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Some Poems from The Doors of No Return

Book 1, Canto 1: The Figure, 4

The strongest bond is not with the living,
but with the dead. We are their heirs,
unserious, irresponsible, playful,

running barefoot on the dewy grass. Our ancestors,
speechless, forever broken, watch us mutely,
but we are alive, mortally alive and at fault…

Yes, more than the living, the dead are demanding.
They don’t speak, but we hear them nonetheless.
Their silence resonates audibly in our blood.

There is no other way for us but to heed them.
There is no bargaining, their demands
brook no evasions. However hard we may try,

they can never be satisfied. Though we may not think
of them for days, suddenly, one night they
come back and cast reflections of their loss

deep into our dreams. Staring at nothing
and sweating, we remember this guilt,
this debt that can never be repaid.

This is not just. We would like to direct
these living feet into living crowds,
forget the whistling bow of absence

and enjoy our modest happiness
alone somewhere or shared as a couple.
At the most beautiful moment, we hear

a humming silence. From beyond. A silence
that sings. And we know – deep inside us we know –
that this is just as it should be. It’s dark. Dark are

the poems waiting for us. Wherever we go …

 

 

book 1, Canto 45: History, 2

… I am traveling through History
and History is traveling through me.
The deeper I pierce its darkness,

the better I recognize a deaf world: I decipher
flocks of fog as faces and names
of persons and places and graves at the bottom

of Bosnia, Flanders, Slovenia: tribes
of the dead now personified as known
ancestors, a sudden sparkle of meaning

enlightens inherited stories, previously
dark … And, strange: when at the bottom, happy,
I meet my parents again, I am surprised

because the color of mother’s eyes
is brighter, and my father’s words sound darker
now … And since my soul is so hungry

for their closeness, I frequently return
to them – and every time they’re slightly different …
And now I understand: each visit of mine

changes them, each look of my eyes lends
new color to theirs, and each memorial elegy
that I give them as late presents,

changes, oh so slightly, the meaning of their words
spoken so many years ago, softening mother’s
voice and deepening father’s …

When I come back to the surface, to today,
I look in the mirror and realize, surprised,
that I myself am instantaneously changed …

 

 

Book 1, Canto 46: Story, 7

Memory is the Father of all stories, an ode
to the Beginning and the End, King of the road.
Memory is Past and Always and Now as one knot.

Memory is Time and the Voice of the Grail:
it sounds in us forever, a children’s fairy-tale.
Memory gives birth to All that is and is not.

Memory keeps coming back, an eternal ring.
A word shining in the darkness like a wing,
calming our tears and fears of present Hell …

Memory is the God turning the carousel …

 

 

Book 2, Canto 7: The Time of Discipline, 5

Ragology

To the end of her days our nonna waged
a furious and systematic war against dirt,
mud, and every sort of filth and muss.

To this purpose, she developed a precise strategy,
the science of rags, known to her family as ragology.
Here we precisely summarize it.

At any moment, she would have at her disposal
no less than seventeen different rags
that she would marshal into mortal combat

– as a division general his men in battle.
God forbid any unauthorized use
of these sacred weapons for the wrong purpose!

Whoever dared to go so far, received
the harshest punishment.
On this level, our nonna did not trust even her maid,

and followed her movements with a control freak’s gaze.
Consequently she preferred to deploy her army of rags herself
using her own brain and feet and hands.

Let me now enumerate these sacred types of rags and cloths
faithfully following the scientific terminology
of nonna’s ragology:

1) the “rough” one for the staircase to the front door;
2) the “fine” one for the marble floor at the entrée;
3) the “soft” one for waxing old parquet;

4) the “dirty” one made from pieces of old clothes for the copper tiles beneath the hearth;
5) the “big” absorbent one for the stone floor on the terrace;
6) the “little” absorbent one for the stone floor in the kitchen and the bathroom;

7) the “old” but always clean one for the pots and pans;
8) the “new” and always clean one for the porcelain service;
9) the “sensitive” one for the wine goblets;

10) the “quick” one for the knives;
11) the “crooked” one for the forks;
12) the “pedantic” one for the spoons;

13) the “glaze” one for the silver;
14) the “beautiful” one for the mirror;
15) the “hot” one for ironing;

16) the “male” one for her husband’s military boots; and
17) the “chic” one for her own high-heeled red shoes
which represented the only extravagance in her life.

Nonna’s explanations
for these serious and crucial ragological distinctions
were passionately detailed and deeply deliberated:

– knives being so smooth and generally
not put in the mouth, need no more
than a simple treatment with the “quick” rag;

– small pieces of food that tend to get wedged
between the fork tines
call for careful treatment with the “crooked” rag;

– spoons which we madly like to lick
and which endlessly attract
an innumerable number of bacteria and viruses,

require serious and radical hygienic measures
that can only be guaranteed
by the “pedantic” rag.

But all this detailed, expert lore of rags,
all seventeen fanatical divisions and anti-dust brigades,
marching day and night into pitched battle

against the dangerous squalor of the world,
that were regularly deployed, maintained, restored,
all this bourgeois order

that represented goals and meaning in her life,
could not help,
could not keep,

our nonna’s,
our dear nonna’s,
our dear nonna’s life from falling all apart,
 from shattering to pieces,
 beyond repair and cast

out with the dust and ashes.

 

 

Book 3, Canto 1: Boarding, 1

This canto gets longer and longer, and I’m limping more and more:
whispering these verses. I don’t know if I could ever reach the end,
the last full stop. A trace of ellipses in the snow of this paper

shall mark the direction in which I’m freighting these silent
images of all inherited times and stories so that I can
plant them at the North Pole, the magnetic needle trembling, the covers

(front and back) of this Third Book of my Madness. Hoarsely I invoke
the shadows of my dearest souls so that Time will not destroy them.
While I breathe the air of the dead, I eat the menu of the living:

 bread, books and beauty …

 

 

Book 3, Canto 84: Souls of Elder Poetic Brothers, 2

Dane Zajc is a poet whom I served.
Served as the Greater. Darker. Quieter one.
For years I kept speaking for the poet

who never spoke for himself. His handsome
eyes concealed a painful moment
that smoldered, full of childhood fear.

Horror’s primordial stage, home of all returns,
ashes of a burned-down house. He could never bring
himself to evoke the family house, incinerated, he had

no words for the birth of his own death.
He started having doubts
about sacrifices after seeing his mother cry

over the dead body of his brother, a tangible
monster of absence, a bloody ritual leaving underneath
only hungry, white, young teeth …

Nobody expressed the broken foundations
so deeply and so finally as Dane. Nobody
knew better that each breath was kin to death.

Nobody was able to open wounds so thoroughly.
Nobody did it so silently … When he was young
he dug out a hollow, which he filled with leaves, in the forest,

where he could day-dream and away-dream: he observed
the mysterious passage of clouds from his shelter
which merged both cradle and coffin,

the native and terminal cry and silence, the first prophecy,
the future poem. Greater and greater. Darker. Quieter …
Only for children was he a poet of flowers, of light

and paper planes and mouse-like wondering
about the greatness and beauty of the world:
those were the poems of the same child before coming

home to the loneliness of the burnt-out ruins
where he met the second loneliness
and the first loneliness said to the second loneliness

come into my lonely home, loneliness …
Yes, I served Dane, a lonely poet.
I served the Greater. Weaker. Quieter.

Our relationship was a constant dialog.
I was a personified word, and Dane silence.
He smiled sadly when I discovered a starry arc

in the dark laughter of his magic incantations.
Gratefully? Politely? Skeptically? … In the wild bellows
of Janez Škof’s accordion he found the magic circle

of his ancient, burnt-out world, his consolation
for the familiar horror … We performed together for the last time
in 2005, in the charming Provencal town of Cahors.

As always he prepared for the reading with great attention,
not bothered in the least by the noise of children outside
the Théâtre Municipal. As always I explained Dane’s poems

for three hours – “the voice of despair against the violence
of the war and cynical dictatorship« – while Dane,
Great and Dark and Quiet, stayed inside preparing …

For what? Now I know: for the silence of the last hour, already counted.
When Dane and Janez stepped onto that final stage, Dane’s voice,
sharp, hoarse and bloody present, filled time and space …

Wiser for his death I still read Dane’s poems feeling their enormous power,
and hear his voice, and explain to students Dane’s understanding
of words and silence, pretending that the explanation can teach them

poetry … Returning to the source of losses, six years later,
Mo and I made pilgrimage to Cahors. When sitting at the Théâtre Municipal,
I showed her Dane: he was a child jumping in a puddle, a choir

of swallows that pierced the air, light echoing off the earth …
As promised, one day I’ll go to the grave of Dane Zajc
in the village of Zgornja Javorščica by Moravče … The portal

of the sky above the village graveyard will be exultant and high.
At the edge of the forest I’ll find a hollow, a bed made
of crushed leaves. And I’ll know: not the grave –

this hollow, full of leaves, is the cradle where the soul of Dane Zajc
persists. Great, Bright and Quiet, staring upward
at the clouds
 silently slipping across the sky,
 a wide and open wound …

 

 

Book 3, Canto 88: Ars Poetica, 1

I have a double. While I parade around, nose
in the air, my epic tour de force,
he stays at home and works like a horse …
 My faithful slave, the secret face nobody knows.

I’ve chained him to the cold radiator
and poured some water in a bowl
(so he won’t die of thirst). I owe
 my light of freedom to him, my gladiator.

He eats little, grateful for a gruff hello, a crust of bread.
He sleeps less, scarcely an hour or two per night, think undead.
When I flag, he gets things finished in my stead.

He’s the one who writes; I just append my signature.
Now he’s blushing, embarrassed. My intimate stranger,
my double. I’d like to get to know him a bit better.

 

 

Book 3, Canto 88: Ars Poetica, 4

 Don’t be impatient. Get used to waiting.
What is a verse? An effulgence of meaning
at the tip of a moment, at the tip of its sound.
A glowing sound wrapped in silence. Practice

listening: it’s from silence that a verse rises
before sinking back down. That rhythm conveying
the blood as it courses, breaths in and out.
 An echo of an unspeakable touch.

The basic question is: how to endure
silence? How to survive the times
with no poem and not lose one’s mind? The eye

stares in vain at blank paper. Will the voice rescue you?
Risk it and wait. The poem takes its time in creating.
The art of poetry is the gift of waiting.