On the day after Christmas, I drove up from my parents’ house in California to Death Valley National Park. It took about five hours. I was camping in my little trailer alone, with my dog Bella, and I started to set up camp, prepare my dinner, get a fire going. I was at the Texas Spring campground and it’s basically like walking around on a deserted, tope moon.
It had been a hard holiday with my folks. (I’ll spare you the details; they’re tedious, I promise.) But that night in Death Valley was bitter too. It didn’t drop below freezing, but the wind had actually been howling and moaning. When it has no trees to cut through—as in the Mojave Desert—the gusts make animal sounds, and they did so all night long.
I have no heat in my little trailer, so my dog and I were smothered together under all the blankets I’d thought to bring. I got into bed fully dressed, save my shoes, and still in my hat and a yellow and green cowl that my friend Lily Hoang recently knitted up for me and sent from her teaching gig in Iowa. I thought I was not going to die, but at least it’d be in an appropriate place if I happened to. And at least it would be with my dog. It’s funny. You think of death quite a bit in the hard darkness when winds are slashing loud, and dusk’s an eon from daybreak.
When I woke it was a little after 6am, still plain dark, and I found this message from my friend Brandon Shimoda:
Tomaž is dead. December 27, 2014.
Brandon and Dot Devota and I had all been flirting with the idea—albeit tipsily around a diminishing fire in my backyard some weeks previous in Tucson—of flying right to Ljubljana earlier in the month, when we’d found out that Tomaž Šalamun, one of the finest poets in the world, was getting ready to die.
But after our drunken night of oaths to buy tickets to Slovenia at any cost, I decided I would write Tomaž himself, to ask if we could come. I considered him a friend in poetry, though we’d only met once. He’d contributed to a number of my projects I’m always roping writers I admire into, and he even gave me a new poem during the first months of The Volta. But because I’d only met the man once in person—at an AWP in Chicago no less, at one of those overlong group readings—I didn’t know him well enough to show up at his death bed, you know, unannounced. But we’d wanted to thank him or say goodbye, or both maybe. In person.
Ten or eleven years ago, my friend Paul Fattaruso first introduced me to Šalamun’s poems. The first two books I’d purchased from Ugly Duckling Presse as a grad student a thousand years ago were Tomaž’s Poker and Jen Bervin’s Nets, which everybody also seemed to be carrying around at that time.
When Christina Mengert and I were assembling an anthology of poems and conversations, we invited younger-ish poets to select a mentor of theirs—or even just a poet they’d admired—to have a conversation with. The conversations appear between little suites of poems by both writers in the book. It came off nicely, and that was partly because Christian Hawkey picked Tomaž Šalamun, who was himself excited and flattered to participate I think. And I remember being giddy at the thought of what they might share, what we might overhear. More on which below.
Noah Eli Gordon moved to Denver shortly thereafter. He was coming from Western Mass, where he’d studied with Tomaž and met with him to talk about poetry. He too was an unyielding acolyte of this exuberant Slovenian poet. And it was another thing that clicked into place for our friendship. Another touchstone, another fleet of poems to read aloud. We weren’t on Facebook. Those lines of his (and Stevens and Guest and Hopkins) were our memes, I guess. I still say, “I’m from tonight” (yeah, that’s his too) over and over again, when I’m riding my bike to work, sometimes. I love that one.
Noah actually does a great impersonation of Šalamun reading, and you might think even mentioning this is unsuitable in a memorial for the great poet. But that wouldn’t be Tomaž. I trust he would’ve laughed and just countered with an imitation of Noah. Who knows. I was just jealous that Noah actually knew this fevered, mystical, ecstatic writer.
Anyways, here is what Šalamun says to Hawkey at their conversation’s close:
…while writing I feel as if I’m at the edge of an abyss, but the abyss isn’t something I’m able to fall into, it’s more like a space (fog) (catatonic attack) (and at the same time, a lucid sleepiness) which numbs everything except the path, a path composed of lines, which again is not a path but more like a delta-time where everything can be thrown in my face, all my life, instantly. And in the center of it is the end of a thread, running itself out of the labyrinth, turning me around (I’m the spool of this thread or wool wrapped around nothing). I feel healed by and in the process. I’m breathing. I’m experiencing insane joy. I lose fat. But I also feel like a criminal. At the very beginning of poetry was a stepping out, a falling out, a jump into otherness with no purpose, with no moral reason, with no ethical balance or ground, with no sense, and yes, with all this, the hope of heaven. Maybe the closest analogy to this is when a beloved child throws himself or herself on the ground and screams: If you won’t love me even more, I want to die. “Poezija je zato, ker clovek ni bog in to je, kar clovek najteze prensese.” I feel like gambling for the highest stakes, for immortality, yes, and of course I don’t give a damn for life here or there, if I am or if I’m not, if I was or wasn’t. I want to burn myself to the utmost humility. I don’t want to read this turning of the spool. Tomaž
When I wrote to Tomaž last month to ask his permission for our visit, I tried to convey something of the insanely joyous spell his poems cast over me. I told him that the three of us—Brandon, Dot, and me—would be reading his work aloud out of every book of his that we could find copies of that night in Tucson. I found the first I’d gotten—my old copy of Poker (the one with the red cover)—and the most recent, too: Soy Realidad, which I’d picked up just last month when Amy Lawless played hooky from work and took me to McNally Jackson on a freezing day in New York.
Three days ago, on December 27th, the day that Tomaž Šalamun died, I drove out to Salt Creek, up to Scotty’s Castle, stopping here and there to look at the strange earth and the walk out to lowest spot of the continent, two-hundred something feet below sea level. Little coyotes wandered up to my truck on the road, because people have been tossing them snacks, I suppose. Death Valley, what is it? The guide books say it’s the largest national park south of Alaska, but it’s just an enormous ancient lake bed apparently. I hope somebody brought Tomaž Šalamun to this place.
Service was patchy at best. But by late morning Noah was texting me (his first one read only: “Tomaz!”) and then Jane Lewty sent me this fragment of Tomaž’s from her home in Amsterdam: “I demand unconditional love and freedom. That is why I am terrible.”
I suppose the fact that I’ve name dropped all my friends in this tribute to Tomaž is indicative of the fact that he was a poet who touched a lot of people, probably all over the world. (And of the fact that I miss my friends, no doubt, too.) Tomaž Šalamun’s poem got into me, yeah, but god. They’ve probably felled thousands of others over the decades? And all those translators? (While I’m at it: thank you, translators. My Slovenian is not good.)
Tomaž worked us over with that “insane joy”—Poets of different stripes and ilks and poetries and languages and countries. That’s my kind of poet. Fuck the schools. Write poems. Poems that impassionate you—as Šalamun himself liked to say. I think he got it from Shakespeare. Imagine.
The last message we got from Tomaž arrived on December 7, 2014 and said only:
Dear Brandon and Josh (dictated to Metka),
I love the desert and fires in the desert and I’m happy that my eyes were present there.
Please don’t come to visit me, you may be too late.
My love to all of you,
By noon, I pulled into the big visitor center at Furnace Creek. Mathias Svalina had been sending me lines and full poems by Tomaž all morning, when I looked at my phone to find this little excerpt. And it got me. A tear came up. I tried to let it fall, but it stalled there, aware of my awareness, and it hung back behind my eyeball some place. Then I laughed and read these lines aloud to my dog asleep in the back seat:
I didn’t think
in my fate.
—JMW, Tucson, AZ. December 30, 2014