THE POETRY OF TOMAS TRANSTROMER
The Swedish landscape is rather more austere than the richly flowered and variegated landscape to be found in most parts of Britain, where chalk, limestone and other, softer, rocks allow a greater profusion of topographical shapes and plant varieties to flourish. Much of Sweden struggles to survive on granite, outcrops of which can be seen in many of that country's towns and cities, unexpectedly thrust to the surface, and a constant reminder of how much geology still shapes destiny. Such outcrops also produce a proliferation of islands and skerries around the coast, notably just outside Stockholm where there are more than 17,000 islands in the archipelago, many of them inhabited, at least during the summer months. Yet even with its more restricted flora and fauna, the Scandinavian landscape is perhaps even more beautiful and haunting. 'Fjords make philosophers of us all," Ibsen once wrote, about his native Norway.
Like many others, I first became aware of the Scandinavian life and culture through the films of Ingmar Bergman, and the austerities of his landscapes and characters struck a chord, or perhaps more accurately suggested a range of emotions and aspirations unavailable in English culture at the time. (The transitory happiness of the Baltic island idyll in Bergman's 1953 film, Summer with Monika, has recently been evoked again in the English publication of Tove Jannsson's exquisite The Summer Book. This was originally written in 1972, and the translation by Thomas Teal has already been reprinted four times in Britain in 2003, its first year of publication. Jannsson, most famous for her children's books, is Finnish of course, though her summer island is also in the Baltic.)
Partly as a result of these early influences, I have been a fairly frequent visitor to Scandinavia over the years, and find that the landscape and culture there continue to exert a particular spell, in unexpected, and almost Utopian ways especially for someone as urban as myself. Just one telling example of the cultural difference between Sweden and Britain is that their phrase for the welfare state is folkhemmet, ‘the people's home’. While always on the lookout for Swedish literature in translation, and finding much of great interest and enjoyment, there is one writer who it seems to me should be regarded as one of the greatest and most distinctive voices in European literature: the poet, Tomas Transtromer. Fortunately Bloodaxe Books have recently expanded and re-published Transtromer's New Collected Poems (2002), ably translated by Robin Fulton, and a book to keep close by, whatever the topography, and whatever the weather.
Transtromer was born in Stockholm in 1931 and is today one of Sweden's most translated poets, though still much less recognised than he deserves to be. By profession a psychologist, his work is transfused with a respect and love for people in all their predicaments and difficulties. In Sweden he has been called ‘the buzzard poet’ because he seems to fly above the everyday world, observing with detached but sympathetic detail the landscape and the people in it; the paintings of Chagall often come to mind when reading him. The cover of the new Bloodaxe edition principally consists of one of Sirkka-Lilsa Konttinen's memorable black and white photographs, Snow Angel, an aerial photograph of a cleared patch of snow in a pine forest, which seems to resemble the shape of an angel's body, head and wings. With Transtromer we are in the same company as Rilke and Shelley, other poets of angels and ascension
The dream-like experience of flying (as well as endless falling) recurs again and again in Transtromer's poetry. One of his early poems, Prelude, opens with the line, ‘Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams', and this sense of falling into the world each morning as if from some distant planet, is found throughout his work. Like Shelley's Adonais, Transtromer's subjects often feel that they have awakened from the dream of life, and the constant inversion of dream-time and reality, of night and day, of the horizontal and vertical worlds, is an ever-present theme of this intense yet quietly patient writer. A number of Transtromer's poems often suggest a photographic imagination, in which light and dark are hauntingly transposed, as in the beautiful opening image of the poem, The Couple: 'They switch off the light and its white shade/glimmers for a moment before dissolving/like a tablet in a glass of darkness.’
Not only do people fall into darkness when they go to sleep, they correspondingly fall to earth again each morning, into this bright world. There are other times, though, when it is the green depths of the Baltic waters which seems to offer other worlds of experience too, mostly associated with forms of weightlessness and forms of music. Transtromer's specific interest in the qualities of music - the way it seems to sweep through the world, to shape emotions and leave generations moved, and yet to be invisible and leave the material world untouched - is philosophically profound and affecting. In another one of his most beautiful images, in the poem Allegro, he describes music as being like a glass house through which great stones are hurled, yet which leave the panes unbroken. In a more recent poem, Lugubrious Gondola No.2- not in the New Collected Poems - Transtromer writes that, 'Liszt has written down some chords that are so heavy/they ought to be sent/ to the mineralogical institute in Padua for analysis./Meteorites/too heavy to rest, they can only sink and sink through/ the future right down/ to the years of the brownshirts.' Particular periods of European history, culture and human consciousness are often carefully unravelled in a number of the longer poems.
Many poems open or dose with an evocation of some transitional state of consciousness, either between sleeping and waking, or in one of those moments when someone can literally forget who he or she is. In the poem, The Name, the driver of a car who has pulled over to the side of the road to catch some sleep on a long journey, awakes in a heart-stopping state of panic about their own identity, relieved very quickly to realise that 'My name comes like an angel. Outside the walls a trumpet signal blows (as in the Leonora overture) and rescuing footsteps come smartly down the overlong stairway. It is I! it is I!1 This occurs only feet away from a busy road where traffic glides past oblivious to the human crisis described; something similar happens in Robert Lowell's Skunk Hour as I recall. The coexistence of the fragile interior human world with the often brute facts of material and historical indifference is a theme constantly pursued in the writer's work.
Transtromer is the creator of unexpected images of apparently artless simplicity and staying power, possessing a unique voice full of understanding for human bewilderment and wonder. His is not an urban world, but one of forests, empty country roads and Baltic shipping channels, though also occasionally of African villages and hot, barren rooms. Life is a series of transitional states of consciousness and occasional moments of epiphany, but it is also at times both beautiful as well as mysterious. The music of the great humanist 19th century European composers - Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn in particular - shapes Transtromer's life and experience, and it is the miracle of such music, as with his poetry, that its material presence is so weightless and ethereal, yet it also, paradoxically, contains such extraordinary power, along with an ability to transform the human and material world in astonishing ways. He is a poet to take seriously, because he introduces us to a new, though consistent, moral world and landscape every time he writes.