The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems
Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton
New Directions, $16.95 (paper)
In the 1989 poem “Golden Wasp,” Tomas Tranströmer provides a telling remark about his project: “We’re in the church of keeping-silence, of piety according to no letter.” Tranströmer’s particular piety requires only receptivity as an active principle of personal engagement with the world. It places images together in unexpected and beautiful ways and holds them steady enough to create unmistakable tension, even if it doesn’t always tell the reader what that tension is for.
Tranströmer, a psychotherapist as well as a poet, remains one of Sweden’s most widely translated and discussed living poets. His shortest poems are his most characteristic, and they may be his best. He has perfected a particular kind of epiphanic lyric, often in quatrains, in which nature is the active, energizing subject, and the self (if the self is present at all) is the object. Off-kilter and mystical, many of these poems approach the surreal and have an American parallel with Emily Dickinson’s slant of light: “There’s a tree walking around in the rain, / it rushes past us in the pouring grey. / It has an errand. It gathers life / out of the rain like a blackbird in an orchard” (from “The Tree and the Sky”).
But Tranströmer is not only interested in making the world strange. Just as often, he writes with astonishing narrative directness and with recognizable acts of conscience, as in these lines from “In the Nile Delta”: “The young wife wept over her food / in the hotel after a day in the city / where she saw the sick creep and huddle / and children bound to die of want.” And in Robin Fulton’s translation of the wonderful “Elegy,” from the 1973 volume Paths, it is vision that takes immediate shape:
I open the first door.
It’s a large sunlit room.
A heavy car passes in the street
and makes the porcelain tremble.
I open door number two.
Friends! You drank the darkness
and became visible.
Door number three. A narrow hotel room.
Outlook on a back street.
A lamp sparking on the asphalt.
Beautiful slag of experiences.
“Elegy” ends with a spiritual punch line, a confident but strangely breathless conviction. That last act of mind appears to happen all at once, but on rereading we find that it has actually been prepared for us by a set of deliberate steps.
Tranströmer finds joy in clarity. This clarity is not a virtue in and of itself, but a means to an end. One word for this end, as seen in a poem like “The Half-Finished Heaven,” from the 1962 volume of the same name, is release:
Despondency breaks off its course.
Anguish breaks off its course
The vulture breaks off its flight
The eager light streams out,
even the ghosts take a draft.
Once, when asked whether his work as a psychotherapist affected his poetry, Tranströmer wondered aloud why no one asked him whether the opposite was actually the case. Images emphasize the reader’s power of making, the act of make-believe perception that gives something living form: they renew acts of perception by reminding us that we can still perceive. These poems do not tax us but demonstrate a continuity with our own abilities, which is part of what makes them so inviting. At the very least, Tranströmer can take credit for creating acts of imagination we actually want to perform. After all, who doesn’t want to find out what happens when Anguish breaks off its course?
The range of poems collected in The Great Enigma allows the reader to see not only how Tranströmer has perfected many varieties of images but why, as a writer, it is images that have interested him in the first place. In the fittingly titled memoir that ends the book, “Memories Look at Me,” the poet describes the experience of translating Horace in high school:
By now the luminous Roman text had really been brought down to earth. But in the next moment, in the next stanza, Horace came back in Latin with the miraculous precision of his verse. 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 of life. That through form something could be raised to another level. The caterpillar feet were gone, the wings unfolded. One should never lose hope!
When the translated poem throws itself back together into its native tongue, it gets “raised to another level,” which is, in fact, its mysterious, foreign, original form. When a set of images do the same thing, the world coheres. Tranströmer’s concerns are recognizably Modernist—the fragmentary nature of personal and national history, the chastened ambitions of poetry, alienation and isolation, and, most significantly, the possibility of spiritual experience without religious doctrine—but he doesn’t, for the most part, mourn modernity’s loss of traditional orders. Disbelief becomes astonishment; the loss of conviction modulates into awe; the desire to control becomes the desire to release; and poetic authority becomes a form of humility. That these poems are successful in translation feels like poetic justice, given how devoted they are to selfless forms of understanding.
Often, what ought to be disorienting actually orients Tranströmer. States of vague consciousness, especially the moments between sleep and waking, inspire observations of great precision. Sleep has the power to release us from social space and time while keeping us in a familiar world. Consider this parenthetical from the early poem “Song,” in which Tranströmer already understands the connection between paying attention and losing control:
(Energies—their context is renewal,
more enigmatic than the eel’s migrations.
A tree, invisible, in bloom. And as
the grey seal in its underwater sleep
rises to the surface, takes a breath,
and dives—still asleep—to the seabed
so now the Sleeper in me secretly
has joined with that and has returned while I
stood staring fixedly at something else.)
Here, the poem not only enacts but narrates the disappearance of the self into an act of perception, which is followed by the self’s reappearance. This is what studied acts of perception always require of us, but Tranströmer thinks it is useful, and even fun. Solitude invites not melancholic self-involvement but meditative self-transformation.
Tranströmer’s “I” stays “the Sleeper” for most of the first half of his career. But the terrain of the self is never gone in content, and the poems teem with private concerns and quotidian autobiography. A breakthrough comes with Baltics in 1974, which more consciously weaves together different histories—national, natural, and familial. A sequence in six parts, Baltics elevates a presence that appears merely to bear witness to a form of ever-renewing knowledge: “You go on, listening, and then reach a point where the frontiers open / or rather / where everything becomes a frontier.” When talking about history, Tranströmer holds and intensifies his own uncertainty in precisely the same way he holds and intensifies his images:
I don’t know if we are at the beginning or coming the end.
The summing up can’t be done, the summing is impossible.
The summing up is the mandrake—
(See the encyclopedia of superstitions:
which when torn out of the ground gave off such an appalling scream
a man would drop dead. A dog had to do it.)
Just getting near a sense of his own personhood makes Tranströmer tremble, but he even shows that trembling with an image. He’s not interested in “summing up” the world; he wants to open that world up. In “Golden Wasp” he says, “How I hate that expression ‘a hundred percent.’”
Thus it is that throughout his career Tranströmer returns to his own version of the haiku. A haiku, however concise, is less a “summing up” than an explosion under the radar. The Great Enigma includes a set of never-before-published haiku written by the poet when he was working at a prison for juvenile offenders, as well as a substantially larger set of haiku first published in 2004. Here are the last two of nine in the 1959 series, entitled Prison:
An enormous truck
rumbles past at night. The dreams
of inmates tremble.
The boy drinks his milk and
sleeps securely in his cell,
a mother of stone.
These poems are clean and light and sad; they show Tranströmer not only working with the visual image but with other senses as well. In the first poem the world inside and outside the prison fixes itself in the moment of trembling. In the second, the “mother of stone” in the last line echoes the milk in the first, making the world of the poem smaller, but also utterly intact and enigmatically impenetrable. Both poems intensify the world by seeing what unifies it. They also examine the world from the world’s point of view, framing the human individual as object rather than subject. By allowing us to step into the act of perceiving so simply Tranströmer makes his poetic self known as a lack of self, a willingness to step aside and allow the poem to take place.
The Great Enigma offers the most generous collection of Tranströmer’s poems to date. An earlier Selected Poems 1954–1986, compiled by Robert Hass and published by Ecco in 1989, brought together a number of different translators, but its scope was small. A more coherent selection of translations by Robert Bly, The Half-Finished Heaven, was published in 2001 by Graywolf. Bly’s versions of the poems tend to turn up the volume on personhood, bringing the lyrics closer to a traditional interior monologue. They emphasize, in a strange way, content, at times bringing Tranströmer’s work uncomfortably close to a mere ode to the quotidian. Lean and uncluttered, Fulton’s translations in The Great Enigma neither preach nor moralize. They refuse staged psychology and let interiority take shape as mysterious judgments, made by the selection of detail and the juxtaposition of things and times and experiences. The point, as in this stanza from “On the Outskirts of Work,” is the arrangement of the world rather than the staging of the self: “One Sunday I walk past an unpainted new building / that stands in front of a grey wet surface. / It is half finished. The wood has the same light color / as the skin of someone bathing.” The poem has the same glee in apprehending the obvious that a creation myth can have. Of course, these details are beautiful, but the stanza also feels “half-finished,” an act of likeness in process, which is echoed by the baptismal imagery.
Indeed, it is not the clear images but the peculiar form of intimacy that makes Tranströmer’s poems more than technically extraordinary. He writes fantastic poems about strangers because he sees how radically equalizing communications can be made outside of recognizable social relations, across distances. Like a good Romantic, Tranströmer understands how much personal interaction takes place beneath the surface of traditional forms of communication; like a good Modernist, he acknowledges this in form, without overt commentary on the fact. Consider “Lisbon,” from Bells and Tracks (1966):
In the Alfama quarter the yellow tramcars sang on the steep slopes.
There were two prisons. One was for thieves.
They waved through the grilled windows.
They shouted to be photographed.
“But here,” said the conductor giggling like a split man,
“here sit politicians.” I saw the façade the façade the façade
and high up in a window a man
who stood with a telescope to his eye and looked out over the sea.
Laundry hung in blue air. The walls were hot.
The flies read microscopic letters.
Six years later I asked a woman from Lisbon:
“Is it true, or have I dreamt it?”
The point of the criminal-justice system is to make distinctions, but Tranströmer, even when surveying the world from a “steep slope,” refuses to look down on anything. The true subject of the poem is how it feels to knit together two pictures into an autobiographical moment of dubious personal relevance. Tranströmer celebrates mental activity itself, the fact that these pictures can be knit together, that they can be remembered. The last line confesses a state of confusion without guilt: we’re not sure which would be better. “Lisbon,” a geographic and political location, is powerfully retaken as a place in the mind.
Contemporary poetry in America doesn’t seem particularly interested in the leaner forms of Modernism that Tranströmer offers. And maybe technology has already taken us past his conviction that there is a deep intimacy within our isolation from each other. But perhaps we just need to listen as hard and look as hard as he has. Even in translation, we still have rich access to the acts of mind that his silences ask of us. Would that more poetry in our own tongue translated so well.