White Pine Press, $14.
Reviewed by Bridgette Bates
Barren Harvest, Dane Zajc’s first book-length collection published in English, presents forty years of poetry from a leading Eastern European writer who remains relatively unknown in the United States. In his new selected works, Zajc, born in 1929 in Slovenia, delivers a history that endured: a world war, the rule of Marshal Tito and the social revolution, the collapse of communism, and the struggle for democracy as Slovenia declared its independence in 1991. Although Zajc’s poetry ties atrocity to its haunted landscapes, his poetry fortifies a relentless sentimental instinct to observe, scathe, and resolve.
In the introduction to this collection, Ales Debeljak provides a context for Zajc’s suffering and flight and declares, “Dane Zajc is the greatest living Slovenian poet, not only according to professional opinion but also according to general popular consensus . . .” Through ideas of greatness, Zajc represents the literature stemming from a troubled generation of Slovenia: Zajc’s childhood home was burned by the Nazis, he spent three months in prison in 1951 under a communist regime for an opposition literary reading, he spent two years in the people’s army, and he spent his subsequent years dedicated to anti-communist movements via literary causes. Zajc’s collection reflects his country’s time and place, yet his poems are not generic explorations.
In the first poem, “Dead Things,” from Zajc’s first book, Burnt Grass, he establishes a precedent of absence. Zajc evokes a list of images that depict varieties of things passed, and for Zajc a list issues reflection combined with the urgency to remember: “Your elbow has decayed. / Your hand is soil.” At this point in the poem, it is unclear if he is addressing the father figure from the previous image or a greater world lost, as he often addresses a Yugoslavian history. The poem concludes, “Who will dig up from beneath the hearth / the decaying faces of dead years.” Zajc often modifies a catalogue of earthly images: from a rhetorical address of remorse to navigations of his homeland to confrontations of historical atrocities. This first poem bridges the reader into the ongoing dialogue Zajc pursues in many of his books, especially Burnt Grass, where he combs the lands of his past and arrives at open-ended interrogatives.
The next book, Tongue of Soil, continues with the theme of interrogation, but Zajc approaches a figurative quest as he begins to explore paradoxes in his previous decaying worlds. This book contains Zajc’s only distinct series of poems, “Gothic Windows,” where he obscures the single image of a church window by examining it from different angles, and thus furthers the motif of delving into changing landscapes. The first poem steeps in violence as the sun “shatters” the glass of the window, then in the second poem of the series the hostility is transferred to sexual violations as he evokes images of Mary Magdalene. In the third poem, Zajc elaborates on the sexual tainting of Magdalene through symbolic colors: red imagery represents Magdalene as red taints images of purity and white. Zajc often employs the use of symbolic colors to adjust his perspective of the landscapes he explores, be it tangible, historical, or religious. In all of his books, variations appear on the theme of white juxtaposed by other colors: “White saints in high windows. / Saintly women bathed in red light.” White often represents the unscathed, but the representation of innocence soon becomes contaminated by other elements of the scene before the simplicity of the color theme grows mundane. For example, in the sixth poem of the series, “The crows killed a dove / in the blue window of morning.” When a white dove becomes a symbol of death, a natural act of sacrifice, the white evolves into realms of absent life instead of innocence. As Zajc illustrates in this series, he deconstructs an image, a color, and a state to identify the complexity of existence through the various states of careful observation. However, the tension of his poetry intensifies because this deconstruction process deeply troubles Zajc. By the end of this series, it is not merely the symbolic gestures of a gothic window that suffer, but it is the speaker, the “I” that “struggles” with his own varying positions.
By his sixth book, Zajc exposes the figurative presence of the early books. The translator, Erica Johnson Debeljak, captures the repetition of syntax and imagery in these translations to help preserve the rhythmic qualities of the original Slovene. In White, Zajc directly confronts the past images that have haunted his previous books; it is this haunted world that reveals the power of Zajc’s language. Many of the poems focus around an iconic title that allows Zajc to understand the symbolic abstractions as he demystifies the history surrounding these objects: “Milk,” “Goats,” “Mountain,” and “The White Weasel.” These poems layer the imagery of white that connects them, yet ideas of innocence and later corruption do not neatly unite the images. In many of these poems, although Zajc confronts these images, the iconic histories of these objects do not contaminate his perspective. He remains removed in his interrogation in “Mountain”:
Sometimes between the clouds
we catch sight of a path above the abyss.
It looks like writing across the heights.
We see it only for an instant and we know:
it is the path to the mountain that is not.
Zajc engages a world he keeps at a distance almost as pre-awareness of the temporal world. This dissolve between the speaker and the scene alleviates his periodic risks of sentimentality attached to self-awareness. Zajc seems to respect the rift of the world that he lives in, not as a defense mechanism, but out of acceptance of a paradoxical universe. Although he must settle into a world that violence or void will ultimately disrupt, he continues to engage with these objects laid before him, and he confronts the dynamic of himself as witness to the landscapes that he ultimately can never fully understand. In his earlier books, Zajc creates a great urgency in the images of his unsettled landscape, but by the later books he grows comfortable in the vastness between him and the unknowable.
The oxymoronic title, Barren Harvest, resonates throughout the entire arc of the book’s thematic landscapes. By the final book, Down Down, the internal conflict of Zajc’s scenes surface in the first poem, “This and That.” Zajc characterizes his torment, “This one swears, / that one whispers verses / into a sea of his own verses.” Here, Zajc begins to conflate the two opposing “ones,” instead of focusing on the nature of the contradiction. The conflation of the juxtaposed worlds becomes the ultimate solitude in the end, where Zajc arrives in the final poem of the collection, “Silences”:
that place where you gave your word
that country in the sky
transforms, grows, vanishes
there a bird flutters there
under a great mountain
This triangular cycle of action that Zajc formulates to reach final insight follows the overall trajectory of Zajc’s work. The book ends “soft as a sigh,” in a quiet echo of the awareness reached through Zajc’s deconstruction of the landscapes he endured by introducing the duality of contradicting forces to a third possibility: vanishing.
These poems are not history lessons or personal memoirs, or any simplification of two opposing worlds, yet the wonder between the external and internal worlds coexist and are haunted by the imagery they inhabit. The appearance of the language growing quiet in the end offers a moment of closure or rather pacification for the previous tormented poems without falsely turning from the torment, but rather gradually comprehending the profundity of the tensions. Zajc’s command offers the reader a terrific return for engaging with troubled foreign scenes: the beauty of resolve where images vanish into magnanimity.