Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Tribute to Tomaž Šalamun—Issue 50, February 2015)

Michael Thomas Taren

Once Tomaž and I were having supper on a terrace in Marrakesh. A belly-dancer who missed a front tooth was performing. The band accompanying her performance consisted of a little guitar, a clarinet, and a sort of bongo drum. The bongo player was blind. We were eating chicken dinners, and the belly-dancer invited Tomaž for a dance, and so he danced, and ended up going home with an aching back.

In Morocco, I had been reading Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography The Magic Lantern, and when I finished I told Tomaž he should read it immediately, and he loved it so much he was laughing the whole time he was reading it. This was during a stretch of time when it was raining every day, and so we didn’t get out of our riad, and Tomaž read the book and laughed the whole day. I remember getting annoyed at him for laughing so much, because I thought I had enjoyed the book as much as you could enjoy the book, and then I bitterly realized you could enjoy the book way way more than I had done, and I got jealous of this limitless capacity for enjoyment which defined itself in Tomaž’s effortless peals of laughter.

I will always remember what a brown-noser Tomaž was when we stayed at the Baronessa Beatrice Von Rezzori’s country estate in Donnini, Tuscany . He would sit at her right hand at lunch and supper, speaking his best schoolboy’s Italian, listening raptly. I hardly spoke because most of the conversations were carried on in Italian. One day conversation veered into English and I briefly included myself in the proceedings. The next thing I knew, Tomaž and the Baronessa were sharing a moment of mild contempt after I had asked a sophomoric question about the Italian sculptor Marino Marini, famous for his bronze sculptures of horsemen with erect penises and oustretched arms. Tomaž later admonished me for standing in a too-casual posture (hands lodged in the breast pockets of a certain dark blue windbreaker I was wearing at the time) in the presence of the Baronessa.

We went into town one day, because the Baronessa loved a second-hand clothing store called The Ant, and in order to honor her predilection, Tomaž bought three quite mediocre dress shirts, and coaxed me into buying a grey beret that made me look like a pubescent newsie. He took a picture of me in this cap and, three years later, that’s the picture he asked me to send him before he died.

The first time we met in Venice together, we were strolling around Piazza San Marco, and Tomaž decided we should go to Caffé Lavena, the most expensive bar in Venice. We each had a cognac (a fine Rémy Martin) that cost 20 euros a glass and Tomaž said, “When I’m with you, I permit myself to live like a rich man.”

Tomaž loved Venice. He loved to eat at Trattoria Rivetta. This eatery was formerly a restaurant for gondoliers, and the waiters are really playful and showily Venetian in their horizontally striped black and white gondolier shirts. It’s the only restaurant we would ever go to in Venice. I would get the spaghetti alle vongolle. Tomaž, the risotto, if it was being served, and a plate of steamed navy beans.

Tomaž convinced himself that Michael Jackson was both my idol and role-model, and that there was a tragedy-laced imbrication of our existences. My life reminded him of Michael Jackson’s, and Michael Jackson’s life reminded him of me. It never mattered to him that I myself felt no connection to Michael Jackson. It was as if Tomaz, by pointing out that our existences were contingent upon one another, had unpaused a game that had been paused at the precise nexus of my birth with the construction of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

Tomaž felt very sad for Anna Nicole Smith when she died. He felt the love she had for her old, infected billionaire oilman husband was pure, even though in the minds of others it seemed apparent that she only married this magnate because he promised her that if she did he’d give her half his estate, some half a billion dollars worth of energy money. As is well known, Anna Nicole Smith was a former Guess model who later became fat and a drug-addict and kind of a clownish low-life whose life was an arc of scandal punctured by the sporadic emanations of typical entertainer behavior. Much of her thirties were spent embroiled in litigation over the estate of her late husband. Her son Daniel preceded her in death from apparent overdose of a drug cocktail taken inside her hospital room. Anna Nicole herself died shortly after of an accidental perscription drug overdose in Hollywood, Florida. All this I gathered from Wikipedia. I feel an ineffable calm pondering Tomaž’s sympathy for her.

In Paris we stayed at a former monastery called Les Récollets, and Tomaž told me that he got nervous whenever he got near to an open window, because he was afraid he would jump out. I never pondered enough this pathological goading.

We went to the Gaumont Champs-Elysées to watch Shutter Island. We were drinking Jameson Irish whiskey from the bottle and by the end of the film, I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I wept in the bathroom for fifteen minutes while Tomaž waited for me outside of the cinema. I found him as I always would when he was waiting for me to reemerge, standing doing nothing, gazing around. He made no mention of my delay. My friend Geoff Hilsabeck later told me that he himself had found the film tricky and dull.

Every time Tomaž and I went to a restaurant, he would order the risotto. He would always sprinkle a little parmesan cheese in the palm of his hand, before strewing it upon his food, even though he would never not use all of the palmfull, and he would usually, by the end of the meal, have fully emptied the little crystal parmesan carafe with the hinged metal lid on it. Why, if not to deliberately modify the quantiy, the intermediary of the hand, then, Tomaž?

In Belgium, Tomaž was editing my manuscript Motherhood(a sequel to my first book Puberty), and in his editorial capacity he crossed out most of it. I withered radically, spiraled downward into a hysterical state of despair when I saw the typescript mangled with Xs and lines. I ran away and I drank Trappist ales all night to drown my sorrows. The next morning he yelled at me for being so squalid. I’ve come to value this opprobrium.

Tomaž’s favorite beverage was Nescafé. Nescafé of course is a European brand of dehydrated coffee. It comes in lady-shaped glass jars containing potent granules of pure coffee essence. Tomaž drank Nescafé, one might say, religiously and in copious amounts throughout his days and even though Nescafé, so far as I know, could be found in every European and American grocery store I’ve ever been to, he would pack a jar in his suitcase whenever he travelled. Upon looking up “Nescafé” in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, I found no entry. I doubt it’s existence, even now.

We were at a restaurant in Belgium, and the waiter was setting down our cutlery. When he set down our steak knives he said, “Ce n’est pas pour vous entretuer.” Tomaž loved it.

We walked through Tivoli park one night, and we were both smoking cigarettes. He told me about the time, when he was thirty, and he had been for a while smoking three packs a day, and he challenged himself to stop smoking. By the end of the day the urge became so intolerable that he ended up smoking one entire pack of cigarettes all in a row. When I flicked my cigarette butt into the pine needle-laden forest interior he warned me about forest fires and I retrieved it.

We both preferred Francis Picabia to Yves Tanguy. He showed me Matisse and explained how a certain Russian oligarch owned all the best Matisses. He brought me to the Orangerie, and it was like being brought to the eighth sea.

The most important thing became our tradition of writing postcards to John Ashbery. Every time we got a little drunk, we whipped out a postcard and began it with, ‘Dear Sensei…’

My favorite thing we always did was to write postcard to people. After dinner, and after we had our wine, we would write postcards to all sorts of people, Mary Ruefle and Forrest Gander and Carolyn Forché, Gregor Podlogar and Kevin Holden and Lynn Emmanuel, Gregij Kocjančič, Monica Rinck and Peter Richards.

Tomaž really liked that I had a Mustang, a red Mustang, in Pittsburgh, when he was teaching there still and I was just a cook. We always talked about going to Mexico together one day. Tomaž had spent a year in Mexico, when he was almost forty, and he liked Mexico. He was there on a fellowship, and lived very frugally, having pinned above his stove the cooking instructions his wife Metka had left for him because his budget left him too poor to go to restaurants. He wrote Soy Realidad while there and after. The title of this book comes from one of the poems of his amigo Francisco Macías Romero.

The first thing I told my then brand new lover about Tomaž, as we walked up her spiral staircase in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, was that Tomaž gave birth to me, and she was very jealous and thought, “nobody ever gave birth to me.”

Once, in Dubrovnik, Tomaž got pickpocketed on our way to see a Xiu Xiu concert.

There was that time when Tomaž went to China with my friend and bandmate Gregij’s dad, Gorazd, and they were being given some kind of tour by the cultural ambassadors of China, they witnessed the Wall and then they went to a zoo or a forest to see panda bears, and when they saw the panda bears Tomaž recognized Gregij as being a human panda bear, and he asked Gorazd, “Don’t you think your son Gregij is a panda bear?’ And Gorazd replied, ‘ Yes, yes, I do think he is a panda bear.”