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 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.)