Recently, I read an article by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called ‘On Poetry.’ In it, he talks about his father, a poet who was forbidden to write. “He was a true poet, viewing all subjects through an innocent and honest lens.” Honest, I understand, honesty is a necessity in poetry (although even now, a voice in the back of my head says is it? Is it really? I do so hate absolutes), or at least it is in mine, but innocence? I don’t know. I baulk at that word. We are none of us innocent, and there is something here in his words which speaks of a dated idealism, the kind I come across too often in people who think only of Shakespeare when you mention poetry, who think of their high school English class and their own shitty rhymes composed in the midst of teenage angst.
Just because your lens is not innocent, because you are a fallible and broken and dirty man or woman, does not mean you cannot perceive the world with the same piercing clarity, with the purity implied in the word ‘innocent’. Even filthy hands can be plunged into the sweetest waterfall, yes? You do not need to conflate the two. I guess I’m speaking about this now because poetry is work to me, it’s a hard thing, a means of arriving at truths which are not easy or soft or even common – it requires enormous and unflinching effort to see what needs to be seen, and to then commit it to mind or paper or screen. Weiwei comes closer to this in his article when he speaks about his father being made to clean toilets: “And yet, as a child I saw him making the greatest effort to keep each toilet as clean and as pleasant as possible, taking care of the waste with complete sincerity. To me, this is the best poetic act.”
Now, to Tomaž Šalamun’s poem, ‘Alone‘ (there is a link between these two things, never fear). It begins:
One finger is the tundra,one finger is the Bodhisattva,one finger is mother Slovenia.Two fingers still remain, beckoningand with awful force feeding meseventeen hands with this arrangement.Alone,I’m alone on the roof of the world and drawingso stars are created.
There is some similarity here to the last poem I talked about, ‘Maelstrom: One Drop Makes The Whole World Kin’, in that both poems see the world in everything, the interconnectedness of this thing we call life. Šalamun takes that concept to its extreme, seeing everything in himself, in each finger and nail and hair and act, there is God and the universe. There is a grandeur to this poem which speaks to the natural arrogance of poets, to assume they are in everything and everything is in them, and I get the sense that Šalamun is very much skewering that even as he embodies it at the same time. There is a danger in that assumption, this being a translated poem, there could be something in the language of the original or the context which I am missing, but that is my reading of it.
Alone,alone.Glug glug glug I drink gulps of lightand I brush.So I shower and put myself back, alone.I alone am the center of the world’s light, the Lord’s lamb.I alone am all animals: a tiger, an ant, a deer,
I love, as well, the repetition of the word ‘alone’, especially when it’s juxtaposed against this concept of all-inclusivity. ‘I alone’ he begins his lines later, ‘I alone am all the people’, a contradiction suggestive of a narcissism so sweeping in nature it encompasses nature and everyone, and in so doing moves beyond that concept entirely. If we all saw ourselves as intimately entwined in everything as the narrator does in this poem, we would take better care of each other and the planet we live in.
That, of course, is looking at the poem with a sincerity that is perhaps not there, but is hoped for – the centrality and emphasis of ‘alone’ suggests such completeness is impossible, that you can never move beyond the ‘I’ into ‘all’. It remains a hope, a grand act of want, a ludicrous and whimsical desire, the kind that suffuses creative types especially into sweeping declarations of Godhood, of universality. Even as he indulges in its language, the way a satirist can take on the form of his target, Šalamun also crushes it emphatically with his last line. Then again, who is to say that there is not a universe in that one word, in alone?
The reason I mention this poem alongside Ai Weiwei’s commentary is because I think it makes a perfect rejoinder to that whimsy I spoke of earlier. There is a hardness to the relentless repetition of alone, even as it is centred in such gorgeous language, in unique imagery and a vernacular that ranges from colloquial to formal. “Glug glug glug I drink gulps of light” is my favourite line, and a good example of that. These pieces each have something to say, each have something to offer, and neither perfectly repudiates or compliments the other. To Šalamun’s loneliness, however, I will offer Weiwei’s last words:
To experience poetry is to see over and above reality. It is to discover that which is beyond the physical, to experience another life and another level of feeling. It is to wonder about the world, to understand the nature of people and, most importantly, to be shared with another, old or young, known or unknown.
You can never truly be alone with poetry.