Jeanne Murray Walker
Border-Crossing with Tomas Tranströmer
"I've listened long enough to the timid cry from the wilderness," Tomas Tranströmer wrote in his 1953 essay, "Notes from the Land of Lap Fever". Not that he wanted to block out that cry. On the contrary, he wished to return to the wilderness—perhaps, as he says, "to retrieve a part of myself I might have left behind." So the poet rigged up a bicycle and pedaled north to visit what represented to him the "most remote and silent" place within his native Sweden, the icy village of Karesuando. The Laplanders there "prefer not to reply when addressed." So we join the poet as he sits with a family. As dusky hours pass, the scent of cooking reindeer meat arises. The oboe-like voice of a mother pipes thinly through the house. And a huge dog pops up from the blanket to shake himself awake. No one speaks. In the company of a brilliantly articulate poet we have entered the primal heart of silence.
Tranströmer was 23 when he wrote this essay. Tavern Books has republished the piece in a slender, elegant volume where it is paired with a 2006 article by Jonas Ellerström about the Swedish poet's earliest poems. What's most striking is how precocious Tranströmer was, how early he knew what he was about. He had not even published his first book, 17 Poems. And yet he predicted his life's work with astounding accuracy. In a bemused, spare voice he describes this border crossing. He reveals his meticulous sense of place and his brilliant use of metaphor—what has distinguished his poetry for 60 years.
To become familiar with Tranströmer 's poetry, I also needed to traverse a boundary. America is a big country, and we are a deeply self-involved people. So whenever I travel, I try to "find" a poet who can enrich my understanding of that new culture's strength and spirit. (I have recently returned from Portugal, and so I am reading Fernando Pessoa.) Years before Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize 2011, my husband and I traveled in Sweden. The Swedes told me, "Read Tranströmer." As I turned pages of a translation of his poems, I became increasingly puzzled by the fact that Tranströmer sounded like Robert Bly. Finally I checked to see who the translator was. Bly, of course—Bly, who, during the 1970s and '80s we all needed to thank for introducing Americans to a vast array of international voices, including Tranströmer's.
Later I read The Great Enigma, gathering Robin Fulton's translations of Tranströmer's poems. Tranströmer has been fortunate in his long affiliation with Fulton, whose versions captivated me. So many of the poems re-enacted the familiar in startling terms: the way life can be going along normally, even dully, only to break off and reveal transcendence.
I couldn't figure out how Tranströmer had done it. His poems are paradoxically both pastoral and scary. They are nearly always set in specific locations in the Swedish landscape, many of them located in the Stockholm archipelago. But they read like postcards from the crevices. I felt that Tranströmer had found a way to transcribe the terrible and vast song leaking through the seams of the world.
Robert Bly said that Tranströmer's poems are a sort of railway station where trains that have come enormous distances stand briefly in the same building. I think this is another way of talking about the Swedish poet's need to cross boundaries. His writing ties together disparate times, events, and landscapes, asking readers to make great imaginative leaps. Tranströmer himself explained in an interview with one of his excellent young translators, Malena Mörling, that "Poetry is the intent to make a sudden connection between aspects of reality that conventional languages and outlooks ordinarily keep apart… . What looks like a confrontation turns out to be a connection."
It is not surprising that the first poem in 17 Poems, Tranströmer's first book, aptly called "Prelude," describes crossing the boundary between sleep and waking:
Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.
Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveler
sinks toward the green zone of morning.
Things flare up. From the viewpoint of the quivering lark
he is aware of the huge root systems of the trees ….
In day's first hours consciousness can grasp the world
as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.
The traveler is standing under the tree. After
The crash through death's turbulence, shall
A great light unfold about his head?
In this poem, as in all his work, Tranströmer is never far from metaphor. Waking is "a parachute jump." Fresh from sleep, the newly awakened person is a "traveler." And when we wake up, our "consciousness can grasp the world / as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone." Unlike Robert Frost, with whom the Swedish poet is sometimes compared—since they both draw so many of their images from the countryside around them—Tranströmer only sparingly explicates his metaphors. Maybe that is why he is sometimes thought of, at least by critics who write in English, as a surrealist poet who juxtaposes realities so distant from one another that their connections may be apparent only to their creator.
The Swedish poet was influenced by surrealists like Paul Éluard, as his earliest poems reveal, but he is no surrealist. As Robin Fulton has pointed out (in his introduction to The Great Enigma), while Tranströmer distrusts "oversimplified formulations, slogans, and rhetorical gestures," he has increasingly allowed himself to appear "as an element in his poems." That is why it's worth starting in the middle of The Great Enigma, where Tranströmer's voice begins to blaze the sometimes difficult trail of his images. Then it's easier to go back to the earlier poems.
Repeatedly Tranströmer speaks about the massive, terrifying powers we cannot control, about our vulnerability, about our urgent need of faith—even for those of us who have no faith—and about the "something" we can trust. It is alarming not to be in control of our lives and Tranströmer's poems document our predicaments. Landscapes give way to frightening subterranean topography. We're walking and suddenly an unnavigable mountain rises before us. In "A Winter Night," a storm reduces the narration to a solitary child's point of view. In "Under Pressure," a trustworthy, dutiful, questioning protagonist begins to grasp the limits of his knowledge and realizes that the most important journey is one he has yet to make alone. But, as in his early essay "Notes From the Land of Lap Fever," Tranströmer speaks of solitude with almost childlike joy.
In one of his best-known poems, "Further In," the Swedish poet describes his commute home, probably from work. The trip is boring, familiar, slow and congested:
On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon's scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windscreen
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
words in invisible ink
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far in the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it …
Trapped in his car, Tranströmer realizes that his time-wasting commute involves collaboration with his enemy. He is one of the dragon's scales. This realization leads to the message from—where? His unconscious? God? It tells him to go further, beyond the city, into the interior, the wilderness. So again Tranströmer crosses a border. In the dark of the forest he sees most clearly. Alone in this primordial place where others have not ventured, the poet finds one simple and primitive and unclaimed stone. "Everything depends on it," he claims.
It is interesting to read this deeply metaphorical narrative in light of Tranströmer's essay about his solitary trip into the Swedish wilderness. His life's work argues that by paying attention to our own "further in" wilderness, we might recover the part of us that has been left behind in our mad scramble to accommodate ourselves to speed, technology, commodities, and work. In our solitary journeys to the interior we are not alone. The poet ventures with us, as does the power he trusts. That source, which Tranströmer assures us we can connect to—simple and durable as a stone—has supplied him with wisdom that lights not only his country but every place he is read.
Jeanne Murray Walker directs the creative writing program at the University of Delaware. She is the author most recently of Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems (WordFarm).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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