Author of the Week / 16 August 2023

Dimensions of vulnerability

Author of the Week: Slovenia

On contemporary Slovenian poetry

I stood in front of my bookshelf and contemplated what poetry collections that occupy the space had in common. The first thought that struck me was that the poetics of these Slovenian authors opened up to the world, and they did so specifically, broadly, all-encompassingly, vibrating in every pore of their existence. At times, it seemed as if they wanted to be almost one with the reader. Perhaps not just one with the reader, but one with everything, inclusive. The experiences of existence in the poems did not question whether they were good or bad, they simply were, like life itself, standing here before us and saying everything that is. As Ntozake Shange wrote in her poem: ‘we need a god who bleeds now / whose wounds are not the end of anything’.

Wounds that become poems do not become something final but something that grows, acquires meaning, takes shape, forms an image and encompasses all the shadowy aspects of vulnerability. As Christa Anbeek writes in her article The courage to be vulnerable: philosophical considerations: ‘vulnerability’ stems from the Latin vulnus, a wound or hurt; but vulnus, in turn, derives from the Indo-European root *vul, referring to skin without hair (vello), and thus ties vulnerability to nakedness. 


The vulnerability of light

The ways in which light in a being can be exposed to vulnerability and even death can be found in the poem ‘le phare de petit minou’ by Kristian Koželj, where he says: you’re light / you’re alone / the more you’re light / the more you’re alone / the more it’s night / the more it’s death.

Approaching darkness was similarly described by Rebecca Solnit in her essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost, where she says that we should ‘Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.’ Koželj’s light in the poem travels the path from a sense of solitude to a sense of death, knowing that it resides significantly in the intertwining of light and darkness, which are never definitive but continually reoccurring. Just like in the poem ‘dia de los muerto’, the light of the body, despite all its vulnerability, is the one that continues the journey:

... as if the souls once again lost their
homes in this world.
you keep going on,
though my skin is getting thinner,
light is shining through it,
glowing in many colours.
a thread unwinds from my body and
gets entangled between your tiny fingers.

In the next poem, Koželj promotes compassion, which Slovenian philosopher Branko Klun defines as sensitivity towards others. French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called this sensitivity responsibility for the other, where it is not merely an emotion but also requires reason, that is, proper understanding or awareness. Klun continues by stating that the starting point should be the recognition that we share the same ‘humanity’ with the other. Levinas says that what the word God is supposed to mean can only be understood through the ethical depth of interpersonal relationships, which Koželj portrays in his poem:

somebody had to be the first to say
let there be light / somebody had to. /… I love you. like a son. / I have never had a son.
but if I did I would have / loved him as I love you.

As already mentioned, the poems from Kristian Koželj’s collection Muzej zaključenih razmerij (Museum of Completed Relationships), are an expression of constant awakening and the search for ontological reality, similar to Tillich’s perspective, where it is an ‘ontological reality that perpetually threatens to undermine the order of things. In human terms, to live under the threat of nonbeing is to live in a condition of finitude with the constant possibility of failure, disintegration, and death.’ According to Klun, the essence of transcendence is to raise awareness of what we experience in everyday life. The path to transcendence does not involve climbing to speculative heights but rather recognising that something transcendent can be born in ‘the barn of our life’. I think faith has a key place here.

The vulnerability of birthing

Ana Pepelnik’s poem ‘Tehno’, which appeared in her eponymous collection, is a masterpiece of vulnerability, brutally carving into the cycle of life/death/life. I often read it as a prayer because it is one of the few poems where I find something that is at the bottom, but always, in an extraordinary yet familiar way, opens up the womb of life, simultaneously crushing and elevating the reader. When I first read it, a thought crossed my mind: perhaps such a poem could save someone because it disconnects them from the darkness of the earth.

About how I’m not surprised at all / that I feel nothing. About suicide. / That prevents mine. About gratitude. / About how life took away / a friend from me. And soon me. About the child / or two. Both born from this belly / under this sheet and this pencil. / That they don’t need a mother. Not this kind of mother. / That there is nothing. That everything has drained away / saying fuck you. That’s how it is. Find something / that lifts you up. But there was nothing. Just a / straight line without colours. Smell. Taste.

The theme of birthing or describing what birth brings forth rarely appears in contemporary Slovenian poetry. With utmost directness, Pepelnik questions a new world that emerges, a world that accepts the vulnerability of the newborn and the vulnerability of the one giving birth. In the case of the poem “tehno”, the fundamental openness of the inevitable event influences the reader, with the power of all human beings, in the specific context of birthing and perhaps also in the portrayal of what is often concealed. Words like ‘umbilical cord’, ‘blood’ and ‘filth’ cut into the reader’s skin, awakening us with their bodily poetry that screams to actually exist somewhere beyond words. In a way, this poem attempts to capture everything that happens during birth, even though the author herself is likely aware that it is impossible to capture everything. Pepelnik describes the vulnerability of everything that is and exists when a birth takes place, or even before, as ‘hell vice paradise’. The transitional spaces of this part of the poem are like experiencing a trance, from which two hands, two legs, a belly and a head emerge. Pepelnik does not avoid real images and replace them with metaphors, but rather bursts forth with all the woundedness that gives birth to a new child and ultimately a new woman.

But still, a child. And then I
went and took Ariel from the shelf. And now I read her differently.
How crazy it is, people. Men, do you really know what
happens to your woman when she gives birth? When she’s birthing before she gives birth?
Hell vice paradise. There is no pain. Everything is before
and after. And the redeeming cry. Two hands, two legs,
belly, head, taking in air. Sob. Inhale, exhale,
gasp. Blood, umbilical cord. It’s all a mess. Aesthetic
mess that emerges from within. A new woman
is being born to you. To herself. And her child. Who is yours.


The vulnerability of body

Similar to Ana Pepelnik’s portrayal of the vulnerability of birthing, in the collection ranerane by poet Anja Novak, the body takes centre stage, particularly in the section titled ‘Kostne’. In the poems, the author’s body strives to reach its own autonomous voice, which is somewhat separate from the lyrical subject. The courage with which the author operates in verbalising and thereby breaking stereotypes about what anorexia should be is evident mainly in questioning, and establishing a dialogue with the other rather than with one’s own body. If anyone understands the issue of wasting away, it is likely the body itself that understands. Feminist studies differ in their perception and interpretation of the body in the context of anorexia, often incorporating socio-political and social contexts, as well as the gap between the body and the mind or the metaphor of anorexia as one’s inability to control other aspects of life and having to rely on the body which one can control. Anja’s poetry resists this notion to some extent because the body in her poetry writes on its own, expressing what it can and what it seeks, as seen in the poems ‘Antitelo’ (Antibody) and ‘Anoreksija’ (Anorexia):

How can I accept
myself into the home
of my own body?


Jungian psychoanalyst and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés might call this singing over the bones and questioning what lies beyond all of this, what lies beyond these aching bones, what hides behind them, as one of the important questions in the fairy tale of Bluebeard: where do you think those doors are and what could be hiding behind them? Behind the doors are likely skeletons, but bones are an archetype of the indestructible, constantly thrown back into the world:

Amor Exia

I need you, body.
To speak
on my behalf.
Fractured body.
My voice too weak.
The body doesn’t lie.
Don’t leave me,
undernourished body.
To be without illness,
to be merely
a vessel
for abuses.
Through the fractures,
you give me
the right
to choose, time,
and peace,
the right
to take myself
only myself,
to take my life,
to finally
truly be mine.

Although everything, all life force, can be squeezed out of bones, as expressed in the poem ‘Amor Exia’, when the voice is too weak, returning to seek the skeleton destroys destructive energy. It becomes an act of courage and awareness, realising that despite the bones, life truly becomes the lyrical subject’s own. The vulnerable body thus transforms into a space where it is capable of acquiring flesh.

The vulnerability of memory

A few years ago, I led creative workshops in a dementia department, where I had the opportunity to get to know people who couldn’t control what was happening to their memory and were in various stages of memory loss. At first, I was quite afraid of working with them, but I was interested in the experience, especially because my own grandfather was losing touch with his memory at that time and was losing connection with the world around him. While we may question the representations of dementia in films and theatre, whether it is ethical or not to have a person with dementia portrayed by someone with dementia, literature is a safe medium that protects these individuals, while still depicting the depth of their distress, both for the person losing their memory and for those helplessly observing it.

The vulnerability that a person experiences when their memory starts to fade can be perceived in the poem ‘Na obisku’ (On a Visit) by Aljaž Koprivnikar from the collection Anatomija (Anatomy), where we confront reaching for memories that are no longer there, that are faint, hazy or lost. The loss of memory leading to the inability to carry on a conversation and respond to the environment is evident in Koprivnikar’s poems in the section ‘Anatomy of Memory’:

With kindness you water flowers behind the balcony door.
In the winter cold you unknowingly murder them.
With kindness you offer me rotting fruit.
You unknowingly bring forth a discolouration of childhood days.
You ask me what I am writing.

For the fourth time you ask me what I am writing.

Images from nature, which somehow attempt to soften the image of the place we find ourselves in – a nursing home for the elderly. Words surround us with tenderness towards the body that is fading away: ‘my hands embrace the emptiness /... I caress your withered hair and fingers’. What remains when the body ages and actually loses the ability to care for itself, as Koprivnikar continues in the poem:

Now you are here, squeezed into a small fold, / in a wheelchair, a wounded child, / as I wipe your wet chin / and feed you through the wire / with voices of languages / incomprehensible to you.

In the next poem titled ‘Perhaps You Will Regret That It Took Your Whole Life to Learn How to Live?’, the last stanza of the poem says:

could they fly if you weren’t here
if somewhere someone (you) wouldn’t laugh
at that end of this world and in his head believed
that humans are the only creatures
capable of crying
capable of blushing
capable of laughing and
kissing with lips

Koprivnikar in this poem clarifies ways of vulnerability that can offer the possibility of flying if only we had the courage to embrace them.

Translated by Manca Suvajac

Christa Anbeek: The courage to be vulnerable: philosophical considerations. International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, 2021, 82:1, 64–76, DOI: 10.1080/21692327.2021.1880962
Clarisa Pinkola Estes: Ženske, ki tečejo z volkovi: miti in zgodbe o arhetipu Divje ženske. Založba Eno, 2003. Translated by Vera Črtalič.
À. Lorena Fuster, Elena Laurenzi, Fina Birulés and Teresa Hoogeveen: “Fragments of vulnerability in women’s philosophy.” Dictionnaire du genre en traduction / Dictionary of Gender in Translation / Diccionario del género en traducción. ISSN: 2967-3623. Published on 25 May 2021.
Aljaž Koprivnikar: Anatomija. Center za slovensko književnost, 2019.
Kristian Koželj: Muzej zaključenih razmerij. Književno društvo Hiša poezije, 2018.
Anja Novak – Anjuta: ranerane. Sanje, 2020.
Ana Pepelnik: Tehno. LUD Šerpa, 2017.


Katja Gorečan

Katja Gorečan (1989) graduated in comparative literature and has a master’s degree in dramaturgy and performing arts. In 2012, she published the work The Suffering of Young Hana (Center za slovensko književnost) with which she was nominated for the Jenko Prize and the Biennial of Young Artists of the Mediterranean. In 2017 she published her choreopoem Neke noči neke deklice nekje umirajo (In Some Nights Some Girls Somewhere are Dying). In 2023, she received the Borštnik Award for the best dramatic text at the Shadow of the Pandemic competition for her drama The Activists. She was nominated for the kritiško sito award, the kresnik award and the Cankarjeva award with her debut novel, Materinska knjižica (Maternity Booklet, 2022).


Photo by Andraž Purg