This selected edition of Srečko Kosovel's poems, translated from the Slovene by Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Siegel Carlson, is a welcome addition to the developing canon of Slovenian poetry, but more so, it's an obvious labor of love by both translators as well as publisher. The book is perfect-bound in a simple but eye-catching jacket from Ugly Duckling, with interior text provided in the poet's native language as well as English on facing pages. Additionally, there are poems reprinted in Kosovel's own handwriting, in part to offer a graphological glimpse into the author's character, but also to promote documenting him as a pioneering yet playful manipulator of language.
Richard Jackson puts it well, in his enlightening introduction, noting the “eccentric typography and graphic word placement, mathematical symbols and equations, jarring juxtapositions, non sequiturs and montage” that Kosovel utilized, especially in his “unsayable” Constructivist poems. Yet these more outrightly experimental undertakings comprise only a portion of an immense body of work, most of which did not find publication until well after Kosovel's death from meningitis in 1926, at the age of 22. At that time around 40 poems had been published, but estimates indicate that he had written almost one hundred times that, or as many as 4,000 in a relatively short period of time.
Because Kosovel did not date his work it's difficult to find a demarcated path leading from one poetic procedure to another, but that seems to have been his intention. He appears to have been a restless and catholic writer, embracing the various isms of his day – impressionism, symbolism, expressionism, futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism – with all-encompassing gusto. Yet the effect of openly welcoming such far-ranging interests doesn't make for writing that is anachronistic, or cluttered or verbose, but rather lean and lilting, as exemplified in the short poem, “August,” where Kosovel also displays a penchant for alliteration and repetition:
I love the quiet August rain
that cools the forests and fields,
the gray sky, the fresh wind
that comes to the heart's quiet.
Quietly it comes to the carefree heart,
which is quietly open to sadness.
No longer crushed or glum,
grief giving way to joy.
Now all is fulfilled, the gray
clouds fragrant and melancholy.
In the rain and in the field
the dark wet poplars rocking.
One could call the sentiment here naïve – a post-adolescent fixation on emotional extremes of grief and joy, and the calming, cool rain and “fresh wind” mere idealized sensory images carried over from Kosovel's provincial upbringing. Yet the innate obscurity of the third stanza is quite compelling: what is the “all” of which he speaks – “the gray / clouds fragrant and melancholy”? But how can clouds be fragrant? And is that fulfillment somehow related to the swaying of the “dark wet poplars rocking”? Such questions are ultimately inessential; in a few economical verses “August” builds to a beautifully enigmatic denouement.
“Street Lamp” embodies a similarly straightforward mysteriousness, concluding:
Be a lamp
if you can't be human,
for being human is difficult.
A human has just two hands
but he should help thousands.
So be a lamp by the roadside
shining on a thousand happy faces,
shining for the lonely, the aimless.
Be a lamp with a single light,
man in a magic square
signaling with a green arm.
Be a lamp, a lamp,
Once finished, there is no driving need to dissect this poem's logic; Kosovel posits his imperatives and runs with them, each line depending on the previous and developing forthwith. What's interesting is the juxtaposition of “happy faces” with “the lonely, the aimless,” and again how the poem ends with a formidable image – the “man in a magic square / signaling with a green arm,” and the incantatory repetition, “Be a lamp, a lamp, / a lamp.”
Look Back, Look Ahead is a fitting title for this collection. Kosovel was as much of his place and time as he was prescient of upcoming stylistic paradigm shifts. Oftentimes a writer's work will be more successful in a particular idiom, and we can appreciate his or her meandering more as a laudable character trait than as a facilitator of broadly first-rate writing, but at least here the examples of his work show Kosovel to be skilled in a variety of poetic guises. While he seems to have favored shorter verse, his prose poems are every bit as lyrically interesting as his terser pieces, and the longest poem here, “Tragedy on the Ocean,” maintains thematic unity and concentric tension throughout nine sections. If this is a reasoned sampling of Kosovel's oeuvre, Jelnikar and Carlson are to be commended for making such astute choices, since most everything here not only works well taken together but leaves the reader with an eager sense that there's much more yet untranslated to experience and enjoy.