White Pine Press, $14.
Reviewed by Naomi White
Considered by many as the greatest living Slovenian poet, Dane Zajc is a founding father of Central Europe’s post-World War II modernism. Born in 1929, he was exposed to the violent death of his brothers in the war and forced to survive a meager existence in a war-torn country. Zajc’s poetry is bleak and brutally desolate. Like many other Slovenes, Zajc found literature as a voice of liberation, and has become part of a long line of Slovenian poets who combine literature and politics. Translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak, Barren Harvest is the first comprehensive volume of Zajc’s work to appear in English.
The poems in Barren Harvest are composed in simple language with a repetitious structure. Zajc’s lines are almost mantra-like, as if he is repeating the words to himself, in order to stay sane in the midst of tragedy. His short choppy sentences emphasize each word and allow Zajc’s desolate landscape and stark images to stand alone, without excessive language or experimental structure. Through the use of natural images, such as soil, rain, rocks, and animals, Zajc creates a vivid world of life that contrasts with the chilling images of death that involve people, fire, and broken buildings.
In “Lump of Ashes,” from the 1961 volume Tongue of Soil, Zajc explores the inability of language to express grief by using the image of a mouth on fire, burning down into ashes. The poem reads:
You want to utter a word.
But your mouth is full of ashes.
And instead of a word
A lump of ashes rolls down
Your blackened throat.
Zajc’s poetry does what he says poetry cannot do: verbalize suffering.
Because Barren Harvest selects from all eight of Zajc’s volumes, the evolution of his poetry becomes visible. The poems from his 1958 volume Burnt Grass are his most sparse, presenting images of death and destruction, such as “Barren Harvest,” which begins hauntingly: “I recognize his skull, mother said, / by its beautiful white teeth.” Over the years, Zajc’s poetry becomes more bitter and more complex. Rather than simply providing shocking images, poems such as “Rain” from Snake Killers (1968), vent anger: “But you know the cadavers conveyed upon the night’s glassy / rope / and you hate them with their own hatred.” In “You Are Not” Zajc pointedly accuses his oppressors: “It’s a lie that things exist only to soothe you / with tranquil memories, / because one day your whole world will turn against you.”
Later, in his 1984 volume White, his work seems to take a less pessimistic turn, using natural images to create poems of recover. As if cleansed of the burnt ashes described in previous poems, the pieces in White repeatedly use white imagery, such as snow, milk, goats, and silk, to suggest a sense of purity in his heart. In “Milk,” Zajc demonstrates the end of devastating grief by describing the simple act of milking a cow:
you hear a stream of milk squirting from a cow’s udder
on the white floor
and you no longer wonder what happened to
the screaming in your mind
you open the door and the sun strikes your face
waterfalls of beam and milky lights
The day-to-day ritual serves to take over the pain, giving a sense of normalcy and routine. Also in White, Zajc begins to experiment with eliminating capitalization and punctuation, giving the pieces a barren, silent feeling, as if stripped of all but the essentials.
Zajc’s poems do not just chronicle his own grieving process, but also address other subjects. There are love poems scattered throughout Barren Harvest, such as “Brown Call,” from Children of the River (1962) and “Golden Hat” from Down Down (1998). Even in these pieces, Zajc uses striking natural imagery, as in “Brown Call”: “The light shining through your body / will run through my body and through my bones. / . . . Because you are the tongue in my mouth.”
Zajc can write about subject matter verging on cliche while maintaining freshness in his language. The clear political statements about the nature of war elude a didactic tone because his approach to death, love, and the insufficiency of language avoids sentimentality by presenting images without commentary. The beautifully tragic poems explore the horrors of modern war while focusing on solitude and isolation with stark, bare images.