Zajc Dane:
The Game of Words and Silence

    Before me lay the manuscript of my poem. The first manuscript had been lost and, if I correctly recall, it had been less legible than the one that I was looking at now. This second manuscript had been preserved because it had been written on a notepad. I was looking at the last four verses, the others being on the reverse side of the page. The first verse said "across the fingers of collapsing years". The word "fingers" had been destroyed or, more accurately, it had been crossed out in anger. It had been replaced by the word "knuckles". Now the verse says "across the knuckles of collapsing years". Then they are numbers and letters etched above the words and the final version of the verse reads "in the year of collapsing knuckles". So, he who had written the poem had, at various points in time, liquidated a word, searched for a new one, rearranged the words of the line, lured them from their recesses and laid them out once more. No doubt he had sifted through the line many times, listening to it, how it departed from him and then returned to reside in his consciousness. Then when he felt that he had had enough of these words, he typed them up and the verse at once became alien to him, distant, so that when he read it once again it was no longer the same, alien characters now stood beside his poem, the poem had departed and did not want to return to him or enter into him, it wouldn’t let him come near, no longer could he combine the words into their forms, their quartines and tercines, the words had gone from loyalty to betrayal, had suffocated the adventure and would now no longer emerge from their shell which suddenly seemed to him to be ugly, unformed, infelicitous, so much so that the idea came to him to take a rock and destroy his hideous monster. "His" he thought and he saw that he had already relinquished ownership, that it was no longer his, that it would now go and leave him there, just as he was, and that later in an instant of conceited weakness he would search for confirmation from the past and then he would be playing a game with himself, once tried and true, he would read his poem again only to have it speak to him like one stranger to another: unsuspicious for it is not necessary to lie to a stranger as we hardly know one another.

    Then he who wrote the poem will send the poem away, it will be published and he will try to experience it again, to have direct contact with it again, to pour it into his existence. But he will never succeed for the experience of the adventure was already ruined for him in that fortunate or unfortunate instant when he created it. The adventure is not identical to the poem nor can the poem ever approximate the adventure. The word rushes back and forth between the poem and the adventure like a messenger, one part power and one part magic, but it will never be able to unite them because of its own lack of unity. That is also why he who wrote the poem will never be able to return to that condition which he stole with the words, neither will he able to speak about his poem, because he is no longer present in the poem, and that is the poet’s unhappiness which is also one of the reasons that he must always write new poems in which he longs to hear his own voice so that he can return to the condition of unity with himself and with the things that surround him. But each of his poems turns into a new failure which besieges him and captures him in a circle of alienation. That is how it is for those who write poems. And what of the poem? The poem is the tenth child from birth to death. Tenth children have no name, they wander the earth, are poor, they have no bed and must perform the chores of a pariah. They must suffer the shame and anger from those who have given them their trust. They are not told the stories of those trusting souls but it seems that as a consequence of the trust itself the tenth children often become the concubines of those who have shown them a little hospitality: we can see them now, how in the morning they quickly cover their nakedness, while their host puts on his shoes, dissatisfied with himself and with his thoughts of the night before. The host must carry out his many quotidian plans, soberly and strictly. Life is a prison, time the hangman fell. He may remember this but he chases away the voices because he has no idea what he should make of these nameless whisperings in a world full of names and things, a world which requires of him all his power, which demands of the host that he too thinks in terms of names and things. The tenth child embodies the past of a farming tribe which had space and time to ponder grand ideas: the past, destiny, devotion, revenge—all words from the past, which were always in the past, always questions of torment and prayer in the evening and superfluous trash in the morning. Words which in a moment of anxiety whisper softly that many others have survived the same anxiety and that is how our anxiety transcends anonymity and yet, at the same time, is hopelessly immersed in anonymity. The poem is the connection between a brute chiselling its edges into stone and a bureaucratic egghead calculating the resistance of the newest available alloy. However, it is always in the past, because none of us wishes to repeat the destinies of existence lived in the unimaginably distant tunnels of time.


    In other words we always want to be the last. The ultimate, the only and the final. Whether it is the ultimate in terms of cruelty or the ultimate in terms of goodness. Therefore, also eternal. But the poem is anonymous. In its sluttish wanderings, some long, some short, the poem distances itself from he who created it. Its face changes, its spectre emerging from around various corners, from various surroundings. Its primal intent is lost and becomes arbitrary, in its place come other meanings.


    If the poem returned home with all the blemishes from its wanderings the poet would no longer recognize it. The poem has no home for as long as it lives. But today poems are dying swift and unexpected deaths. A contagious disease is taking its toll among them. Grave diggers begin waiting for them even as early as the hour of their birth, putting a shine to their golden epitaphs: reism, structuralism, luddism, etc.


    To name a thing is to get rid of it permanently. And thus the poems are registered as they pass. They are sprinkled with dust. Their path ends in a file folder. In this mischievously childish game, the naughty toddler is a doctor of philosophy and the poems are beetles with tiny threads upon their beetle legs, tiny threads which are gripped by the hand of the naughty toddler.


    Poetry deals with things which are unsolved and which will remain unsolved because the evolution of our kind stopped a thousand years ago. It is arrogance to say in the name of history—though it is easy to frivolously believe it—that the present is the most perfect era only because we were born into it. All of the past is composed of numerous past presents, of which certain no longer exist for the simple reason that we don’t know of them. One single poem tells us that in this instant we are not alone if someone a thousand years ago also felt the same solitude.


    The voice of man, the way of human narration is etched in the rhythm of his blood, in his exceptional physical frame, in the oscillation between life and death in this body. It is a unique voice. It conquers us only to reject us. It is blood and blossoms. Filth and snow. It is a magical substance which is given to each individual from his ancestors. It is the soul, unique and unrepeatable. The poem is the replication of the atomic core of its own self. It the naming of the unknown. Or the name for that which has already been named a thousand times with new words, in a new game of rhythm, words and silences. Of all people, I am, in the final analysis, most mysterious to myself. And if poetry is the discovery of one’s own noise and peace, the resolution of both into language, and hence the discovery of one’s own language which is unknown, then the poem is the image of my successes and failures in the circumference of the dangerous mystery which I am.


    Poetry has no practical intent or meaning. And although its language is close to magical incantations and prayer, it is neither prayer nor magical incantation because this kinship is merely the consequence of aesthetic laws which are outside of our will. It cannot be prayer because prayer is self-sufficient. And self-sufficiency is movement which is ossified. Of course, there are many ossified styles but for contemporary poetry the most dangerous are those of the theoreticians obsessed with liberal marxism who have forgotten that poetry does not develop in the way one expects it to, nor does it advance, because it is a part of the spirit which cannot be defined by positivistic analysis or interpretation. To be a poet is not some kind of a vocation because a vocation characterizes only that work which is directly needed by the machine which we call society. Poetry cannot confess to any kind of useful truth, which in any case could be more convincingly expressed in numbers than in verse. Poetry is only a witness to that condition about which the poetry is written, about its distance from the world, from itself and from things.


    Therefore, I can talk in general terms about poetry but I can say nothing about the poem which is anonymous, unknown. The least chained to things such as society, political order, kingdom or regime. Hence the least useful. It is most similar to a conversation with a man who does not exist but who nevertheless oddly enters into the magic circle of the poem, distant from space, time and life.



    A poem has no measurable function. None of the functions with which we have been taught to evaluate each procedure by its efficiency and because of which our shining in the world is bitter and words of disappointment and of usefulness have emerged. The higher understanding of the world whispers to us that there is no payment for our work. That the only payment is in the act of giving that which we have received without having earned it, that is, in the giving away of our talent. The other alternative is not to give freely of our gifts, to carry them inside us, unused and intact, to the grave. This goes against the ethic of life although in no way does life indicate that our presence is necessary to it. The necessity of our presence is obtained by force or perhaps we merely imagine it. On the margins of this imagination is the poem. Which shows the powerlessness of our situation. Which tells us about what we mustn’t know if we don’t want to stagger into the void surrounding us. And so the poem is without function because it leads us away from that which for existence is unavoidable: the widening of the space in which we can assert our dynamic nature.


    The value of a poem cannot be decided by the professional interpreters of texts because professional interpreters of texts, in particular, are unable to establish contact with poems. In most cases, they are color blind to poetry from birth. To compensate for their disability they replace it with an exaggerated knowledge of literature and build aesthetic edifices which are so compact that even an earwig could not fit through the cracks. But what good is knowledge of literature when poetry is a witness to the spirit from an underworld which teems with humanity’s glittering lights? When the explication of a text is also one’s vocation, the relationship to literature gets mixed up with ambition and professional careerism and the resulting cynicism soon infects one’s judgement about poetry. Professional interpreters of texts are enthroned in institutions so venerable that they are tied up with notions such as the nation, the people and progress. Poetry is then married with this environment and with its ideas and is thus placed in the marriage bed with an aging and impotent spirit. If it is true that to be a poet is not some kind of vocation just as it is true that poetry does not discover the truth, it is also true that it cannot be nourished with the aging lies necessary for society and one must wonder what has happened to the relationship between the interpreter and poetry if the interpretation of texts has become a glorified vocation at the same time that the writing of poetry is still occurring (thank god) in suspicious dens of human community? The fate of the poem is linked to the word. Much has been written in recent times about the distressing problems of language, nothing about why that which has been put into words can destroy the experience of he who wrote the poem. Nothing has been written about why the word makes him hollow. Is it because of the power of the word? Is the mystery hidden in prehistorical taboos when believers were not allowed to betray the name of their god, when some were not even allowed to give their god a name? They probably knew of the thievish rapacity of the word, of its sensitive ownership which can so quickly pervert. And with that, of course, its substance. Or better still: the substance which leaks from the vessel of the word, suddenly rotten and worm-eaten. The statement: "Tell me the name of your god and I will kill you" may, with a bit of effort, provide an explanation for the sacredness of certain words which we are not allowed to utter lest they lose their power. The imperative "do not use the Lord’s name in vain" also comes to mind. Long ago the writing of poems was a forbidden thing which in "intelligent" people awakened distrust. Those who write poems are poised on the edge of the world. They lack the solidity to assure us that we maintain within us the framework of experience. They ceaselessly transform their condition into words. Words and sentences, images from words and sentences, buzz in their heads even when they don’t want them to. Their only silence comes with failure, when they fail to write a poem and then, in its place, comes worried contemplations that perhaps they have lost the gift because of which, it seems to them, life is necessary. (When successful in writing a poem, they are enveloped in their own affirmative clamor.)


    Words have also robbed them. When they look at their past they can’t say, I experienced this, but only I wrote this. Writing and experience flirt with each other but can never be made one. Instead, in the place where that which is written resides, creativity becomes ceaselessly entangled with experience which is reshaped, named and then thrown away. They drain experience, often behaving in an emotionally and spiritually depraved fashion, a condition close to imbecility. Indeed in terms of human condition, they are probably the most impoverished people. Because when they narrate events, they always say: I wrote about that. Then they pause and add: But it wasn’t the way it was understood. That is how they go through life, robbed of solidity which they themselves continually undermine. Perhaps, long ago, it was different. Then, at the beginning of the world and of literature, when there wasn’t any written characters, the poet was his own book because he carried all his poems in his memory, through which he could browse, modifying, editing and adding to his treasure. He was the only mediator of his poetry which he colored and printed with his own voice and movement, his gift of intuition, its potency or impotency casting a spell over his listeners. Nowadays, the poem is already dead for he who wrote it, it belongs to the letters, the characters, the color of the paper, there is no longer any rhythm which enable him to make changes to the poem in accordance with the changes in his own life, the form is on paper and lives its own half-life or dies its own death before the frightened eyes of he who would say of his own experience: I wrote about that. The writing of poems is now a science of books and the slow robbery of life. It is the placement of fragile milestones on a path overcrowded even before the traveller has set foot upon it.


    The printing of poems is the printing of pictures, the picture of rhythm on pages of paper. When you read a printed poem, you can remember the metaphors which correspond to your feelings, the thoughts which confirm your thoughts. The poem can hardly come to you and inside of you in its entirety, to perform the violence upon you which it must perform. The violence that makes the reader see the poem with no written characters, feel the rhythm of its genesis. Does it come from the desperation of those who write poems, desperation springing from a poetry in which they can only sketch poems with written characters? The violence of the characters has caught the poet in its web. The poem of signs, the poem which is painted serves as a hiding place for signs and slides into the impersonal, the timeless, the anonymous, the general, the commercial, the international, aesthetic and homeless. I leave such a poem out of this meditation as it as no bearing on it whatsoever.


    The word is the external expression of that which we experience, the external search for the self. The unmovable reality of the word—because of which it was invented and which it must serve—doesn’t allow it to meet with the imaginary, that which is undiscovered in the life of things. He who speaks encodes words and thus loses his innocence. Because the force of words is indirect and conditional. (The power of writing with words is twice as indirect and conditional.) Not only is the word overtaking the force of thoughts, it is also erasing it, dissolving it. And although, on one side, the word is the sound, the song and the sign of human life, it is also the dry rustling of the reduction of things through writing and, because of its mortality, the ally of death. He who writes poems knows the sound of rattling bones and, with the knowledge of the vanity of his enterprise, affirms the belief that "in the beginning was the word…." .


    It seems that rhythm, when it is adequate, is irrevocable as it whispers to the organism. It probably comes from the blood, from that which we call temperament and lies deep within the vocabulary. It rules over the vocabulary, choosing words from among its treasures. When thought and rhythm are in conflict, they invariably choose the wrong word. In such cases writing stalls, rhythm disappears into a hidden underground labyrinth from which nothing can call it back. It seems that it dictates the composition of the picture because every great picture follows a rhythm which enthrals the viewer’s eyes. It seems to the viewer that he has encountered something which he knew already a long time ago. He is probably recalling a dream which he cannot define or precisely pin down. Rhythm is truly hidden beneath our dreams, buried beneath all the picturesque yet meaningless content, concealed from the very eyes which would want to discover it. But in its unwritten records it takes down each one of our experiences, each with a different character and thus the discovery of one’s rhythm is identical to eavesdropping on one’s own voice. The rhythm is encoded so that we each experience it individually, probably there is a message hidden in it which we carry inside us, inherited by our organism so that its offspring will find a place in our utterances. Rhythm is also that which is unnamed, because of which we feel the poem as from before, as if it touches our reason. When the poet no longer hears his own rhythm, his poems are mute. When the hidden rhythm of the poem passes into commonplace (every experience is recorded in a routine rhythmic code), it loses its artistry, that which is indispensable to it. With a poet whose creativity has become stiff and torpid, we must first examine what happened to his rhythm, where did he betray it because with that treachery he betrayed the most dominant force of his biological and ethical code.

Translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak