The Book for My Brother

by Tomaž Šalamun

I think studiousness is really threatening to overcome most, if not all, aspects of my life. It’s probably at least partially because I’ve enjoyed taking steps to not feel in over my head at all times, but I’m learning more and more that it’s not at all common. I bring this up because the discovery and subsequent reading of The Book for My Brother came from my initial queries to find a way to better familiarize myself with the culture and history of certain areas of Europe I plan to visit in the near future. I guessed that any movement away from being a glassy-eyed tourist would make the trip all the more enjoyable. All this being said, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that my reading the first thing to really jump out at me after searching up “Slovenian poetry” is cause for celebration, per se, though I do sincerely hope to learn more and be thorough about it in future.

But I had to start somewhere, and I don’t think Šalamun was a bad first choice, though I will admit I was in a bit over my head to start, ironically––better for this to happen in private, I suppose. The Book for My Brother delves into a place, a people, and a central Marxist ideology. While I probably misunderstood large portions because I’m unfamiliar with these things, I think it gave my next steps of research a bit of direction. I got a sense of a nation largely dismissed by their comparatively more powerful or influential neighbours, along with an internal hesitancy for its people to think more highly of themselves. (Šalamun’s poem “Incredulous Grandson,” in particular, I felt very subtly showcased a historical basis for this mindset that may be suggested by the author to be losing at least a bit of ground with the younger generation.) And the socialist tone comes on thick. I suspect the roots of this come from a relatively recent emergence of the republic in which the poet lived from decades within communist Yugoslavia, but the truth could be closer to Alex trying to overanalyze and extrapolate from more of a personal conviction of the author. I do believe that this is part of what brought to mind Pablo Neruda with Šalamun’s work, as both seem to express this in their writings. The stronger parallel, however, likely comes from both writers frequently utilizing strong images to add significant depth of feeling to the poetry.

The thing that stood out most significantly as a unique feature in The Book of My Brother was the structure, specifically in how the author uses the breaks to influence the flow and meaning. I was initially confused by this, mainly because it lacks consistency. Some poems follow the punctuation to dictate the pauses, but others use implied punctuation, where the breath comes at the end of lines, even when unmarked. The only way to tell which of these is employed is by reading, re-reading, and deciding what makes the most sense. This could actually result in something pretty cool, especially when reading aloud; I suspect it could cause significant changes in interpretation from reader to reader. The big thing that pushed me into appreciation of this fluidity of structure from poem to poem is Šalamun’s apparent playing with expected interpretation, fundamentally setting the reader up to understand a given statement and then altering the meaning in the follow-up. (Good examples that came up after I became aware of the technique include, in “The Whole Life”: “…a giant waiting to splash you with a pail of milk thirty times / bigger than normal,” and, from “Young Creatures”: “Frail little girls so ravaged sometimes / by an attack of the giggles…” Interestingly, the effect would have the potential to vanish completely when reading aloud, depending on the take of the reader.)

So I suppose Šalamun synthesizes familiar, but effective, image-heavy verse with novel techniques to make something all his own with The Book for My Brother. It’s also brimming with ambiguous, occasionally recurring, metaphors, which means that I’ll not only be likely to approach it with completely fresh eyes after better understanding the place that birthed it, but that subsequent readings in general will likely morph and evolve with each deeper entry into the fog.