Wislawa Szymborska, 1923 - 2012
I sometimes dream of situations that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine, for example, that I get a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. “‘There’s nothing new under the sun’: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress that you’re sitting under hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you’re planning to work on now? A further supplement to the thoughts you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier work you mentioned joy – so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt you’ll say, ‘I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.’ There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.”
from “The Poet and The World”: Nobel Lecture
And, you, Ms. Szymborska, you too were new under the sun. A hard time you had of it, making your entrance as you did in a time and country when being under the sun was a wretched place to be at all, let alone be new. Poland at the beginning of the 20th century’s ungodly third decade: Hitler was the world’s gift to you at sixteen, with Stalin pawing the earth and snorting at his flanks. After the first set of horrors, you thought communism might mitigate a second. How many like you, young and good, reached ardently for the communist trophy only to find yourselves holding the ball, then the rotten potato, then the turd? No wonder irony was your metier. Rilke warned his young poet off irony lest it master him, but you became irony’s master. You had to: Avoid deportation and forced labor at the hand of the Nazi’s only to have your first book of poems refused publication for being “insufficiently socialist”. A blow, no doubt. Ironic. Necessary. But a blow all the same. And it taught you to sucker-punch like no other poet I know, save, maybe Emily Dickenson.
But, the cost. Could this be why you published comparatively little during your life, the fear that what you wrote would be insufficiently…something? Your compatriot, Czeslaw Milosz, lamented poetry’s insufficiency in the face of life, event, catastrophe. Not that you need to explain yourself on this count. Small outputs are by no means unheard of among great poets. Take the Northern gentleman who just joined you on Stockholm’s roster. His published works number far less than yours, and his greatness, like yours, vaporizes all contest. It must be an American thing, this fussing with amounts. I imagine that mineral-level wickedness which so often lit your face in photographs crackling in your voice when you answered the interviewer who asked you why your output is small, “I have a trash can at home.” Oh did you, then, Ms. Szymborska? Which of us addicts of your funny, pointy, waste-laying poems wouldn’t have loved to rustle through your garbage like junkies after needles?
The obituaries tell us that you had no children. We’d all happily invoke a chestnut, on your behalf, about poets and their poems. But were you aware of the others? Us, I mean. Your readers. We who pressed our minds and hearts against your astonished and astonishing lines, fed on what we found there and grew. We whom you raised to think carefully about things we had barely guessed were there for the thinking; how a beetle, dead on the road, is an opportunity not to be missed for assessing death itself and our inflated sense of importance; how wind blowing from a tree all its leaves but one can teach us about the grim absurdity of violence which can devastate a century, and of which we are, each of us, capable. There have been so many of us. One, Mark Doty, an American poet (you’d have liked him, I think), said of your wrenching poem “Photograph from September 11″, “The genius of Szymborska’s poem lies in its admission that the poet has very little power—and its acknowledgment that she will herein exercise every bit of the power she does have.” Like any good parent, you taught us by example. You were an excellent, if sometimes hard, mother to us. You made us laugh, until we balked in protest. Even Milosz rebelled against your poem “View with a Grain of Sand”, in which you pit inchoate nature against human language to language’s cost, saying “Personally, I think that she is too scientific and that we are not so separated from things.” With all reverence for Mr. Milosz, I think your flintiness tripped him here, so that he got it backwards; your poem speaks of our connection to all things, never mind that the ego and all the rest of the human edifice must go for it to be perceived. Hard. Let’s say it. You were very hard. But, again, such was the time you had of it.
And now you are gone.
It’s been and gone.
It’s been, so it’s gone.
In the same irreversible order,
for such is the rule of this foregone game.
A trite conclusion, not worth writing
if it weren’t an unquestionable fact,
a fact for ever and ever,
for the whole cosmos, as it is and will be,
that something really was
until it was gone,
even the fact
that today you had a side of fries.
I found this poem, “Metaphysics”, in Here, the last volume of your poetry to be published in English before your death. For all the weight you lay on this poem’s slim shoulders – life’s damned transience, the nature of existence itself – the question this poem raised for me, and which I could neither answer nor shake, was this: Did you, Ms. Szymborska, ever have a side of fries?
And who, dear woman, was the last to bring you flowers during your life? My partner, Sam, had a fantasy of one day traveling to Krakow, finding your address, buying an enormous bouquet and laying it at your doorstep with an unsigned card reading, “And you, Ms. Szymborska, you too were new under the sun,” followed by, “Thank you.” It was the kind of fantasy which never had any probability of being carried out, but as long as you were alive, it was a pleasure to mentally rehearse it from time to time. Now you are gone, and we find this, too, very new.
Thank you for the poems. Thank you…
Every year the same: Christmas drops like a meteor into our little buckets of banality, displacing whatever has been disconsolate, complacent, poor, bored, boorish or small about our lives. We raise either a cheer or a howl, depending, or, perhaps if we are honest, one of each. Protest is vain – we’ve had ample warning. The Advent season, at least in the United States, long ago burst its liturgical boundaries, so that now we say, “Christmas music is playing in the stores, decorations are on display… Halloween must me coming.” The crassness of it all, its pervasiveness, is one of the ways we attempt to restore a bit of that displaced banality. That is to say, it is one of the ways we try to manage the holy, or the idea of the holy. Because if we simply let Christmas arrive, unmitigated by Rudolph, Santa, or charge cards - and we’re talking here about the essence of Christmas, quite apart from its Christian specifics, as the birth of That which can Save Us – if we simply let it blaze its tail through our atmosphere and land in our little buckets, then, first of all, there would be nothing left of our buckets. Then what? An end to all our tyrannies, little and large, by which we know our selves. Mostly we won’t have it.
Twenty years ago today, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union and handed up a defunct superpower for history’s dissection. Twenty years before that, Joseph Brodsky, living in a monolithic Soviet Union that seemed to be going nowhere any time soon, having suffered Soviet cultural and intellectual tyranny, convicted as a “social parasite”, imprisoned in a mental institution, and about to be forced into exile, wrote: “Herod reigns but the stronger he is,/the more sure, the more certain the wonder./In the constancy of this relation/is the basic mechanics of Christmas.”
Herod reigns, to be sure. Herod reigns in Russia still, in Syria, North Korea. Herod reigns, too – let’s be honest about this – in all our hearts. But Brodsky says “the wonder” will out. That is how it works.
Christmas morning: Soon the house will smell of the day-long meal. Sam, who has not been feeling at all well lately, rallied his energy to make a rustic pork terrine and, because our friend Nathan, a vegetarian, will be joining us, a terrine of roasted vegetables and goat cheese custard. These we will eat with crudité and Prosecco. For dinner, I’ve planned a spiced squash, fennel, and pear soup to be eaten with crusty bread, followed by a salad of asparagus, leeks, new potatoes and artichoke hearts with a tomato and hard-boiled egg vinaigrette. Then, coq au Riesling, garnished with chanterelle mushrooms and glazed baby red onions and served with little corn pancakes. Nathan will eat the corn pancakes with a stir-fry of red, green, yellow bell peppers with red wine vinegar. For dessert, we will have a chocolate polenta pudding cake.
Books, as always, will play a staring role in our gift exchange. I’ve bought Sam, among other titles, a book called Verdi’s Shakespeare, by Garry Wills. Sam is a besotted idolator of both these men, so when I read a review for this book in the New York Times a few weeks ago, I wondered, for one irrational moment, how Gary had gotten to know my partner so well without my finding out about it. Our friend Mary Louise, who loves to know a little bit about a lot of things, will be receiving E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. Sam bought the new Stephen King novel, 11/22/63, for our friend Keith. If I’m not mistaken, it will be the first time a Stephen King novel has appeared under a Christmas tree I’ve helped decorate. I can’t wait to see Nathan’s face when he opens The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, by the Colombian novelist Alvero Mutis. Along with Sam, he is the most passionate reader I know, and he has a special affection for Latin American novels, especially the ones hardly anyone has heard of. And for me? I’ll let you know.
Sam is a passionate poetry lover. At some point during the day, he will insist we read poems aloud. One of them will be this one, by Joseph Brodsky:
DECEMBER 24, 1971
When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.
Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.
And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.
Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.
That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.
Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.
But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
Who, at the age of seventeen, was your favorite exponent of French surrealism? For the young Odysseus Elytis it was Paul Eluard. There is enough striking juxtaposition in this spiritual meeting to furnish André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto with one more example of his tenants: Elytis was the scion of the well-known Alepoudelis family from Lesbos, whose fortune had been made in soap manufacturing, while Eluard was a tubercular young communist, even, benightedly, a Stalinist, risen from the working class, whose experiences during the First World War left him with a proper, and very French, revulsion for bourgeois values. Mooning bourgeois values was, of course, the surrealists’ raison d’etre. What was a privileged seventeen-year-old Greek boy doing with such incendiary stuff? The same thing, no doubt, that privileged seventeen-year-olds, at least those of a sensitive nature, have always done with incendiary stuff – recast it as surrogate parent to his own budding sensibility. I picture him, a tall skinny boy, stopping by an Athenian bookshop on his way home from school to pick up a copy of Capitale de la douleur, bringing it home, shutting himself in his room and quietly emoting over those poems of love, with there irrational color schemes, body parts transposed to other functions, adjectives intended for one order of nouns transferred to nouns of another order. Perhaps it would have been among the books that would travel with him to one of the Aegean islands, Hydra, Spetsai, Tinos, Mykonos, or Mytilene, where his family summered. Sitting in the shade of a rock, or sprawled leggily on a white washed terrace, he would read,
She is standing on my lids
And her hair is in my hair
She has the colour of my eye
She has the body of my hand
In my shade she is engulfed
As a stone against the sky
Odysseus Elytis 1911-1996
Elytis wrote of his sun-shot awakening as a poet and his discovery of the surrealist movement: “When my interest in poetry was first awakened, round the age of seventeen, I found myself in possession of a fund of experience acquired from my life in the islands; my imagination had developed among the rocks and the caiques – the small island boats – among the rectangular, whitewashed houses, and the windmills. The Aegean had indelibly stamped my consciousness. Thus provided, I could easily have started on a poetic career the sole aspiration of which would have been to reveal the Greece of sun and sea, and would have contented myself with that. But it so happened that, at this crucial moment, I became aware of the theories and the works of the revolutionary French movement of Surrealism. I read with passion all the books and magazines which came from Paris.”
What is surreal about this passage is the complete absence of any reference to what was transpiring in Greece at the time. In 1928, when Odysseus Alepoudelis was seventeen, Greece was still reeling from a calamitous war with Turkey over lands belonging to the Ottoman Empire. Not only had Greece lost the war, but the ensuing Treaty of Lausanne enforced a poplulation exchange which broke the back of Greece’s already beleaguered economy and drove ever deeper the divisions in its society. These divisions extended even to violent differences over the usage of the Greek language. In the following years, massive unrest led to an overthrow of the monarchy, a brief effort to build a republic (led by the revolutionary statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos, a friend of the Alepoudelis family) and the republic’s final dissolution.
The typical seventeen-year-old, if such exists, is bad at irony, especially when applied to his own life. Impossible to tell with what sense of irony young Odysseus stood at the crossing marked by his own privileged circumstances, the idealistic surrealists he so admired and who stood against everything his privilege embodied, and the wrenching struggle for existance in which his country was engaged. He must have had some sense of the dissonance because when, in 1939, he published his first volume of poems, he dropped his family name for a composite name, “Elytis”, reflecting attributes and values he evidently wished to arrogate to himself and his poems: Ellas, or “Greece”; elpidha, “hope”; eleftheria, “freedom”, and Eleni, a mythic personification of beauty and sensuality.
His first book of poems, Orientations, is flooded with images and gestures of hope, freedom, beauty, sensuality, and above all a fierce identification with Greece, a country which, to him, incarnates these attributes. The poems are frequently erotic, often celebrating the kore (the Greek word for maiden, but which layers that denotation with a broader sense of the feminine). And there are indeed vibrantly surrealistic images. Here, for example are the opening lines of “The Concert of Hyacinths”
Stand a little closer to the silence, and gather the hair of this night who dreams her body is naked. She has many horizons, many compasses, and a fate that tirelessly invalidates all her fifty-two cards every time. Afterward she begins again with something else — with your hand, to which she gives pearls so it may find desire, an islet of sleep.
What cannot be found in this poetry is any trace of the national moment. In the poems he wrote before the Second World War and his shattering experience as a second lieutenant in the Albanian campaign against Mussolini’s forces, Greece is less a place than a holy idea. After the war, and his great long poem “Heroic and Elegaic Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign”, his poetry darkened. While retaining all the Aegean vibrancy his admirers have often taken for optimism, his poems opened to admit of melancholy and loss. But the first poems, published against an epoch of massive upheaval, are resolutely, some might say defiantly, lyrical outpourings of those qualities with which he lined his name. In this way, as in so many others, he is entirely unlike his exact contemporary, Czeslaw Milosz, who, from the outset was obsessed with the articulation of his national tragedy. The two poets won the Nobel Prize in successive years, Elytis in 1979, Milosz in 1980, making for a fascinating diptych of contrasting poetic sensibilities on the Swedish Academy’s roster.
It would be wrong, however, to dis Elytis on grounds of non-engagement. Struggle and suffering brook divers responses. Elytis once said of his life’s work, “I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams. I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality.” Echoing Elytis, Dortor Karl Ragnar Gierow, of the Swedish Academy, had this to say in his Nobel presentation speech:
“The poet, he [Elytis] says, does not necessarily have to express his time. He can also heroically defy it. His calling is not to jot down items about our daily life with its social and political situations and private griefs. On the contrary, his only way leads ‘from what is to what may be’. In its essence, therefore, Elytis’s poetry is not logically clear as we see it but derives its light from the limpidity of the present moment against a perspective behind it.”
Many have read Elytis’s famous early poem, “The Mad Pomagranet Tree” as a kind of priapic whoop. But placed in its historical context it becomes something far more complex, an almost creedal assertion of life’s worth against all forces working to life’s cost. Here it is, in Edmund Keeley’s and Philip Sherrard’s translation:
THE MAD POMEGRANATE TREE
Inquisitive matinal high spirits
à perdre haleine
In these all-white courtyards where the south wind blows
Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That leaps in the light, scattering its fruitful laughter
With windy wilfulness and whispering, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That quivers with foliage newly born at dawn
Raising high its colors in a shiver of triumph?
On plains where the naked girls awake,
When they harvest clover with their light brown arms
Roaming round the borders of their dreams — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree,
Unsuspecting, that puts the lights in their verdant baskets
That floods their names with the singing of birds — tell me
Is it the mad pomegranate tree that combats the cloudy skies of the world?
On the day that it adorns itself in jealousy with seven kinds of feathers,
Girding the eternal sun with a thousand blinding prisms
Tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That seizes on the run a horse’s mane of a hundred lashes,
Never sad and never grumbling — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That cries out the new hope now dawning?
Tell me, is that the mad pomegranate tree waving in the distance,
Fluttering a handkerchief of leaves of cool flame,
A sea near birth with a thousand ships and more,
With waves that a thousand times and more set out and go
To unscented shores — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That creaks the rigging aloft in the lucid air?
High as can be, with the blue bunch of grapes that flares and celebrates
Arrogant, full of danger — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That shatters with light the demon’s tempests in the middle of the world
That spreads far as can be the saffron ruffle of day
Richly embroidered with scattered songs — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That hastily unfastens the silk apparel of day?
In petticoats of April the first and cicadas of the feast of mid-August
Tell me, that which plays, that which rages, that which can entice
Shaking out of threats their evil black darkness
Spilling in the sun’s embrace intoxicating birds
Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things
On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?
Odysseus Elytis, 1911 - 1996
Greece is crumbling. Papandreou has called for a referendum on the the EU’s bailout agreement, blazing a trail towards a European abyss. Now the EU is waiting to excise the sun-drenched country like a melanoma. In Athens, friendly young couples pickpocket helpful old men of their last euros. Once-thriving neighborhoods are now scarred with graffiti and patrolled by prostitutes from Africa.* The exportable stereotype of the Greek male as a swarthy open-shirted devil seducing blond tourists has been supplanted by that of the spoiled, tax-evading professional throwing a tantrum over not being able to retire at fifty. Fifty also being the percentage rise in suicide.** Having scraped and clawed and bled their way up through a century of misery to a tenuous, teeth-gritted prosperity, its all falling down around their ears like a film of the Parthenon time-lapsed at one frame per century. You weren’t going to forget, were you, amidst all the news of plummeting stock markets and mounting chaos, that today marks the 100th birthday of Odysseus Elytis?
Haven’t heard of him? It seems you’re not alone. Greek literature, to most non-Greeks, means Homer or Aeschylus. With a little prompting, the non-Hellenic reader may get a patchy, long-stashed image of Anthony Quinn dancing on the seashore and come up with Nikos Kazantzakis. If you read poetry, you may be lucky enough to have become, along with Auden, an admirer of Constantine Cavafy, whose elevated verse articulated a profound longing for historic Greece through his fascination with beautiful young men. But mention Yannis Ritsos, Angelos Sikelianos, Giorgios Seferis, or Odysseus Elytis, and most people will give a blank stare.
Greece, on the other hand – the Greece of its own better Angel’s, brave and tenacious fighters for independence, raki-drinking street-dancers with long memories of oracles ringing in their ears, home to one of the world’s oldest and greatest literary traditions – Greece holds its poets close with pride. And among them, perhaps Odysseus Elytis most of all. Long before he won the Nobel Prize in 1979, this intensely private man who lived for half a century in the same small apartment in Athens, harnessing French surrealism to the chariot of Helios, was venerated as one of the Immortals.***
In a previous post I referred to Elytis as “tragic-eyed”, at best a misleading epithet, for his poetry is intense, optimistic, and frankly erotic. Listen to this fragment from his early collection, Sun the First:
I lived the beloved name
In the shade of the grandmother olive tree
In the roar of the lifelong sea.
Those who stoned me live no longer
With their stones I built a fountain
Verdant girls come to its threshold
Their lips are descended from the dawn
Their hair unwinds deeply in the future.
In Greece, 2011 has been officially declared the Year of Elytis. Readings, symposiums, installations of his art, and concerts of music inspired by his poetry have been going on for months and will continue through November. As unstable as Greece’s future is, it seems a small point of hope that it remains poet-honoring in this way. Imagine America declaring this the “Year of Elizabeth Bishop”.
In a post later this month I will give you Elytis’s famous poem The Mad Pomegranate Tree. But for now, I leave you with this: A line of poetry by Elytis is currently on display in the Athens metro: “Take a leap faster than decay.”****
***The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, Revised and Expanded Edition, Trans. by Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland (2004), p. xxxix.
The Swedish papers once ran a story about a young man, escaped from the Roxtuna institution for juvenile offenders near Linköping, who set off adventuring across the countryside. I picture him tall, glittery-eyed and touseled blond, sharp-shouldered at one end and big-hoofed at the other. It was the early 1960s and being on the lam was more or less the law of the time. He got as far as he did by registering in hostels and inns under the name “T. Tranströmer, psychologist.”*
His assumed namesake must have loved this story, and this boy. How many troubled young men had the real T. Tranströmer, psychologist urged to break free of what limited them in their self-understanding. This one just externalized his counsel. What we take for audacity, he would almost certainly take for a level-headed nod to the way things are: Substances, what we might call the reality of things, things such as walls, names, and boys, are porous, mutable.
He has often been asked if his work as a psychologist has influenced his poetry. The question seems slightly disingenuous; no one would ask it who didn’t already presume it has. On one occasion he answered his questioner by noting how odd it was that no one ever asked him, “How has your poetry affected your work?”**
A barrier breached, a boy escapes. This is what barriers are for. Escape is impossible without them. Tomas Tranströmer is the great poet of the disconcertion and amazement, the mysterium tremendum, that awaits us at barriers and borders. And we are always scrapping at borders, be they a reformatory’s walls, the porous, mutable boundary between the physical and the metaphysical, the border state between waking and sleep, or the moment before and after we decide to love. Listen to the first quatrain of “The Couple”:
They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant an then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.
Tomas Tranströmer and Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, "Adonis"
Tomas Tranströmer has spent his life crossing borders. He is remarkably well-traveled for a man of two rather stationary and time-intensive professions. Iceland, Greece, Turkey, Spain, the United States, Africa, The Balkans, the Baltics – all these places arrive in his poetry. A recent border crossing occurred five years ago when the Syrian poet, Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, better known as Adonis, accompanied him on a journey into the Arab world. The occasion was the publication of an Arabic translation of his complete works. Adonis, who has worked hard to introduce Tranströmer to Arabic readers, said, “Transtromer tries to present his human state in poetry, with poetry as the art revealing the situation. While his roots are deep into the land of poetry, with its classical, symbolic and rhythmic aspects, yet he cannot be classified as belonging to one school; he’s one and many, allowing us to observe through his poetry the seen and unseen in one mix creating his poetry, as if its essence is that of the flower of the world.”***
“The flower of the world” is a term which trips lightly off the tongue of an Arabic poet, and would never be found in a Tranströmer poem. Most readers find his work mystical, but he is, himself, shy of that word. Evoking the mystery of reality? Certainly. Mystic? Not so fast.
A true Scandinavian.
He has described the poems of his cycle, Baltics, which arose from his travels in Soviet controlled Latvia and Estonia, as his “most consistent attempt to write music.” One of his English translators, Robin Fulton, has observed that these poems are full of thematic returns and variations, music’s stock and trade. As well as being a great poet, Tranströmer is an accomplished pianist. An important pairing for him; music has long been a means by which he has approached the border between those realms of experience which invite the free commerce of words, and those which, against all efforts, deny their entry. He has frequently made runs on this border in his poetry. His love for music is sometimes explicit, as in his homages to composers: Liszt and Wagner in “Grief Gondola #2″, Mily Balakirev in “Balakirev’s Dream (1905)”, Haydn, in “Allegro”, and, of course, “Schubertiana”. But often his music-love is quieter, organic. Notice the progression, the “motivic transformation” if you will, in “Slow Music”; it begins with something large, inchoate, which “crowds in” to a finite space, and ends with something finite, knowable more or less, emerging from something large and inchoate:
The building not open today. The sun crowds in through the
and warms the upper side of the desk
which is strong enough to bear the fate of others.
Today we are outdoors, on the long wide slope.
Some have dark clothes. If you stand in the sun, and shut your
you feel as if you were being slowly blown forward.
I come too seldom down to the sea. But now I have come,
among good-sized stones with peaceful backs.
The stones have been gradually walking backwards out of the
Much has been made of Tranströmer’s evocations of nature. In the work of a good poet, like Mary Oliver, nature is mined for what it signifies. There is frequently a moral imperative to move towards it, emulate it where possible, show regret where it is lost. Nature becomes a tool for transformation. In a great poet, like Tranströmer, nature is approached differently, as part of the full spectrum of what we experience, of equal valence with buildings, desks, dark clothes, and wherever we might be when not at the sea. No moral is drawn, and therefore no intellectual filter – apart from the poem itself – to diminish nature’s impact, or its mystery. Nature is left tremendous, and we to our own devices.
In 1990, at the age of 59, Tranströmer crossed a different kind of border when he suffered a stroke which took from him the use of his right arm and all but about twenty words to speak. No more prelude-and-fuguing, no more expansive and expanding conversations. He now depends on his wife, Monica, to help him communicate. But he retains the use of his left hand, which means that he can still write, and he can still play piano pieces for the left hand, of which there is a surprisingly wide and remarkable literature, a few works of which were composed especially for him. When he accepts the Nobel Prize in December, he will step up, not to a podium, but to a piano.
After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no taxes to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
*The Half-Finished Heaven: The best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, chosen and translated by Robert Bly, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, MN, (2001). (All translations are from this edition.)
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