Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tranströmer's Full Universe

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, which makes it a great day for those of us who have stood in awe of Tranströmer's unflinching depths for decades. We owe that experience to Minnesota's own Robert Bly, who published the first English translation of Tranströmer's work back in the early '70s.

I like to think my Swedish genes make me particularly vulnerable to Tranströmer's quietly innervated universe. Reading Bly's translation for the first time in my twenties reinforced my fragile wiring because the life Tranströmer beholds in objects validated my sense of things. Then, like now, his poems sounded a gong in my pantheistic heart.

After hearing the announcement, I pulled one of my most prized possessions from my bookshelf, Bly's Friends, You Drank Some Darkness, a translation of three Swedish poets, including Tranströmer. I remembered having it with me that hour or so in Stockholm when Tranströmer sat at the table in my friend's apartment in Gamla Stan, chatting with me about Bly (whom I hadn't met) and poetry. I brought a package of books for him that Bly had mailed to me upon my invitation to deliver it to Tranströmer during my trip. I was bold in my correspondence to poets in those days.

Tranströmer signed my copy of Friends that afternoon, thanking me for the package and commenting on the July heat above his signature. I think I served him ice water, but I'm not sure. I know there wasn't any air conditioning in my friend's place, a centuries-old building with wide, shallow staircases and in which, according to the neighbors, Queen Christina once lived. I remember the heat, my nervousness and Tranströmer's delight in seeing the inside of such an interesting building on Västerlånggatan. If I sounded ridiculous trying to talk about poetry, he never let on.

As I read some of the poems in this collection again, I'm more grateful than ever for Tranströmer's universe, in which we're given permission to ponder our machines as sentient companions and promise ourselves that we will stop and look more often:

Excerpt from "Morning Bird Songs"
(translated by Robert Bly)

I wake up my car;
pollen covers the windshield.
I put my dark glasses on.
The bird songs all turn dark.

Meanwhile someone is buying a paper
at the railroad station
not far from a big freight car
reddened all over with rust.
It shimmers in the sun.

The whole universe is full.
The Nobel Academy stated that it awarded the prize to Tranströmer "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." I'm keeping that on file for the day I find myself in the classroom again, searching for a way to convince college sophomores that poetry matters. "It gives us fresh access to reality," I'll say. Everything is relatively fresh to nineteen year olds, some of them, anyway, so the point may be lost. But if they take notes, they may read it years later, when nothing that is supposed to matter seems to matter at all, and be inspired to look up a poem or two by Tranströmer, which will change everything.

Robert Bly