Aleš Debeljak's "Schoolboy's Blues" (translated by Brian Henry)

Thoughts on the tension between exactness and amazement.

Schoolboy’s Blues

Šubičeva Street, Ljubljana

I went to school when cigarettes were sold by the piece.
Now comets whistle and shoot across the black sky
of the town. I still live here, still among the shapes
of forgotten things they force into daylight, still amazed,

after all the long years, when it should be clear to me
that during German grammar exercises I wrote notes
in vain about a man who looks through window blinds.
I still don’t understand them, but wish to, so much

that it hurts sweetly in the twilight, in the tepid air,
that I would learn a hundred languages and orbit everywhere
like a guest at my brother’s wedding and I would hover, yes, like mist
on the flowers in a greenhouse, and I wouldn’t know if it drips

damply from a heavy sponge, with which I wipe everything
behind me, traces of all field trips, only this time, one last time,
I sign up without coughing fits and chewed-over words:
I will arrive like a peasant who burns nests and loves pigeons. 

from Smugglers (2015, BOA Editions)

Back in the before-times of mostly in person things, I would see my therapist once a week in his little windowless office just west of Washington Square Park. When I started seeing him, I was teaching at a high school in Manhattan, and would walk about 40 blocks after my last class of the day to sit and talk to him. I’d find Park Avenue and meander south, past these old and megalithic life insurance company buildings until I walked smack into Union Square. I’d allot myself enough time, always, to pop into the Strand and loiter in their poetry section, which is a gem for a few reasons, the first of which is that it’s off the main path of carefully arranged tables featuring new and noteworthy books — this highway of pedestrian traffic. Another reason is that it offers a kind of mishmash of stuff, simultaneously well-curated and neglected. There will be six copies of some just-released poetry book, and then tucked beside it will be a book long out of print, or a torn copy of some Phil Levine that costs four bucks. It’s a good place to loiter. There’s a lot of joy to be had.

And so I’d loiter in the Strand’s poetry section before therapy. And most often, I’d buy a book. I called it my therapy treat — this little thing I could buy to reward myself for helping myself, even though I wasn’t sure — and still am not — if I was helping myself at all. I had little rules that weren’t really rules, since I broke them all the time, and since they were never written down to begin with. But one of the rules was that, if I bought a book, it had to be by an author I didn’t know. Anyways, all of that to say: the poem today was bought in such circumstances.

It’s a strange poem, and quite frankly lovely, in part because I don’t really know what to make of the last line:

I will arrive like a peasant who burns nests and loves pigeons. 

I think Debeljak is getting at the inherent contradiction of daily life. It’s a worldly poem, full of “comets” that “whistle and shoot across the black sky” and “flowers in a greenhouse,” and I think there’s a sense of smallness at the heart of it. The smallness of a schoolboy wrestling with wonder, and wrestling, too, I think, with man’s capacity for violence despite having little to know understanding of the world. I sense a question lurking in the undertow of this poem: how is it possible that we cause so much damage despite knowing so little?

And so, the final line — someone who burns the homes of the animals he claims to love — jars me with its frank portrayal of human contradiction. Love and damage seem to be two supreme truths of life itself. But I love, especially, what goes on in the midst of today’s poem. I love what the poem wonders about amazement. You see it first in this beautiful phrase caught between two stanzas:

still amazed,

after all the long years

First, these lines are the poem version of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Second, I love that stanza break, and the way it enacts the extended quality of amazement. By breaking the phrase in half, and allowing it to carry itself across the white space connecting two stanzas, Debeljak is saying: look, look at the way amazement can be not just a momentary thing, but rather a quality of one’s life. Look at how being amazed can be something that someone is — not just briefly, but rather perpetually. We are often taught that amazement happens in an instant, and then disappears. We are not taught that it is like love. That one can be in amazement, and work towards the ongoingness of such a state of being.

In another poem from the same book, Debeljak says it better than I can:

whoever loves risks many forms

of amazement.

How beautiful, for so many reasons. Not just that love and amazement are in cahoots, but also that little playful line break, so that one reads at first: whoever loves risks many forms. Which is true, right? That to love is to be so much at once. And I love, too, that such a statement makes the idea of risk a beautiful thing, so full of hope.

Debeljak carries a similar sense of amazement throughout the rest of today’s poem:

I still don’t understand them, but wish to, so much

that it hurts sweetly in the twilight, in the tepid air,
that I would learn a hundred languages and orbit everywhere
like a guest at my brother’s wedding and I would hover, yes, like mist
on the flowers in a greenhouse, and I wouldn’t know if it drips…

I still don’t understand. I wouldn’t know. These phrases ground the poem in an ongoing sense of uncertainty. And it’s interesting, given the poem’s title, how the feeling of uncertainty wobbles along a fine line. On one side of this line is frustration. I’m thinking of the frustration of a student who doesn’t understand, bent over “German grammar exercises.” And I’m thinking of the way that sense of not understanding can exist for many reasons — like when a student asks why are we doing this (a perfect and true question that only annoys a teacher if the teacher doesn’t have a good answer — though a good teacher should always have an answer to that question, because it is the most important question, I’d argue, to ask of the experience of learning, and sometimes, to be honest, one of the hardest to answer, which — the difficulty of said answering — should be interrogated and not ignored) and doesn’t receive a good answer. Or when a student struggles to do something because they don’t even have the necessary prior knowledge to begin, and so they are caught in a cycle of frustration that repeats itself over and over again.

On the other side of the wobbling line of uncertainty is amazement — the positive feeling associated with not knowing or not understanding. Here, uncertainty is often laced with humility, and what we don’t understand doesn’t become what we must understand. It is not some formula to be figured out. Rather, we find ourselves in a place where our individual agency has its limitations. And we find ourselves saying that’s okay. In a state of amazement, one dwells rather than toils.

It’s fascinating to me how quickly a sense of uncertainty can become a feeing of frustration. And I wonder how much of that feeling of frustration is related to the exactness of American society. As in, I wonder about the tension between exactness and amazement, and maybe, how the latter isn’t possible if the former exists.

This week, I’ve been reading Aleksandar Hemon’s My Parents, which is a beautiful book about Hemon’s parents, and their experience as displaced Bosnians who never live without the intimate memory of war (Debeljak, too, writes from that perspective as well, given his own displacement from native Yugoslavia due to war). In one chapter about food, Hemon talks about how his parents make fun of him for a “fussiness in relation to food” that they decree is distinctly American. He writes:

When I go to visit them, I berate them for eating bacon, force them to eat fish (“we’ll be hungry in an hour”), and steam vegetables instead of roasting them. For some dubious future health benefit, I deny them — as I do myself — the food they’ve always eaten and enjoyed. To my mind, I practice as much dietary recklessness as the next Bosnian, but what my parents see is not so much a radical change in nutritional content as it is a shift in attitude.

Hemon defines this shift in attitude as one “characterized by the fundamentally puritan notion of self-denial as a means of improvement.” And later he describes American culture as one where:

The basic choice is between puritan discipline of self-denial and total, unchecked addictive indulgence — in either direction, there is little but joylessness.

Maybe this aside about cuisine doesn’t seem inherently related to the tension between exactness and amazement, but I think it is. While reading Hemon’s book, I was struck by how often I insist to live by distinct mechanisms and instruments of joylessness, which are often derivatives of puritanical obsessions — denial by way of exactness. Success by way of the same. I’ve written before about body dysmorphia, and the ways in which being a competitive runner exacerbated certain feelings of shame within myself. It wasn’t because of running — which I still believe has inherent value — but rather because the instruments by which I measured value — stopwatches and scales and results and more — communicated a different, more extrinsic idea of value. Such instruments were indeed instruments of joylessness.

How often, I wonder, do we measure the value of our lives with instruments of joylessness? And in terms that can only be communicated in exact ways? And how often do we chart and graph the ongoing value of our lives, rather than simply live within and among it? How often do we stake the success of our lives on exact measurements of value, rather than what cannot be charted or graphed or assessed or made into data? I wonder sometimes if the modern obsession with information is, at its heart, a fundamentally joyless thing. I wonder if its existence eliminates our capacity to be amazed.

The last line of today’s poem makes more sense in that context. Here it is again:

I will arrive like a peasant who burns nests and loves pigeons. 

There are some things, I’d argue, whose inherent contradictions lead to a world that exists as a kind of impossibly negative dreamscape. To find joy in the overbearing exactness of our information multiverse might seem possible, but such joy, I’d argue, is one that cannot be dwelled within. It must be proven, again and again. As such, like someone who burns nests but loves pigeons, you end up surrendering one part of yourself for the sake of another. You become a walking contradiction. The joy of amazement, however, is a joy whose primary causes are surprise, unknowing, and uncertainty. It’s a joy of humility, a joy that offers permission for things to be unknown, un-exact, inconsistent. Or, in other words: deeply and utterly human. To choose that idea of joy — to live a life of perpetual amazement — feels harder and harder these days, because it must be with a kind of active resistance to the mechanisms of joylessness that permeate our everyday lives. But I am trying to choose such joy. I want to be amazed, still — after and among all these long years.