Saturday, May 02, 2009

Review: Banalities by Brane Mozetic

Brane Mozetic; translated by Elizabeta Zargi and Timothy Liu

Published by A Midsummer Night’s Press

Reviewed by Jonathan Statham

Brane Mozetic’s Banalities is a compact volume comprising fifty untitled poems spoken by what I take to be a single voice; in this sense, we might think of it as a poetic monologue in fifty parts. (Number 36 was published in issue 7 of Chroma and might therefore be familiar to readers of this review.)

Mozetic is a well-established Slovenian poet who writes both in English and Slovenian – this particular volume is translated by Elizabeta Zargi and Timothy Liu (who aside from their names beneath the author’s leave little trace of their presence so we do not know by what principles they have translated this work; as such, my review, though it will refer to Mozetic should be understood as referring only to this translation). In the work, Mozetic takes on what is perhaps the most pervasive characteristic of life today, in Slovenia as elsewhere (‘whether on Christopher street / or Metelkova’ [#35]): namely, its banality. We all sense, I think, that boredom, apathy and banality have spread themselves across life like oil coating a bird’s feathers. The speaker in Banalities is obsessed with it: trapped almost inside his own self-reflection (the opposite of Narcissus falling in love, the speaker is terrified): ‘I / sit here in front of my own life realizing / how banal it is’ [#6]. The speaker is drawn to thoughts of sex, suicide, poetry and murder, his mind drifting on a tide of banality tinged with horror (‘The worst is the stomach tightening, shortness / of breath, trembling hands’ [#7]).

But make no mistake: this is not a man’s quest for meaning. Mozetic rather attempts something intentionally less dramatic but perhaps therefore bolder in the age of the superhero – the heroic gesture of the quest would be too easy a fiction here (‘I had / already spent half my life trying to / stay alive to perhaps discover the mystery of life! Now I’ve wandered off / among the young so that I would forget those / fruitless efforts’ [#5]); instead, we have a near-aimless movement from one pleasure to the next (as from one numbered poem to the next), the space between being filled with the eponymous silent banalities where it is the very search for meaning that has exhausted meaning, worn it down to the bare nerve and nervousness of the need for pleasure to shore up against ‘a world / in which I’m staggering’ [#20]. The narrative, insofar as there is one, has the narrator drift from one encounter (with the world, with other people, in the streets, in an aeroplane, in gay bars) to the next only in hope of drawing another moment of pleasure from the dullness (‘the banal / things that become fun / and put me in a good mood’ [#6]) and always finding it temporary and dissatisfying: ‘my life is nothing but strung-out dreams of escape’ [#42]. As a poem about distinctly gay experiences, this is resolutely the poem of an anti-revolutionary sexuality – sex might ‘find that / spot where the universe opens up’ [#9] but it is a universe in which there are only ‘fictional stars / in a long extinguished sky which as though weeping / for some ultimate phenomenal shooting star that / no one survives’ [#47].

Of course, the voice of the speaker is no less affected by banality than his experience. Mozetic couches the majority of the poem in a vernacular mode of direct speech (not to the reader but, most often, to absent or otherwise unresponsive figures in the speaker’s life or to himself). This, however, induces a paradox in the poem because the speaker, in affirming his own banality as the subject of his discourse, must also deny the poetic character of his voice: ‘this is definitely not poetry’ [#13]. Herein lies the core of the double bind that traps the speaker into a life of banality: in a world stripped of what Ezra Pound called the ‘luminous details’ and refilled with the monotony of the uniform, all reflection on the current actuality of life or the world is banal (this, in fact, was the crux of my previous review), including a reflection on banality. But, honestly, I cannot tell you if this work is itself banal. Maybe that does not sound like much to recommend it but it is possible that this very uncertainty is the poem’s mystery, certainly it is the source of the nebulous terror which haunts the speaker throughout his banality.

The poem ends on a note of hopelessness in the face of an awareness of ‘a horrible silence / and an even more horrible darkness’ [#50]. Yet, in fact, there is something that is not silent: the poem, the poem-that-is-not-a-poem: it speaks. It is possible that the poem disappears into its own void, swallowed up in the hollow space it vacates in the act of self-denial, fatally rendered into the object of its own critique, just like the pleasures sought out by the speaker. It is also possible that the poem somehow survives its own desolation – but I do not know, I cannot decide. Maybe it survives in this very indecisiveness, the tremor of what cannot be identified but which disturbs our banality and is the source of our poetry.

Can you hear it, Dave, that noise outside. Maybe
it’s a burglar. Or a bomb. Come on, wake up,
Dave, maybe another war has broken out and we’ll have
to go into the basement again. You know nothing about this.
[…] Wake up, Dave, so I won’t be alone when
the end of the world comes. […]
Another noise. I think there won’t be
a war. Perhaps it’s only our world crashing down
in pieces in the middle of the night when decent people
are asleep, like you, Dave, and I eavesdrop on noises
and am afraid. [#30]

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.



At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every review is just another interpretation. However every poetry is coming from somewhere and my feeling is Statham does not recognise this in his writing; Brane Mozetic's poetry in Banalities is marked by the war in the Balkans in the late nineties, and the horrors which are timeless and universal. And to put the record straight: Mozetic does not write in English. Banalities were published in Slovenia in 2003 and the reviewer's "lapsus" is therefore a great compliment to Elizabeta Zargi and Timothy Liu for excellent translation. Milan Selj

At 3:11 PM, Blogger Betqa said...

Thank you Milan :)

And thank you Jonathan for the great review.

Kind regards,



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