“Tracing the Unspoken” by Milan Self— Daring to Speak

Selj, Milan. “Tracing the Unspoken”, translated by Harvey Vincent, A Midsummer’s Press, 2019.

Daring to Speak

Amos Lassen

Milan Šelj is a Slovenian poet, publicist and translator who has received considerable attention for his explicitly gay poetry. “Tracing the Unspoken” is both my introduction to Selj and the English-language debut of the poet who dares to openly speak (or write) the name of gay desire in compact and precise prose poems.

From the very first page I was pulled into Selj’s poetry of obsession and became obsessed myself. His use of language gives shape to the shapeless and meaning to the banal. In his attempt to understand and give meaning to desire, he wakened in me a desire to keep reading and as I did I devoured every word, constantly wanting more. Suddenly and surprisingly I found a voice for the unsaid and watched as it came together with what had been considered implied as new meanings came into focus. Here is the first poem and a word picture that is unforgettable:

“Desire without a body is the hollow call of a fallen animal. Wounded, it lies in a thicket, licking its genitals. In the valley I hear a stag barking.”

And then we read of passion, a passion that is “blocked by indifference, indifference unblocked by passion” yet once love uttered, it survives. The tension is very real and selj captures emotions powerfully yet succinctly. I find that my eyes become wet as I read the truth that is so often obscured by the culture in which we live.

“We were sitting on a bench at the bus stop. Our eyes locked, avoiding the gazes of strangers and provoking them with our disdain. Later the descending road overtook the howling wind of disapproval. And if you said: The day is only an inevitable contrast to the night, I would have agreed. On the journey, our eyes sparkled with hints. The evening was a game of questions. You answered none of mine.”

I am having a hard time finding the words I want to describe what I have read here and therefore think it might be best to let the poems speak for themselves even though this destroys the meaning of review. A reviewer traditionally writes about the way he is affected by what he reads. What does one do when every word has an effect and every line brims with meaning? How is it that the poet ca say what is in MY heart so much better than I can? Can I daresay is that the beauty here is simply that what is said is so real yet so tenuous?

For me, the sign of good literature is that it makes me ask questions and the questions remain when the read is done. I so remember having similar feelings about Lord Byron when I was an undergrad trying to grasp the mystery of his words.

“Around Christmas he became itchy and home-sick. I bought him a pair of shoes, a one-way ticket and credit for his mobile phone. Standing at the window I waited for his call while watching the first snowflakes. They always cover my restlessness with silence. I kept telling myself I was right to send him away. Will we be closer if he decides to come back?”

Unlike Byron, Selj is graphic and openly erotic. I love that he dares because he dares for all of us.

“A shaved head is resting next to mine. I try to embrace his quick breath after the spill of burning sperm. Above the window sill, rays of sunlight slip through a slit in the curtains. Slowly, like an elegant jackal, he sneaks out of bed, leaving behind the impression of a sensuous shadow. I let him steal the last word before he leaves. His sharp fragrance floats in the air, enveloping my still quivering body.”

I realize that my words are few but I hope you sense the power with which I set the down. I know nothing of the language of Slovenia so I cannot say anything about the quality of the translation but I can say that translator  Harvey Vincent found the words that speak to us all.

“Day and night I write sentences with semen on the surface of your skin. This act is elusive…When I find solutions closer to the core of my obsession will I be at ease.”

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