Dave Russell on
Tomas Tranströmer – New Collected Poems
(Trs Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books 2011)
In Seamus Heaney’s words: “In its delicate hovering between the responsibilities of the social world and the invitations of a world of possibly numinous reality, Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry permits us to be happily certain of our own uncertainties.”
From the start, I found a feeling of exploration – going into uncharted territory equipped with the latest technology. His frame of reference is apparent in the opener, 'Prelude' – 'Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams'. The natural and the man-made are fused in his imagery – ‘the sun’s turbine’. There is also the fusion of ancient and contemporary in '. . . The bronze-age trumpet’s/outlawed note/hovers above the bottomless depths.' Also mortal life and post-mortem ‘the crash through death’s turbulence’. In 'Autumnal Archipelago' there is a sense of the vast expanses of Scandinavia – animal and vegetable kingdoms fused in the comparison of an oak tree to a petrified elk. 'Five Stanzas to Thoreau' celebrates organic growth. The dedication obviously relates to Thoreau’s book Walden, which celebrates living in a natural environment.
Gogol was inspired by that heart-rending story The Overcoat, telling of someone who was robbed of a new overcoat in the depth of the Russian winter, and subsequently perished from pneumonia. Marvellous sense of the elements: ‘St Petersburg on the same latitude of annihilation’. The elementally human is absorbed into the elemental environment: '. . . the man who before was surrounded by the herds of laughter/but these have long since taken themselves to tracts far above the tree-line.'
'Sailor’s Yarn' celebrates the near-arctic environment '. . . where day lives in a mine both day and night.' I like the fusion of biological and elemental in ‘waves like pale/lynxes seeking hold in the beach gravel. 'Strophe and Counter-Strophe' – a panoramic view of sea-travel – the outermost circle, from the arctic to the Congo. 'Agitated Meditation' – reference to a windmill – 'The grey shark belly is in your weak lamp'. 'The Stones' – literally, one throws flat stones on water to see if they will bounce; metaphorically, one throws stones into the chasms of time. Then, at a deeper metaphorical level, they are metamorphosed into birds – flying ‘until they’ve reached the furthest plateau/along the frontiers of being’. Interesting idea of the air of the past being thinner than that of the present, and of being turned again to stone – ‘with nowhere to fall to/except ourselves’: are we both stone and water. Context: metaphor transforms the vision of the physical universe: 'The sky has run through its fibres down in the earth'. Similarly in 'Morning Approach' – 'The world is still sleeping like a/multicoloured stone in the water'. The phrase ‘Days – like Aztec hieroglyphs’ indicated the predominance of archaeology in his world vision. 'There is Peace in the Surging Prow' – incredibly condensed imagery: 'this earth/plunges ahead . . . an air current smacks/out of hiding . . .' The overtly animate is included with references to migratory birds (with a ‘secret helm’) and to insects –compared to a quasi musical phenomenon: 'Out of the winter gloom/a tremolo rises//from hidden instruments.' 'Midnight’s Turning Point' – a powerful verbal painting: a microscopic, highly observant ant meditates on a gigantic natural environment. He is described here as riding the oceans on horseback, without his steed’s fee getting wet. He jumps into the sea, ‘a jumping-sheet the compass points hold tight’.
'Song' explores the metaphysical dimensions of a shipwreck. The central ‘character’ Vainamoinen is a god-cum-folk hero central to Finnish mythology, celebrated in the national epic Kalevala. Here is an extraordinary degree of metaphorical transference: 'gulls/dressed in canvas from the sails of foundered ships/but stained by vapours from forbidden shores' the artificial impinges on the natural; the prohibition could be man-induced or elemental. ‘A phosphorescent pathway to the suin’. A massed flight of gulls is a leitmotif. Vainamoinen has a jealous double, a rival in love. I can find a reference to a rival, Joukahainen. I wonder how much Tranströmer has modified the mythology (which, of course, is his right). The herring gull becomes ‘a harpoon with a velvet back; there is a timesweep/irruption of contemporaneity with the mention of a diesel engine. . The sea becomes ‘the mirror-world of calms where the birds/were magnified. The figure ‘the filled white sails of distant suns’ reiterates, and modifies ‘the sails of foundered ships’. 'Elegy' is convoluted. 'There’s a crossroads in a moment'. A tree encapsulates vast spaces and time-spans; vanished cities are hidden in its folds. The third strophe refers to someone disinterred and brought to life; there is an armoured skull, relic of a past conflict, then the crackle of rifles to indicate a contingent conflict; past and present are straddled: '. . . the past expands in its collapse/and darker than the heart’s meteorite . . . the albatross aged to a cloud/in time’s jaws'. 'An absence of spirit makes the writing greedy' – is this a plea for minimalist expressiveness?. There is then a graphic description of a vulnerable ship, its bows shreddedlike rigging –'the cabin’s smashed beneath the torrent’s hooves' (the ocean transformed into a trampling steed) – yet this turmoil is a component of equilibrium – 'within us, balanced like a gyroscope, is joy.' The bows of the ship are transformed into violin bows, and we see ‘the water tundra mirroring itself’. ‘Music’s voiceless half’ excellent: silence is a vital punctuator of any musical form – ‘. . . like the scent of resin round lightning-damaged spruce’ the resin of a violin bow has a vital link to its organic source - ‘. . . runs off to where the Bach trumpet points’ indeed. This remote shore is a place of self-discovery, where one can leave ones ‘self-disguise’ behind.
'Epilogue' encapsulates the author’s feeling about his country and its culture. 'Sweden is a beached/unrigged ship'. The sea is ‘distracted, as if listening to something else’. It touches on parallel universes and alternative reality: 'And beneath the star more and more develops/of the other, hidden landscape, that which lives/the life of contours on the night’s X-ray.' The contradiction of static and kinetic are forced into synthesis: ‘The houses trapped in a dance of immobility, the din like that of dreams.’ In parallel fashion, literal is fused with metaphorical – ‘like clouds of the past that go/scudding in their souls’. There is then a tempestuous thunderstorm, compared to a military parade with raucous bagpipes – ‘A forest on the march!’ The dead accompany the living in the greater journey of life. There is a situation of cosmic flux: 'And the world is always taking down its tent/anew . . the wind hurls earth forward . . . a boulder rolls away in the halls of space.' Great image of seasonal rotation in 'the year kicks off its boots'. History and theology meld: 'God’s spirit, like the Nile: flooding/and sinking in a rhythm calculated/in texts from many epochs.' This suggests a near-tangible God; but then the reader is reminded 'But he is also the immutable'.
Section II: Secrets on the Way
'Solitary Swedish Houses' – 'A mix-max of black spruce and smoking moonbeams’ – a blend of a house’s structural materials and the natural forces which makes it visible. The smoke could come from mist and/or a domestic fire. 'Smoke/mist' is counterpointed with steam from a recently-built laundry, answering the older house. Later on – ‘Perpetual smoke – they’re burning/the forest’s secret papers. Fauna are present’ literally in the form of an owl and a butterfly, metaphorically in the form of ‘the waterfall’s white oxen; flora in the form of a wood desecrated by bark-drillers. Good transferred epithet with ‘flaxen-haired rain’. Marvellous sense of foreboding with ‘God’s energy/coiled up in the dark’. 'The Man Who Awoke With Singing Over the Roofs': a city rises from its slumbers. 'The dream . . . turns transparent': the dreamer is ‘almost in space’. In 'Weather Pictures', the sea has a ‘dorsal fin of mirages’, while in 'The Four Temperaments' 'The probing eye turns the sun’s rays into police batons'; dense, cross-referenced multiple metaphor in ‘A man like an uprooted tree with croaking foliage’; a sense of eternity, of perpetuity: 'The road never comes to an end . . . All the rolling wheels that contradict death'. With 'Caprichos', it would have been useful to have a footnote: ‘Capricho’ is Spanish for caprice; Huelva is a city in Andalusia, Spain. Audio/visual blurring with 'the train-whistle’s flurrying/silver-white bats'. I like the concept of 'weighs/the last daylight on the balance of her eyes' and that of a new constellation called ‘The Horse’ having thrown its rider. 'Siesta' could possibly refer to the same city: lovely soporific feeling in ’The city without weight in the midday hours’ and then counterpointed with ‘Sleep where the mill-wheel turns like thunder’. Sleepers are compared with weights in a tyrant’s clock, and there is a disturbing conclusion with ‘locked-in eternity’s pounding fists’. 'Izmir at Three O’Clock' – fleeting vision of beggars in a Turkish city. 'Secrets on the Way' – the most opaque/enigmatic poem so far: daylight suffused a man’s dream without awakening him; darkness struck the face of a man walking in the strident sun, then became all-pervasive. The third person was metamorphosed into the first person of the narrator: 'I stood in a room that contained every moment' (all of time encapsulated in one confined space) . . . a butterfly museum. In 'Tracks', a train halting on its route induces a truly cosmic perspective: a comparison is made by someone in a deep sleep, and then with a severe illness (involving a coma?): 'everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm,/cold and tiny at the horizon'. 'Kyrie' also explores the meditative potential of darkness – 'my life opened its eyes in the dark', but that very opening makes the poet identify a crows struggling blindly towards a miracle. With 'A Man from Benin', I was immediately reminded of Prince Henry the Navigator, who pioneered Portuguese exploration round the coast of Africa, and as far as India. There are a few words of explanation in the subtitle; I would welcome more of these throughout the collection. Further exploration of the theme of darkness – darkness both benign and malign: 'my shadow pounded against the drumskin of hopelessness'. But then the pain passed and a stranger appeared: 'He was the image of three peoples . . . he was the ambassador./Interrupted in the middle of a speech/which the silence continues/even more forcibly'. 'Balakirev’s Dream' – very novel to compare a piano to a spider, though there is some affinity between the wires of a piano and the strands of a spider’s web. 'Balakirev dozed off during the music'; there is then he goes on board a battleship (somewhat evocative, to me, of Battleship Potemkin). 'After an Attack' is ambiguous; there is a suggestion of a physical assault, but then the adjective ‘sick’ and the noun ‘invalid’ suggest an ‘attack’ of an illness. The boy convalesces somewhere in a tranquil setting; a mysterious figure appears; they seem to observe each other; some emotional tension builds up: 'Every grain (of the cornfield) is there to arouse him.' The figure seems to disappear: 'no-one notices'. 'The Journey’s Formulae' is a traveller’s detached, and quite unsentimental observation of the minutiae of peasant life in the Balkans. He is also highly observant of his writer’s/documenter’s role; he may be squeezing in notes under the pressure of a demanding schedule: 'My wristwatch/gleams obstinately with time’s imprisoned insect'. He is sensitive to the multi-facettedness of the writer’s role: “But the writer is halfway into his image, there/he travels, at the same time eagle and mole’.
Section III – The Half-Finished Heaven
'The Couple' portrays a possible clandestine tryst. The environment which surrounds the couple seems to become animate: 'The hotel walls rise into the black sky . . . the town has pulled closer . . . The houses have approached./They stand up close in a throng.' Art and emotion are fused: '. . . their most secret thoughts meet as when/two colours flow into each other/on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.' A tree assumes animate life in 'The Tree and the Sky'; great reverie notion of snowflakes blossoming in (outer) space. Presumably they will attain enormous size when freed from earthly gravity. 'Face to Face' – confrontation with nature: 'the earth and I sprang towards each other'. 'Ringing' – in awe of nature: 'The churchyard and the schoolyard met and widened into each other/like two streams in the sea' Metaphorically, artifice controls nature: 'The ringing of the churchbells rose to the four winds borne by/the gentle leverage of gliders'. 'Through the Wood' – against the atmosphere of a foetid swamp, a birch tree '. . . moulders there/in an upright position like a dogma'. 'November with Nuances of Noble Fur' – highly painterly description of a rural landscape, the grey sky accentuating the colours below it. More animate imagery: ’Misty spaces deep in the woods/chiming softly against each other. The conclusion is excellent but flawed: 'Inspiration that lives secluded/and flees among the trees like Nils Dacke'. I had to look up Nils Dacke’s details, to discover that he was a peasant revolutionary, crucial figure in Swedish history. A footnote please for the sake of the (lazy?) reader! 'The Journey' marks an unusual focusing on the urban environment, travelling by underground. The reference to ‘stations under sea level’ suggests the Channel Tunnel, or perhaps the dyke area of the Netherlands. 'C Major' relates music to a romantic involvement. The tonic note of C is elevated into a universal reference point. 'Noon Thaw' – an apocalyptic vision of a dramatic transformation of the ecosphere: 'a kilo weighed just 700 grammes'; some sense of a populace freed from the impact of a natural disaster (eg earthquake or Tsunami?) 'When We Saw the Islands Again' – a boat trip. 'Espresso' – the universal mind-prop: ‘Precious distillations/filled with the same strength as Yes and No’. 'The Palace' – a surreal visit to a precious art collection, which marks a vague frontier between the animate and the inanimate: '. . . pictures throng lifelessly . . . struggling figures/in a deaf and dumb world on the other side'. The definitions of the observer’s consciousness are challenged: 'Something darkly/set itself at our senses’ five/thresholds without stepping over them'. In the hall is a sculpture of a horse – ‘An image of power itself/abandoned when the princes left.’ The horse becomes animate, and asserts its independent identity: 'The emptiness that rode me I have thrown'.
'Syros' describes ‘left over cargo steamers’, remaining supremely impressive in spite (or perhaps because) of being abandoned: ‘Like toys from our childhood which have grown to giants/and accuse us/of what we never became.’ 'In the Nile Delta' – some acknowledgement of famine conditions – ‘all in want’. The tourist couple go to sleep; the man has a dream in which someone said ‘There is one who can see all without hating’. One's knowledge of wrong should engender compassion. 'Lament' – the writer’s dilemma: 'Too much that can neither be written nor kept silent'. 'Allegro' – Self-healing by playing music. The music, especially that of Haydn, has a calming effect, and a resilience concomitant with its apparent fragility: 'The music is a glass house on the slope/where the stones fly, the stones roll.//And the stones roll right through/but each pane stays whole'. 'The Half-Finished Heaven' – artistic endeavour from a cosmic perspective: 'And our paintings see daylight,/our red beasts of the ice-age studios'. He relates the individual to the mass of humanity: 'Each man is a half-open door/leading to a room for everyone'. 'Nocturne' – the poet is driving at night; the houses he passes become animate – 'they’re awake, want to drink . . . it’s now/they clothe themselves in life'. Some of the sleeping inhabitants ‘have drawn features/as if training hard for eternity’. 'Somnolence' is related to artistic endeavour: 'I lie down to sleep, I see strange pictures/and signs scribbling themselves behind my eyelids/on the wall of the dark. Into the slit between wakefulness and dream/a large letter tries to push itself in vain'. 'A Winter Night' – a storm is personified, and then conceptualised – as a text. It is observed by a child, whose eyes are ‘halfway towards speech’. 'A Caravan' travels simultaneously with the storm: ‘the house feels its own constellation of nails/holding the walls together. Final foreboding: 'We dread/that the storm will blow us empty'.
Section IV – Bells and Tracks
'Portrait with Commentary': the subject of the portrait is an interesting anomaly: 'He always inspired trust. Which is why/people would hesitate to come near him . . . His father earned money like dew/But no one felt secure there at home'. The poet feels some affinity with the portrait subject. His own identity was extremely elusive to him. When he came face to face with ME, he lost the connection; a hole emerged (black one?) through which he fell. Lisbon: that city has two prisons, one for petty criminals, one for political prisoners. I do not understand the switch to six years later at the end of the poem. 'From an African Diary' – statement of cultural difference: 'It’s a hard passage between two ways of life'. 'Crests' – surreal visuals '. . . high blocks as delicate as porcelain . . . And in the evening I lie like a ship/with lights out, just at the right distance/from reality . . '. 'Hommages' – the anti-poetic wall. Some erudite references: I know that Eluard was a leading surrealist, but his presing a button to open a wall is obscure to me. Archilochos was a Greek poet from the island of Paros in the Archaic period (7th Century B.C.), Ungaretti was an Italian Modernist poet, Shiki could refer to one of several organisations Japan, while Bjorling was a Swedish opera singer. Again a case for footnotes. This, to me is a highly unsatisfactory poem. I do not see any evocative links between is ‘rural ramble’ content and those highly significant personages referred to. 'Winter’s Formulae' – when does dream become reality, and vice versa? 'I fell asleep under my bed/and woke up under the keel' (transported to the sub-aquatic realm?). . . I fell asleep among the swallows/and woke up under the keel. He refers to ‘life’s clean-picked bones’ – figuratively picked clean during sleep. In stanza 2 a switch to a bus journey – round nowhere other than here’. And that which was ‘I’/is only a word/in the December dark’s mouth'. The December dark acquires a personality, with power of speech. There are illuminated pavilions in the background. Startling image of ‘A hidden tuning fork/in the great cold’ – is this struck by the December dark? Oak trees are described as giant bottles. In the last stanza there is a reiteration of the aquatic theme: the bus ‘glimmers like a ship . . . the road is a narrow deep dead canal.’ But the bus is in some sense the essence, the spirit of life: 'If it stopped and quenched the lights/the world would be deleted'. 'Morning Birds' has the aura of an abstract movie – a casual traveller makes fleeting observations of others’ situations. Ones mind can range freely on what may be going on with the man who buts the paper at the station and the one complaining of having been slandered at the office. The poetic ‘canvas’ is choc-a-bloc with objects and impressions of incidents. The final stanza describes the artistic expression assuming an identity of its own, superseding the personality of the writer. In a way, it crystallises Tranströmer’s relation to his craft: 'Fantastic to feel how my poem grows/while I myself shrink./It grows, it takes my place./It pushes me aside./It throws me out of the next./The poem is ready'. 'About History' – again, metaphorical transference between the cosmic and the artificial: 'The sun which also whispers in a microphone under the covering of ice. It gurgles and froths . . . Conferences like flying islands about to crash'. More erudition: 'Goethe travelled in Africa in ’26 disguised as Gide'. OK; I have heard of Goethe’s Italienische Reise, and of Gide’s Les Faux Monnayeurs. Goethe’s expedition was partly an aesthete’s pilgrimage, concentrating on art and architecture, with some investigation of the botany and zoology of the area. I see that Gide made a visit to French Africa, and concentrated on the lot of the local people; his Voyage au Congo indicts the exploitative attitudes of the French Colonial authorities, where slave labour was effectively condoned. Tranströmer makes a substantial point here, counterpointing the viewpoint of the art connoisseur and natural scientist with that of the socially aware person. But I feel that the connection could only be made to someone highly erudite; the general reader should be given a prompt. The image of Dreyfus could also be put in context. Indeed he states that ‘Radical and Reactionary live together as an unhappy marriage,/moulded by one another, dependent on one another . . . But we who are their children must break loose'. He realises that he, as a writer, must break out of those categories: 'But we who are their children must break loose./Every problem cries in its own language. Go like a bloodhound where the truth has trampled'. Excellent concluding image of an abandoned newspaper, which freezes/documents facts, but is on its way back to its source as organic matter, ‘on the way to being united with the earth’. And a very sharp perception of the influence of experience on personality: ‘Just as a memory is slowly transmuted into your own self.’
'Alone' – a car accident separates the poet from ‘My name, my girls, my job . . . I was anonymous/like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies’. Startling image of ‘a transparent terror that floated like egg white’ and seconds (abstract quantities) growing ‘as big a hospital buildings’. Then ‘the car broke free (from the congestion/from the car-pack). He sits back relaxed with his seat belt and observes someone coming to look at him. In the second part, he is a pedestrian, and contrasts his solitude with ‘people who are born, and live, and die/in a perpetual crowd’. The gregarious life seems to demand some sort of insensitivity: 'a special expression must develop./Face coated with clay. I remain curious about ‘Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door’. 'On the Outskirts of Work' – I can certainly imagine much of the Swedish landscape ‘penetrated only/by the thin civilisation of the telephone wires’. 'The moon of leisure circles the planet work'. 'After Someone’s Death' – a bereavement assumes cosmic dimensions: 'a shock/which left behind a long pale glimmering comet’s tail'. A statement of mutability: ‘last year’s leaves . . . are like pages torn from old telephone directories –/the subscribers’ names are eaten up by the cold.” The decay of bodies is echoed in the decay of printed matter. 'Oklahoma' – a tourist gets a strange response from a local shopkeeper (I think), who shows him some tomahawks. There follows a highly cryptic comment from a boy (she shopkeeper’s son?): ‘I know I have a prejudice,/I don’t want to be left with it sir./What do you think of us?” This feels to me like a coded reference to WASP guilt about the treatment of Native Americans. 'Summer Plain' – an airliner unloads passengers from colder climes. 'Downpour Over the Interior': this seems to depict a tropical rainstorm in the Congo. Brief historical allusion to tribal wars. The leaden, overcast sky lightens, and then the thunder strikes with full force. After it is spent, there is a child’s cry from the distance: A long hoarse trumpet from the iron age./Perhaps from inside himself'. This is a fused panorama of geographical space, historical time, and shared root memories embedded in the consciousness of an individual. Under Pressure gives some sense of an impending Tsunami – again using artifice for metaphor: 'The blue sky’s engine drone is deafening./We’re living here on a shuddering work-site . . . Society’s dark hull drifts further and further away'. O'pen and Closed Spaces' – 'A man feels the world with his work like a glove'. The routines of work act as a filter and shield against the raw sensations of the world. But the gloves assume gigantic proportions, which ‘black out’ the entire house. There is a cry for ‘amnesty’. Then there is a vision of a boy flying his ‘wild dream of the future’ like a kite, with a ‘blue endless carpet of pine forest’ in the background. These are literally unconnected images. The connecting threads to me, are the blacked out house being merged into an indefinite but uniform landscape, blending into the night sky, and the blue pine trees having a place in the colour spectrum alongside the black night sky. Another painting poem!
'An Artist in the North' – potted simulated autobiography of Edvard Grieg, with its gregarious aspects such as leading an orchestra, and his life of artistic solitude: 'I have brought myself up here to be shut in silence'. But the silence, and the opaqueness of the surroundings seem analogous to blockages in his creative inspiration: 'but sometimes a little hatch opens/and a strangely seeping light direct from trolldom' – presumably facilitating his composition. The elemental hammer blows in the mountain parallel the hammering of the piano keys and the beating of his heart – a triple resonance. The creative flow is about to begin; he can predict the composition of his four hymns. The conclusion 'we the Bones of the Dead/fight to become living'. In one sense, the ivories of the piano keyboard are the Bones of the Dead (elephants), and the composer’s struggles, in another sense, restore them to organic life. 'In the Open' – wild nature again, minimally punctuated by a discarded bottle and a rusty implement. Section 2 suggests the poet’s feeling of alienation from the rest of humanity: 'With you, evil and good really have faces. With us, it’s mostly a struggle between roots, ciphers and shades of light'. He proceeds: 'Those who run death’s errands don’t avoid the daylight./They rule from glass storeys'. He seems to have some qualms about lacking the panoramic perspective of the death-dealers. 3 refers to an aircraft casting a shadow in the form of a cross. A man on the ground is briefly covered by the cross of the shadow – metaphorically crucified. Then a very astute observation of the other kind of cross – in a church: 'Sometimes it’s like a snapshot/of something in violent movement'. A significant shift in emphasis from literal reality here: the cross of the crucifixion was at one remove from violent movement; it was transported and erected to perpetrate a violent act. There could be some implicit malice in the aircraft’s flight, echoing the crucifixion. 'Slow Music' suggests the contemplation of a deserted church. The empty building is suffused with sunlight. The poet observes stones on the water’s edge.
Section V – Seeing in the Dark
'The Name' – another nocturnal car journey; this time he falls asleep in his vehicle. He awakens, initially not knowing where or who he is. Then he comes to. The experience was a brief nightmare: ‘the fifteen second struggle in the hell of oblivion’. A Few Minutes refers to the ‘root system’, which seems to embrace tree roots, telegraph wires and the like. A sense of disorientation: 'It feels as if my five senses were linked to another creature'. 'Breathing Space July' – three men surveying the scenery. One discordant note: the first of them ‘sits in an ejector seat that releases in slow motion.’ 'By the River' – the stream is depicted as something with elemental power “. . . that flowed and flowed and pulled with it the willing and the unwilling. The second stanza seems to refer to a lemming-type creature – I don’t understand the reference to ‘stuck together eyes’. In the background of the river’s flow, there is a significant political broadcast, of the meeting in 1967 between Aleksei Kosygin, Soviet Foreign Minister and Abba Eban, Israeli Diplomat, in an attempt to sustain peace between Israel and the Arab states – at the time of the Six-Day War. This fact is firmly implanted in my memory, but might easily be lost on a younger reader – background essential! The political tension is somehow echoed in the movements of the river: 'some logs/shoot right out like torpedoes.’ There could be a parallel between the log jams and the impasses of protracted diplomatic discussions. 'Outskirts' – a ‘no man’s land’ building site. Animation imagery again: 'The high cranes on the horizon want to take the great leap but the/clocks don’t want to.//Cement pipes, scattered around, lick up the light with dry tongues.’ We are faced with a phenomenon of cosmic proportions: 'The stones throw their shadows abruptly like objects on the surface of the moon'. Proliferation too: 'And these places just multiply'.
'Traffic' – a heavy truck with trailer is compared to a dragonfly larva; there is an obvious affinity in terms of ponderousness. More nocturnal driving (this is a leitmotiv for Tranströmer). He refers to the chestnut trees, ‘gloomy as if they prepared a blossoming of iron gloves/instead of white clusters’ – so dire is the situation that the trees negate their own organic identity. Nature prevails:'“the buildings sink two millimetres/each year, the ground is eating them slowly . . . the seeds try to live in the asphalt'. 'Night Duty' – shift from automobile driver to a piece of ballast in a ship. Could the ship be transporting refugees? Oppression seems to be a contingent factor: 'The language marches in step with the executioners./Therefore we must get a new language'. 3 – switch to dry land: 'The valley is full of crawling axe-handles' – relics of past conflicts. The locale seems to be an excavation site. 'The Open Window' – nice dreamy surrealism: an electric razor grows into a helicopter. The poet gets into the helicopter to witness the world going haywire: 'Cellars were pulled up by the roots/came through the air'. 'The printing presses crawled' suggests some hiatus in the processes of communication. 'Preludes' – a vision of upheaval, crumbling visions, the presence of a ghoulish countenance. The future: an army of empty houses/picking its way forward in the sleet.' 2 – 'Two truths draw nearer each other. One comes from inside, one comes/from outside/and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves'. 3 – a revelatory flat clearance: 'The truth needs no furniture . . . The empty flat is a large telescope aimed at the sky'. 'Upright' – his capture, and subsequent release, of a hen evokes sensations of aged family heirlooms. He then contrasts the open world to the taboo-ridden henhouse, after which he switches (again) to his journeys in Africa, the Chari is a river in Central Africa; most of the Sara tribe reside in Chad. The local people as him out in a canoe. I found this poem somewhat disjointed; more reader-friendly thematic connections would have been in order. 'The Bookcase' – back to the theme of family heirlooms. But then some profound reflections on the bookcase’s contents: 'The dark volumes . . . are like Algerians who stood at the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint and waited for the Volkspolizei to examine their passports'. In there lies an old despair . . . they are so thick because they have collected so many stamps through the centuries. The antique volumes evoke the time in which they were printed (including portraits of long-dead men), and one is also reminded that, not infrequently, precious tomes are treated as clutter and lumber. It has an eerie presence: ‘the gleaming membrane on a dark river which the room must see itself in’. It has a totally riveting power.
Section VI – Paths
'To Friends Behind a Frontier' – seems to refer to writing to someone in a dictatorial regime where letters are censored. This is obviously an extremely inhibiting factor '. . . what I couldn’t write/swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned airship . . .' The two friends may be able to communicate directly in an ideal state, 200 years from the writing of the poem. From the Thaw of 1966 – almost a double haiku. 'Sketch in October' – mushrooms as fingers of someone buried underground – interesting! Further in: animated artifice: 'The traffic . . . is a sluggish dragon glittering./I am one of the dragon’s scales'. When the sun is in the middle of the windscreen, the poet undergoes a metamorphosis: 'I am transparent/and writing becomes visible/inside me/words in invisible ink/which appear/when the paper is held to the fire!' He is then determined to take a walk in the forest, and find an all-transforming magical precious stone. 'The Outpost' – the poet envisages himself as an archaeological relic, ‘a distinguished corpse from the iron age’. He is in a heap of stones, he becomes the cosmos: 'I am the place/where creation is working itself out'. The poet is then transmuted into a turnstile, over which the visiting crowd must climb to view the historic site. 'Along the Radius' – I: the ice-bound river is transposed from ground level to the upper stratosphere: 'here is the world’s roof'. II: 'Here is the centre' (of the earth?). 'My steps here were explosions in the ground/which the silence paints over . . .'. 'Looking Through the Ground' – he transports himself to some tunnel or cavern beneath a big city; distorted vision of reality: - '. . . like aerial photos of a city in war//the wrong way round'. Through the filtering of the media 'No telling/bones of the dead from bones of the living'. 'The sunlight’s volume is turned up' (the visual is fused with the auditory) 'it floods into flight-cabins and peapods' (yes: universal power of penetration). 'December Evening 1972' – the cosmic, generic journalist: 'Here I come, the invisible man, perhaps employed/by a Great Memory to live right now'. The elemental struggle: 'The law of gravity/pressing us/against our work by day and against our beds at night'. 'The Dispersed Congregation' – could this be a total war scenario? I get a sense that the church is abandoned, deserted. But then the desolation may be figurative, mental even: 'you live well. The slum is within you'; 'vaults and columns/white as plaster, like the plaster bandage/round the broken arm of faith'. Something aesthetically intact shores up something broken. An animate begging bowl raises itself from the floor. IV – 'But the church bells must go under the earth./They hang in the sewage tunnels./They toll under our steps'. A very powerful statement: the church is supposed to be concerned with the betterment of the human condition, so it should reach downwards to meet the areas of real need, and not stay on the aesthetic surfaces of comfort. 'Late May' – average reflections on a sylvan landscape; I do not understand the reference to Solomon. Elegy is quite painterly. Some nice touches: 'You drank the darkness/and became visible (you drank your way through the night, and emerged with daylight?) A lamp sparking on the asphalt./Beautiful slag of experiences'.
Understanding of Baltics is greatly facilitated by the author’s explanatory notes in the preface: 'here we have not one Baltic but a whole series of them, reflecting the very different experiences of those in whose lives that particular sea has come to play a part – some of these Baltics overlap, while some apparently contradict each other'. Tranströmer himself has claimed that the writing of Baltics was his ‘most consistent attempt to write music’ – its verbal structure to parallel a passacaglia. 'Tranströmer has further remarked that Baltics is in part a polemic against his earlier self, against the way in which his earlier poems from the Stockholm Archipelago treated the area as a protected oasis or reserve, whereas Baltics treats the landscape and its life as open to the threats of the surrounding world'. One cannot be unaware of the rural emphasis in his work, and it is certainly part of the British consciousness to delineate Conservation areas. I – it starts from 1884 – with his grandfather, ‘a new-made pilot’. Again animate imagery: 'The compound machine long-lived as a human heart'. II – Strange perspective: 'The Baltic is sighing in the middle of the island also, far within the/forest you are out on the open sea'. Flashback to the past: 'We were walking together. She’s been dead for thirty years'. The elements are ambiguous and self-contradictory: 'The great current that blows life into some flames and blows others out'. In that environment ‘everything becomes a frontier’. 'It’s about war': a flashback to 1915 and World War I; a drift-mine was captured and neutralized. III – 12th century font in a Gotland church, against a backdrop of conflict: 'but on the outer walls the battle is raging./And peace can come, drop by drop, perhaps at night/when we know nothing/or when you are lying in a hospital ward on a drip'. Flashback to 1865; a group of elegant figures on a pier are ‘in the process of being rubbed out’. The obsolete steamer is ‘utterly foreign, a UFO that’s landed’. Jump of 100 years in the next stanza. ‘No man’s water’ is a highly evocative description of the Baltic coast. The a jump to astronomy: 'The strategic planetarium rotates. The lenses stare in the dark. The night sky is full of numbers and they are fed/into a twinkling cupboard'. Humanity applies mathematical principles in order to comprehend astral bodies. Those distant bodies return the compliment; they become abstract numerical quantities in the author’s mind. Back to a global jump, referring to locusts in Somaliland. Conclusion of despair: 'I don’t know if we are at the beginning or coming to the end./The summing-up can’t be done, the summing-up is impossible'. The summing-up shrieks like a mandrake. IV – most remarkable modification of the Ophelia motif: 'lie down full-length on your mirror image and sink to a certain depth – the weed that holds itself up with air-bladders as we hold ourselves up with ideas'. References to the Bullhead Toad, and fireflies evoking the growth of grass. V – organisms compared to abstract ideas: 'Aurelia (jellyfish), they drift like flowers after a sea burial, if you take them our of the water all their form vanishes, as when an indescribable truth is lifted out of silence and formulated to an inert mass, but they are untranslatable, and must stay in their own element'. 'Something wants to be said but the word’s don’t agree'. He mentions the clinical condition of aphasia – inability to verbalise. Words written in the small hours can seem loaded with meaning, but appear vacuous in the full light of day. Then there is a description of a musical composer, with problems similar to those of Shostakovitch. He becomes a Conservatory Director, then is persecuted, then rehabilitated – after which a cerebral haemorrhage occurs. 'He wrote music to texts he no longer understood'. The poet followed his example: '. . . since then I’ve been writing a long letter to the dead/on a typewriter with no ribbon just a horizon line/so the words knock in vain and nothing sticks'. There is a reference to the 13th Century King Magnus of Norway. He compares himself to an edible snail. VI – description of extreme hardship in the past family history. The grandmother (as the author knew her when he was five years old) learns to cope with drawbacks: 'She never looked back/but because of that she could see what was new . . .' He examines a picture of an ‘unknown man’ in a photo album, and wonders whether that person died of TB. He focuses on the island’s (possibly) oldest house, then jumps to the Jewish Cemetery in Prague.
VI – The Truth Barrier
'Citoyens' – reflections on Robespierre, the French Revolutionary. 'The Crossing-Place' – an animate street that ‘swarms’ and follows the poet. The street has a strength accumulated and generated over a thousand years. The sun is dimmed in the street’s poor sight, but the poet shines and the street can see him.
There follow three prose poems: 'The Clearing' – a ‘metaphysical clearing’ . . . ‘which can be reached only by one who has lost his way’. Powerful image of ‘a forest that is choking itself’. The clearing may be a site of former human habitation. The explanation is elusive: 'The names exist in an archive that no one opens'. Then a very profound observation: 'The oral tradition has died and with it the memories. The gypsy people remember but those who have learnt to write forget. Write down, and forget'. 'The homestead becomes a sphinx' – yes! Having completed his pilgrimage, the poet must leave. Beautiful testimony to the balance of nature at the conclusion: 'On the humming electricity post a beetle is sitting in the sun. Beneath the shining wing-covers its wings are folded up as ingeniously as a parachute packed by an expert'. 'How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins' – '. . . the ferry-boat . . . rattles all the time like an obsession'. The author disembarks, and wanders past some deserted houses. Interesting reflection on the writer’s retentive memory: 'Some books I’ve read pass by like old sailing ships on the way to the Bermuda triangle to vanish without trace . . .'. Transposition of the sensory passages: 'I hear a hollow sound, an absent-minded drumming. An object the wind keeps knocking against something the earth holds still. If the night is not just an absence of light, if the night really is something, then it’s that sound'. 'To Mats and Laila' – initial reference to the South Pacific, then back to Vaermland (presumably in the Baltic vicinity). References to old engravings (of corporate composition). Great concept with ‘man-and’, and 'there was no proper centre but everything was alive'. But the figures in the engravings are not entirely ant-like; each figure has a distinctive face. The primitive engravers are contrasted with Proteus, traditionally the ‘god of elusive sea-change' (Wikipedia), in this context a ‘modern man’ – illiterate to boot. ‘The hydra of the company’ and ‘the hydra of the state’ do not expect literacy; presumably they would like to keep it at arm’s length to safeguard their power. True life is near clear-cut: 'Tiredness will stream in through the hole left by the sun . . . For me it’s never happened that the diamond of a certain moment cut across the world picture. No, it was wear and tear that rubbed out the bright strange smile'. 'From the Winter of 1947' – I lived through that winter in England; I suspect it was far more extreme in Scandinavia. It seems to refer to the traumas of a housebound child: 'I sat in bed without eyelids, saw filmstrips/filmstrips with the thoughts of insane people'. The 4th stanza, in rational terms, is disconnected, fragmented: 'I read in books of glass but saw only the other:/the stains pushing through the wallpaper. /It was the living dead/who wanted their portraits painted . . .'. 'Schubertiana' – the view from a New York skyscraper ‘where one single glance will encompass the homes of eight million people’ resembles the observation of the heavens: ‘a spiral galaxy seen from the side’. This survey is made with the music of Schubert in the background. 'The endless expanses of the human brain are crumpled to the size of a fist'. Switch to the global flight of the swallow. The Gallery – an extended poem, with the motoring leitmotif – this time including a stay at a motel, which reminds him of a visit to a museum – a surreal dream museum – ‘Tibetan Japanese’, containing accusing voices ‘forcing through the white wall of oblivion/to breathe, to ask about something'. The faces have an ambivalent relationship with the poet’s consciousness: 'Some lend each other features, exchange faces/far inside me/where oblivion and memory wheel and deal.//They force through oblivion’s second coat/the white wall/they fade-out fade-in'. Galleries, galleys and grilles are equated. There follows an array of people – a karate sadist, a shopaholic, one suffering from acute agoraphobia, and a refugee become ‘dumb, petrified, a statue from Sumer’. I see that Karelia is in Finland. Could this be an oblique reference to the ‘Winter War’ between Finland and Russia? Another footnote, please. There is a flashback to when he was 10 years old, returning to an apartment with the light switched off, but the lift illuminated. He remembers the presence of faces – real, not illusory. Reference to a girl crippled in a car crash, and someone struggling against drowning. There follows some jarring, disparate imagery: a microphone proclaiming ‘speed is power’, comparison of a career with acting in a Noh play: 'The one who’s failed/is represented by a rolled-up blanket'. The writer assumes cosmic proportions: 'An artist said: Before, I was a planet/with its own dense atmosphere./Entering rays were broken into rainbows./Perpetual raging thunderstorms, within.//Now I’m extinct and dry and open./I no longer have childlike energy./I have a hot and a cold side'. The cooling of a planet’s crust is compared to personal growth. People want to penetrate the walls of a house; a reference to ‘the white hiss of oblivion’. ‘Discreet tappings’ suggests internecine communications in a prison. ‘Society’s mechanical self-reproaches’. ‘I am the knife-thrower’s partner at a circus!' He is constrained to silence. He stays overnight at the sleepwalkers’ motel, to be beset again by faces; some are desperate, ‘others smoothed out/after the pilgrim’s walk to oblivion’ – is the pilgrim’s walk the cause of smoothing out? But then: ‘they look past me/they all want to reach the icon of justice.’ This icon seems to be distinct from the pilgrim; or are there blurred identities? People are elusive, interpersonal contact is minimal. 'Below Zero' – a party is transmuted into a railway marshalling yard: 'cold colossi stand on rails in the mist'. There is implicit violence in the atmosphere; the poet must move on to another town. 'The Boat and the Village' – he observes a Portuguese fishing boat as a small speck on the horizon; he has a flashback to seeing one being built ‘like a lute without strings’. Seemingly at the time of its construction, there is a political rally – a demagogue in a Mercedes escorted by soldiers. 'The Black Mountains' – a bus is transmuted into a spaceship; again there is a political backcloth: 'The dictator’s bus was there too,/wrapped in newspaper. He is always a master of paradox: 'Death, the birthmark, was growing on all of us'. 'Homewards': 'I was like the needle in a compass carried through the forest by an orienteer with a thumping heart'. 'After a Long Drought' – a rainstorm is awarded the magnitude of Armageddon: 'Gone are the cities and the sun./The thunder’s in the tall grass'. A highly cryptic last stanza: 'It’s possible to ring up the mirage island'. 'Iron ore is honey for the thunder'. The thunder, the drought breaking storm is attracted by submerged mineral wealth. 'It’s possible to live with one’s code'. ‘One’s code’, presumably, includes trying to cope with one’s drought-bound life, and being able to accept the storm of radical change and transformation. 'A Place in the Forest' – a severely dilapidated building is a meditation sanctuary, and exceptional place where one is ‘allowed to grieve: 'There is a tall building which consists entirely of cracks, a building which is perpetually tottering but can never collapse . . . In this play of light an inverted law of gravity prevails: the house is anchored in the sky and whatever falls, falls upwards'. 'Funchal' – the second, prose poem stanza refers to a long-devoted couple, who went through the positives and negatives of life. Some self-sacrifice involved: ‘. . . to give up blood to the flourishing giant’. The core of experience can transcend the individual who experienced it: '. . . things we forgot together – but they have not forgotten us. They’ve become stones, dark ones and light ones'. Geographical features seem animate: 'The cape’s enormous dark blue paw lies sprawled in the sea'. The enduring couple is involved with the mass of humanity: 'We step into the human whirlpool . . . We become stronger through them, but also through ourselves'. He honours ‘The innermost paradox, the garage flower, the ventilator to the good darkness.’
VII – The Wild Market-Place
'. . . Brief Pause in the Organ Recital' – the music of a cathedral organ is counterpointed with the hum of traffic. The traffic hum penetrates the cathedral precinct: 'The outer world glides there like a transparent film and with shadows/struggling pianissimo'. The composite sound is augmented by the poet’s pulse. Then a visual panorama of the cathedral: the pillars are like strange trees with no roots and no crowns. Then ‘death turns up the lights from underneath’. This focuses the poet: 'I waken to that unshakeable PERHAPS that carries me through the wavering world. And each abstract picture of the world is as impossible as the blue-print of a storm'. I take it that storms can have no blue-prints, and that abstract ideals are unattainable. Significant comment on the role of the writer: '. . . each one of us has his own encyclopaedia written, it grows out of each soul,//it’s written from birth onwards'. But it is organic: 'What’s there changes by the hour, the pictures retouch themselves,/the words flicker./A wave washes through the whole text, it’s followed by the next/wave, and then the next . . .'. 'From March 1979' – he makes a dichotomy between language and words. 'Memories Look at Me' – memories merge into the background. 'Winter’s Gaze' – exploring a cheery tree, and then an old sewerage system. 'The Station' – a passenger train halts at a station but does not open its doors to release the passengers. 'Answers to Letters' – reflections on time-structures. The poet has stumbled on a letter from 26 years ago: 'Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years may be passed in a moment'. He has an accumulation of unanswered letters. 'Icelandic Hurricane' – ‘not earth-tremor but sky-quake’. Great evocation of despair: 'I am X-rayed,/the skeleton hands in its resignation . . . I founder and drown on dry land!' He feels like a butterfly towing a barge; he becomes that butterfly, and finds peace, ‘my own portrait’ behind a glass frame. 'Outside, a horse of transparent sprinters in giant format charges across the lava plain'. The blue 'Wind-Flowers' – these appear unexpectedly: 'They glimmer and float, yes, float, and that comes from their colour'. Historical reference to a ceremony in Nineveh (capital of the Assyrian Empire) where ‘the crowning crystal chandeliers hung like glass vulture'. The wind-flowers have far greater evocative power than do these chandeliers: they ‘open a secret passage to the real celebration, which is quiet as death'.
'The Blue House' – he looks at a house with blue-hazed walls, feeling as if he were doing so from beyond the grave. The structure has existed for 80 years: 'Its wood is impregnated with four times joy and three times sorrow'. Bizarre description of an overgrown garden: the weeds are described as ‘pagodas’, ‘upanishads’ and ‘viking fleets’. In the background is the repeating circuit of a boomerang, its flight motivated by someone from before the poet’s lifetime. 'The house is like a child’s drawing. A deputising childishness that grew because someone – much too soon – gave up his mission to be child'. Then a reference to a ship and a ‘sister ship’ in the background. 'Nineteen Hundred and Eighty' – flashback to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. 'Black Picture-Postcards' – the inevitability of death: '. . . death comes/and takes man’s measurements. The visit/is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit/is sewn on the quiet'. 'Fire-Jottings' – the transitory euphoria of love’s flames in a drab, colourless life. 'Many Steps' – the icons are laid in the earth face up, and the poet, treading into an underground pool, becomes one such icon. Mass feet trample above him. 'Postludium' – someone condemned: 'I drag like a grapnel over the world’s floor . . . The executioners fetch stone. God writes in the sand'. 'Dream Seminar' juxtaposes the cold, factual reality of an overpopulated world with the state of reverie, including a visit to the theatre: 'in mid-play your eyelids sink . . . the stage/before you out-manoeuvred by a dream'. The poet then identifies with the theatre director. Reference to the script of a play performed at the theatre, and the dreamer’s deviation from that script: 'The sleeper’s eyes are moving,/they’re following the text without letters/in another book –'. The manuscript seems to be disposable, perishable: 'inscribed/within the eyelids’ monastery walls. A unique copy. Here, at this very moment./In the morning, wiped out./The mystery of the great waste!' Something comparable to the film in a camera being destroyed by a ruthless policeman. 'Codex' – writers personified, ‘Men of footnotes, not of headlines’. An illuminated right hand. Variation on the ‘writing on the wall’ theme, comparing it do an inscription on a shrunken wreck. The walls of his cavernous corridor are filled with the names of ‘all-but extinct artists’. They seem to whisper their names. The corridor phases into a blend of corridor, graveyard and market-place. He has some veneration for the ‘men of footnotes’: 'they remain in the ecological system . . . They are spared swallowing the morality of power’. They do not really want anonymity or self-destruction: ' . . . those who really want to be struck from the list . . . they don’t stop in the region of footnotes,/they step into the downward career that ends in oblivion and peace'. 'Carillon' – opening description of a seedy French pension and its proprietress. Then an historical flashback: 'I am Maximilian. It’s 1488. Explanation: Craenenburg Café. In this building the Hapsburg heir Maximilian of Austria was imprisoned by the leaders of the city in 1488 after attempting to restrict their privileges. When Maximilian later became emperor, he took revenge by directing trade to Antwerp'. As a general reader, I was aware of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, but I had no inkling of what his captors did ‘in horror’s back yard’. Again, footnote request. I was most impressed by the phrase 'I can’t turn blood into ink'. This is an honest statement of the difficulty in verbalising horrendous incidents. He goes through a succession of personae, and wanders around with no sense of direction. Then 'Unexpectedly, as if I’d stepped on a trip-wire, the bell-ringing starts/in the anonymous tower'. This immediately suggests to me a curfew, somehow related to Maximilian’s imprisonment. I sense a feeling of divided loyalties; whose side was he on: ‘Christ and Antichrist, hard to tell apart!’ and ‘my inside-out psalm. A sense of mystery: 'the great unknown of which I am a part and which is certainly more/important than me'.
'Molokai' – the leper colony. The great enigmas and contradictions of life: 'Damien, for love, chose life and obscurity. He received death and fame./But we see these events from the wrong side: a heap of stones instead/of the sphinx’s face'. The outside observer’s standpoint can never identify fully with the central sufferer’s situation.
VIII – For Living and Dead
'The Forgotten Captain' – a World War II hero rises from the dead after forty years. Through sustained eye contact, he and the poet reconstruct the past: 'The last boat he captained/took shape beneath us'. It is then revealed that he died of a haemorrhage. A further flashback to young boys playing with toy ships at the turn of the 20th Century. 'Six Winters' refers to life in the near-arctic. Svalbard, I discover is an archipelago in the Arctic – the northernmost part of Norway. Everything freezes there; 'An elite of the dead became stone'. 'The Nightingale in Badelunda' – referring to a beauty/tourist spot, in proximity to an ancient ship-burial site. The motor travel theme returns: 'the deaf cars race towards the neon line'. Badelunda is ‘the nightingale’s northern limit’. It is a benign force, of which the poet had been oblivious; now he is fully responsive to it. 'Berceuse' – Tomas goes ‘post-mortem’ – a mummy laid to rest both in the natural, organic ‘blue coffin of the forests’, and in the man-made ‘perpetual roar of engines and rubber and asphalt’. A flashback to his burial: 'The wheelbarrow rolled forward on its single wheel and I myself/ travelled on my spinning psyche, but now my thoughts/have stopped going round and the wheelbarrow has got wings'. Presumably, it will ascend to the heavens. An aircraft will enter (perhaps) the same heavens, and its passengers will survey the panorama of cities beneath them. 'Streets in Shanghai' – he really is a globe-trotter. I was happily startled by 'I love that cabbage-white as if it were a fluttering corner of truth itself' and 'At dawn the crowds get our silent planet going with their running/their tramping'. Imaginative hyperbole with a tinge of metaphorical truth. Each person having eight faces – in terms of people’s mood variability, not an absurd image. He is in a strange country, where he is ‘totally illiterate’. He has a mass of receipts, some of them illegal. Significant comment on the ageing process: 'I’m an old tree with withered leaves that hang on and can’t fall to the earth'. A most peculiar sense of time-warp: 'We can count/ourselves lucky getting aboard this street!/It’s a thousand years before the birth of claustrophobia'. Then an image of the crucifixion: 'Behind each one walking here there hovers a cross which wants to/catch up on us . . .we are bleeding fatally/from wounds we don’t know about'. 'Deep in Europe' – ‘I a dark hull floating between two lock-gates’. The dead lurk in the background, menacing and censorious. 'The blackened cathedral, heavy as a moon, causes ebb and flow'. He the cathedral been blackened by neglect/pollution, or by war? 'Leaflet' – lament for oppressed humanity: 'We living nails hammered down in society!'. A vision both positive and negative: 'We see all and nothing, but straight as periscopes/wielded by the underground’s shy crew'. T'he Indoors is Endless' – funerary ode: 'Beethoven/hoists his death-mask and sails off'. Nature and artifice are again blended in 'The grindstones are turning in Europe’s windmills'. Vaccine and potatoes are organically related to Peace. Grotesque but exciting incongruity in ‘Privy barrels in sedan chairs like paschas’. There is a suggestion that the location is in the far north, where ‘the channels’ are frozen in the wintertime. Organicisation of time: 'The snake-clock’s pointer licks the silence'. Very loaded phrase in 'the rock-slopes glow with geology’s patience'. The rock slopes radiate a perspective of geological time. The science of geology embraces vast time-spans. The reference to Erik seems to refer to a Swedish king, famous as a law-giver, who was assassinated, ‘disabled by a bullet through the soul’. The latter part of the poem seems to deal with his death-throes ands his post-mortem condition: 'He pushes in vain/against the iron-bound tomorrow . . . he’s taken apart, put together . . . he looks into the self-rotating kaleidoscope'. His gaze strikes the poet who is wandering round Washington DC: 'White buildings in crematorium style/where the dream of the poor turns to ash'. There is a double resonance here. The White House was painted white after its burning by the British in 1812. In another way, it is a symbol for the ashes of hopes of freedom and justice. 'Vermeer' – fine art counterpointed against the turmoil of life. The first two stanzas deal with what seems to be a bustling seaport. Then the poet/connoisseur enters the serenity of the gallery to observe two of Vermeer’s paintings: 'The Music Lesson', and 'Woman in Blue Reading a Letter' – Tomas assumed she is pregnant, though this is a matter of debate. There follows a nightmarish flashback to the stresses of producing these paintings: 'It’s the pressure from the other side of the wall./It makes each fact float/and steadies the brush'. He adds – 'it hurts to go through walls'. It seems he must penetrate the backdrops to the paintings. In the last stanza: 'The clear sky has leant against the wall./It’s like a prayer to the emptiness./And the emptiness turns its face to us/and whispers/’I am not empty, I am open.’ This is a reflection on the importance of empty space as a context in which to appreciate the paintings'. 'Romanesque Arches' – another aspect of artistic sightseeing , in an enormous church. There is an analogy between that building and the writer’s consciousness. 'An angel with no face embraced me/and whispered through my whole body: ‘Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!/Inside you vault opens inside vault endlessly./You will never be complete. That’s how it’s meant to be”. 'Female Portrait, 19th Century': the model is constricted, with repressed passions; the gilt frame is strangulatory. 'Air Mail' explores to the full all aspects of postal communication. ‘The flying carpet of the stamp is a lovely image of air mailing. ‘My own sealed truth’ – universally accepted confidentiality. He nervously watches the clock while the letter is in transit. 'Madrigal' represents Tomas’s slant on Armageddon: 'a day will come when the dead and the living change places . . . I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the washing-line'. 'Golden Wasp' – the slow-crawling blindworm makes the introduction. The poet’s beloved has special powers to drive away the evil spirits – and insect pests. But the banishment is only temporary. On to an expression of vacuous piety: 'We’re in the church of keeping-silence, of piety according to no letter./As if they didn’t exist, the implacable faces of the patriarchs/and the misspelling of God’s name in stone'. There is than a conflagration, followed by the dominant presence of a ‘pious executioner'. The poem concludes with a discussion, in incredible depth, of the nature of faith and of personal consciousness. 'The greatest fanatic is the greatest doubter. He is a pact between two/where the one is 100% visible and the other invisible'. An impassioned plea for respect of depth identity: 'Those who can never exist anywhere except on their facades/those who are never absent-minded . . . Walk past them! . . . I know the depth where one is both prisoner and ruler'. The organic forms of blindworm, golden wasp and lupin are presented as symbols of an ideal state, untarnished by human prejudice.
IX - The Sad Gondola
This section opens with a highly informative footnote explaining the background of the two Liszt piano pieces. This approach should have been applied consistently throughout the section. 'April and Silence' seems to reflect the angst of the great composer: 'I am carried in my shadow/like a violin/in its black case'. 'National Insecurity' is a surreal portrayal of power gestures: 'The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X/and her ear-drops dangle like swords of Damocles'. One wonders how much human havoc, how many deaths, will have been caused by her signature; 'the demon merges with the opened newspaper'. The disaster she has implemented hit the headlines? 'A helmet worn by no one has taken power'. Symbol of the cold, impersonal emptiness of power. This idea is reiterated in 'A Page of the Night-Book': 'those who ruled . . . People with a future/instead of a face.’
'The Sad Gondola' – as the footnote explains, this incident took place when Liszt was staying with Wagner very soon before the latter died: 'The gondola is heavily laden with their lives, two returns and one single'. The elemental power of music 'Liszt has written down some chords that are so heavy they ought to be sent/to the mineralogical institute in Padua for analysis'. The heavy chords are compared to meteorites which go on sinking into the earth – through the future right down/to the years of the brownshirts’. Wagner’s music, and perhaps Liszt’s too, inspired Nazism. III – jump to a hospital in Lithuania in 1990; I do not immediately get the connection. IV – Liszt is an old man, ‘on the way out’ in comparison with Wagner. VI – back to 1990; Liszt’s piano pieces obviously have some deep-seated associations for Tomas with this time and place. VII – after having listened quietly to Parsifal, Liszt plays his piano pieces. His heavy chords seem to make the green power of the sea rise through the floor. VIII – highly enigmatic reflection on the influence of great art over personal growth: 'Dreamt that I was to start school but came late./Everyone in the room was wearing a white mask./Impossible to tell who the teacher was'.
'November in the Former DDR' – the bleakness of that state is captured with some extraordinary imagery' ‘the train/that stops at every station/and lays eggs . . . The clang of the church bells’ buckets/fetching water . . . a stone idol moves its lips.’ The ‘bad old days’ are partly over, but perhaps not altogether: 'November offers caramels of granite./Unpredictable! Like world history/laughing at the wrong place'. 'From July 1990' – Tomas has a consistent respect for the post-mortem: 'I felt that the dead man/was reading my thoughts/better than I could'. 'The Cuckoo' – I had not realised that these birds are ‘citizens’ of Zaire. 'Three Stanzas' – highly surreal – flying coffin-lids carrying petrified figures out of time. 'A dripping sword wipes out the memories' but on the ground swords and trumpets rust. 'Like Being a Child' – I can certainly remember primary school initiation ceremonies tying new pupils up in sacks. 'The Light Streams In' – ‘the transparent dragon of sunlight . . . shoreline villas as proud as crabs . . . the raging sea of fire out in space/is transformed into a caress.’ 'Haiku' is a selection of 10 haikus – visual images of the backgrounds of our existence – power lines, oil tankers, the sun, stars. 'From the Island 1860' – the individual bonds with the environment: 'the chill of the strait rose through her arms/into her life'. Time is relative: 'The moment’s eternally running stain/The moment’s eternally bleeding point'. 'Silence – Animation': 'Starvation is a tall building/that moves by night//in the bedroom a lift-shaft opens/it’s a dark rod pointing to the inner domains . . . the table-silver survives in big shoals'. 'A Sketch from 1844' – hyperbolic eulogy of artistic creation on the part of William Turner: 'he has set up his easel far out among the breakers./We follow the silver-green cable down in the depths.//He wades out in the shelving kingdom of death'.
X – The Great Enigma
'Eagle Rock' – oxymorons and inversion of the elements: 'my soul glides/silent as a comet'. 'Facades' – ‘power . . . like an onion . . . with overlapping faces . . .’. 'Signatures' – the white document gleams/with many shadows moving’. More Haiku: 'wind flows through the house tonight – names of the demons'. 'Death stoops over me./I’m a problem in chess. He/has the solution'.'“I’ve been in that place – all over a whitewashed wall/the flies crowd and crowd'. 'Death leans forward and/writes on the ocean surface./While the church breathes gold'. These are just scattered highlights. I am sure that successive readings of this sequence will reveal a depth of thematic connexity.
Appendix – Prison
Presumably Tomas was a tutor or visitor to this establishment. The reader could do with a bit of background.
Memories Look at Me: Autobiographical Chapters
'Memories' – a brilliant analogy between a growing child and a comet: brightest end = childhood; nucleus = infancy. He finds it hard now to penetrate the nucleus; now, aged 60, he is at the comet’s tail. He explores the problems of memory recall and reconstruction: 'Our earliest experiences are for the most part inaccessible . . . '. He was heavily influenced by his grandfather’s archaic modes of expression. Grandfather was temperamental but benign. Tomas’ father was a neval officer, who spent very little time at home; he and his mother moved to a lower middle class tenement. They had a live-in maid who was of some artistic inspiration to Tomas.
'Museums' – he was introduced to these quite early in life. In the course of his visits, he developed a fear of skeletons. After this, he was attracted to the Railway Museum, and to steam engines. Subsequently again, he developed an intense interest in the Natural History Museum. He found the company of one of the staff, who got him access to the more secret parts of the Museum. He became an insect collector. Overall, a highly enriching experience: 'I absorbed unawares many experiences of natural beauty'.
'Primary School' – the usual hard times, though ‘being the son of a teacher saved me from blows'. He refers to evacuation; does this relate to the wartime situation? He stood out from the other pupils because of being in a one-parent family. Generally, he was of ‘outsider’ potential, having a precocious interest in sub-aquatic life. His classmates generally did not persecute him, though he was physically molested by an older boy, Hasse. He opted for the passive approach, ‘turning myself into a lifeless rag’ and cultivating ‘The art of being ridden roughshod over while maintaining one’s self-respect’.
'The War' – very perceptive: 'I really counted myself as one of Hitler’s enemies. My political engagement has never been so wholehearted!' His attitude (as a 9-year-old) was very unusual in neutral Sweden. When very young he read about the martyrdom of Poland.
'Libraries' – as a child, Tomas’s precocious literary tastes earned him the suspicion of the library staff. He gained illicit access to the Adult Library with the help of his Uncle Elof’s ticket. He early took a turn towards geography. His reading in that area engendered a fantasy about leading an expedition in Central Africa. He was able to relate this fantasy to the war situation in East Africa in 1940-41. Interesting observation at the end: 'When my Africa dream returned several years later, it had been modernised and was now almost realistic'.
'Grammar School' – fairly typical experience in one of these grim establishments – ‘as single-sexed as a monastery or barracks’. Very interesting that the school was used as a location for Ingmar Bergman’s Hets (known as Frenzy (UK) and Torment (USA). He had a school friend called Palle, who was a passionate collector, and who ‘died without having grown up. The teachers remained old in Tomas’s memory, whereas 'We always feel younger than we are'. He empathises withe their struggles, imagining them saying'“I know I can’t be loved but at least I can make sure I am not forgotten!' He early developed his own ideas of character building: 'My ideals were English – a stiff upper lip and so on. Outbursts of rage belonged to the Axis powers'. One teacher, Malle, was persistently cantankerous. This teacher sent disciplinary notes home, which Tomas’s mother challenged. '. . . important personal characteristics were magnified in the classroom atmosphere'. Gossip got around about some of the teachers’ private lives and interests. This period of schooling took place in the war years. There was no overt political discussion, but many of the teachers were pro-Nazi. Curious comment about his biology teacher having ‘blotted his copybook’. Tomas’ best subjects were geography and history. Some footnotes here; good to have them elsewhere.
'Exorcism' – a fifteen-year-old’s night-time traumas: 'I was trapped by a searchlight which radiated not light but darkness. I was caught each afternoon as twilight fell and not released from that terrible grip until next day dawned'. He became obsessed by a film about an alcoholic; he became afflicted with cramp and panic attacks. He then became obsessed by illness and hospitals: '. . . it was rather the power of total illness that aroused terror . . . I now experienced the outer world quite differently because it included my awareness of that domination wielded by sickness'. He felt surrounded by ghosts; his life had been turned upside down. Because this traumatic experience occurred when he was so young, he could not use the devices of religion against it. But he grew and lived through the trauma: I thought it was Inferno but it was Purgatory'.
'Latin' – in an early Latin class, Tomas was knocked to the ground by G, a school bully. Teacher Bocken witnessed the incident. He did not intervene, but Tomas came to feel an empathy with him. Bocken’s attire had ‘a touch of Dracula’; a divided character – 'At a distance he was superior and decorative, close up his face often had something helpless about it'. He suffered from arthritis and his lessons were sometimes punctuated by outbursts of rage. Concurrently with writing modernistic poems, Tomas discovered a taste for Latin poetry, both in the original and in translation. This was crucially influential: 'This alternation between the trivial and decrepit on the one hand and the buoyant and sublime on the other taught me a lot. It had to do with the conditions of poetry and life. It was through form that something could be raised to another level. The caterpillar feet were gone, the wings unfolded. One should never lose hope!' Tomas earned Bocken’s displeasure by giving a wrong answer to a factual question. He was given a ‘warning’ about his negligence. His own writings absorbed the influence of the Horatian Sapphic and alcaic stanza forms.
I see in the preface that '. . . just short of his sixtieth birthday he suffered a stroke which deprived him of most of his speech and partly inhibited movement on his right side'. So this collection is a supreme example of articulation overcoming adversity and disability.
Dave Russell © 2011/2013