The Book of Things
Literary critic Edmund Wilson, writing in the 1930s, said that the pieces of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons were intended to be “prose still-lifes to correspond to those of such painters as Picasso and Braque. A pattern of assorted words, though they might make nonsense from the traditional point of view, would be analogous to a Cubist canvas composed of unidentifiable fragments.” The first two sections of that book are entitled “Objects” and “Food,” and those are the main subjects of Slovenian poet Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things (with a few animals thrown in as well). The collection, which consists of 50 poems—a poem followed by seven sections of seven “things,” from raisins and bread to tapeworms and windshield wipers—is the poet’s fourth and the first to appear in English translation. While Stein sought to portray her things by breaking them down into tiny linguistic pieces and collaging those bits back together, Šteger’s cubism is in the addition of angles: like in Toy Story, objects are given literal lives of their own that are here drawn out; the things we so often overlook become the repositories of our own human fears and dreams. The effect is often disarming and although the individual success of each poem is inconsistent, there is enough beauty and surprise in these lines for Šteger’s stature as one of Slovenia’s best young poets to be amply justified.
So, as expected, the things described in this book are defamiliarized and here, often, Šteger is at his best. The way he personifies an object, or the metaphor he uses, is never obvious, but it always makes complete sense. That when you open an umbrella “he unbuttons his too-tight tuxedo” is an image that could very well become engrained my experience of walking in the rain. The description of a cat as a “castrated transvestite in fur” also belies a strain of humor, or at least a taste for the uncanny. The effect of such language, however, can at times be discomfiting. In “Sausage” we are asked “Is your stomach rumbling again? Come, put it in your mouth. / Between the anus and the mouth the appetite of a body for a body.” Though destined to be a lifelong carnivore, the reminder that a sausage is a body in the same way that I am a body is sobering.
Yet this aspect, this theme of Šteger’s poetry is actually not quite as prevalent as one could expect. It’s hard to generalize about the poems because each thing is treated differently and what they may lack in cohesion as a whole is made up in variety (and of course, how can you treat Salmon and Shit the same?). But there are unifying themes: loss, escape from yourself, confusion perhaps, though I may just be projecting . . . For poems ostensibly about things there is certainly a lot of human in here. Consider this, entitled “Grater”:
You remember how your mother, Jocasta,
Returned from the pigsty with a gaping palm.
Inside the madness of pain a window opened.
She stepped out and stepped out of her body.
You remember how your startled father was changing a bandage,
How, mid-escape, the edges of the bandage turned red.
This time the grater’s whisper is yours. The world is being whittled away.
The apple wedge is getting smaller, but who is there for whom?
Are you merely an instrument of the apple in your palm?
Silently it grates you, a ripe Buddhist, idared samsara.
When it vanishes you, you open your eyes, like your mother
That time, on the other side of the wound.
This is, certainly, poetry—an oblique allusion, two words in a row I don’t know (“idared samsara”), a little melodrama (the madness of pain), perhaps even (though we’ll give Šteger the benefit of the doubt) a reference to the Buddhist Beats—but it is beautiful and it has power. The feeling is of a view into a private world that is not our own, a view mediated by things, here a bandage, a grater, an apple. There is something behind them: memories that are not ours and that we cannot understand, so it is a testament to Šteger’s writing (and Brian Henry’s constantly lucid translation) that we feel them. And what is important beyond that is this idea: that objects might not just be there for us or, perhaps less crazy, that they grow past functionality to become the talismans of our lives, that they are imbued with our personal histories. We create the private lives of objects, but, as Šteger writes in the poem “Ant,” they are “the invisible moving through the visible world.” The poem ends thusly: “And there aren’t names for what it is. / When it disappears into its maze, only hope remains / That at least there are names for what it isn’t.” Stein showed in Tender Buttons that the names of things cannot contain them by proving to us that language is not tantamount to the world is ostensibly describes. Šteger shows that the names of things cannot contain them because they merely denote a function rather than connoting anything richer. The epigraph to these poems is “A word does not exist for every thing.” No, but a poem does, and we all write them every day.