Blesok no. 32, May-June, 2003

Celebration of the Impossible
Testimony and Vision in my Ars Poetica

Aleš Debeljak

    I, me and myself: the eternal burden and occasional pleasure of focusing on the self in poetic utterings is a trans-historical legacy of highest order. It has little to do with particular stylistic periods in a refinement of poetry and refuses to be seen as merely a fruit of modernity. While it is true that only in post-Rennasisance culture in humanist Europe does the self  become a central pillar of artistic work, it was since the time of ancient pre-Socratics that the self was present in its explorations of cosmos. Pre-Socratic engagement with the personal which is at the same time social, metaphors that reach in mineralogy, mythology and astronomy with equal veracity, easy blending of diverse genres in a writers' pursuit of ideal balance of good, beautiful and true: this is for me an inspiring literary dowry when I attempt to weave my way through verses read, rivers crossed, books of poems published. This is for me a legacy with which I am stounchly obssesed even though I am aware of its vaguely absurd tinge.
    The self, then, my self was discovering alone, during my high-school years in a hometown of Ljubljana, that power and curse of the language for which we have no better term than that of poetic ambiguity. Without living mentors and surrounded only with characters and stories from books, my reluctant explorations guided me to a commitment to inspired if not even conspirative community of poets regardless of national tradition or linguistic idiom in which they wrote. I see poets, however, not as unacknowledged legislators, as was still Shelley's desire, but “only” as visionary witnesses of the world as it used to be, it is and it will be: witnesses of the universal core of every human experience. This community, on the one hand wrapped in the sound of the fateful Orphean lyre, while on the other hand mercifully embracing an anonymous high-school student as he tentatively responds to the imperative of a white paper sheet and the sweet pain in his young soul, this community would not be possible if it was not grounded in a Tertulian's absurd belief in the transcendent authority of lyrical revelation.
    We who want to believe that one single convincingly wrought elegy will be able to lament not only the historical present, but will be chanted by women who are yet to be born, we write in a subdued and perhaps not quite clearly formed hope that such elegy and such well-wrought poem will be created by our very feverish minds, which take pieces of a chaotic world in which we are forced to live, yet in which nobody  wants to live and make them into images of a lost whole, or at least into its aesthetic approximations. We who belive thus are in a certain way Pindar’s spiritual heirs. Pindar was the first writer to publicly declare this poetic credo qui absurdum est by saying that his elegies will live long after the city-state that ordered a masterpiece from him will turn into a tremor of historical dust. He did so without haughtiness, yet filled with self-confidence; feeling no intoxicating triumph, yet credibly, supported only with the authority of existential testimony.
    Acknowledging and reflecting the fragmentation of the self while at the same time making a resolute stand against it – this is in my opinion the central driving force of a voice belonging to a New England spinster, a voice that was truly important for my poetic formation. By exploring the language to find visionary images suitable to document her search of God, Emily Dickinson bought herself the right not to be interested in the ethics of society. But since her theologisation of human destiny took place in the shadow of the absent God, she hoped that in the mysteries of evocation of the lost blessing she might come near the promise of perfection, yet at the same time she suspected that such a deliverance can only be sought by a chosen individual.
    Great lyrical art always precedes its time and adresses spaces beyond the immediate cultural environment in which it was created. Consequently, the search for reality is always a unique theological adventure; one that cannot be easily digested by churches, congregations, synods and religious professionals for with the power of personal testimony, lyrical work raises doubts in hierarchical order of each and every institutionalized religion. God of poets is by no means God of theologians for she resides not in holy scriptures, but in direct revelation of the language which makes nothing happen, as W.H. Auden famously described the expressive force of poetry. Rather than the entire traditional collective, it is the poetic visionary self alone that can come near the unattainably sublime state of  blending individual and historical moments, no matter that  the pay-off for intimate wisdom is often but a social isolation.
    Social isolation? Much as I would at times prefer it, for me was an inaccessible luxury. Early 1990s were in this regard a crucial period for me. Having received a doctorate in sociology of culture at the Syracuse University, New York, I returned back home to Slovenia after what had been my five year American stint. I married an American woman and brought her with me to my native Ljubljana. The war in the Balkans started and was followed by the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a country of my birth. My first child, daughter Klara, was born.
    For this unnervingly ubiquitous self, the most recent Balkan war represented more than just a change on geopolitical maps of post-cold war era. It cut deeply into my experience of the world, it reaped heart out of all things I was familiar with,  it infected my aesthetic vision. Joy and anxiety, ongoing torment and a few hours of grace gave me a realization that I was but a perplexed witness of immense tectonic shifts that were determining our human destinies in what is today euphemistically called Southeastern Europe. In sync with these potent vibrations, my new book of poems The City and the Child that came out in Slovenian in 1996 (its American edition was published by White Pine Press, Buffalo, New York in 1999) made no pretense: it aspired to be a lyrical document, a personal testimony, a disfigured vision of  human condition. This book no longer flirts with the somewhat haughty poetics of silence which permeated my previous poetic work, such as Dictionary of Silence which appeared in Slovenia in 1989 and in American English translation by Lumen Press, Santa Fe, NM in 1999. It is instead a chronicle of pain, unabashedly so. It was written in a voluntary exile, like a book of prose poems, Anxious Moments, which I wrote in a wasteland of upstate New York where I ostensibly pursued my graduate studies. Anxious Moments was published in Slovenia in 1990 and, again by White Pine Press, in the United States in 1994. Like its nomadic voice that calls out of fear and premonition, The City and the Child  was given birth in a voluntary exile. It was written on the banks of the Danube during the six months I spent in Budapest as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study.
    We lived in a little suburban house in Buda hills, my little family and I, in a back street where the bustling traffic of the rapidly transforming capital of post-communist Hungary could not be heard. I wrote at nights, strictly at nights, stepping on the balcony to strech a bit and smoke a lot, a cigarette and preferably two, staring into the pale light of a corner lamp. In its light, its outward reach trembling in the dark leaves of a neighbour's garden,  I could see the images from those far-away places that were dear to me: images from the mosaic of diverse Yugoslav cultures which was shattered by Serbian guns that very night and many nights before. The street lamp, the peaceful night, the tv screen greenishly reflected in a window of a dilapidated villa up the street, the somber skies above, and inside the room my daughter and my wife, asleep. Of course. I am, of course, too lame with words to bring out to the open what resists verbalisation. I am, of course, unable to say about that bouyant personal time anything truly effective that would capture the sort of a mystical experience of the microcosm which is at the same time the macrocosm, an experience I believed I had those glorious nights on the Buda's balcony.
    I am sure it sounds pathetic, yes I am, but I cannot help it. I really did distintly feel that there was a voice speaking through me as if I were a medium of some kind, placed at disposal to an unknown yet powerful force. The voice which was infinitely more voluminous than my self and to which I had to open entirely, uncompromisingly and without prejudice. In everyday life, in daytime activities, such stripping of  rutinised habits is for me impossible. In fact, I am not convinced that it may be even desirable to bring those moments to bear to everyday life, as the pursuit of the impossible, that is, the very moment when vision and testimony hang in fragile balance, would itself then become impossible. There would be no comparative standard whereby the difference between absolute reality of the lyrical process and the mundane reality of everyday life can be properly outlined. I was aware of that difference as it was in a blisfull feaver of suspended time and space, in a sweep of caring hand from behind the stars, in a voice larger than the capacity of my vocabulary, in an incantatory rhythm of tapping fingers on the keyboard, that I wrote as many as six poems a night. Later, when I finally read what I had written into this manuscript, I was shocked to realize how much the poems related to the two essential subjects that occupied me at the time and which are alluded to in the title of the collection, the city and the child.
    If poetry books really are “about” anything palpable at all, then this book was “about” the city as the experience imago mundi. As such it carries a strong biographical note: I am the first in the modest mythology of my family who was born in the city, not in a peasant tradition of Slovenian countryside. Yet at the same time, this personal experience is connected with a responsibility towards a larger experience of a city which was, that very night and many before, denied its historical life. I entertain the illusion that it is evident how these poems speak of the city of Sarajevo, although the city of my poems, never identified explicitly as besieged Bosnian capital, would not object to be viewed as a metaphor of a culture and mentality under mortal threat. On the other, no less relevant hand, the book attempts to represent the universe of love and responsibility for an individual life, which was given substance beyond lyrical babble in the birth of my first child, my daughter Klara.
    In the title as well as in the poems of this collection, or so I hope, the two worlds merged which fatefully determined my self: an elegy of mortality and lethality of a human being which is embodied in the end of  Sarajevo as we knew it, and a simple hymn to vital flow which adresses the miracle of  beginning. These two miracles, the death of a city and the birth of a new human being, who from weakness conquers entirely new territories and leads me to new force-fields, can be possible only in contact with the great chain of being in which we celebrate the mystery of life by repeating it. As I entered the chain that binds those yet unborn with those long dead, I have not only undergone a transformation from a son to a father, but have been given a tension-filled possibility of transcending my self. My intuitive feeling that a poet can and must be a witness of his time, may have come in this book to a fuller realisation than ever before. However, to deserve to be read again, The City and the Child would have to be pregnant with a visionary impulse, too, which is only capable of turning a document of a first-hand eye witness into a universal image of life that knows no historical periods and political systems, no local worlords and court cronies. The self travels through them all, dissolving in particulars of personal situation and emerging in an archetype, as imagination reaches out to the worlds illuminated by the faint beam of street lamp and poetry begins to speak.

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