Soundeded: Co-translating Tomaž Šalamun

Tomaž told me, repeatedly, when he and I worked on these poems in the tea house in Ljubljana: there is no intelligence in them; they go how they go. He would slap his hand on the table, rattling coffee spoons, No, he would say, the line isn’t meaning anythingit is completely moronic, what a moron says. Tomaž referred to these poems as his lollygagging, idiotic children. He said this like a father, smiling through his teeth, charmed and delighted, and let his mouth hang open in disbelief. The poems came from a negative space of awe.

These poems were co-translated in the vernacular of epithet. Tomaž and I would ram our voices across and over the page, in hammered, flattened affect. The poem, when finished, would become one syllabic plosive. Tomaž had a lot of physically precise hand gestures ready for this process. His hands would ballet the lines. Between Tomaž and myself there existed no sense of translation that was hot for theme. Tomaž asked for the American grain of a phrase, I’d give it, and we took turns dropping the phrase on its head. The parts of speech fell perforce, per Hamlet, ‘the king is a thing—–.’ Tomaž’s words left our bodies, the poem became their body, and it jumped into water, over and over, a dumb child throwing and fetching her branch using only her teeth.

For the poem ‘Barkovlje,’ Tomaž wanted the first line of the fifth stanza to end with saliva caught by a boom microphone in a production of a film, specifically Werner Herzog’s. We began with no phrase for a placeholder, a usual enough occurrence, but that meant we had no target, were flying blind. Tomaž said, ‘Choory Moory’s wife//swallowed saliva. It boomed.’ He said again, ‘it boomed.’ I said it, ‘it boomed.’ Tomaž went through words that catch sound, snapping his fingers: ‘it banged, it called, it picked up, it echoed.’ ‘It exploded,’ I said, fixed on the earlier lines, ‘In the planes//we circled above Bistrica.’ ‘No,’ Tomaž said, ‘the line has no,’ and he hit the table calmly to prove what he didn’t want. The impact, the event. He snapped his fingers.

We went through a dozen sounds. None held what Tomaž held in his mind. Eventually, I said, ‘what is there in the line,’ and Tomaž said, ‘sound that is going and caught, together.’ He looked impatient. Tomaž was fast. With doubt Tomaž would accept, I said, ‘it soundeded.’ Tomaž said, ‘what, no, what is, “soundeded,” that’s nothing, you mean sounded.’ We had done ‘sounded,’ it was dismissed immediately, with a certain furore. I said, ‘you pick up what sounded, it soundeded.’ Tomaž said, ‘I don’t think “it soundeded,” only “soundeded.” “Choory Moory’s wife swallowed saliva. Soundeded.”‘ He said the whole poem, snapping his fingers at ‘Soundeded.’ Tomaž had a power, clear and cool, that widened my mind until it reached him. Him going, myself caught, our rehearsals of language parallel to his gestures, to the poems he went after, and got. What he got: not saliva picked up by boom mic. Not the actor and the technician. Only his fingers snapping, spit and spit heard, the life of sound from birth to death.

Tomaž culled these poems, among others, from one of his many volumes yet to be translated into English, Opera Buffa (Goga, 2011). About these poems, Tomaž said they were doubtless the most insane he had written. He couldn’t make sense of their proclivities and fetishes, had no idea where they came from. These poems are the after-life of a political poetry. They no longer have a purpose.