Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, Translated from the Slovene by Raymond Miller (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
where once the never-to-be repeated gull
floated in an amorphous mixture of dusk and down--
Slovenia’s history of the avant garde is as much about its emergence today as it is about the roots, the origins, the beginnings. In Moss & Silver, originally published in 1983, readers are given the opportunity to engage in this continuation from 20th to 21st Century poets and poetries through the latest introduction of what is arguably a heroic artist. Jure Detela, who is praised and admired throughout the Slovenia of today, was also praised and admired throughout his life by way of his poetry and character. Now the English-language world, by way of translator Raymond Miller, and Detela contemporaries and collaborators Tatjana Jamnik and Iztok Osojnik, have access to a powerful, fundamental book of Slovene verse.
As Osojnik describes in the book’s introduction, one way to interpret Detela’s surprising and shocking range of verse is to categorize poems by their nature, spirit, and structure. Osojnik mentions the following types of poems in Moss & Silver: “the darkness, the haiku, and the legacy.” More themes than literal representations, these categories allow the reader to engage a relatively chaotic book, a book which has poems carefully translated but still estranged and sprawling, in a meaningful way. Mid-20th Century Slovenia’s own sociopolitical landscape forms a triangulation in looking at Detela’s works through the thematic presence of the deep, otherly darkness, the chiseling funnel of the shorter works (some directly derived from the traditional haiku form, and other forms), and the rather pointed, minimalist homages and odes carried across Detela’s work.
A torn landscape throughout Europe is the most obvious way to focus on these poems, and yet Osojnik also goes into significant detail of the psychological torture Detela represented in his poems when thinking of the cruelty and harm of general humanity. Detela believed in the destructive prowess of humans and spited it; the criticism results in a poetics of healing and protection that lends to a beautiful counterbalance (or juxtaposition) to the poems that are otherwise born of the grotesque, the gruesome, the brutal. As quoted in the introduction, this is poetry aligned with Aimé Césaire’s “everything has a right to live.”
Harts! Harts! Should I let the consciousness of / violence into my poem? How / can I remain faithful to your memory when / the world is transformed for me // into a message of killing?
(from “17. Poem for the Hearts”)
And while some of the poems may feel gratuitous and slightly melodramatic, it helps to imagine the world of this remarkable poet as a world of repetition, late-industrialism, war, and inequity. The persistence of these systemic onslaughts and battering cannot be forgiven lightly, and the iteration and reiteration through a focused and calm vision moves beyond redundancy to confidence, moves beyond ego to an ambitious rhetorical whirlwind.
That Detela’s work in 2018 may be a posthumous climax to a legendary life speaks volumes to the settings and contexts of Slovenia and the surrounding regions. That Detela’s work in 2018 is also receiving international attention and being moved from its country and cultures of origin to a foreign, distanced reality and context only highlights the impact and universality of a poet whose poems reflect life, reflect joy, and reflect respect.
Of course, not all poems are easily identified as having moral and morally-empowered undertones. In fact, the range of Detela’s work arrives in its most mysterious. Like Trakl (who Detela read and knew well), many of the poems take on an archetypal (or, even, allegorical) quality. Like broad strokes on the canvas, focus becomes revolving on individual beings, bursts of light and color, and the most general situations. Poem “7” in the book demonstrates this remarkably generalist method:
The sun drives
the transparent wings
of crystal animals
from the hearts of flowers
into trenches of
Some of the best moments in the book are when translator Raymond Miller leaves the interpretable poem as open as it can be. Miller’s research is masterful and yet it is balanced by the core of each poem. In this case, ambiguity has the chance to remain ambiguity. Other poems are treated with precision, Miller’s explanations doing well to add enough context to elevate the work without demeaning it. As in the case of “28,” where Miller explores the short poem’s history and relationship with neo-Orphism, which Detela embraced but ultimately, in the poem, chose to leave without explication and explanation. The resulting work has the capacity, then, to bring multiple forms of beauty to the surface with and without the work's full background:
Let the hungry voices
calling from shaggy throats
across the winter forests
to spits of green rise up
from the ground. [. . .]
Most of the poems in this apparently straightforward book are anything but straightforward. They represent many of the philosophical, moral, and literary journeys of a poet deeply affected by, involved with, and concerned about the clear postmodern schisms of psyches in and beyond Slovenia, Europe, and the West in the late 20th century. The depth and density of this latest edition of Moss & Silver are equally challenging and enjoyable.
As the poet's life was far beyond Moss & Silver, a goal to make additional work by Detela available in English has been established and serves to illuminate some of the explosive international future of the Slovenian avant garde. As the celebratory reverie and nostalgia of this poet and others persists in contemporary Slovenia, it will be exciting to watch the effects of international attention impact the local community of poetry and beyond. And yet, this book remains satisfying in its own right, as Detela's complexities remain satisfying, and offer much insight alone.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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