THE BLUE TOWER
By Tomaz Salamun
Translated, from the Slovenian, by Michael Biggins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 86pp., $22
NOTES FROM IRRELEVANCE
By Anselm Berrigan
Wave Books, 65pp., paperback, $16
Poetry and politics can be like friends you hate to see at the same party. Both are helpless flirts, strong personalities, languages of coercion. And while poetry strives for the very truth that politics seeks to smother, both dabble in obscurantism when it suits a bigger purpose. It can only spell trouble when they party together (just ask Laura Bush), and neither look better for it the next day.
But like any relationship we wince to watch unfold, perhaps the best thing to do is accept there’s no keeping them apart. And if politicians inspire only forlorn sighs, let their better halves, poets, draw hopeful breaths in response. It would be wrong to describe the new collections from prolific Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun and Brooklyn favorite son Anselm Berrigan as political, but it would be difficult to imagine either being as vital a voice without their unique knacks for balancing the show of poetry with the tell of history.
In a 2008 talk for BOMB magazine, Salamun told longtime friend Charles Simic that between 1989 and 1994, during the Balkan wars, he’d stopped writing altogether. To Salamun - who had already been jailed for a poem in 1964 - the anger and frustration bred by injustice were prohibitive to good poetry, “[b]ut just being what you are, to be free within your writing, this is also the center of the real responsibility of the world,’’ he said. “Therefore, your freedom is a political act.’’
Salamun is nothing if not free in his poems. The 55 poems of “The Blue Tower,’’ his 11th collection in English (his output in his native Slovenian is closer to 40) is a lush swirl of anecdote and imagination, at once diaristic and dreamlike, surreal and somber. Often with Salamun, you navigate his stanzas the way you cross a darkened room - feeling around for familiar surfaces.
With their mélange of histories, meanings, and tones, Salamun’s poems often feel scooped from his home soil, as in “Rites and the Membrane’’: “It sinks into movies, I sink into mortar./ Scythes and pincers of bugs are no homeland./ My questions burst the barrel, and a bullet flies out./ In the corners pits are put to sleep. The pool is covered.’’
Salamun’s poems are deceptively playful, but they don’t feel fearless; his language is as propelled by the present as it is burdened with the past. And his cast of characters - from Holofernes to Erwin Rommel, Fra Angelico to Fat Joe, activist Slovenian poet Edvard Kocbek to British writer Diran Adebayo - erase our sense of either. As time withdraws itself from these poems, beauty and cruelty are freed of cause and seen for themselves, as in “Ivo Standeker,’’ a poem named for the Slovenian journalist killed in 1992 while covering clashes in Bosnia, and which sounds as much like orders as rites: “Dove in the vapor of my lungs,/ lie down, close your eyes./ Get up./ Lie down and close your eyes.’’
For Brooklyn poet Anselm Berrigan, the political arrives in pieces, settling across his sprawling poems like dew or debris. Berrigan has always matched his experimental drive with a personable quality, a trait that can’t help but be slightly tinted by his father Ted’s loose, lovable, lyrical legacy.
But where his lauded “Zero Star Hotel’’ played with notions of uncertainty by laying stanzas out like cards in a user-determined sequence (suggesting that even he didn’t know the right way forward), and “Some Notes on My Programming’’ dealt with the Bush-era doldrums from a rattled NYC in the frankest of terms (“Self censorship/ is the American avant-garde’’), his newest book-length poem “Notes From Irrelevance’’ stretches 65 pages of post-millennial howling into one determined column. It could be the poet striking out toward the “wiped-out horizon’’ on “a straight line north,’’ or it could be him pacing the hallway of his apartment.
In either case, “Notes’’ is a stunning statement to a world that has made artifacts of absolutes: “I don’t think it works to/ plead for a voice out of/ the monolith to make/ clear what you sense, feel,/ know to be happening./ Not ‘true.’ Happening.’’ Berrigan counts himself “as currently one/ of the six billion-plus’’ - and if that brings to mind the 99 percent, so too might the unarticulated dissent that simmers beneath a mire of pop culture samples and product placement:
“One/ mirrors the dynamics of/ massing without reason,/ lies an honest, productive/ lie, awaits questions. I got/ my first real six-string to/ play a flamenco version/ of kibbles ‘n bits.’’
In an interview with Poetry, Berrigan revealed that an attendee at one of his readings thought he might have been influenced by Sarah Palin, “They were teasing me,’’ he said, “but I think this person was not accustomed to the colloquial showing up in the poetry that much.’’ And with its opening “early termination fee,’’ “caustic wall remarks,’’ and whoa-moments like “I don’t really see/ the difference between/ modernism and Al Qaeda,’’ Berrigan subjects his lines to the same saturation that we subject ourselves - there’s a “reality’’ feel to watching him go.
Like Salamun, Berrigan’s tenderness has been tested; at one point he makes part of his mission to make “a steelier measure of lack’’ and earlier declares “what is most/ ordinary every day is/ defeating the desire to/ harden into respectable/ indifference.’’ But in one of the poem’s shortest sentences, a flash of his poetics balances futility and hope into an inspiring little mantra for uncertain times: “That’s/ what I think, now it’s/ over.’’Michael Brodeur is an assistant arts editor at the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.