Urban Tongues
'Brick-built ships stand,
their fair eyes gazing
across the green meadows,
behind each eyelid someone lives.'

(G. Strnisa: Skyscrapers, 1974)

The following is an article by Urban Vovk.Translated by Ana Jelnikar.

Urban literature, urban prose, urban poetry: in recent times we have witnessed indulgent overuse of the urban label to describe a host of writers and their work. It is not surprising then, amidst a flood of references, that rural authors have felt the wrath of the urban movement, a force which, banners raised, marches on the ideologically deviant, branding them peasants and farmers, and forcing them eat their own literary programmes. Yes, the term 'urban' casts a long shadow in Slovenia today, but despite its current hegemony, it has been the object of little analysis, and is a concept that very few embrace.

Urbanism and postmodernism are perhaps difficult to compare, but it seems tenable to postulate that the former has filled the vacuum created by the demise of the latter. Both too are rather irksome terms, and both have enjoyed similar degrees of proliferation. We venture to state here that urbanism in contemporary Slovenian writing has supplanted a postmodernist movement which now belongs to history.

Much has been written about the loose and perhaps incongruent way in which the term postmodernism came to be used. This is particularly true in the case of poetry. (And it may well be that a similar destiny be reserved for the term 'urbanism'.)

On the other hand, the use of the terms postmodernism and urbanism in the context of Slovenian prose seems more homogenous. Some may see here an attempt at provocation. So be it. But certain critics have gone so far as to apply the urban label to lines such as the following from the first poem in Strnisa's cycle Skyscrapers: 'Above the ships the night-sky lights, from stars themselves the sky glows bright, this ship in the sea of this night strays from its path and is lost'. The above statement may be a red rag to traditionalists too, or rather to 'ruralists', who will see in it an ideological obsession with urban mythology, and interpret it as an act of vengeance for the predominance of rural literature in Slovenia in the past.

It is true that Slovenian literary tradition, particularly in the field of poetry, is 'essentially a tradition of nature and not of urban conglomerates' and has to do 'with the...gradual shift from the supremacy of nature to space that is ever more urban' (Ales Debeljak Slovenian Poetry and the Urban Want). Debeljak continues: 'Even in these poetic intonations and fragments of gnomic expression... , which directly address the city, literary voices are still steeped in a consciousness resisting the urban space, or they at best exist in a state of half-forced symbiosis'. Among the most prolific writers today, Peter Semolic and Uros Zupan offer examples of this symbiosis.

In Zupan's latest collection Locomotives we read lines which echo Strnisa's Skyscrapers: 'Houses - boxes washed up on high dykes. A line of white teeth in front of a smooth tide of bodies'. Zupan comes close to the following lines by Strnisa: 'This ship in the sea of this night is sailing, flying amid the stars - a hundred dreams of people: a hundred southern breezes, carry her into the night, over the edge of the world'. And in Zupan's collection Oil we read: 'Only the drone of traffic from the nearby road tells me that life, on the final night, has not moved to a distant star'. This serves to remind us that, in Strnisa's Skyscrapers, the stars are born in the eyes of an old man who is pinning them to the sky.

In response to a graffiti text reading 'Movement at your own risk', Peter Semolic, in his poem The Way to Fuzine from the collection Questions About the Path, wrote: 'As long as I know where I'm going when I say I'm going home. As long as I know, where I have come when I say I've come home. Movement at your own risk, life at your own risk. Good. As long as I know what it's like here where I say I'm at home'. This escapism and withdrawal from one's environment, touched by melancholy and nostalgia, is a also common trait in Zupan's poetry. The notion of 'half-forced symbiosis' emerges through repetition in Semolic's poem. For the poet, identification with his surroundings does not appear feasible, since the he experiences it as something transitory and alien.

These examples suggest a kind of platonic scale of urbanisation, from absence to resistance, forced symbiosis to final affirmation, and perhaps, ultimately, to enthusiasm. Debeljak's definition of city lyrics or urban poetry seems pertinent: 'City lyrics are therefore lyrics emerging immediately after a fall; they are tattered words of testimony to inevitable schizophrenia understood as the normal state of mind. They speak in street dialects and brand names, gasping for air through a kaleidoscope of rebellious graffiti on sturdy walls and through commercial impunity of department stores with doors alluringly ajar. They flirt with the deceptive intimacy of tree alleys and the red glow of trendy, chrome-plated bars to an assembly of people stoned in deserted houses'.

If we dwell for a moment on the reality of the Slovenian here and now, and on contemporary Slovenian poetry's reaction to it, it seems impossible to bypass the circumstances which have conditioned the development and rise of urban poetry in the last decade. This was a decade of sweeping social change which has transformed Slovenia into an autonomous nation state and made of Lubljana - a charming but provincial town - a busy capital city, a 'refuge for psychos' which, in the words of Brane Mozeti
'you can't miss on the map'. Of course Tomas Salamun was laying the jargon thick as far back as in the sixties, but it is fair to say that urban poetry has come of age in the last fifteen years. That said, one feels it will take years for an urban lifestyle which reflects social diversity to emerge in Lubljana. We are far from dismantling hierarchies, and from the dynamic heterogeneity in which tradition plays a supportive role. It is not surprising that contemporary Slovenian authors -
Zupan, Debeljak, Semolic, Cunik, Podlogar, Kramberger - have turned to foreign sources to refill their cups, and to the rhythm and pulse of everyday life in other urban centres. After all, Slovenia does not easily lend itself to urbanisation. In this sense, Slovenia's current literary energy, derives from the cosmopolis and from the nomadic lifestyle that Tomaz Salamun posited as the 'fourth dimension', a constituent of the growth of the soul.

It is perhaps no surprise that a hierarchy is at work promoting the right to urban myths. Urban life is more than just life in a skyscraper or a block of flats. And whereas, formerly, Slovenia was sneered at by some people in parts of then Yugoslavia, the Republic's regions are sometimes the object of disdain today. On the other hand, the contemporary Slovenia city has little in common with the bourgeois values of the old middle-class. This, stressing as it does, difference rather than equality between social groups, is regarded today as reactionary and socially incorrect. Likewise, an urban identity cannot be achieved by simply changing one literary 'topos' for another. How much or little would the verses of romantic national bard France Preaeren change were his native village substituted with the city of Ljubljana, or his family house with a skyscraper? What we can expect from urban literary production, is a phenomenon free of social elitism, political conformity and cultural mainstreaming.

To conclude, tongue in cheek, we might seek to define contemporary Slovenian literary urbanism in the following ablative terms:

Cucnik is an urbanist when he's not in love
Debeljak is an urbanist when he's not archaic
Mozetic is an urbanist when he's not an escapist
Podlogar is an urbanist when he's not a moralist
Semolic is an urbanist when he's not too lost
Salamun is an urbanist when he's not a snob
Skrjanec is an urbanist when he's not too lazy
Taja Kramberger is an urbanist when she's not a scientist and Zupan is an urbanist when he's not being over-sentimental.

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