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/ 23 August 2019

Week of the Festival: Days of Poetry and Wine, Ptuj, Slovenia

Landscapes of the Self

A Notebook on Reading

In October 2002, one could still feel the weight of the turn of the century in the air. As if an intense folding would trigger far-reaching waves of false but certain decisions, which piled up during that walk-through of Ljubljana's old town and resulted in a feeling of being trapped in consequences I hadn't wished for, in a place I didnot like. I remember a painting in the shop window of an antiques store: An unappealing pale green base covered with an array of geometrical patterns and a knit of colourful bodies in a square – as I found out later on, a work bearing the evocative title ‘Cosmic Egg’ by painter Maksim Sedej. I could not envision a better moment for the the Slovene poet's Gregor Strniša’s Ballads about the world to enter my life. 

A ballad contains a tune of sorrowful melodies, but Strniša's assonances nudge the ear quite harshly from time to time. The choice of the predominantly minimal formal process has a deeper meaning inside a whole: inserting disharmony into what seems to be the order of things. What fascinated me during the first reading of his Ballads and still fascinates me today is a deep feeling of solitude ingrained in the structure of Strniša's poetry. Strniša has chased the human as a subject out of a poem and deconstructed him down into a few basic elements, such as movement, form, grammatical presence (the frequent use of apostrophe). 

What is left is a trace of a man, an archetype of the self, a pair of eyes that watches but cannot really see, that is observed but cannot really recognise it. Monsters in the shape of secretive, inexplicable dreary presences rise from the darkness of Strniša's shadows. It could be the ghost of the past ('Home') or Minotaur ('THE INFERNO: Part II. The Mountain'). A journey to the essence of subconsciousness can lead through the desert or the emptied rooms of a familiar house which ‘stands facing the sun’. A journey outward is a journey inward, that is why ‘those who came the furthest’ down their path into the Universe are now ‘too far in spaciousness / not being able to return, / forever left in space’. 

This sounds almost like they were caught up in labyrinths in their own head, for in Strniša's fantastic worlds there is a Jolly fellow, a man among the men (‘Jolly fellow looks into a mirror: / he sees you, you look at him. / You don't know how to nod your head from inside the mirror. / He looks away. You are him’), filled with the ocean (‘a sea of the middle, in the midst of it waves’), the ultimate metaphor of the universe (‘Constellations of his body / are gleaming into boundless dusk’). The final confrontation is a necessary battle with a double, with yourself as a shadow (‘Fighting Room’), where hope for victory is scarce, but possible (‘You cannot fall asleep, whispering by yourself: / Someday I will kill him’.), a hollow body of the Hoffmann doll (‘The Doll’), who now takes your place and lives instead of you (‘She killed you silently in the darkness. / You only leave as a memory in the maze of her dreams’.). 

This dreamy, fantastic, grave but never pathetic resignation with the emptiness of existence presents the most attractive layer of Strniša's poems. I read them as a metaphor of self-annihilation, dissolution, oblivion; like a constant passing between all the real and dream worlds, where the self is gradually abolished, erased. This erasure is not painless. It is accompanied by a judgment of mindfulness, an awareness of yourself falling apart. 

It is ‘a herd of small black animals« going through your body, until you burn into dust’ (‘Madness’), and ‘broad, sharp and deep traces’ of the tiger (‘Tiger Was Here’), from which you need to run. Th encounter with the tiger is final and inevitable (‘Who is looked at by the tiger will die soon’.), but with Strniša, death feels more like a passageway to a new state of consciousness. Death arrives when the old generation is lost for names, but carrying with her a promise of those ‘who come after us’, able to name ‘the heavy trace of an animal, / which we never get to know’ (‘Cro-magnon’). Death is a promise of the end, which is why it can't be horrifying. Death is a domain of everything alive. 

Strniša's images are not only terrifying--in their grotesqueness, abiding in the second half of the author's oeuvre, they resemble the golden era of dark romanticism, drawn to the imaginary figures of some Studio Ghibli. In Strniša's crossing into the material world, captured in the last three collections - The EyeThe Scissors and The Egg – written before the very last anthology, The Universe, I felt brushed aside, and through that, ironically, fulfilled the purpose of the collections. The self is deleted for good, scattered into a voice of a distant observer/descriptor of the outer world. The distance brings a smirk into his gaze (Strniša identified The Scissors and The Egg as a Menippean satire), but anxiety and discomfort are present still. The cycle The Egg is like an echo of Alice's Wonderland: The two children, attending the show of an egg-like character similar to Humpty-Dumpty, grow more and more fearful in the dark basement, in spite of the cheery content (‘Where are we both? – Under the hat of fear’), while Humpty-Dumpty reminds us of the irreversibility of the wound: What you see (or experience) you cannot ignore, even when the children outgrow the show. 

Just as what one reads is impossible to forget, Strniša touches the eternal recurrence of the alike in ‘The Willow’ (‘This is pure magic / the earth, the water, and the sky, / the axe that kills / never finishes off anything’), only to re-examine it later in ‘The Snow’ (‘Will the memory stay’?), but with the basic dilemma still present: ‘What is eternity: A dreamy nightmare / or only a beautiful lie’? Can a human reach eternity through dreams, through dissolution, returning into himself, or just the final itemisation? I know: Eternity is an outdated concept today, in the age of imminent ecological disaster and at the threshold of new conflicts every day. A bad time to dissolve the self. But sometimes I find it comforting to believe in the possibility of withdrawal, even if only through words. Everything slides towards death. I read Strniša's poetry as images from the last journey, as praise of death (metaphorically), an apotheosis to bidding farewell (figuratively). As I, through Worlds, return to that unpleasant time of the turn of the century, which always seemed to be a time of endless possibilities, the path to the self changes, but remains strangely the same. 

Travelers who leave for the long journey of self-exploration never return because the journey never really ends. Strniša's poetry is a long walk through the landscapes of the self that stretch from home, deserts and ocean across dreams and into space. It is a poetry of vastness and breadth, a fascination with wandering and being lost. As such, it is a pure experience – and for me personally an acknowledgment of my own critical defeat. I recognize my inability to successfully translate my reading experience into an argumentative logocentric discourse. My attempt to analyse it presents Gregor Strniša's poetic universe again in all its fascinating verbal descriptions, but also emotionally distances him. Although this is by far the best way to complete a presentation of Strniša's oeuvre, I still wonder: Is explaining really the only way of speaking about poetry that is left to us, when the sense of the poem runs out? If words become a poem, how do you describe music with words?

And I should really at least mention that Strniša had a great sense of irony.

By Ana Geršak (1983), a literary critic and book reviewer for different Slovenian literary journals, the national radio and various newspapers. She also works as a field editor for the literary journal Literatura. She is owned by many cats.

Translated from the Slovene by Petra Godeša

Edited by Mojca Pišek