Friday, October 07, 2011

To go out and walk far in the forest

Badelunda, Sweden

I was glad to hear that Tomas Tranströmer has won the Nobel Prize and have been looking today through my copy of his New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton.  Here is my guide to some of the imagery you'll find in his poetry.
  1. Snow.   In an earlier post I talked about a poem, 'From March 1979', in which Tranströmer goes to a snow-covered island and sees in the tracks of the deer 'language but no words.'  Language itself suffers in the still, cold February of another poem, 'Face to Face', where there is deep snow and 'footprints grew old out on the crust. / Under a tarpaulin language pined.'  But the onset of a snowfall can seem as joyful as music ('C Major') and when winter ends eventually, as in the poem 'Noon Thaw', the world has a new language: 'the vowels were blue sky and the consonants were black twigs and the speech was soft over the snow.'
  2. Stillness.   In that dead winter of 'Face to Face', 'living stood still' and 'the soul / chafed against the landscape.'  But eventually, one day, colours flared and 'everything turned around. / The earth and I sprang towards each other'. Elsewhere in Tranströmer there are moments of quiet contemplation, 'Weather Picture' for instance, where the October sea glistens coldly and all sounds are 'in slow flight'.  'Breathing Space July' contains three moments of stillness, lying under a tree, looking into the water, and sleeping.  And in 'Slow Music' he writes of a day down by the water, 'among large stones with peaceful backs', where 'you can stand in the sun with your eyes shut / and feel yourself being slowly blown forward.'
  3. Summer.   In a prose poem, 'The Blue House', Tranströmer stands in a dense forest under 'a night of radiant sun.'  'A ship's engine far away on the water expands the summer-night horizon.  Both joy and sorrow swell in the dew's magnifying glass.'  But those sunlit Swedish summers will eventually fade until the sounds of the forest flow 'into a single melancholy murmer' ('The Cuckoo'). In 'Lament' the writer notices the slow coming of night. 'The moths settle on the window pane: / small pale telegrams from the world.'
  4. Song.   In 'Song' Tranströmer recalls the legend of Väinämöinen, the eternal bard of the Kalevala, riding over the sea.  He also listens at nightfall to the abortive music of gulls on a dark skerry.  You can hear birdsong in many of his poems - 'Ringing', 'Morning Birds', 'Memories Look at Me', 'Early May Stanzas', 'The Nightingale in Badelunda'. The last of these describes a moment when time stopped as he listened to 'the raw resonant notes that whet the night sky's gleaming scythe.' 
  5. Stars.  'Orion hangs above the ground-frost...'; 'Silent constellations.  And the cold ocean.' Tranströmer poems often take place at night, although the stars may merely be glimpsed, up through the grating of winter.  In an early poem, 'Epilogue', he describes the evening star like an X-ray, developing a hidden landscape of houses, trees and fences.  And then a storm comes in and the stars seem to signal for help, 'lit and quenched by headlong clouds / that only when they shade the light betray / their presence.'
  6. Sleep.   In 'Tracks' a train stops in the middle of a plain - 'bright moonlight, few stars' - and far away there are the lights of a town.  It is like a dream that the sleeper will not remember. Sleep and dreams recur throughout Tranströmer's poetry and indeed the opening lines of the first poem in his first collection describe that moment of awakening when 'consciousness can grasp the world / as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.'  'The Man who Awoke with Singing over the Roofs' evokes that same feeling, when the sleeper 'begins / groping for attention's instruments'. 
  7. Storms.  Sometimes the poet is woken by a storm.  In 'Autumnal Archipelago' he listens in the darkness to 'constellations stamping inside their stalls, high over the tree-tops'.  Similarly, 'A Winter Night' begins with this memorable image: 'the storm put its mouth to the house / and blows to produce a note.'  These experiences suggest a simile in 'Agitated Meditation': 'a storm drives the mill sails wildly round / in the night's darkness, grinding nothing. - You / are kept awake by the same laws...'
  8. Silence.   Other times the nights are quiet: in 'Nocturne', the trees keep 'silence in concord with each other.'  In 'Five Stanzas to Thoreau', Tranströmer talks of silence slowly spiralling from the earth to grow 'with its burgeoning crown to shade his sun-heated doorstep.'  Thus silence seems sought after at times - in 'Along the Radius' he sits by an ice-bound river on an upturned boat 'swallowing the drug of silence'.  But in 'April and Silence' Spring lies desolate and 'the only thing I want to say / glitters out of reach / like the silver / in a pawnbrokers.'
  9. Solitude.   In 'Alone', Tranströmer says 'I must be alone / Ten minutes in the morning / and ten minutes in the evening / without a programme.'  Earlier in this poem he is walking on the frozen fields of Östergötland and doesn't see a single person.  Other solitary artists appear in his poems - Thoreau 'disappearing deep in his inner greenness' and Grieg in his work-cottage, 'shut in with silence.'  In 'Solitary Swedish Houses' everything seems to stand alone and summer comes with 'flaxen-haired rain / or one solitary thunder-cloud / above a barking dog.'
  10. Sunlight.  Finally, the transformative effect of sunlight is evident in poems like 'Landscape with Suns', where the poet takes the memory of a glowing sun back to 'the half dead grey forest /  where we have to work and live.'  'Further In' describes an evening when he is driving through thick traffic.  A low red sun streaming in through his windscreen makes him feel transparent, so that 'writing becomes visible / inside me'.  Right then, he knows he must 'get far away / straight through the city and then / further until it is time to go out / and walk far in the forest.'


Benjamin Vogt said...

Agreed--nice to see a poet up there. Love this guide! Very neat and helpful / thoughtful.

Jan Johnsen said...

love this post!