Introduction to Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, tr. Patty Crane
The great subject of the poetry of Sweden's Tomas Tranströmer—it sometimes seems as though it is his only subject—is liminality. He is a poet almost helplessly drawn to enter and inhabit those in-between states that form the borderlines between waking and sleeping, the conscious and the unconscious, ecstasy and terror, the public self and the interior self. Again and again his poems allude to border checkpoints, boundaries, crossroads: they teeter upon thresholds of every sort—be they the brink of sleep or the brink of death, a door about to open or a door about to close. And these thresholds are often ensorcelled places, where a stone can miraculously pass through a window and leave it undamaged; where the faces of what seem to be all of humanity suddenly appear to the speaker on a motel wall, "pushing through oblivion's white walls / to breathe, to ask for something" ("The Gallery"). Indeed, in one of his finest individual collections, called Sanningsbarriären in its original Swedish and The Truth Barrier in most English translations, he concocts a neologism which perfectly encapsulates his lifelong fixation with the liminal.
Yet this inhabitant of borderlands and denizen of thresholds is also deeply suspicious of binaries and dichotomies, of Manichaeism in any form. In Tranströmer's universe, conditions are too much in flux, too subject to sudden and radical change, to ever permit dualistic thinking: every emotion can without warning turn into its opposite; every perception of what A. N. Whitehead called "the withness of the body" can turn into an out-of-the-body experience; and visionary moments are possible but always fraught. Witness Patty Crane's rendering of a later Tranströmer poem, "Like Being a Child":
Like being a child and an enormous insult
is pulled over your head like a sack;
through the sack's stitches you catch a glimpse of the sun
and hear the cherry trees humming.
But this doesn't help, the great affront
covers your head and torso and knees
and though you move sporadically
you can't take pleasure in the spring.
Yes, shimmering wool hat, pull it down over the face
and stare through the weave.
On the bay, water-rings teem soundlessly.
Green leaves are darkening the land.
This is, I suppose, Tranströmer's canny way of expressing Keats's concept of negative capability. Tranströmer is certainly a man who, in Keats's memorable phrase, is "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts." And yet he differs from Keats insofar as he sees this state not as a goal for the poet to aspire to, but as inevitable—and inevitably anxiety-provoking. In fact, he sees this condition as our fate in contemporary society.
Despite this, Tranströmer is a poet of astonishment rather than dread; his forays into the unknown and the self-annihilating are ones from which the speaker always returns, relatively unscathed. Because of his interest in the realm of dream, and his unerring ability to fashion surprising and original metaphors, he has often been labeled a surrealist. But his poems are shorn of surrealism's romantic privileging of randomness and the unconscious. Although his work abounds in visionary moments, he examines them as a scientist would—not rhapsodically, and certainly not as some sort of magus or shaman. For many years the poet was employed as a child psychologist in his native Sweden, and even when he describes conditions of great emotional and psychological duress, he does so with the nonplussed detachment of a man in a lab coat jotting down notes on a clipboard. His stance is the epitome of grace under pressure. "Madrigal," another late poem translated by Crane, is prototypical Tranströmer, both in its themes and its approach:
I inherited a dark forest where I seldom walk. But there will come a day when the dead and the living change places. Then the forest will be set into motion. We aren't without hope. The most difficult crimes remain unsolved despite the efforts of many police. In the same way that somewhere in our lives there's a great unsolved love. I inherited a dark forest but today I walk in another forest, the light one. Every living thing that sings wriggles sways and crawls! It's spring and the air is intense. I have a degree from the university of oblivion and I'm as empty-handed as the shirt on the clothesline.
Tomas Tranströmer began publishing poetry in the 1950s, and although the body of his work is rather small, there is a unity and uniform standard of excellence in his verse that recalls that of Elizabeth Bishop: the poems are all of a piece, and none of them are minor or self-imitative. With the poet's death this year at the age of eighty-three (just four years after he was at long last awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature), the world lost one of its greatest living poets—if not the greatest. Tranströmer has of course found many readers in America. Beginning in the 1970s, his work has been translated by a number of figures, most notably May Swenson, Robert Bly, and Scotland's Robin Fulton, all poets themselves. Patty Crane makes her entrée into these distinguished ranks with fresher, more spontaneous diction and a nuanced ear for Tranströmer's mellifluous but astringent music. Crane's translations, many of them done in collaboration with Tranströmer and his wife Monica, are tautly rendered, imagistically acute, and elegantly cadenced. They offer American readers a Tranströmer befitting our new century.
Furthermore, Crane's selection is a judicious and representative one. It includes some of the poet's lesser-known early efforts; his ambitious long poem Baltics—a small-scale epic, reminiscent of works such as Lorine Niedecker's "Lake Superior" and Basil Bunting's "Briggflatts"—and, above all, it includes Tranströmer's final individual collection, The Sorrow Gondola (1996), in its entirety. This is the poet's most subtle and elegiac book. In 1990 Tranströmer suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed, and impaired his powers of speech. The book's title poem, completed shortly before the poet's stroke, is one of his most haunting efforts. Like Baltics, the poem's method is juxtapositional, alternating sections devoted to the relationship between the dying Richard Wagner and his father-in-law, Franz Liszt, with vignettes drawn from the poet's own life and dream-life. The poem is majestic and melancholy, and seems in some eerily unconscious way to foreshadow the poet's own encounter with disability. The poem's final two sections are classic Tranströmer. We first see Liszt composing and playing the piano sonata which gives the poem its title, and the section is stately and sinister by turns. The final section, brusque and fragmented, relates an ominous dream:
The clavier, which kept silent through all of Parsifal (but listened),
finally has something to say.
Sighs ... sospiri ...
When Liszt plays tonight he holds the sea-pedal pressed down
so the ocean's green force rises up through the floor and flows
together with all the stone in the building.
Good evening, beautiful deep!
The gondola is heavy-laden with life, it is simple and black.
Dreamt I was supposed to start school but arrived too late.
Everyone in the room was wearing a white mask.
Whoever the teacher was, no one could say.
How wondrous these lines are! The hallmarks of Tranströmer's method are abundantly in evidence: the unsettling anthropomorphism of the clavier finally having "something to say," the conflation of Liszt's music with the relentless power of the sea, and a dream that seems meant to instruct but instead ends in enigma. And yet, within this mixture of moody atmospherics and uncertainty comes the wonderfully bracing line that seems to me the most crucial in the poem, "Good evening, beautiful deep!"
For readers encountering Tranströmer for the first time, Crane's translation will be an ideal introduction to an indispensable poet. For readers who already know Tranströmer, this collection will remind them yet again that he is a writer of immense originality and depth, who among the poets of the last century has only a handful of equals.
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About the Author
David Wojahn is the author of eight collections of poetry, most recently Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982–2004, which was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and World Tree, a winner of both the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize and the Poets’ Prize. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholarship.
Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer