Anchor in the Shadows
Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer,
translated by Robin Fulton. New Directions Books, 2006.
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year, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature approaches,
partisans of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer hold a collective breath,
hoping against hope. A win for their man is unlikely for a number of
reasons. One is the residual fallout from 1974 when the Swedish Academy
gave the prize to two of its own members, Harry Martinson and Eyvind
Johnson. Both were fine writers, but the appearance of nepotism was
impossible to avoid. No Swede—no Scandinavian—has won the prize since.
There’s also the unfortunate fact that the choice of recipient often
seems guided as much by politics as by literary considerations. Tranströmer
is not an apolitical poet, but there is nothing about him—no confinement
by the state, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Joseph Brodsky, no sense that
he speaks for his people, like Heaney or Walcott, no rabid opposition to
the United States, as with Pinter—to excite the more narrowly political.
Tranströmer has hardly languished in obscurity. Since 1975, when Robert
Bly included him, along with Gunar Ekelöf and the aforementioned Harry
Martinsson in the anthology Friends, You Drank Some Darkness (the title is taken from Tranströmer’s
poem “Elegy”), his reputation has been steadily on the rise. Today he
is widely recognized as one of the best poets alive, largely on the
strength of translations of his work into fifty languages. In addition to
Bly, May Swenson, Rika Lesser, Don Coles, John F. Deane, Samuel Charters,
and Robin Robertson have all produced English versions of Tranströmer’s
quietly startling poems. While the quality of these efforts has varied
considerably, the poet’s voice—subdued, austere, rueful, kind—has
come through relatively intact. Robin Fulton, a Scottish poet long
resident in Norway, has been one of Tranströmer’s most tireless
translators and advocates, and his new collection, The
Great Enigma: New Collected Poems represents the first time all of the
poet’s work has been available in one volume in English.
What most distinguishes Tranströmer’s poetry is an almost preternatural knack for metaphor. This was obvious in his first book (1954) from the first lines of the first poem, “Prelude”:
Waking up is a
parachute jump from dreams.
of the suffocating turbulence the traveler
toward the green zone of morning.
to these from “Streets in Shanghai” (1989)
surrounded by signs I can’t interpret, I’m totally illiterate.
I’ve paid what I should and have receipts for everything.
accumulated so many illegible receipts.
an old tree with withered leaves that hang on and can’t fall to the
a puff of air from the sea makes all those receipts rustle.
to the first strophe of “Snow Is Falling” (2004):
and more of them
the traffic signs
we approach a city.
of the metaphors is startling and sheds new light on a common experience.
At the same time, each seems, in retrospect, to emerge naturally from its
subject, in part because the poet makes so little fuss about what he is
doing, in part because his sly sense of humor leads us to lower our
defenses. Tranströmer isn’t a comic poet, but he can be quite funny,
albeit usually in the service of a serious point. When, in the poem “On
the Outskirts of Work,” he says “The moon of leisure circles the
planet Work / with its mass and weight,” this reader, at least, has to
chuckle, albeit through gritted teeth. Or take the gallows humor (though
“gallows” isn’t quite the
word) in “Balakirev’s Dream,” which feels like a cross between The
Seventh Seal and Life of Brian:
He turned to the nearest sailor,
signs despairingly and begged:
yourself, like me, cross yourself!”
sailor stared sadly like a blind man,
out his hands, sank his head—
hung as if nailed in the air.
of Tranströmer’s chief preoccupations is with the difficulty, or even
impossibility, of communication. That’s not a surprising concern for a
poet, particularly in the modern era, but Tranströmer is at once more
obsessive and less hectoring on the subject than some others. Unlike many
poets who share his reservations about language, he seldom embodies those
difficulties by “problematizing” and dislocating everyday speech. In
terms of syntax, he can be as straightforward as Billy Collins:
of all who come with words, words but no language
make my way to the snow-covered island.
untamed has no words.
unwritten pages spread out on every side!
come upon the tracks of deer in the snow.
but no words.
a superficial level, this has similarities—the setting,
especially—with the “deep image” school that Robert Bly inaugurated
with Silence in the Snowy Fields. Indeed, Tranströmer has said that he
recognized Bly as a kind of kindred spirit upon reading that book, and the
two have been friends for decades. The differences are at least as
important as the similarities, though. Bly shies away from editorial
comment on the images in those poems, on the assumption that an explicated
image is necessarily a limited or shallow one. Here, by way of contrast,
Tranströmer provides a rather neat summary of what the deer tracks, at
least in the context of the poem, mean. He doesn’t seem at all
worried—nor need he be—that the last line will exhaust that image of
tracks in snow. It doesn’t.
an American reader of the above lines, it’s natural to think of the man
in Frost’s “The Most of It,” and his desire for “counter-speech,
original response.” The question at the end of that poem is whether or
not the buck that vanishes into the brush constitutes such a response. Is
the world intentional, or not? Only if it is can it be meaningful in the
sense that language is. With his usual canny ambivalence, Frost refuses to
point us in one direction or the other. Tranströmer is a Christian poet,
though not a churchgoing one, and he answers that question in the
affirmative. I suspect it’s one of the reasons—aside from temperament
and sheer talent—for his facility with metaphor.
is also a political aspect to this concern with truth and words: Tranströmer
returns often to the ways in which language is cheapened and perverted. In
some cases his target is the sloganeering and advertising speech of the
West—“Speed is power, / speed is power! / Play the game, the show must
go on!” (“The Gallery”), or the negative consequences of American
power, as when he walks through Washington D.C. and remarks on “White
buildings in crematorium style/where the dream of the poor turns to ash”
(“The Indoors Is Endless”). At least as often, though, he has
considered the situation of those living behind the Iron Curtain,
particularly in the Baltic countries (then Soviet republics) Estonia,
Latvia, and Lithuania. In his longest and perhaps greatest poem, Baltics
(1974), he writes of
places where citizens are under control,
their thoughts are made with emergency exits,
a conversation between friends really becomes a test of what friendship
context is part of what keeps Tranströmer’s writing on the difficulties
of expression from ever seeming like mere shoptalk. The poet in a free
society is free of many of the constraints that a dictatorship places on
speech, but with that greater freedom comes responsibility: “Every
phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an
epitaph,” Eliot wrote in Four
Quartets, which Tranströmer has acknowledged as an important
influence on Baltics. Writing is
a matter of life and death, an act that defines the individual by at once
articulating and effecting his relationship to others, to political
structures, and to the non-human world:
30th. The Strait has become eccentric—swarming with jellyfish
today for the first time in years, they pump themselves forward calmly and
patiently, they belong to the same line: Aurelia,
they drift like flowers after a sea burial, if you take them out of the
water their entire form vanishes, as when an indescribable truth is lifted
out of silence and formulated into an inert mass, but they are
untranslatable, they must stay in their own element.
2nd. Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
which can’t be said,
are no words, but perhaps a style . . .
can wake in the small hours
down a few words
the nearest paper, a newsprint margin
words radiate meaning!)
in the morning: the same words say nothing, scrawls, slips of the tongue.
fragments of the high nocturnal style that drew past?
is in some ways the best place for a new reader of Tranströmer to start;
it develops more slowly than his shorter pieces, and his metaphors, though
as striking here as elsewhere, reveal themselves more gradually. As the
title implies, the poem is set in the Baltic Sea, on the island of Gotland,
and in the Stockholm archipelago, where the poet has throughout his life
retreated to his family’s summer cottage. The Baltic is Tranströmer’s
archetypal environment, with its mixture of sea and islands, of sweet and
salt water and, at least during the Cold War, of democracies and
poem also constitutes a profound meditation on the nature of the human
person. Immediately following the lines quoted above comes the story of a
composer in an unnamed country, presumably behind the Iron Curtain, who is
first praised by the authorities, then condemned, then, after his official
“rehabilitation,” crippled by a stroke:
. . cerebral hemorrhage: paralysis on the right side with aphasia, can
grasp only short phrases, says the wrong words.
the reach of elegy or execration.
the music’s left, he keeps composing in his own style,
the rest of his days he becomes a medical sensation.
wrote music to texts he no longer understood—
the same way
express something through our lives
the humming chorus full of mistaken words.
identity is sacred to Tranströmer, and he is repelled by anything—the
state, the crowd, a church, that threatens to subsume it. The critic
Staffan Bergsten has pointed out that while there are strains of mysticism
in the poet’s work, it is never of the variety in which the self is
simply dissolved in the divine. I wonder if Tranströmer’s professional
experiences have also contributed to this reverence for the lower-cased
self (as opposed to the Self of eastern metaphysics). He spent his working
life as a psychologist, often counseling troubled youths, and he must know
better than most how fragile and precious a thing a functional self is.
Those moments in his poetry when he experiences its death are terrible and
panic-inducing, as in “The Name”:
grow sleepy during the car journey and I drive in under the trees at the
side of the road. I curl up in the back seat and sleep. For how long?
Hours. Dusk has fallen.
I’m awake and don’t know where I am. Wide awake, but it doesn’t
help. Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that wakens in a back seat,
twists about in panic like a cat in a sack. Who?
last my life returns. My name appears like an angel. Outside the walls a
trumpet signal blows (as in the Leonora
Overture) and the rescuing footsteps come down the overlong stairway. It
is I! It is I!
impossible to forget the fifteen-second struggle in the hell of oblivion,
a few meters from the main road, where the traffic drives past with its
process of waking is perhaps as close as we come in our ordinary lives to
the movement from non-being to being, and images of dreams, sleep, and
waking are so common in Tranströmer’s work as to be almost omnipresent.
For him the transitional states between sleep and waking, public and
private, past and present, are so many entrances to what Robin Fulton
calls “a central space,” a space onto which the individual person, in
his or her depths, opens as well. It is out of that central space, that
presence or absence, that the poems emerge, and to which they return.
In a poem from the early 1980s, “Carillon,” the poet widens his perspective to include the suprahuman, a move that does not so much leave the human behind, as clarify its relative place in the scheme of things:
lie on the bed with my arms outstretched
am an anchor that has dug itself down and holds steady the huge shadow
floating up there
great unknown that I am a part of and which is certainly more important
that’s deep imagery. Stretched
out in the form of an anchor, the speaker also resembles a cross, and, by
implication, an inverted cross, like the one on which Peter, who didn’t
judge himself worthy of dying in the same manner as Christ, was crucified.
I wish that Fulton had ended the final line of his translation with the
subjective form of the first person pronoun, I, as Tranströmer does in
the Swedish, not simply because it would have been more correct to do so,
but because it would have been another way to highlight the central
importance of identity to this poet.
there is a moving humility to the lines quoted, it is a relative, not an
absolute, humility. If the speaker is less important than the great
unknown, he is nevertheless its anchor here in the world of becoming, not
so much by virtue of his poetic gifts, as by his status as a human being.
In the poem “Romanesque Arches,” Tranströmer sketches with admirable
economy the depths and heights contained with the human person:
the huge Romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.
gaped behind vault, no complete view.
few candle flames flickered.
angel with no face embraced me
whispered through my whole body:
be ashamed of being human, be proud!
you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”
was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka, and Signora Sabatini,
inside each of them vault opened behind vault endlessly.
can occasionally be gained in
the translation—for example, the cascade of rhymes down the above
lines—me, body, endlessly, be, Sabatini, endlessly—that has no
equivalent in the original.
Tranströmer is a quiet poet, and in 1989 he got quieter in an all too
literal sense, when, in what seemed the fulfillment of an unintentional
prophecy made in Baltics, a
stroke crippled his right side and deprived him of most of his ability to
speak. He still plays the piano, albeit with one hand, and he still gives
interviews and entertains visitors, though his wife Monica has to
interpret his mumbled words. Parallel to this health crisis has been the
poet’s movement toward shorter and shorter poems, a process which has
presumably (though not necessarily) reached its limit in his most recent
collection, Den stora gåtan (The Great Enigma), which consists almost entirely of haiku. Though
these poems may be the logical result of Tranströmer’s development, and
though they were widely praised in Sweden, where the poet is rightly
revered, they are not his strongest work. Still, even this volume contains
some gems, like “Snow is Falling,” from which I quoted earlier, and
which reads, in its entirety:
funerals keep coming
and more of them
the traffic signs
we approach a city.
of people gazing
the land of long shadows.
bridge builds itself
out in space.
Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield
defined the appreciation of poetry as an activity that produces “a felt
change in consciousness,” and it is just such a change that Tranströmer,
through his metaphorical readings of the world, produces time and again in
the reader. He is not often compared with James Merrill—in fact, he may
never have been, in many ways the two are as different as can be—but I
can think of no other post-war American poet who can match him in this
regard. To read him is to gain access to the world in a richer, more
profound way, to be admitted, as he once put it, “to the real
celebration, quiet as death.”
Fulton deserves considerable credit for this labor of love, which has been
ongoing for over thirty five years. The translations included in The
Great Enigma are, for the most part, both readable—as I hope the
quotations above demonstrate—and faithful. The introduction is succinct
and helpful—particularly the suggestion that the reader not proceed in
chronological order, since the poet’s earliest work is denser and less
accessible than what followed. Excerpts from Tranströmer’s
autobiographical prose and from letters that comment on specific poems
provide helpful poetic, personal, and cultural context.
I do have several reservations, the first having to do with matters of
poetic form. Tranströmer writes metrically far more often than most of
his foreign readers might guess. Metrical poems predominate in his first
volume, where they tend to be either in blank verse or Sapphics, and
though the poet followed the general drift of European and American poetry
toward free verse, he never abandoned meter altogether. It’s obvious
that Fulton, in rendering the metrical poems, has tried to follow the
meters of the originals when he thought it advisable, but the results are
mixed. Poems that are in blank verse in the originals are only very
roughly so in the translations, and the result is not always pleasing to
the ear. In a few cases, Fulton dispenses with meter altogether, a
procedure to which Tranströmer himself, in one of the letters cited here,
gives his blessing. In others, he holds doggedly to the meter of the
original, gracefulness be damned.
There are also a few inaccuracies here and there in the book, word choices that simply seem mistaken, as opposed to misguided. While I would hope that these are corrected in a future printing, they do not, for the most part, seriously mar the translations. One exception is the poem “Air Mail,” where Fulton renders the penultimate stanza like this:
here work goes slowly.
ogle the clock often.
tree-shadows are black ciphers
the greedy silence.
Swedish word translated here as “ogle” is snegla,
which in fact means, roughly, “to look at out of the corner of one’s
eye.” The word translated as “ciphers” is, in the original, siffror, that is, “figures” or “numbers.” Now, at 4:15 on a
Friday afternoon, I may well look at the clock in a way that could be
described as “ogling.” By the same token, numerical figures might as
well be ciphers, for all the sense I can usually make of them. Still,
it’s hard not to read the above lines as a distortion, rather than a
translation, of Tranströmer’s meaning.
word about the physical volume in which the poems appear: I would have
liked to have had the Swedish originals printed en
face; Swedish and English are closely enough related languages that
readers without a knowledge of the former might still have benefitted from
the opportunity to compare the texts, especially in those not infrequent
cases where the poet uses an English word or phrase. The title “Air
Mail” for example, is identical in both the English and Swedish
versions, while the phrase, “The show must go on,” which I quoted
earlier, is in English in the original. I realize that this suggestion
leaves me open to charges of insensitivity regarding the financial
constraints under which publishers of poetry have to operate. I don’t
wish to seem ungrateful: New Directions has done a service to the English
speaking world by publishing the present volume.
began rereading Tranströmer’s work for this review on a train ride from
Philadelphia to Boston. At one point I glanced up from the page to the
small town we were passing through. Or rather, passing by, since there
were signs—a taffy shop, a seafood shack, something about the broad
swath of grass that separated the railroad tracks from the main street,
combined with impressions from a few minutes earlier—that the ocean must
be to our immediate right. And it was, battleship grey and choppy at high
tide, and, thanks to the grade of the track, seemingly level with the
windows across the aisle from me. To look up from the page just then was,
fittingly enough, to find myself at a point in space and time uncannily
like those I’d encountered in the poems. It was a dizzying, joyful
moment, another glimpse of “the real celebration” for which I am
grateful to this poet.