from Smugglers

Aleš Debeljak

Anchor

Congress Square, Ljubljana

To wake up, but not quite yet, I would just hang on the edge,
holding onto the sail and taking the captain at his word,
I would faithfully roll and stretch the ropes, as I had been taught,
a shadow which refuses to separate the man, a world in balance.

What a mistake. If you have ever stared at a wall for a long time,
and searched in vain, though without haste, the traces of merchant
voyages among smears of islands and, for now, adequate wind,
if you have asked the reflection in the mirror why you imitate

the assistant, though without pleasure, because you know you are not
                         a worthy
apprentice, if you have ever cursed into your fist because you tremble
                         before the law,
always a little guilty, and if you have strongly bitten your fingers, joined
                         together
in prayer for the missing, if blood has run: we have a serious case.

What a mistake. To wake up, but not quite yet, you must gather
all your courage, shiver with anxiety and be almost mad, the fall
will be deep, if your hands fail you, especially if you have no guardian.
I would not wake up, not at all: I would rather float like a judgment
                         postponed.





The Balkan Bridge

for Igor Štiks

Others make their star maps, we gaze down,
into the trusting water, and whisper long about fragrant grains
and hiding places, about bad and less bad times, dizzily
it hits you, like a pregnant woman who miscarries if she surrenders

too much to mirages. They multiply with the sand on the shore
of every city, where a vague promise pulls you,
material for a novel, gloomy housekeeper, a light under the door.
I have no clue who in the neighborhood of yesterday's fashionable figures,

who are your company out of need and curiosity, who really knows
that there is a coin in every coincidence, who sits with you
and who sees what you see: foam around the mouth, which attends
failed students in their sleep, rutted streets, the square of nameless

hostages. Sorrowful mares neigh and commit suicide.
You see new skin and a new continent, you see a page in a book
you will write, you see puddles on the sidewalks of Chicago
and Paris, you see signs of solitude and many readers.





Statue of Anti-Fascist Activist

Štefanova Street, Ljubljana

This unhappy town, where defeats are repeated,
clashes of armed forces are without human dimensions,
printing houses operate in a forbidden language,
books are read among tree trunks and ruins, prisons,

producing on the assembly line cadres suitable
for limited night actions. The invisible battalion shows
the way to the valley of peace, crime and revenge: a big
difference. The hotels are full of officers and local women,

who know how to quench the desire for latitudes of lost land
and longitudes of forgiveness, hidden sins are public virtues
and all conversations are recorded, microphones are in the wall,
the pain of insurgents and the names of rare birds are important.

A falcon's eye glitters, eagles' beaks are sharpened,
feathers fly above rooftops and the spectators below are already
sweaty. Piercing shrieks and quick blows, bleeding flesh
and the dark sheen of freedom: see you in the next war.





The Woman Who Isn't There

homage to Ivo Andrić

I am sorry you didn't stay longer, a tip glows in the dark.
The others I know by sight also drop by,
written off, not forgotten memories sputtering in the stove,
I swear, the fire burned in the small metal stove, which longs

to be fed, coal and logs doze in the cellar, mandatory exercise
was not in line with our rest, as we conceived it,
although I don't feel horror before the flickering,
rather something resembling change, from day to day,

I swear, it was a long break for brotherhood and unity,
and first of May bonfire, who are you and whose are you,
for your words sound sincere when they are least true,
the shapes of orange explosions would deserve the attention

that every developed nation devotes to its sages,
new styles of reading and promises broken like jumps
over flames, you inhale smoke and exhale darkness, a week
of intimate conversation: I am sorry you didn't stay longer.


translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry



Read the original in Slovenian

Read translator’s note

Aleš Debeljak has published eight books of poetry and twelve books of essays in Slovenian. His books have appeared in English, Japanese, German, Croatian, Serbian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Spanish, Slovak, Finnish, Lithuanian, and Italian translation. Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems appeared from Persea Books in 2010. He has won the Preseren Foundation Prize (Slovenian National Book Award), the Miriam Lindberg Israel Poetry for Peace Prize, the Chiqyu Poetry Prize in Japan, and the Jenko Prize. Debeljak teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

Brian Henry is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently Brother No One (Salt Publishing, 2013). His translation of the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun's Woods and Chalices appeared from Harcourt in 2008, and his translation of Aleš Šteger's The Book of Things appeared from BOA Editions in 2010 and won the 2011 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry. He has received numerous awards for his work, including fellowships from the NEA, the Howard Foundation, and the Slovenian Academy of Arts and Sciences.


The poems in Aleš Debeljak's Smugglers move through rapid historical shifts and meditations on personal experience, exploring the depths and limits of comprehension through the people and geography of the Balkans. Ultimately, Debeljak's urban imagination creates a mosaic—intimate and historical—of a vanished people and their country.

Every poem in Smugglers is 16 lines long—four quatrains, a common form for Debeljak. This structural regularity is reinforced by a commitment to visual balance, with each poem working as a kind of grid into which the poet pours memories and associative riffs. The challenge for the translator is to maintain that balance without jettisoning the logic and music of his lines and stanzas.