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Review of Tomaz Salamun’s The Book for My Brother by Sarah Moriarty

The Book for My Brother is the newest collection from Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun. A deceptively thin volume, it holds between its covers rich, dense poetry which demands a committed and thoughtful reader. The poems vary widely in tone and style. Salamun alternates between long lyrical, image-based poems and shorter, more straightforward pieces. The former revel in language and invite the reader to simply bask in sensation and impression, while the latter dance up to the edge of prose poetry. Some are bleak and distant or rage at the sky. Others create characters, rooms, and scenes, blurring the line between poet and speaker. In another collection these differing styles might make the book feel like a hodge-podge, but these pieces are connected through themes. Words like “melancholy,” “tremble,” and “beatitude” are repeated in various poems in order to trigger certain images and to connect ideas in the reader’s mind. Some phrases or images are reworded to link pieces together: “The fluff in the blossom is a little circle…” in “Coming Back” is referenced in “Jumping On The Cart Full Of Cantaloupes”: “Fluff, if the blossom goes, bang if the thorn.”

Salamun is interested in the brotherhood of existence, the oneness of all things. He continuously equates the speaker in his poems with the natural world. War and destruction of the environment are just ways in which we destroy ourselves. “The Lime in The Desert” is a portrait of a soldier and traveler’s life: “we breathed wind, loved polite waiters/ smelled the pepper, meat, accompanied young ladies holding birdcages”; and their search for home when utterly disconnected from the landscape of their country.

A quest for reconnection to a homeland is central to many of the poems. The encouragement found in these pieces to appreciate and bond with one’s country is a first step toward a larger union with land itself: “the rain transgresses the borders.”

The flip side of this transcendental theme is the isolation and sadness found in duality. The poems “Home” and “Dog” are placed one after the other to juxtapose these two feuding ideas. “Home” argues that all wisdom and knowledge are contained within the natural world, that humanity itself is only part of the much larger universe:

  There is no difference between a train speeding
  through a tunnel, the Milky Way expanding
  silently, and a drop that fell upon
  the brown leather in August last year.

“Dog” explores duality through the use of second person. The dog is “you,” other, less than. This language and the accusatory tone of the piece create a split between the reader and subject, us and them. The speaker asks “Don’t you have brothers and sisters? Did / they all leave you and go to sleep behind /some corner? ... ,” which highlights the feeling of isolation when one is not part of a community; national, religious, or other. The true cause of suffering springs from this base place of duality, of materialism, of every-man-for-himself, or every country-for-itself: “Fear is / only a quarrel about / property.”

The Book for My Brother is an eccentric collection graced by shifting voices and perspective. The variation speaks to Salamun’s range, the fluidity to his skill. It’s as if he’s trying on all sorts of glasses, all with different shapes, tints, frames, and levels of focus. Occasionally the poems become esoteric, demanding a knowledge of French and Egyptian geography likely beyond what most readers will bring to the table, but the beauty of the images and the power of the wisdom contained in this book (“God is a perfect stranger, he is not planted by anyone. / I’d like to be planted like a willow”) make any complaints feel petty.

The Book For My Brother
By Tomaz Salamun
Harcourt, Inc, April 2006
112 pages, $16.00
ISBN 0-15-603205-8

View bio for Sarah Moriarty Published in Spring 2006

About HDM

Half Drunk Muse was one of the first poetry ezines. It was founded in 1999 and ceased publication in 2006.

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