‘What are our poets smiling at?’ 2 poems by Slovenian poet Aleš Šteger

‘What are our poets smiling at?’ 2 poems by Slovenian poet Aleš Šteger
Image: Ivan Vranic via Unsplash

15 October 2021
Text: by Aleš Šteger, translated by Brian Henry

Aleš Šteger is a Slovenian poet, writer, editor, and literary critic. His first poetry collection, Šahovnice ur, published in 1995, was sold out within three weeks of publication. Šteger’s books have been translated into 16 languages and his poems appeared in internationally renowned magazines and newspapers such as The New Yorker, Die Zeit, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and the TLS.

The first poem below, The smiling of poets, is a reference to the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, presenting the perspective of rulers over poets in times of dictatorships. The second poem, Outside a station of the metro, engages with Ezra Pound’s In a station of the metro.


The smiling of poets


What are our poets smiling at?

There’s nothing funny in our tribe.


Many lie murdered in gullies.

Our women and children are hungry and barefoot.


Unknown illnesses are mowing us down.

No new villages built and soon it will snow.


Despite all this, the smiles don’t fade from our poets’ faces.

As if facing sorrow brings them irrational, secret joy.


When we ask them what’s funny, they silently shrug,

And do the same when we demand they cheer us up in these dark times.


They guard the reason for their smiling just for their own enjoyment.

We trust them less and less, believe their sparse words less and less.


The smiles of our poets are truly mysterious in these poor times.

Did their minds burn out? Do they mock our common misery?


Their smiling sometimes cuts more cruelly than the weapons of our enemies.

But they are wrong if they think they will deceive us.


We will kill our poets only when we squeeze their secret out of them.

We will leave alive only the biggest blatherers, somber-faced and resembling us.



Outside a station of the metro


Fallen ginkgo leaves,


New York, Nazis,

And other still-lifes

From history on a leash.


We are warmed by safe periodic systems,

Congo, the Maccabees, and Rome.

How strange. Our ancestors

Know nothing about our lives.


Fallen ginkgo leaves

Under a million feet.

And Goethe in Guantánamo,

Goethe in Guantánamo.


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