on Aleš Debeljak’s poetry
Thus, the “freedom principle” has become the basic creative principle of Debeljak. The freedom principle, because it is the conscious, creative principle of this poet, has also become the feature of his personality, a category without which it is impossible to show this poet, a category which has established the predominant identity of Aleš Debeljak. He does not even think of being politically correct. He is correct to himself and his understanding and feeling of reality. He is sensitive to the social reality, he deconstructs it in its core, not only as a profane sensation, but also as an ideology, as a strategy and construct. This status of the Mind in his poetry fits with his views given in a number of his essay collections, and here a statement of his from his book The Balkan Trunk (essays on literature of the “Yugoslav Atlantis”), also published in Croatian in 2011, will be quoted.5F
The freedom principles defies fear of meaninglessness and loneliness, death and nothingness (The fifth poem from “The Description of History”, The Diary of Silence). “Will you die without spending all shapes of reality…” (2004: 19). Fear seems more present while evil is sensed, before facing it, before it happens and becomes reality. This is shown by the 1990 book Moments of Fear, at the start of the breakdown of Home and the beginning of Yugoslav hell. Then comes The City and the Child (1996), when Home is layered to different ways of Otherness and abroad, when the images of graves and borders, persecutions, migrations and suffering in the boiling “pot” or “powder cag” in the Balkans change as on a movie track. The poetic space in which this hellish movie takes place are the elegies and laments. This rhythm of the tragic continues in the next book Unfinished Odes (2000), a book in which Debeljak deviates from ten lyrical quatrains and takes over the challenge of the ode, of a supreme, almost Biblical incantation and prayer (“Mary Magdalene”, “In Front of the Throne”, etc.). The encounter with history with Debeljak takes place as facing with the Biblical moment of the lost Home and “nostalgia for the roots” and the poem is experienced as the Promised Land which gives consolation, forgiveness and ecstasy.
In this book, as in the next ones (Under the Surface, Smuggles) one can notice the crossing of the lyrical (personal) and epical (collective) images and temptations of the evil (war). The form is stabilized as couplet, and it stores the reflections of “the basest of evils assumes a beautiful shape” (“Urgent Question”). In only several collections, Debeljak’s poetry passes the rod of fear, via setting itself free of fear, to rebellion. In the next collection, the strive to oppose and rebel is visible. The revolt is the matrix of the new view of the world, marked by clear awareness and readiness to resist stereotypes and bring back the meaning of existence. It is the introduction of the most recent creative phase in which Ales Debeljak’s poetry and essays are reflected into each other and shape his philosophy of survival, his post-Yugoslav perspective of viewing the world and freedom. His postmodern philosophy of existence created by the freedom principle and fear overcome.
Vladimir Arsenić sees Debeljak’s poetry (through the prism of the book Smugglers), as “pure lyrics” which opens the dilemma if it should be interpreted or simply read and experienced (Vladimir Arsenić, 6. 8. 2015 Kritika 144: Aleš Debeljak — www.booksa.hr 26.03.2012). I am not convinced that it is “pure lyrics” when it comes to Aleš Debeljak’s poetry. No, it has no tendency to melody free of meaning, it does not have the fragility of the transparent glass forms of intimate lyrics indifferent to broader reality and collectiveness. With Aleš every poem is sensitive to the broader reality, broader urban space (Ljubljana or some other), broader political space (from the past or the present), broader biographic space (of other writers and milieus), broader artistic space…
This is the genesis of the notifications of location and dedications/homages which accompany the poems and establish their semantic, referential, emotional and associative context. Because of this, the poems are abundant with stylistic-lexical indications that suggest a certain post-socialist existential and cultural background. The poems are free of the mimicry of memories, and they are not a storage of suppressed feeling and thoughts, they are not an initiation into a catharsis, but rather an act of meditation of the “antermonic” type – the images of the memories come, they are replaced with sequences of reality, we do not stick to them, they pass by, they flow freely, associatively, in an unpredictable rhythm, a bit capriciously, as a montage, as jazz improvisation, until there is an effect that will have the power to cover the poem with a new phono-stylistic and semantic hue. And all of this takes place within four quatrains, in the predictable form – unpredictable contents, for this modus to become a creative rule. The precisely rehearsed length of breath, expression, a technique of the poetic performance. Yes, Aleš Debeljak’s quatrains are a stage space for a mental performance, bohemian, urban and professional at the same time, equally eager of order and pleasure. Most of all, eager of Home. A warm home that offers happiness, rather than phrases and substitutes for happiness.
The open and awake consciousness if not caught in the trap of politically correct clichés that the overall socialist heritage is suspicious and it should be condemned and thrown into the garbage of history. The urge for twist and free articulation of thought with Aleš Debeljak is free and permanent. He looks with reserve (re-examines) this anti-socialist ideologeme upon his own original arguments. The lyrical subject, on the stage of the poem, strikes back. Poetry is the empire that strikes back. Therefore, it is not auto-referential, but rather meta-referential. And suggestive. Each poem sounds as if reminding the readers that the image of the world reality is not back and white, that socialism is not completely black, just as capitalism is not completely white. If we look at this regimes (civilization formations) from the point of view of condition humaine, we will hardly prefer the post-industrial, liberal capitalism, brutal to the extremes. It is the liberation from the cult media stereotypes about the justness of the liberal capitalism that sheds new light to close past, our former Yugoslav past and liberates from the stigma of the unjustly demonized socialism. The poets are still not the spokespersons of the post-socialist and post-communist transitions and they cannot be expected to be the exponents of capital-realistic view of the world. They, the poets like Aleš Debeljak, show that they are sensitive, intuitive and non-submissive, and therefore their voice should be heard. The voice of individuality. Marginalized in the society, but far from ephemeral.
In the very beginning of the prologue to the book of essays The Balkan Den, Debeljak elaborates his interest in the literature of “Yugoslav Atlantis” and the writers of “sunk land” in this way: “First, because I lived most of my life in that country. Second, because it was a space of a happy childhood. Third, because it gives me the inspiration to think the set-up of current Europe. Forth, because the Slovenian ‘entrance in Europe’ only marks the dark side of ‘exit from the Balkans’. Fifth, because I live in a world that does not interest me, faithful to something that is lost, my own home.” (2011, 9, translated from Croatian). The poet does not only have the right to tell the truth in his way, he is also expected to tell “his truth”, biased, subjective, evocative. It is not typical of poetry to be indifferent and ataraxic. It is a feature of tyrants and rulers. Therefore, the qualification “Yugo-nostalgic” is more profane and labelling than depicting the essence of the nostalgia for the lost Home. Aleš Debeljak reincarnates the image of this lost Home via the parable of Atlantis, sunk, lost, but not forgotten.
The poetry is indeed not historiographical construction material, but an associative, memorable, syncretic, intuitive, ritualistic and hypersensitive incarnation of segments from private archives. As other forms of precognition, it suggestively depicts the meaning of existence, recognizing the identity of Home. Everybody knows for himself where he/she felt Home. It is neither said, not proved with political declarations, lamentations and legal acts. “Things are empty. There is nothing in them”, says Aleš Debeljak in his poem “Without Anaesthesia”. People fill in things, giving them soul, creating their value, whether they are artefacts or biofacts. During the big moves, emigrations, exiles, persecutions, dissidentisms and (cultural, ethnic, family and individual) dislocations, such as the time after the breakdown of Yugoslavia, happiness becomes a memory from the past, an archaic sign of Atlantis. In such times of absolute transition, the poet tries to defend himself from the inflow of misfortune, by protecting his feeling of happiness. Via memories, dialogues, touches, via poetic and linguistic performances.
Thus, if there is some fear in Debeljak’s poetry, it is the fear of loneliness, the loneliness that is experienced when the individual or the collective are rooted out of their home into a “chronotope” foreign to them, when they are caught by the state of constant crisis, and behind the scene there is a total chaos (such as the bombardment in Roland Harwood’s play which takes place while the “King Lear” is played). In all of this leisurely, club, chamber, urban, segmented, improvised and sophisticated space in A. Debeljak’s poems, there is also a political angle, in the most subtle, philosophical meaning of the word. Maybe not as fierce and explicit as in Harold Pinter’s poetry, but political nevertheless. As political as it is necessary to understand the essence of the traumatized Yugoslav and Balkan Man at the end of the XX century. The political dimension of his poetry is not in the foreground, but is nevertheless present. The other, erotic dimension, also important for his poetry, is in the focus of the spotlight.
One could say that in the poetic work of Debeljak there is a certain tension between the two dramatic tensions – the political or erotic?6F It relates to their positioning in the centre or in the background of the stage space in the poem. If we read Debeljak’s poetry chronologically, we will see that in the first collections, almost until the end of the XX century, the political perspective and topics are still absent, they are still not subject of his poetic interest. This is the case with The Names of Death (1985), The Diary of Silence (1987) and Moments of Fear (1990). Already from The City and the Child (1996) collection there is a different observation of the world, a different structure of relations between the poem and history, between the subject and the object of the poem, including the modified relation to the reader and the effect on the reading circles. From that book onwards the awareness of the cultural function of poetry and poet is increased, and the semiotics of the poem becomes more sensitive to the external signals (intertextual, citational and paracitational dialogue with different poets and writers, including those with Slovenian and Yugoslav provenience, reminiscence of Bosnian and Serbian situations, the collective spirit of the time, migrations and devastation of the former common state). This tendency is also reflected in the books Unfinished Odes of year 2000 (it could also be translated as Unfinished Praises), and most of all in his 2009 collection Smugglers.
The “cult” book of Aleš Debeljak,7F The Diary of Silence, which confirmed him as one of the leading poets in Slovenia and Yugoslavia marks the chronotope of love and loneliness, as typical signs of a modernist individualism, a search for originality which is the other face of the search for oneself, marked with elements of self-perception, autofiction and artistic relation to the poetic language. These are strategies of breaking up with the silence without which the poetic language cannot achieve full personalization and maturity. This book is made by the cycles “Shapes of Love”, “Without Anaesthesia”, “Description of History” and “Catalogue of Dust”. Each cycle contains seven poems without titles. Every poem strives to belong to the whole, although it also functions as a separate whole. Every poem has a sonnet-like form (two quatrains and two tercets). Even then one can notice the need of this author to establish freedom in some genres of lyrical frames, by carving the poem to perfection, without slipping into epic comprehensiveness. This book is dominated by the desire to express passion and appetite, so that objects and words disappear (the second poem from “Description of History”). Even when he refers to history, the poet is curious to find out what are the “places that cannot be touched by history” (quotation from Normal Mailer and his The Armies of the Night). In this collection the world and history still sleep (2013: 44, paraphrased according to Bulgarian issue). The poem is open for the images of the dream that implies devastation, visible signs of fear and loneliness (“You are alone terribly afraid”, 2013: 45), but it does not admit that horrible, awful, nightmare things happen in reality. At that time, the poet refuses to sets himself free of fear, it is the counterpoint of his erotic challenge, indulgence with which he “jumps over the skies and drops unconscious” (2013: 32). He “listens the emptiness ringing” (2013: 24), wishes for “a language without verbs” (2013: 25), feels “powerlessness, hopelessness, sadness, silence is an escape into a foreign language” (2013: 21), he is all “hearing and sight” (2013: 20). In this collection there is a prevailing strive to find one’s own pair, double community, create one’s own “tribe”, overcome the youthful nostalgia for one’s mother’s home and milk, to create a home of one’s own. In his sonnets there is “…rude / noise of passion, love, motoric poems / sin.” (2013: 14).
5. A selection of A. Debeljak’s essays is was published in Macedonian in 2004, by Blesok, entitled Избрани есеи (Selected Essays), translated by I. Isakovski, E. Bakovska and Ana Dimiskovska.
6. In his essay on Danilo Kiš, Debeljak, in his narrative-confessional passages, says: “Then I was only interested in literature and erotics” (2011: 141).
7. That is how this book is called by Zvonko Maković, I quote him indirectly, via the quotation given in the Delimir Resicki’s afterword (2011: 98), otherwise it is a statement on the cover of the Croatian issue of Diary of Silence (Riječnik tišine, Zagreb, Biblioteka Quorum, 1989, translated by Branko Čegec).