Šalamun’s Shostakovich: Reading the Entrails of Tomaž Šalamun’s “His Leg Was Repatriated”

Matthew Moore is the translator of Tomaž Šalamun’s “His Leg Was Repatriated“, published in The Decadent Review. This is his translator’s notes on the poem’s first third.

Tomaž Šalamun

‘To interpret’ is to make sense in abundance, it is to draw out useless shards and meteors, to send them to each other without trying to master anything, letting oneself interpret in turn and fly away in the whirlwind of existence.

—Jean-Luc Nancy “Hermeneucracy: Short Interview on Internationalism and Interpretation”

I began playing the piano as a kid, at twelve . . . in a small provincial town, where I was a wunderkind. Everyone knows me as the big pianist. So I revolted and stopped completely when my father wouldn’t let me row twice a day for my heart. So I never touched the piano again.

—Tomaž Šalamun

For me, the very tragedy of the 8th Symphony speaks about how bad and difficult it is for humans to live under someone’s power, someone’s control and terror and all this music is against the terror, it is the music of wrath and protest.

— Boris Tischenko, pupil of Shostakovich

“I found myself in the pirated version”: The authorial “I” only indicates his location, only orients himself, at the place where he is unauthorized, where the summation of his standing lies in the circulation of his standing, where the means by which he would orient himself and his views in the world are accumulated and circulated, out of his hands, without a leg to stand on, and a means of currency to the ends of interpretation by another, here, in the first line in Tomaž Šalamun’s poem, “His Leg Was Repatriated”; a poem whose title is a lens to the kinds of tectonic stress that would press the authorial “I” into speaking about himself in deliberate opacities, however dispossessed of his discrete bearings he might be, however he chose and chose not to submerge himself, under the oceanic pressure formed by the mimetic desire shared and circulated by anyone who encountered him or his art, to interpret him, to scapegoat him, to sacrifice him, for causes held against him and projected onto him, anyone might glean anything with a willingness shone upon the surface of the submarine comportment of Shostakovich, even in this poem before you, Salamun’s Shostakovich, Šalamun-Shostakovich!

“I found myself in the pirated version”: In what circumstances, under what pressures, to whom might he press himself, that anyone would accept his blurred and snowed summation—the realization that he is not let to realize himself, that anyone will surveil his spokenness for their own interpretations of him, that his remarks and gestures are hazardously irradiated and hammered into static political currency for samizdat reproduction by ears, hands, and mouths throughout Europe and where have you—enough people at least that anyone who might circulate his words would reach the same grasping for interpretation through the deafening feedback produced by the uproar of reactions to his personal silences, his submerged and glacial movements anyone would array in all available materials of interpretation.

The authorial “I” gives up himself and his standing at coordinates to a location that each remain hidden, or smeared until in, since the causes by and to which he is oriented are up-for-grabs, and besides, the perceived piracy of his dwelling and privacy is not necessarily the true location of his standing, it is only a “version,” doubly omitted, at double remove, in the gagged order of self-expressiveness which his political rope-walker’s oxymoronic first phrase in the poem divulges, where he has found himself pressed into speaking about himself, and, so pressed, he confesses nothing about himself, except the admission that he will not confess anything about himself, nothing to occasion him found himself.

Prod this artist’s—these artists’—works to disclose how he and his work orient in the world for anyone to interpret, and do so uselessly, as what is found in his work—ferocious temerity and timorous concealment—refuses to disclose, except oxymoronic admissions of omissions, except what is found in this poem’s first line. Šalamun-Shostakovich speaks with his hand clamped over his mouth, found in defiant ambivalence, ambivalent because it is as much thrust upon him as it is taken up by him, this phrasing one could not mistake for a double-bind, the gag of the gag, that begins “His Leg Was Repatriated,” puns and laments, in other words: I found myself in what’s not mine; I belonged to that that did not belong to me; I authored this self from what I have stolen and been stripped of. Self-expressiveness shapes the line, “I found myself in the pirated version,” around the lived experience of dispossession, the austere fragmentation and secret authority required to survive as fragmentations of one amidst the dispossessed.

The next line and a half, “a gravedigger’s hands pushed || into my villi” evokes the circumstances of the speaker’s position, buried alive, autopsied and opened up again, digged out and digged into at the hands of one who is supposed to put his body in his last resting place, and exposed for the purpose of reading what’s inside him.

Thus, the speaker finds himself subject to hepatoscopy, the sacred Hittite divination of entrails, liver, intestines, villi, offal, once belonging to the sacrificed animal, and it is in this sacrificial, exposed position, where the reader meets the authorial “I,” cut open and read, asked and pressed to mean something, at the hands of the haruspex, the clerical innards-reader, who presses words from the speaker’s living flesh, in the positions to which he is opened, and in his guts “a gravedigger’s hands pushed” a sacred and desecrating practice of criticism, a critical wish to read the sacrificial object, the poem’s dispossessed subject, whither Šalamun, whither Shostakovich. 

In Walter Burket’s formulation: “The spread of hepatoscopy is one of the clearest examples of cultural contact in the orientalizing period. It must have been a case of East-West understanding on a relatively high, technical level. The mobility of migrant charismatics is the natural prerequisite for this diffusion, the international role of sought-after specialists, who were, as far as their art was concerned, nevertheless bound to their father-teachers. We cannot expect to find many archaeologically identifiable traces of such people, other than some exceptional instances”.1

Everyone wanted to read the guts of Shostakovich, to read all available surfaces, crevices, and lengths within the politically-marbled innards of Shostakovich’s leviathan compositions, guts of a gagged political animal, who gagged himself as often as he was gagged, notes played in a sacrificial position at cross-purposes to a host of bloody antagonisms and antagonists, everyone who wanted to read Shostakovich’s compositions eviscerated them to warrant self-beneficient outcomes and self-providential yields: “The need to understand him, and to be true to him, is overwhelming;” . . . “in general, the Preludes and Fugues are widely regarded as a haven, an inner sanctum in which Shostakovich sheltered his private self;” . . . “composing this cycle was as much, and perhaps more, a political act on Shostakovich’s part as it was an artistic one. And it was political strictly by virtue of being personal”.2

“Sentencehood. Ostrich. || Bulls on his hands”: In the second part third line and fourth line first part, Šalamun’s Shostakovich, Šalamun-Shostakovich, sends his submarine, near illegible compostion to undetectable, ice-in-the-veins depths, in his self-reflexive self-piracy, in his ambivalent prelude and fugue, in his beginning and his end, looking out by sonar, by ear, as he continues to divulge nothing and everything, he arranges his composition in sacrificial positions of sacrificed animals, pressed against the grammar of his authorial state’s sonar detection, and his suffocation in its political hull is beset on all sides by crushing pressure and atomizing weight: a typesetter’s hood over the head; an ostrich’s head buried in the sand; Psalm 22:12: “Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.”

“Sentencehood”: it goes over your head, the sentence hood, whose anonymous, codifying words sank Shostakovich, sentenced him in the Soviet cultural Pequod-rag, Pravda—ever hunting for elusive personalities and works of opaque dissonance to pierce and deflate, to defang and let the blood from, to set on fire as political sacrifice on the altar of public facing pages to illuminate the global course of the Party and the moral decrepitude of art whose orientation and purposes remained fugitive to the Soviet tread—to be thrown overboard, jettisoned from all quarters in the Party machine, unpursed; and so gripped and so flung to pieces his favor and his standing in the country, Shostakovich found himself, at the height of his greatest artistic reception by the masses, struck from every side, as the great harpoons of political consequence ran through the aftermath of a 26 January 1936 performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, though it strode apace hotly in its two-year run of nearly 200 performances between Leningrad and Moscow, not to mention the plethora of international performances; thus Shostakovich fell out completely from regard of his political standing and his personal safety in the editorial entitled, “Chaos Instead of Music,” in the 28 January 1936 issue of Pravda.

“Bulls on his hands,” Psalm 22:12, if it rings a bell here, the bell’s hands have got bulls on them, and they belong to an author—not Šalamun, not Shostakovich—whose ambivalence was concrete, not abstract, because he was the dominated and the dominator, and he had headed his 20 October 1917 revolutionary bull, in the Bolshevik paper Rabochy Put, No. 41, “Strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round,” and he closed this bull with his own ambivalent coda, concrete as dynamite: “Well, every man to his own fancy . . . The revolution is not disposed either to pity or to bury its dead . . .” well, the author of these words, who bulleted them with as much ardor as with annihilation, by 1956, he was dead three years; nevertheless, as the political haruspices in the UK observed the entrails of the Mediterranean zone on the altar of the Cold War, an historical present in the Hittite region shone visibly with colonial resources for rapacious Western powers to eviscerate the Suez for profit and domination, in preludes to the next century’s fugues of ruination, war, sanction, and mass murder; well, to haruspices of all regional stripes, not to mention to Shostakovich, probably it felt like Joseph Stalin was not spiritually dead, probably it felt like Joseph Stalin was on the surface of all things, buried alive and digged up, ready for his liver to be read and still quite concrete.

  1. Mary R. Bachvarova, “The Transmission of Liver Divination from East to West,” SMEA 54, 2012, pp. 143-164.
  2. Mark Mazullo, Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues: Contexts, Style, Performance, Yale University Press, p. 6, 8