Biography of Sleep
by Aleš Debeljak
Translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry
Shadows are thickening‚ the long backs of hills plunge
into the ocean’s waves‚ the drone of a trumpet solo
is heard. Perhaps it comes from a transistor.—
Somewhere at the edge of the visible world the hidden
power of melancholy is lost in the quicksand of Maghreb.
—Noon throbs metallic. Veterans sleep in wicker rocking
chairs. Their shoes’ soft leather smells perhaps of resin
and of punitive journeys. —Ripe fruit lies in the burnt
grass of the garden. The white walls of small houses
shiver from the heat‚ lethargy corrodes the officer’s liver.
And turns it into a catalog of plants. —One of them
recites Dante. Many deaths slowly gather in him.
Clock hands have been still for years. Young roe deer
are frozen in lithographs. —Reports continue. —And
fermented fruit goes to the head: in weightless dizziness
there is a mirage. Which multiplies with recent encounters
with the theory of poison. Many times. No surprise: memory
melts like wax. The magnetic circle of crime is now stronger
than gravity. Nothing unusual. If pigeons flutter in dreams‚
they retreat at once into oblivion. —This instant‚ when the air
trembles with fervor: all places trick the memory on times
passed‚ variations of murder‚ the symmetry of slow deaths.
All of these. And the human trace is tattooed with a green snake
head‚ burning with a wish to break through the sound barrier.
This poem is for you‚ anonymous. Irritable and ill from
monotonous waiting for some cry still wandering through
seasons. And you don’t write a diary. No one has‚ no one
like you. You’re left to yourself. And to nostalgia for the future.
In your own way you will endure refugee camps and part from
beautiful ornaments in secessionist architecture. On titmouse
feathers you might lay eyes on the brief glimmering of weapons.
And your solitary whistle. Which lasts. Long. It will harden into elegy.
You can do nothing about this. So it must happen. Then despair
murmuring softly in us. That’s the point. You can drink six bottles‚
but you will not revive your own face in the mirror of a stranger’s
memory. You will be single and alone until the end. Surely.
Banks‚ flags‚ ships‚ holidays‚ cock fights‚ epaulets‚
copper engravings of English horses‚ dead guards
and elite divisions. All this slides by. Disappears
like talk during an afternoon slumber. —
Face it. Arrival and a desolate scene are the same thing.
Instead of a planted tree and pages of a will only a name
remains‚ which someone entered in a dictionary. Nothing
more. Oh‚ perhaps someone for a moment remembers
the metamorphosis from pale to purple: like in old times with
lords. Otherwise it is really nothing. —Rip the crumpled
carnation off the chest‚ lean over the geometric granite
cubes‚ exhale. Now. Like those in the Stammheim prison.
At the border of lip and tongue‚ someone is counting days
to a strong earthquake‚ which Halley’s comet did not predict.
And bird catchers are emptying full traps and family
homes sink into the mud. As from afar‚ grape leaves
scorched with Peronospora gently fall off the fronts
of houses. And the spears of white hunters unerringly
find the softness of loins and bellies: I would like to place
the last period. Listen‚ there is no rhetorical figure
of eternity. Behind a closed window some long vowel foretells
an influx of sorrow‚ which laps meekly in anguished people.
A thick haze settles on all sides and the room expands.
Under a railway embankment the two of you are lost in a slow fuck.
To survive all that persists in evident harmony.
To be snow on a warm palm‚ which will freeze from
the weight of silvery crystals. To be a letter in Sanskrit.
Buckwheat honey. To be less than eternity and confidential
documents. To become poppies‚ tobacco leaves‚ a flat
landscape. A word which no one can repeat properly.
To rustle to someone like a rhyme from a sonnet
and instantly sink into disorder. To be absurd bird
chatter echoing in all the rooms like a melody. To be vast
fields‚ blues in forty-year-olds’ memories. To survive
the anguish of a space that constricts like an animal’s pupil.
That attacks with dreadful force and settles its belated debt.
Under horizons of wet flocks it could have been otherwise.
Perhaps neighbors would leave him in the room for at least
three days. So that the air might lie heavily on his eyes‚ open
wide to the hunt and flight. And to nostalgia‚ which no one
among them can shake off. So that death’s thin song would echo
in his ear. And the casual droning of bees would close the circle.
But I don’t believe it. In the people endlessly wandering‚ some
map is always rioting beyond the edges of these lines.
And it borders on the unbearable. So that the premonition
of a cuckoo’s muffled singing clearly breathes in them.
And in their liver burns brute strength‚ which in the presence
of a woman turns into yearning. With it comes the smell of cinnamon.
When Aleš Debeljak, one of the most renowned Slovenian poets and essayists of the past three decades, died in a car accident on 28th January 2016, the world lost a great postmodern poet who endeavored to capture the complexity of our living planet with commanding historical sense and emotional intensity.
Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 1961, the poet, editor, translator, and professor Ales Debeljak graduated in comparative literature from the University of Ljubljana and later received his Ph.D. in Social Thought at Syracuse University, New York. He was a Senior Fulbright fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Budapest.
A leading Central European poet, Debeljak has published five books of poems and eight books of essays in his native Slovenian. His books in English translation include Anxious Moments as well as Dictionary of Silence and The City and the Child and Without Anesthesia: New & Selected Poems.
As the American critic Kathy Crown rightly mentions,"Each of Ales Debeljak's hallucinatory poems is lit by wonder, as the poetic voice strives for a pure state of incandescence. Pushed beyond language into the body's shadow zone, the human voice threatens to disintegrate into inarticulate cries piercing screams, soft chimes, vocal tremors, and the high C of Ella Fitzgerald. Yet the poet who is "running out of words" does not succumb to silence; instead, he begins to enter new names in its dictionary. Deeply grounded in an awareness of social and political concerns, Debeljak's poems wander restlessly "on the border between east and west," in a surreal landscape of refugee camps, barren fields, and deserted city streets. His work more ontology than confession exists where Rilke's gleaming visions meet the dark edge of the millennium. In Sonja Kravanja's splendid translations, which deftly capture the music and melancholy that infuse Debeljak's work, we have a significant document on the effects of exile, wandering, and survival on language."
Debeljak is a postmodern Spinx and his poems often carry a detailed mapping of lives-of-the-moment and they are intellectually sharp and penetrating affecting our psyche. Seemingly simple and prosaic at first glance, his poetry gains power, magic and momentum as it treads into the historical, topographical and human landscape, from which no exit seems possible.
This gripping quality makes his poems intense, cohesive and articulate. Memory, melancholy and moist silence pervade much of his poetry. Aleš Debeljak is a universal poet and his encyclopedic style carries the command of a Renaissance master, continuously combining artistic sensibility and scientific reflection with social responsibility.
His poetry is a wonderful combo of passion, emotion, pathos, sensuality meditation, warmth, reflection, beauty and rich engagement even the minutia around him. This can be experienced in the above poem too.