For the Living & the Dead

56 pages,
ISBN: 0969990413

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Unidentified Periscopes
by Kenneth Sherman

The publication of a complete and recent collection of Tomas Tranströmer's poems, in English translation, is a just cause for celebration. One of the most significant poets in the Western world, he became famous in his native Sweden in 1954 with his first collection, 17 Poems. In 1972, two book-length selections of his work appeared in English: Robert Bly's Night Vision and May Swenson's Windows & Stones. Since then his work has been known and admired by readers in North America and Great Britain.
Tranströmer's poetry achieves its tension through the interplay of what seem to be opposing worlds. As the title of this collection suggests, we reside with both the living and the dead. But theirs are not isolated realms whose borders are clearly demarcated; their tendency to shift, to invade each other's space, accounts for Tranströmer's ironic, and, at times, reconciliatory tone.
In many of these poems, he is Orpheus descending: "A woods in May. Here spooks my whole life," or "I am a mummy who rests in the woods' blue coffin," or "They want to say something, the dead..I'll hurry through the streets as if I'm one of them." The dead nourish Tranströmer; they lead him to states of poetic illumination, regardless of whether they float up from his own past, like his murdered Second World War sea captain, or rise, like Beethoven, or the woman in a nineteenth-century portrait, out of our general historical past. In fact, in these poems the personal, historical, and social intermingle, providing the wide range, the many-layered quality of Tranströmer's poetry.
Ultimately, the dead are both separate from us, in time past, and part of our present subconscious. Furthermore, they are potently active below much of our everyday existence:

We see everything and nothing, but we're
straight up as periscopes controlled by
the underworld's shadowy crew.

Of course, this interplay between the worlds of the dead and the living is by no means a new one. Dramatists seem particularly disposed toward it-Ibsen, Strindberg, Beckett-and one might fault Tranströmer for presenting a world that is too blatantly dichotomous, too strictly divided between the appearance of reality and the subconscious, too psychological.
Though Tranströmer is by profession a psychologist, he is above all a poet, and the lines I have quoted achieve poetic power, not only from the inventive submarine image, but also from the wit-"everything and nothing"-from the sarcasm behind "straight up" (rigid, righteous), and from the condemnation that we are nothing more than tools. Unlike so many contemporary poets whose visions are by and large solipsistic, Tranströmer is not content to allow the invisible, potent world to remain private. What gives his poetry weight is its tendency to move from the social-"We who live are nails hammered down into society"-toward scorn and prophecy:

How I loathe the expression "a hundred
per cent"!
Those who cannot see anything except from
the front.
those who never open the wrong door and get a
glimpse of the
go past them!

Scorn is rarely expressed in contemporary poetry, largely because there is nothing less authentic to our ears than a prophet railing on a mountaintop. Rather than preaching from a height, Tranströmer is more likely to be walking through the labyrinth of a forest or city, open to discovery. When he voices scorn, it will be alongside desperation and compassion. Note the short and brilliant "Epigram":

Capitalism's buildings, the hives of the
killer-bees, honey for the few.
There he served. But in a dark tunnel he spread
his wings
and flew when no one was looking. He had to live
his life again.

There are few living poets who can achieve so much in three lines: the greed and aggressiveness of capitalism, the secret flight of the stifled individual, the insistence erupting from the verb "had".
Surprisingly, Tranströmer is closest, stylistically, not to any north European, but to the Mediterranean poet Yehuda Amichai. In his introduction to Amichai's collection Amen, Ted Hughes states, "Each poem is like a telephone switchboard-the images operate lightning confrontations between waiting realities.." And Tranströmer, characterizing his own work, has said, "My poems are meeting places. Their intent is to make a sudden connection between aspects of reality.." Both these poets take in a flood of seemingly disparate images, conveyed by a voice modulating between surprise, irony, and pathos; this is an extremely effective device to capture the fragmentation and randomness of contemporary experience, and provides the poetry with its aura of authenticity. Paradoxically, what first appears as random ends as wisdom, for in both poets' work, images are drawn together, synthesized by a powerful central intelligence, by an imagination that sees into the underlying associations of the apparent disparities. In sensibility, Tranströmer rests somewhere between the more persistent amorousness of Amichai and the stoical terseness of the East European poets. He is more psychological and darker than Amichai, yet neither Milosz, Herbert, nor Popa would write a poem as romantic as Tranströmer's "Nightingale in Badelunda", or give us lines like "This morning my darling drove away the evil spirits.her nakedness made the demons fly." In "Madrigal", he writes, "I inherited a dark wood but today I am going into another wood, the bright one.."
There is another important difference between Tranströmer's existential quest and that of the Eastern European poets who have had such a powerful influence on poetry in the latter part of this century. He is less severe and less pessimistic, though it must be stressed that his affirmation is hard-won. His quest to comprehend the perplexity of man is mirrored in his notion of human growth as a process without end. As the angel tells him in "Romanesque Arches", "You will never be finished, and that's the way it should be." This process of becoming is reflected in the actual workings of his poems. At their best, they involve the reader in an awakening of those subconscious realities-what Tranströmer calls the "Unidentified", "Terra Incognita"-that have been pushed aside, that are vague and slumbering. Bringing them to life is curative. And conclusions are always tentative, acknowledging the open-endedness of existence.
Like other foreign poets whose language is plainspoken and whose tone is informal-one thinks here of Cavafy, Miroslav Holub, the later Montale-Tranströmer translates well into English. Far better, say, than Joseph Brodsky or Marina Tsvetaeva, whose poetry is grammatically more compressed, linguistically denser. To understand this from our side of the language border, imagine translating Gerard Manley Hopkins or Hart Crane, out of English. On the other hand, conversational poets like Walt Whitman or William Carlos Williams do well in Polish or Cantonese.
That Tranströmer translates well, in no way depreciates Don Coles's accomplishment; he has deservedly won the John Glassco Translation Prize for this book. We are fortunate that Coles, one of Canada's finest poets, lived in Sweden for a number of years and is fluent in the language. Unlike other translators of Tranströmer, he has not had to resort to literal versions provided by an expert in Swedish. This, I suppose, is what gives his translations their immediacy and directness. Coles has vividly conveyed Tranströmer's unusual and unexpected imagery. He has given us living approximations of the originals that are fluid, resonant, and most importantly, that recreate the subtly shifting frequencies of Tranströmer's tone.
BuschekBooks has provided us with a bilingual edition-always preferable with translations of poetry-that includes a heartfelt introduction by Coles, who wisely chose to include a reprint of a short piece from 1977, in which Tranströmer describes the possibilities for modern poetry and characterizes his poetic makings. Each of the seventeen poems in this collection is an unqualified success. Aside from short gems like "Epigram" (quoted earlier here), there are four major poems: "Indoors is Endless", "Streets In Shanghai", "Vermeer", and "Yellowjacket". Of these, I find "Vermeer" the most exceptional; its energy arises from the tension between the crass and noisy world of money, war, and madness, and the quiet world of the master's paintings, where the commotion has been stilled by art. The poem examines the nature of the barrier between these worlds, or "the wall" as Tranströmer calls it, and ends with a stanza on "the void.emptiness", where he reaffirms his humanism by transforming a potentially dark perspective into possibility:

And emptiness turns its face to us
and whispers
"I am not empty, I am open."

 Kenneth Sherman has two books forthcoming this year: Clusters (poems) and Void & Voice (selected essays).


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