Archive for March 6th, 2012

Ljubljana: Lyric City

March 6, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)





Among the younger generation of Slovenian poets, Aleš Šteger






is one of the best-known.









His recent collection The Book of Things† was translated into English by Brian Henry and won a PEN prize for the best translated book of poetry in 2011 in the United States.


In Hayrack he writes, memorably:


“Slovenian heroes sacrificed their lives

So their sons could freely dry

The contents of their skulls

In the Alpine breeze of the hayrack’s rungs

The vast meadows are their souls.

Cows chew and shit them

And out of cow shit their souls grow

Still more beautiful and succulent.Ӧ


According to Aleš, Slovenia is a country that derives its sense of identity from poetry. The main square






in Ljubljana, the capital, is named after the country’s national poet, France Prešeren.




In this sculpture the poet is courting his Muse.















Slovenian poetry, Aleš says, is more lyric than epic (the latter being the preference of some other Balkan countries – Serbia, for instance).






Ljubljana is certainly a city to inspire lyricism.









It has a charming Opera House,












picturesque streets,












quaint houses,














a splendid fort on a hill,

















imposing university buildings,













a gracious Philarmonic Academy,















and the entrance to its Parliament celebrates the human body with a frankness that would be inconceivable in New Delhi or Washington.








The city’s appeal being what it is, it’s difficult to fathom why this former mayor of Ljubljana







looks so disconsolate (perhaps he was the sole epic poet in this city of lyricists?).








Did Aleš have him in mind, I wonder, when he wrote:

“Do you remember the archivist who committed suicide

Because of one misplaced sheet?

The three librarians who never returned from the warehouse?


“The history students who bit the professor’s neck in an exam

Because he could not remember the price of potato soup in May 1889?ӧ



But even an epic poet would be tempted to flirt with the lyric muse, I suspect, if he took a stroll along the Ljubljanica River,















where unexpected installations







festoon the alleyways










and streetside vendors assemble installations that illustrate  their country’s history through collections of coffee pots








– Turkish cezves rubbing shoulders with Italian espresso-makers.






And the flirtation with lyricisim might well end in wedlock if the poet found his way to a riverside restaurant



that serves a superb soup of Slovenian mushrooms.










Aleš’s wife, Maja Petrovic-Šteger,







who has studied and taught anthropology at Cambridge, tells me that Slovenia’s other passion, almost on par with poetry, is mushrooms. Her mother, she says, can spot a mushroom from her car while speeding down an expressway.








The soup was good enough to remind me of another high point in my own mushroom-sampling career, which was in a village called Xizhou







in Yunnan, China,





where on market days











local mushroom collectors offer an astonishing assortment of  mushrooms, freshly gathered from the surrounding forests (which contain more varieties of oak than anywhere else on earth).















In a matter of minutes the little eateries around the market















transform the mushrooms












into lyric verses.
















But what Ljubljana yields to Xizhou in the matter of mushrooms, it regains through its proximity to the sea, being only an hour from the Mediterranean













– which is what makes it possible for Boris















to serve a grilled branzino
















so fresh that your mouth could be the net that caught it.

And then it turns out that Aleš is the founder of a festival called Days of Poetry and Wine. He orders a bottle of Rebula white from Goriska Brda and when:

“What was stored in safety escaped.

It swooshed down the throat like emptiness into the bottle.Ӥ






Who knew that wines like this, steely, with just a hint of frosty fruit, were made in Goriska Brda?









The meal ends with a confection that takes me back to Ghazipur and Sea of Poppies: poppyseed cake, apparently a specialty of this part of Slovenia.








How many of Slovenia’s lyrical verses were sprouted from poppyseeds, I wonder?


I walk away with a renewed understanding of the difference between poets and novelists: no one will ever start a festival called Days of Prose and Wine.





† Boa Editions Ltd., Rochester, New York, 2010.

Hayrack, The Book of Things, p. 67.

ß Coat, The Book of Things, p. 48.

§ Cork, The Book of Things, p. 63.



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