Tomas Transtromer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986

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“I am the turnstile”: Roaming with Tomas Tranströmer

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Learning last Thursday that Tomas Tranströmer had won the Nobel Prize for literature felt like good news about an old friend. It even came via Twitter, the medium that delivers so much of my news these days. Of course, “old friend” is a gross overstatement, and this is really good news about someone I’ve long admired who has no idea I exist. But Tranströmer is that kind of poet, the kind who has come to feel like a friend in the fifteen or so years since I picked up the Robert Hass edited Selected Poems 1954-1986 during my undergraduate work-study job shelving books in the University of Massachusetts library. On each shift I sought out a cart of books headed for the fourteenth floor, international literature, where after clearing the cart I could find something to read. I worked my way from one country or region to another with no clearer direction than what looked interesting and what was translated. The Scandinavian stacks were those I returned to most often, for Lars Gustafsson and Halldór Laxness and Tomas Tranströmer, all three of whom remain favorites.

I’m not a poet, and I can’t claim any great expertise on the canon or even a particularly adept poetically critical mind. So as thrilled as I was by Tranströmer’s recognition, there seemed little I could add to what so many others had already said: biography and context from the Washington Post, New York Times, and NPR; expert commentary from poets Paul Muldoon and from Robin Robertson, one of Transtömer’s translators; and a series of smart, engaging tweets from Teju Cole, later gathered in essay form. Beside those sharp minds, I’m a rank amateur at best, so it seemed like one of those times when it’s more fruitful to listen than to speak. But when I read the Boston Globe’s dismissal of Tranströmer as “an elderly Swedish poet virtually unknown outside his homeland,” and their claim his selection “serves only to highlight the oft-noted gap between the literary establishment and the people who actually consume literature,” it felt necessary to speak up with the voice of an amateur. Not only because, as Hass wrote in his 1987 introduction, Tranströmer “has been translated into English more regularly than any European poet of the postwar generation” so is hardly unknown, but because what I like best about his poems is their celebration of the alert, inquisitive mind — of “amateurism” in its best sense.

In a 1989 interview, Tranströmer said,
I had a dream of becoming an explorer. Our heroes were Livingston and Stanley, people like that. In my imagination I was always going to Africa and other parts of the world. But in reality I was staying in Stockholm and in summers we went to the Archipelago, to the islands, which was my paradise. After the war of course I wanted to go abroad and see the world. My mother had never been abroad in her whole life but I wanted to go.
A bit later, the interviewer suggested to Tranströmer, “I don’t get the feeling from your poems that you think of yourself as a wanderer,” and the poet agreed he is “rooted in the landscape, sights, experiences” and weather of Sweden, and in the country itself. That apparent contradiction, the desire to be an explorer and the desire to stay in one place, gives his poems an attention to place that is rare and honest and rich. Something Thoreauvian, for lack of a better word, and it’s no coincidence that Tranströmer’s first book, 1954’s 17 Poems, includes “Five Stanzas to Thoreau” which begins (in May Swenson’s translation),
One more has fled the heavy city,
its ring of starved stones. Clear and salty are
the waters that immerse all
rebels’ heads.
His poems return often to moments of quiet while the world is asleep. Sometimes it’s to meditate on the secret lives of barns and trees, and at others to pin down fleeting moments that slip away as soon they happen, as in “Track” (1954), and later in Bly’s translation of “Guard Duty” (1973):
Task: to be where I am.
Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd
role: I am still the place
where creation works on itself.
Eloquent as he is on the natural world, Tranströmer is no idealist who ignores the more mundane, manufactured landscape around him, and that — for me — is what makes these more than “nature poems.” His landscapes contain machinery and factories and rusted cars, and not for derision and contrast but because they, too, belong to the fullness of the everyday world. His attention is sweeping and fair, not selective, and it is honest as in his 1966 poem “On the Outskirts of Work,” as translated by Robin Fulton:
In the middle of work
we start longing fiercely for wild greenery,
for the Wilderness itself, penetrated only
by the thin civilization of the telephone wires.
Those wires are jarring, but familiar; this is the “wilderness” into which most of us are more likely to go. This is wild abandon in our backyards or on the edges of our neighborhoods, spaces as liminal as those between asleep and awake. Or between life and death, as in perhaps my favorite stanza of Tranströmer’s, from “Solitude” (1966). Describing the drawn out seconds of his car skidding on ice, after losing control but before the impact, he writes (via Bly’s translation),
It felt as if you could just take it easy
and loaf a bit
before the smash came.
I prefer this translation of Bly’s to Fulton’s rendition, included in Hass’ Selected Poems, in which the same stanza reads,
You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
It’s no expert opinion, only my own idiosyncratic reading, but I suppose I enjoy the almost laughing shrug of “loaf a bit” to Fulton’s more resigned breathing out, and the immediacy of “smash” to “crushed.” I can’t say which is closer to Tranströmer’s original Swedish, only that the voice I hear in his poems has a mild, winking humor closer to Bly’s. So while Fulton’s The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems was more recently updated in 2006 and is more complete, and though Hass’ Selected Poems 1954-1986 was my introduction, I think I’ve come to prefer Bly’s The Half-Finished Heaven because of that voice. But a better bet is to read these poems across as many versions as are available, discovering moments of conversation between translators as provocative as those in-between spaces of the poems themselves. Fortunately, owing to this award, the existing books should be readily available and more should follow.

Tomas Tranströmer wanted to grow up to be an explorer, and he’s done so: he’s a surveyor of quiet frontiers, of the brief, daily border crossings between one possible life and another — the crossings we make in secret moments, perhaps just a few seconds, when we allow ourselves to imagine or to wonder or to just pay attention. Lately I’ve been reading The Secret World of Doing Nothing, a study by Swedish anthropologists Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren of “what is happening when, to all appearances, absolutely nothing is happening.” A problem that comes up again and again as they interpret strangers waiting in lines or killing time is the struggle to plumb the depths of another mind in such moments: how far afield do they wander, and where do they roam? Tranströmer’s poems offer myriad answers, a humanist bridge between the individual and the collective through moments that might seem to lead nowhere.

As I think about the poet rendered speechless and of limited mobility by a stroke during these last two decades, and as I anticipate his Nobel acceptance to come in the form of a one-handed piano recital, it’s tempting to look to the final stanza of “Morning Birds” (1966), as translated by Gunnar Harding and Frederic Will:
Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It is growing, it takes my place
It pushes me out of its way.
It throws me out of the nest.
Robin Fulton does just that in the introduction to The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. But I prefer a less dramatic image, from the final lines of “Guard Duty”:
They’re just out there:

a murmuring mass outside the barrier.
They can only slip in one by one.
They want to slip in. Why? They do
one by one. I am the turnstile.
His poetry — and perhaps the visibility this award will bring — is a turnstile allowing movement in all directions, letting us carry what we discover on one side of the border across to the other. And what we carry are moments, quick and eternal at once, epic explorations made in the small space of a few seconds. There’s a line that concludes 1973’s “Elegy,” again via Bly: “Experience, its beautiful slag.” I’ve wandered the landscape of that line for years, testing different directions without ever quite settling between reading it this way and reading it that, but always, in the process, gaining experience and piling up slag of my own. An industrial metaphor, a byproduct easy to curse and condemn, but also molten and glowing and the burning mark of something accomplished. A line like that, and not only the line but its enigma, is — for me — the reason Tranströmer is more than simple and also more than complex, more than some obscure Swedish poet and much more than the Boston Globe gives him credit for. And why I’m so pleased to see his poetry honored.

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