“Unless we read, we shall perish.” – Tone Pavček
Gleaming rays of golden sunlight pour over frosty foliage in the suburbs of Slovenia’s capital. The grass crunches satisfyingly under my feet, glimmering in the last light of a cold day in mid-winter. My dog runs on ahead of me, trailing a sound that I’m pretty sure isn’t there. It’s a quiet spot at this time of day, no cars or shops or apartment buildings to impede the view or break the silence.
Having lived in the tiny ex-Yugoslavian country for over a decade, I can safely say that Slovenes are not a people known for shoving their culture down your throat. As far as literature goes, they may drop a few names (if you ask for them), but tend to automatically assume that they have little to offer the rest of the world. My ignorance turned to curiosity as a single name kept catching my ear, more so than any other modern artist. His name was mentioned alongside those of Cankar and Prešeren as the must-reads of the Slovene literary world. From what I had heard, Tone Pavček was the pride of his people, known by all for his smiling disposition and enormously positive character. I gave in, flipping briefly through some of his best known poems without much thought, but it was only on that crisp winter afternoon alone with the trees and the sky that the veil lifted.
You are on earth to view the sun.
You are on earth to track the sun.
You are on earth to be the sun
that shadows always shun.
That moment of silent appreciation for life has followed me to every hill and river, every sunrise and clear night sky. It was a gift given by a man I was never to meet. Born in 1928, Tone Pavček began his life modestly, in what is now south-eastern Slovenia, before moving to the capital to further his education. Though his studies were interrupted by war, Pavček graduated from classical high school and then went on to study law, though he would never practice. Instead, he found work as a journalist and eventually as an editor and translator, all the while writing poetry for children and adults alike.
Pavček mostly dabbled in narrative, lyrical and satirical poetry, all of which bear the mark of the vitality and positivity he exhibited throughout his life. Using the enduring wonders of nature and love, Pavček painted masterpieces in pen and ink, striving to keep his work approachable for both fledgling and veteran lovers of poetry. It is for this reason that he remains so beloved, even following his death in 2011. He won many awards during his lifetime including the prestigious Prešeren Award and the Levstik Award (for children’s literature) as well as being nominated for the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 2012. As such, his best known poems have been translated into English, Azerbaijani, Czech, Russian, Croatian, Georgian, Macedonian and Serbian.
Simple, approachable language gives way to vivid imagery, centering on the essence of life and death. Nature is the conduit of his exploration into all that is divine and earthbound. The landscape of his homeland (and Slovenia’s Dolenjska region specifically) features repeatedly as the essential element in revering nature and comprehending the unknown. He directs the reader’s attention to the beauty of a single moment in time, and affection for the soil beneath one’s feet. It is throughout the scope of his work that Pavček describes the innocent magnificence of nature and the nobility that exists in the love and labor of his countrymen.
His collection, Poems and Years, appearing in both his native Slovene and English, is divided into four sections, with each focusing on a different theme. It must be noted, though, quite unfortunately, that a measure of Pavček’s simple language has been lost in the English translation.
The collection’s first segment is entitled Earth, and centers on the author’s home in Slovenia’s Dolenjska region, capturing images of rural life in the Balkans. Friends and acquaintances also make appearances in his work solidifying its universal appeal, as do other regions of Slovenia, such as Istria (near the coast). Using the natural beauty of our world, Pavček investigates man’s unending search for God and translates the Slovene love of the outdoors into a quest for the celestial.
The second section, Love, encompasses the complex disposition of the human heart and the author’s lifetime of unrequited and lost love, but also devotes one subsection to his wife and another to the subject of meetings and partings. Pavček records the love he has encountered both through the eyes of youth and the memories of an old man.
Dark Dawn, the third segment of the collection, takes a thematically darker turn. It is here that the otherwise joyful author faces one of the most tragic events in his life: the suicide of his son, Marko, in 1979. Although Pavček touches on the subject of death in other areas of his work, this particular compilation is truly overflowing with sorrow. Here, he is a father devastated, coping the only way he knows how, clearly trying to comprehend the act and the motivation behind it. His sympathy is placed center stage in the opening lines of “A Soul”:
He thought he wasn’t worth it,
And moved away forever
to stay with the stars and shadows,
not the only from Slovenian meadows.
Beyond this, Pavček also examines the consequences of a person’s death, suicide or otherwise, filling pages with what is left behind. He designates suicide as a truly Slovene affliction (Slovene suicide rates are among the highest in Europe) and wavers between the sorrow of its frequency and compassion, both for those who have been lost and those who must press on.
The final chapter of the collection, Ripening Eternity, serves as a much needed pick-me-up following the hardships of Dark Dawn. Here, the author regains his sense of self, returning to his sincere worship of the essence of life. From the great expanse of space to the power of simple words and silence, Pavček even chooses to examine the artistic process in “The Word”:
When you no more choose the word,
when yourself you sense its signs,
when with sound the right verb, heard
in the yet unwritten lines,
brings together all the nimble
vowels and rhymes to formation,
you’re played on as a cymbal
of nature’s inspiration.
Pavček’s legacy is one of the human spirit. It speaks all languages, sleeps within every landscape and is known to every heart. With every page, he struggles as we do to find a single ray of sunlight in an icy winter’s eve and to meet each day with kindness. In doing so, he unravels the most ancient of human mysteries.
“Why are we here?” We ask.
“To be the sun,” he answers.