how does the sun set?
like snow
what color is the sea?
Jonah are you salty?
I’m salty
Jonah are you a flag?
I’m a flag
the fireflies rest now
what are stones like?
how do little dogs play?
like flowers
Jonah are you a fish?
I’m a fish
Jonah are you a sea urchin?
I’m a sea urchin
listen to the flow
Jonah is the roe running through the woods
Jonah is the mountain breathing
Jonah is all the houses
have you ever heard such a rainbow?
what is the dew like?
are you asleep?

I first read Tomaz Salamun in graduate school at UNC Greensboro. My favorite writers then were Robert Hass, Raymond Carver, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, the dead Russians; I was easily influenced by what my teachers taught and my friends liked. One day, a fellow student, frustrated with our workshop's narrative, predictable, linear, very 90s poems (it was the early 90s, after all) brought in a pile of poems that included Salamun's "I Have a Horse" and "History":

Tomaz Salamun is a monster.
Tomaz Salamun is a sphere rushing through the air.
He lies down in twilight, he swims in twilight.
People and I, we both look at him amazed, 
we wish him well, maybe he is a comet.
Maybe he is punishment from the gods,
the boundary stone of the world.
Maybe he is such a speck in the universe
that he will give energy to the planet
when oil, steel, and food run short.
He might only be a hump, his head
should be taken off like a spider's.
But something would then suck up
Tomaz Salamun, possibly the head.
Possibly he should be pressed between
glass, his photo should be taken.
He should be put in formaldehyde, so children
would look at him as they do foetuses,
protei, and mermaids.
Next year, he'll probably be in Hawaii
or in Ljubljana. Doorkeepers will scalp
tickets. People walk barefoot
to the university there. The waves can be
a hundred feet high. The city is fantastic,
shot through with people on the make,
the wind is mild.
But in Ljubljana people say: look!
This is Tomaz Salamun, he went to the store
with his wife Marushka to buy some milk.
He will drink it and this is history.

I was in love. I had that Emily-Dickinson-quote feeling, the top of my head coming off: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

"History and "I Have a Horse" I think are better poems than the first one here, "Jonah." But somehow Jonah became one of my favorite poems, part of my blood and bone. It felt familiar and strange, its simplicity and tender voice refreshingly transparent, earnest, sweet, at a time I was trying to wrap my mind around, say, Jorie Graham's poems, or prying my eyes open through a 18th-century British literature class (the mention of "Clarissa" is like Ambien to this day). In an Irish literature class I was gulping down quantities of Yeats and yet remained stubbornly attached to his early sentimental pieces, "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" and "When You Are Old and Grey." They reminded me of the very first literary poem I remember loving, Wordsworth's "Daffodils." I didn't understand the complexities of Irish history, didn't care for Yeats's creepy seances and communing with afterlife, just as, I confess, I'm still shaky on the Eastern European history informing Salumun's poems. Being versed in the historical contexts of these writers' lives would only deepen my appreciation for their poems, but I don't think the poets would disapprove of my limited knowledge of politics. The language alone offers abundant beauty and lasting resonance. 

I remember running to the Poets House in the mid 90s for a reading by Salamun, that feverish feeling of anticipation, the thrill of hearing the word live. I've kept the poster for that reading the way a Deadhead would keep a bumper sticker of dancing bears. The poster is in a box of keepsakes in my closet, along with ticket stubs for Pavement and Yo la Tengo, a map of Greensboro, xeroxes of poems, dog-eared and coffee-stained. Ah, grad school.
Katherine Mansfield said, “To be alive and to be a writer is enough.” To be a reader--a close second indeed. Tomaz Salalmun reads on Friday, October 12, 5pm at NYU Creative Writing Program.