Richard Jackson | Between Two Worlds: Ales Debeljak’s Dialectic Vision


It was the great Russian thinker, Alexander Herzen, who railed against the power of abstractions, of any of the isms in our lives, to control us.  And it was Aleš Debeljak, both a renowned professor of social sciences and major world poet, who championed specific language, the personal vision, precisely within the context of historical and political developments originating in the totalitarian views some politicians expressed in his former Yugoslavia.  These figures were what Dane Zajc, a poet who has influenced Debeljak, called the linguistic stalkers who appropriated language in a kind of Orwellian manner, to exert control. As Debeljak understood, the role of the poet is to subvert the language of the stalkers in order to transcend any generalized party line.  For Debeljak this did not mean resorting to language poetry, graphic supplements or other surface approaches, but to rework the language itself, to create a vocabulary loaded with human values, that resonated with marks of the personal. Herzen himself goes on to note that “In order to create art that will survive its time, it is not enough to chase after fashionable new trends. Art that is faithful to its existential purposes embodies nothing less than the longing to transcend human mortality.”

That transcendence suggests a kind of new mythology, what Stevens called a “supreme fiction” to uncover the essence of real experience. So Debeljak’s poems are both a figure of the self and a figure for the modern consciousness; his are poems whose allusions to modern culture, to writers such as Eliot and Plato, to his Slovene literary ancestors, clearly situate that self between western and European traditions. The self becomes as universal as Whitman’s or Milosz’s or Stevens’ “central man” who sees the eagle for whom the whole of the alps is but a single nest; that is, a man of vision, yet of detachment. Indeed, there is a sense of the poet as existing on the periphery, yet at the very center of our consciousness. There is, then, a deep consciousness that what is constructed here is of language:

        Nothing points to the fact that this is but a simple glitter of
        mirrors, repeating itself endlessly in the white china,
        in the marble floors of foyers, in the golden rimmed
        glasses of atomic physicists: in them is reflected

        a cruel gaze of a man that nobody knows. Who steps effortlessly
        from the past into the present.

                (“Eye to Eye” from Dictionary of Silence)

Mirrors, china, foyers, glasses, physicists, history– the poem expands out confidently even while it is conscious of its own Ashbery-like self referentiality. The poem becomes “an infinite elegy that doesn’t heal any wounds,” the consolation that cannot console. The “he” becomes, as in another poem, “the death agony / of all the people that have journeyed through you in vain,” that is, a projection of our selves as well as a vision of the world as it is. These are poems of tremendous power, of energy restrained, ready to burst through the rhythmically  even stanzas, poems of intense paradox, intense self questioning, rare poems that are at once filled with intellectual and emotional depth. They offer hope just as they tell us how vain any hope is, they become like the “carnivorous flower [that] will grow within your spine. One, and changing every day.” It is in that change, that sense of process, of giving oneself over to the possibilities, however fearful, of change, that the final hope of any art lies.

So, for instance, in his latest book in English, Smugglers (2015), he visits old places and friends in order to see them and name them anew as he creates, as all his books do in some fashion, a supreme fiction for his life. Ironically, that means subjecting oneself as a kind of “voluntary hostage” to the past in order to discover the future, subjecting oneself to darkness in order to open one’s eyes further:

        Now I stand here, the tunnel’s black mouth under a slender lamp,
        its eyes shut since early morning, which I cannot afford to do.
        I should enter, carefully, but I cannot say I am a stranger in the room

        Made of dust. It is tight in here, without a doubt or the right
        to object, voluntary hostages, every day we glow anew,
        rotting mushrooms and bulk cargo. A full hand, open eyes:
        we are brittle and hard like paper on the run from embers.

Set in the tunnel underneath the Ljubljana Castle, the defining structure of the city, the poet’s job is to escape the dying embers of a past that no longer illuminates as it should, yet nevertheless persists as a source of dim light. What enlivens it, what enlivens all the places in the book, is a desire to: “bridge” as he says in “Graceful Arch,” — set in Trnovo section of Ljubljana: the “new bridge” there seems in some ways simply a product of a “temporary triumph” and yet “one must love sincerely” what it means to the town as one remembers also the past he associates with it for it’s width served well for playing soccer:

        Too bad for the light, which rarely, all too rarely, appears through
        the mist above the river surface. Time is short, I don’t give up space,
        I urgently need the graceful arch. I was there: if you want,
        call it a place of private memory, if you want, the end of the road.

So there is still a personal nostalgia associated with the bridge, a “private memory” that defines it as much as the memory of Plečnik, the master architect who designed it. It is a place where personal and public memory coalesces.  The notion of bridges, literal, linguistic, temporal, spatial, is central to the book. “The Balkan Bridge” begins: “Others make their star maps., we gaze down into the trusting / water and whisper about fragrant grains and hiding places, / about awful and less awful times….” The poem goes on to transcribe “promises” and details (”gloomy housekeeper, a light under the door), but ends with a gaze not into the river but into “puddles on the sidewalks in Chicago.” This drastic shift, or rather link through space as well as time, moves the personal to a more transcendent mode where “you see a page in a book / you will write” as a way to cure “signs of solitude and many readers.”

That sense of melancholy defines much of Debeljak’s stance. In “A Fool or a Baker,” he writes, “I just murmur into the light that comes when no one visits, // that appears through a haze, an image from a sunken world / yesterday nearby, yesterday far off.” Or as he says in “Essential Equipment,” set at a bench memorializing Kocbek, “Again I am here, again half at home.” This is a poet who would “measure my time on both sides of the pillow” (“Insomniacs Society”).

And yet in his typical dialectic manner there is no “end of the road” (it stops at one end at a church). As if to emphasize this lack of a true ending, the next poem picks up on the idea that “Time passes slowly,…/ I expect more inaccuracies.” And then as the poem ends “I expect unstoppable growth and the blooming of magnetic / eyes.” Any final answer becomes “like a silent whistle and a long train // with a carriage for dreams” (“Botanical Garden”) for each poem is like “a catalogue with the last page missing” (“Tightrope Walker”). It is the ability, the courage really, to keep questioning, undercutting, challenging his own views that allows the poems to move from despair. “I don’t know if time offers / smoldering hope,” he says in “Arrest Warrant.”  The idea that hope smolders, that it is there at least in potential, is what keeps the poet moving forward. It is a complex vision. Like the people he mentions in the poem who “are looking for me,” the poems in Smugglers hope to smuggle a new self out of the embers of the old self, to voice hope from the tunnels and caves of loss and despair that so often threaten the poet’s vision.

In the end, in a poem titled “James Joyce Slept Here,” set appropriately in the Ljubljana Railway Station, a place of arrivals and departures, he looks “back through the half opened window” into his own and Joyce’s pasts, into the “names, inscriptions” that define them. It is important for the poet’s movement forward (“Look strictly ahead,” he tells himself in “Bocce Court”) to also be a form of “not coming back like you,” and yet for Debeljak, this means also an existence defined in what Heidegger called a state of “betweeness” by his poems, which are both prisons and doors, for “you sentenced me to visions.”

It is not surprising, then, to find that in is first book in English, Dictionary of Silence, that he creates a world whose vocabulary is made up of words such as edge, border, moment, horizon, threshold, duration and the corresponding vocabulary of the inner experiences of these states—wondering, desire, pain, longing, melancholy. In “Catalogue of Dust 2” he writes:

        On the border between east and west a fox is barking into a sweetish
        night. Over a pillow some woman’s hand is searching for kisses of
        times past. Time is ticking away in a wrist watch.

In such a dialectical mode of oppositions the simple ticking of a watch becomes an ironic statement about the absurdity of measuring time, however it keeps marching against us. Time is not a quantity but a quality, one made up of the sensations that the poet restructures in the poem.

Still, even as the poet is able to construct such worlds, the outer world still threatens. In “Eye to Eye 4,” for example, he describes a scene like that in a Dutch floral painting, then turns suddenly to the interior of the poet: “And inside the one who / writes these verses a strange pain.” In a few moments, the inner worlds of all creatures witness “the unbearable force of duration.”

“Here is the same as there,” he says in “Sketch of History 5,” for “everybody is the universe. A hollowed dream, in which the name / is lost.”  Everyone’s identity becomes merged in the poem in a kind of Keatsian negative capability. “This poem is for you, the nameless,” he says in “Biography of Dreamtime 3.” In “Forms of Love 1,” he stands by a forest that almost seems to erase time which leads him to speculate on how his son will sometime in the future also visit the place. When he arrives, there is a storm approaching and when it hits — both externally and internally — he feels “how words are stretching irrepressibly beyond me” so that he wishes “to say nothing.” In that silence he can listen to his own blood, the imagined voices that appear out of the forest, can listen even to the dark itself, to silence itself. At the end of the poem he can address both his future son and himself: “Quiet now. Be somebody else.”

I should note here that the “You” plays a central role as a conduit between self and the other, between future and past. Each of his books is dedicated in some fashion to a “you”—“for you” (Dictionary of Silence),  “for you, maybe” (Anxious Moments), “for both of you” (The City and the Child), “for you, almost unconditionally” (Unended), “for you, this time without hesitation” (Under The Waterline), “here for you, there” (Smugglers). “I is another,” wrote Rimbaud — and I is always a process of becoming you just as you is always in the process of becoming I, Debeljak would say. Even when the “you” is a named person, as several poems here are, it is also the self for whom “Despair/ appears when you need to explain” (“Festival Hall”). “Do you recognize yourself in this poem,” he asks in “Now, in a bitter or soft voice” (Anxious Moments). Your story’s simple,” he begins the last poem in Anxious Moments, but ends on “the disappointment of everything we were and will be. Believe me: this is your story. Later, I’ll tell it again – only better.” The recognition comes between words and stanzas, between poems and books. Explaining anything, using words brings to consciousness what cannot be fully explained: it is the silence between words, in the unspoken, that any truth can be found.

Silence becomes the means for the poet to wait for language to reveal itself. In The City and the Child, he echoes one of his major influences, Rilke, who at the beginning of Duino Elegies, calls out for archangels to hear him:

        No Cry, really, is meaningless. Only when an archangel
        appears, like a blue gentian on a mountain slope, do we know,
        if only for an instant, our native land.

But beyond that instant is the waiting, the despair, Debeljak’s unique mode of melancholy. It is, he suggests, the poets task. While “the world around you crumbles / into the abyss,” the poet keeps crying out sometimes in language, sometimes in the silences it evokes. In this manifestation of his dialectic there is a counterpoint between silence and speech in each poem for “it won’t be long before an avalanche / silences it. But a thousand echoes will spring up in its place.” The fact that the silence comes from the loud crash of an avalanche is itself ironic, and that the echoes “spring up” like flowers echoing the “blue gentian” of the opening furthers the irony. That is, we have a counterpoint between a flower and an avalanche, and despite the power of the avalanche, the flower, the poem, ultimately prevails. The poem is both a witness to his ‘chronicle of pain’ and a way out of it.

One way, of course, is through the various people or even anonymous others who are addressed. In “Woman’s Shadow,” he reveals that the language he writes is not simply marks on a page but the worlds evoked by them. The poem begins:

        What you implanted in my marrow I translate into a language
        I haven’t mastered yet: the cadence of a scream reaching
        into the heart, the rumbling of an underground train, church
        naves without altars, gods murmuring in the pelvis. You:

        rose from a shell like a delicate sculpture from the furnace
        of a glass blower.

Like Rilke, who says that we must say the names of things “as the things themselves / never dreamt so intensely to be” (Ninth Elegy”), for Debeljak, the melancholy comes from never being able to find a secure and certain resolution. Even at the end of the poem he uses metaphors of the ineffable wind and seeds of the future to resolve the poem: “Sat the darkest hour of the day you show me / the alphabet of wind and fate and seeds.”

The closest he comes to finding a “home” is in the last poem of the book, where he describes the aftermath of Slovenia’s ten day war of independence. But even there, a “melancholy odor” rises even though many who are like the woman who is “free of desire and fear.” Still, there is that exception, that particular that tends to erase an easy resolution. Some soldiers look on at the woman who recognizes the “despair under their helmets.” They in turn seem powerless to move on, for the past intrudes in a haunting vision:

        They think she’s their mother comforting them. The face of a soldier old
        as a Celtic vase drown in the murmuring water that might fill the dry well.

The homecoming that ends the book, then, is a return to the past: to the endless melancholic dialectic that haunts Debeljak between joy and despair.

The fact that the poems in The City and The Child are all sonnets is itself part of the dialectic, here in conversation with the Romantic traditions of Dante, Petrarch and Shakespeare, as well as the political sonnets of Milton and the philosophic ones of Wordsworth. In the Slovene tradition, there are the melancholy sonnets of Prešeren, which act as a more direct influence. It should be noted that all of Debeljak’s books are based on single forms. Anxious Moments is made of prose poems, Dictionary of Silence is made of poems and sequences of three quatrains, other whole books are made of free verse, of couplets, leading to Smugglers’ form of four quatrains per poem.  Within each format, the poet manipulates the vision so that one might have, for instance, a stanza with one idea extended throughout, followed by a stanza full of varied ideas, or stanzas whose ideas flow from the previous stanza. The result is a varied pace, a complex rhythm capable of dealing with the dialectics of this constantly evolving poetic world. Behind it, the single format per book creates a constancy to counterpoint those variations.

In many ways, the prose poems of Anxious Moments create a space where those shifts arrive in even more surprising moments. Take, for instance, this one from the opening sequence “Elegies From the North”:

In this moment, in the twilight of a cold room, thunder approaches from a distance, through storm windows and dusty panes, in late afternoon, the water in the pot doesn’t boil, when fish gasp under the ice, when half-asleep you tremble, as if without hope, when a pack–a herd of shivering stags left the dried marshes deep in the woods and came to the gardens in town, this fleeting instant, when the cold slices through your spine, when hardened honey cracks in jars, when the thought of a woman’s hand–laid on the forehead of the dying–comes closer and closer, when from the depths of memory destroyed villages you wanted to forget begin to rise, when guilt and truth burn your stomach, when frightened pheasants are flushed from tapestries hanging on the wall, when guards leaving their posts whistle to one another, piercing the air, when a sharp stone breaks your skull, should I remind you now that your wounded body won’t be any different than the shadow a solitary bush cast across the trampled earth, east of Eden?

After the counterpoint we have come to understand between external images like the panes, the pot, the fish and the more internal feelings where “cold slices through your spine,” the poem suddenly shifts gears with the image of a woman’s hand on the forehead of a dying person. That sets of a war memory of burning villages, of “guilt and truth.” Then the poem turns surreal “when frightened pheasants are flushed from tapestries” and from that disorienting vision comes the warning that explains what the approaching thunder was at the beginning.  The poem echoes Montale’s “The Storm” with its innocent beginning and disturbing end.

In many ways, Anxious Moments is his most melancholy book—as if the constraint in the stanza poems can no longer provide a steadying influence. The poems shifts become more radical. He seems to speak in a “bitter or a soft voice, in the lengthened melodies of a lament” in a poem that begins with those lines. Indeed the lack of titles for individual poems, groups of which are separated by enigmatic titles, suggests an accumulative vision where “everything will haunt him” (The Image”).  In this more aphoristic style the leaps become more desperate:

The dripping tap. Keepsakes in the drawer. Glowing coals. The Cat’s nest on a friend’s bed. The sky comes down. Fruit rots in the grass. Bruised by September. Abstracted, you stroll down the back streets, through the coastal village. The port drifts off to sleep, moaning in terror. In bare feet you feel the earth, every stone, every plant. Time, unspent, hardens in the bronze bells of the cathedral. Another strange sound, like the sigh of a sick child in early evening, vanishes into nothingness, into history. Are you coming? Going? Your hand’s half-raised to greet or wave good-bye, like this:

Neither poet nor other is either coming or going: one is always held in that suspension of betweeness we have seen develop.  The surreal and the realistic merge and define each other: there is a coastal village, yes, but its port “moans.” The poet seems constantly displaced “Like ashes in the air” as another poem begins.

That displacement becomes somewhat more positive in the section called Unended (in Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems). The first poem begins: “I don’t look over my shoulder, no idea / where I’m going and not an ounce of fear.” The free verse format lends itself to a more open and interrogative mode. So, for instance, in “Unanswered Plea” after asking for patience while he finds his way, he notes that

        The river is sluggish here, the lake is asleep,
        one’s step less heavy, but I’m no longer
        convinced I’ve read it right: instructions
        for painting a woodpecker’s wings in red
        and black and red, and how to cast a spell upon
        the ankles of a pregnant girl. I don’t know
        nor want to know her name, and maybe that’s
        the reason I can’t breathe, but I won’t forget
        the way she makes me feel. Did I really
        read it right?

He then shifts back and forth—okay and yes, he says while qualifying himself several times and then ending after examining and accepting the “signposts” the poem offers:

        Yes, this I accept. But where in the language
        should I look for you, when the language
        is unworthy of what you are? It might be
        that you assume a common form, such as love,
        or maybe you’re something awful down the road
        that will, after all, come to pass.

Now, in the end, the other becomes love itself (with a countering warning that it might also be “something awful”): the other has moved from person or persona to an abstraction, a transcendence. But this is not to suggest, even among these poems that have religious echoes (one poem is a monologue by Mary Magdalene) that the poet has abandoned the physical world of details we saw at the beginning.  In fact, in true metaphysical mode, the poems also suggest a more directly erotic experience: “Addict’s Song” ends:

        To bear the whims
        of a lost god, take penance upon myself:
        this is the price to be paid, to endure and not
        to leave the source, be bent as necessary,
        and to drink, drink without stopping
        from the honeycomb between your parted legs,
        every moment spinning a promise of more.

The leavings from some of the earlier poems become here a persistence at the source, the love he described in “The Promise.”  Now the connections between past and future become a question of not stopping—there is a more active role for the poet. He and the world around him no longer exist in linear counterpoint but in a simultaneous and symbiotic relationship he describes in “Persistent Storm”:

        A coastal wind blows cold around the corners,
        so passionate, so strange, it cannot arrive
        any other way, the shirt and scarf are torn
        from my body, it rushes my bones and enters
        electric lines, turning orchards to ash.

In the last section of Without Anesthesia, titled “Under The Waterline,” Debeljak shifts to a couplet format which opens up the self and the poems even further. Here the poems look outward more than the earlier ones and continue the religious and erotic tone in many poems. Again, he is a wanderer, but now less sure of final results than in Unended. Now he admits “This poem is a form of disorder. Not even / an angel can manage it, much less me, // aimless pilgrim” (“Dream, Write, Erase”). The openness is apparent ironically in “The Secret Brotherhood”:

        Welcome sailors, figs, the scent of psalms,
        welcome all who understand that we discover

        the sound of our native songs elsewhere, like a thing
        that belongs to us without having to earn it.  Welcome.

There is a background of war that persists behind these poems and it is as if the poet were trying to gather the various characters together that populate the section: bakers, the homeless, a woman on a balcony, soldiers, named and unnamed friends, whole cities like Prague and Dresden. Even the landscape becomes a character:

        Look, a stone promontory: it kisses
        a distant shore, the crack between day

        and night is expanding, and insects
        without names are buzzing, sleepless.

The insects are sleepless because of the presence of two naked bodies, the speaker and someone else.  It is, he says, a “mild madness” in his attempt to capture a young love that seems to be like the fallen leaves of the poem for “old / people’s faces.” The poet understands they hold his own future and that one way to continue, to insure a future, is to become one with the world:

        no one can tell you apart from
        the veiny shrub resembling a pine:

        They mimic each other, the flowing
        that follows the flaws of a face.

In the end, though, he realizes it is art, the poem, that allows this vision: “butterflies, freed / from tapestries, would not survive on their own” unless the poet can preserve them. It is art after all that holds all time, all selves in a delicate harmony.

This is the vison that leads him, finally, to Smugglers. Here, in its quatrains, Debeljak’s vision culminates in a confluence of inner and outer, self and other, past and future, particular and transcendent in poems based on particular Slovene settings. It is as if he were saying, in his last English book,

        I like stopping by here, properly announced, though my stay
        is sadly brief, not enough for real blues, but I like to sit around.
        To tell the truth, I like lying down and watching shadow stems

        on the wall. A calendar is in the way, but I do not complain:
        I idle in installments, moderately, I watch from conviction
        how the swirls of light swing and wave, sparks and aching loins.
        No one makes me, I alone deny myself the right to speak,

        and gratefully I stare at images. It’s good that I’m lying down
        and watching from a distance, rarely from nearby, how someone else
        gives away what I am missing, a simple formless miracle and pleasure,
        which isn’t much less when I flow into chilled bowls.

                (“Once Upon a Time in America”)

His stopping was indeed “sadly brief” and if we enter his poems, and let him enter us, as his dialectic suggests, he will continue to speak, even from the distance of death, and we will receive what his absence is missing, his remarkable poems.

— Richard Jackson


Read more by Richard Jackson in B O D Y:

Four Elegies
Two poems
Photo Poems (I)
Photo Poems (II)
Essay: Now That Your Eyes Are Shut: Three Neglected American Women Poets From The Early Twentieth Century