, utopia« in each and every phenomena. Nothing, dead or alive, isn’t infinitesimally small enough so that it couldn’t be the nucleus of something else. Thus, he says about the egg on the breakfast table.

 

»Does it witness time, impassively drifting about?
Slash, slash, bursting peelings – chaos or order?

Enormous questions for a tiny egg early in the day.
And you – do you really desire an answer?«

 

Perhaps poets are those who pose unanswerable questions. His area of expertise is beyond all immanent rhetoric, that is, the aporia. The question mark regulates the flow of traffic on the intersection of existential problems. Aleš Steger is well versed in the question-answer-games of poetry. He also knows that they often loftily remain up in the air. He asks: »Is it an encounter if a poem happens upon us?«

Answer: Sure, it’s possible. The poem is a long-distance call that comes in suddenly and unannounced. It connects us with a voice beyond our own troubles.

In 1933, the Surrealists André Breton and Paul Eluard launched a questionnaire and published its results in the magazine Minotaure, which was – so to speak – the group’s hometown paper. »Are you able to tell us, what was the most important encounter in your life? To what degree did you have and do you still have the impression that something random or something necessary was inherent in that encounter?«

Here we now have entered the zone from which AlešStegerˈs writing takes its point of departure. The DNA of his poetry and prose exhibits conspicuous mutations. There are those deeply engrained moments. If a college course in Comparative Literature is one of those moments, is another matter. Certainly, however, the collapse of the Socialist order in Yugoslavia and the ensuing »Balkan War«, out of which Slovenia emerged pretty much intact, heading towards a new Europe as a fully sovereign country. Aleš Steger conquered this new land by hiking along his outside borders on foot. A documentary film, based on his written notes, has been produced and is entitled »Beyond Boundaries«. It shows the route of a philosophical voyage.

One of the most noticeable mutations has been provoked by the radiation emanating from the Surrealist movement. It is marked by sabotaging the logic of traditional imagery, introducing exotic motifs, performing synesthetic gymnastics, using paradoxical narrative, or embracing uncommon syntax. Readers will also notice an abundance of Spanish-speaking poets influencing this author. He explicitly references García Lorca, but also César Valejo and Octavio Paz. He is well versed in the Spanish language. South America is the continent he has crisscrossed most intensely during his excursions. He has traveled in Latin America for over ten years. He has been »everywhere, except Paraguay.« The book entitled »Sometimes January falls into the Middle of Summer« (1988) chronicles his voyage through Peru in search of César Valejo. But references to this realm are everywhere in his work. There are numerous examples. »This is the baggage I just can’t leave behind. Lorcaˈs poem from ›A Poet in New York‹. A poet gets lost in a crowd that is barfing on Coney Island. Vomiting safeguards them from the dead, as they rise from the swamps and threaten the city. The living barf out the names of the dead. Language will save none of those vomiting, but it keeps the two realms from merging« (»There«, pg. 55).

Once again, it is the body´s inner workings that captivate Steger, nausea on the peripheries of language. The poet writing here is one who knows of the many alleyways connecting the imagination. It therefore doesn’t come to us as a great surprise that he is drawn to museums and archives, places in which human artifacts are waiting for their resurrection. »I read books on the architecture of hoarfrost,« he writes somewhere, »I rummaged in the atlases mapping the desire of angiosperms, in tiny little magazines with articles on the metallurgy of dead languages, in dusty scrolls about the genetics of the eastern wind, in ambiguous tracts on the theosophy of fir trees, on the cosmology of pain.«

In doing so, a personal inventory of images has accumulated – and whenever the plethora of images and associates seems to be overwhelming, seems to be indigestible – he resorts to the sudden ellipsis, to a surprising revolting twist, in order to shake off what lays heavy body his body.

In the middle of a travel journal, a poem bursts in; in the middle of a poem, a prosaic voice emerges.

»In the most remote room at the Natural History Museum in Gothenburg, one may marvel at the world’s only stuffed-out blue whale. The whale’s skeleton is exhibited separately next to it. In the old days, there was a café in the whale´s interior. It was closed, after a nude couple had been discovered in the bowels of the creature« (»There«, pg. 60).

It seems to me that Jonah in the belly of the whale is the patron saint of this subversive Slovene. The biblical character haunts many of his poems. One may encounter him in the most impossible places – in the awkward silence at a urinal, while men (a firing squad?) are lined up to take a piss, avoiding making eye contact with their neighbor. Right there, of all places, one will meet Jonah.

 

»Appearing upon the men’s faces that are urinating there,
The countenance of Jonah, jammed between the ribs?
What does here mean, and what is that over there?

What does the human voice sound like over there, on the other
Side of the urinal?«

 

The character from the Old Testament does not let him go. Transformed into a cerebral image, a notion. In a prose poem we read: »I am reading the sentence ›somebody is uttering words with his gut instinct.‹ I understand it literally: somebody is speaking from his gut, from the gut of words that has eaten up its speaker. The guy who has been gobbled up is stuck in the stomach, which he is saying at the same time. Inside and outside have gone mad« (»There«).

In such moments, the poet is in his element. In the inner most dominion of self, from which the outside world with its shifting panoramas, politics, problems may perhaps be stated in a nutshell. In that corporal cave, floating through the oceans of blind perception, he prays for the right words like the hero in the Book Jonah. He was a man who God had sent eastwards on a mission, to Nineveh, but Jonah chose to board a ship, heading into the opposite direction to Jaffa, and he even wants to go further to a place beyond Gibraltar. Jonah must pay for his waywardness. He is hurled into the sea, goes overboard. He is swallowed by an enormous fish. Amazed, we read that whales crisscrossed the Meditation Sea in those days. Jonah survives in his floating cave. Praying, he discovers the right words and is washed upon land, a rebirth. »Birth is the great mystery,« Steger says in his »Book of Bodies«. For contemporary poets, a café might substitute the belly of a whale, the reading room in a library, a subway car thundering about beneath the streets of Paris, Berlin, or New York. It may be a gate at the airport in the twilight. Aleš Steger has spent a lot of time at airports. He is a poet who is constantly on the road. »My people were rather sedentary,« he says as someone who – like almost all poets – breaks from the family line. He probably dreams of being carried through cities and countries, across the sea, in the belly of a whale. His diary, his calendar of the past years would bear witness to how global this man operates. As a poet, he is an agent of globalism. He spent every dime he earned during his voyages on new voyages, Steger says.

I’ve ran into him in the oddest places. Or am I just imagining that? Whenever I meet him, I need a moment to realize that it is really him and not some doppelganger. He heads to Fukushima amidst a nuclear meltdown, or to Mexico City where people are protesting the murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa University. He travels to Cochin at the Laccadive Sea in India, or to the central bus terminal in Belgrade where refugees just arrived from warzones in Syria and Afghanistan and are resting on their way to Northern Europe, their promised land. And he is always there at the right time with a smile. It is the smile of person who emphatically engages with his environment, one of many – all eye and hand, the compassionate eye of the beholder and the hand ready to take notes, Mr. Walt Whitman, concentrated on his fellow human beings in an epoch of everlasting migration. »I am learning to see.«

The »Atlas-Project«, a logbook of his voyages to the hot spots of our time, is his most recent project. The flying poet-reporter gives himself twelve hours to jot down his impressions. He travels towards those places and fates. If it succeeds, the bodies of his contemporaries appear in their thin-skinnedness, in their diaphanous nature. He himself becomes entirely translucent. Quoting Baudelaire freely, his denuded heart, mon coeurmis a nu, appears in his writing. And I see him, the distant companion, that young European, representing a new species shaped by a strange global loneliness.

»This poem is in no need for readers«, a Polish poet wrote recently in one of his poems. Does AlešSteger’s poetry need readers? This question is by no means posed in a rhetorical sense, ever since the relationship between writers of poetry and readers has become as precarious as it is in our time. Actually, there is no longer a relationship, just an anonymous encounter, a meeting in a brothel between two lines.

I’d like to celebrate a poet whose work has illuminated me more than that of many other poets from his generation. Aleš Steger in his youth has already enriched and augmented our European poetry by a few new models. And that’s a lot, more than we may ask for now. Today, while I am ending this essay, I mark December 7th, congratulations to the »Day of Civil Aviation«.

November 2016

Translated by Paul-Henri Campbell

 

[1] Durs Grünbein quotes the German words »Dort, Das Dann«.

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