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The Art of the Inexplicit

The Deleted World
By Tomas Tranströmer
Versions by Robin Robertson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 41 pp., $13)

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems
By Tomas Tranströmer
Translated by Robin Fulton
(New Directions, 262 pp., $17.95)

Thirty-six years ago, I wrote that Tomas Tranströmer’s verses were “poems of an almost prehistoric sort, with their severe music and their archaic austerity of language.” Thirteen years ago, reviewing the New Collected Poems, I reported the common opinion concerning the Swedish poet—that “Tranströmer is frequently, and justly, mentioned as a poet deserving the [Nobel] prize.” And now Tranströmer, at the age of eighty, has at last received the great award. During the evening banquet in his honor, his wife, Monica, representing the poet, read in Swedish and English (in a translation by Robin Fulton) a poem called “From March 1979.” In it Tranströmer displays the enigma around which all his writing revolves: given the inexpressiveness of words in their blank everyday functionality, how is the poet to recreate nature’s signs in that rare human language we call poetry?

Weary of all who come with words,
    words but no language,
I make my way to the snow-covered

The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on
    every side!

I come upon the tracks of deer in
    the snow.
Language but no words.

At the beginning, words with no authentic language; at the end, nature’s language (in “deer-speak”) but no words. It was by this self-portrait—as a poet facing untamed nature, exhilarated by its wealth of unwritten pages but also overwhelmed by the duty to transmute them into written ones—that Tranströmer, who was disabled in mobility and speech by a stroke in 1990, chose to present himself.

On the following day, Tranströmer watched from his wheelchair a ceremony of music and readings honoring his poetry. The most touching moments came as the poet, unable to speak, heard his own recorded voice reading some of the chosen poems. The thirteen selections ranged in date from 1962 to 1996. Taken all together, they revealed many of Tranströmer’s concerns: memory, music (Schubert, Liszt, Grieg), art (Vermeer), travel, the seasons, modern civilization and its relation to nature, the body, solitude, and occasional joys (visual, erotic, marital). Suitably enough, lines of depression and terror were few, although in the poet’s volumes they are many. To exemplify Tranströmer’s worldwide fame, one excellent poem, “Alone,” was read not only in Swedish but also in several translations—German, Romanian, Spanish, Chinese.

Tranströmer’s poems, even in translation, are rich in human interest with their brief narratives, idiosyncratic images, and sharp-edged lines, evoking a particular twentieth-century life. But as always with lyrics, the survival value of their urgent matter ultimately rests on the poet’s lyric manner, creating lines that linger in memory, endings that sadden, resemblances that startle, unexpected transitions. A true poet needs the sort of imagination that recognizes a pressing language in deer tracks.

Tranströmer’s most recent volume of poetry, The Great Enigma, draws its title from the closing words of its final haiku:

Birds in human shape.
The apple trees in blossom.
The great enigma.

This farewell offers two facts of being: the beautiful energies of the natural world (apple blossoms, birds) and our compulsion to make those energies, through the excitements of poetry, resemble our emotional selves. This is hardly new: poetry has long ascribed human qualities to birds. But normally the natural creature (say, Poe’s raven) precedes the “human” quality (the utterance of the word “Nevermore”). Tranströmer characteristically, and unnervingly, puts the symbolic image first—the human-shaped birds—and then, without explanation, adds the unelaborated natural fact of blossoming apple trees. He finds in this juxtaposition the great enigma of human existence: the simultaneity in human beings of an indivisible awareness both subjective and objective. For Tranströmer, poetry requires a double articulation, in which the irrefutable senses converge seamlessly with the irrepressible emotions. In that convergence one may gain a possible self-knowledge:

Two truths draw nearer each other.
One moves from inside, one moves
    from outside
And where they meet we have a chance
    to see ourselves.

Fulton translates the third line as “We have a chance to see ourselves,” substituting a vocabulary of self-intimacy (“we ... ourselves”), as earlier May Swenson, in a version of her own, had substituted “you” and “yourself,” for the poet’s impersonal “one” and “oneself” (man and sig själv). But under the single title “Preludes,” Tranströmer has sequenced three poems; the use of impersonal expression distinguishes this—the central poem of the three—from the other two, which are written in the first-person singular. Does Fulton’s insertion of the collusive “we” obscure the distance of this “philosophical” prelude from its first-person companions? In such small ways, translation affects our sense of the attitudes rendered by the poem.

TRANSTRÖMER HAS HAD many translators; he chose to print Fulton’s translations in the English version of the Nobel Lecture program. Most recently, the Scottish poet Robin Robertson has ventured into the field, producing a small book of sixteen translations, called “versions” on the title page but also, in an afterword, “imitations.” Both words—“versions” and the Lowellesque “imitations”—suggest a freedom of expression exceeding that of a “translation.” (Robertson thanks the Tranströmers for “accepting these imitations in the spirit in which they were made,” letting us know that Tranströmer has not objected to a fellow poet’s taking liberties in the shaping of his poems.) It is instructive, and also unsettling, to compare Robertson and Fulton: are the poet’s tambourines of ice (in “Midwinter”) “ringing” or “jangling”? Is the night sky (in “Fire Graffiti”) “lowing” or “bellowing”? And the symbolic mushrooms sprouting up through the grass in “Sketch in October”—how are we to see them?

Here is Fulton on the mushrooms in his current version:

They are the fingers, stretching for help,
    of someone
who has long been sobbing alone down
    in the darkness.

And here is Fulton again, in a translation from 1997:

They are the fingers, stretching for help,
    of someone
who has for long sobbed alone in the
    darkness down there. 

And here is Robertson:

Stretching for help, these white fingers
belong to someone who sobs down
    there in the darkness.

The verb cries out for clarification: has the person been sobbing, is he one who has sobbed, is he someone who sobs? Each version of the sob affects our sense of the underground existence manifested in the piteous imprisoned mushroom-fingers, but I cannot tell which version may be the nearest to Tranströmer’s intent.

Nor can I be sure of his intent in the famous poem “To Friends Behind a Frontier,” in which he addresses past correspondents (presumably behind the Iron Curtain) to whom (he says in selfreproach) he wrote så kargt. The root-word, the adjective karg, means “barren.” From Swenson, Fulton, and Robertson, we hear the poet saying he wrote “so meagerly,” “so stingily,” and “so cautiously.” So a non-existent complex adverb arises in the mind: “barrenly-meagerly-stingily-cautiously”; and recognizing yet again the incomplete fit of translated words, we sigh and take what we can from the translators.

“IT IS ONLY au pays de la métaphore/Qu’on est poète,” reflects Wallace Stevens in a notebook, and Tranströmer, a native of that country of metaphor, would agree, just as he would agree with Stevens that “Things seen are things as seen.” Tranströmer is a poet whose acute metaphors indeed produce things-as-seen—strangely and arrestingly seen. We learn his symbolic language only gradually. Some of it is formed by the austere landscape of Sweden (especially by the rural island, Runmarö, in the Stockholm archipelago where Tranströmer’s family spent time every summer), but Tranströmer’s landscape is far from being a photographic one. In an early poem, “Sailor’s Yarn,” he says that the ocean waves are like “pale/lynxes vainly seeking hold in the beach gravel” and characterizes the deep winter darkness of the far north as a place in which “day lives in a mine both day and night.”

From the beginning, then, Tranströmer espouses a style that offers neither “realistic” description nor a meaningless surrealism. In “Sailor’s Yarn,” in the wake of the hallucinatory lynx-waves there arrive the real lynxes of the north, “with sharpened claws/and dreaming eyes,” guaranteeing, so to speak, by their physical arrival their earlier imagined wave-kin. The sharpness of eye that saw the wave-lynxes is matched—according to native readers—by a conclusive phonetic texture. In winter, the poet tells us, the mind can hum with an alternative season:

Out of the winter gloom
a tremolo rises

from hidden instruments. It is like
under summer’s high lime tree with
    the din
of ten thousand
insect wings above your head.

Stopping in mid-winter to imagine summer’s tremolo brings about that irregular melding of fact and sense-impression that makes a poem. The synthesis happens under intense mental compression, fusing images and sounds. “I saw heard from the bridge,” the poet says in “By the River,” with no punctuation (in Swedish as well as English) between the verbs: “sag hörde jag fran hängbron.”

The Nobel citation said of Tranströmer that “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” But “reality” is not something already there to which the poet “gives us fresh access.” No: the poet creates a new and unique reality, non-existent until his words bring it into being. The poet’s images are lenses by which we are enabled to see reality as he sees it. If the new perception replaces our previous sense of reality, the poem has done its work: we have been alerted to the previously invisible by an unprecedented “slant of light” radiating from a particular man in a particular time in Sweden. In this way Tranströmer has been able to etch his reality on our minds.

THE FACTS OF Tranströmer’s life are relatively few, biographically speaking. He experienced a childhood marked by divorce, and his father, a journalist, was mostly absent. In boyhood he became obsessed, as an entomologist-in-the-making, with collecting beetles and other insects; and he read widely, then and later, in history and geography, thinking to become an explorer. When he was nine, the war broke out, and he developed a passionate hatred of Nazis, confirmed by a book he came across called The Martyrdom of Poland. After a classical education in high school and a subsequent concentration in psychology, he became a psychologist in an institution for juvenile offenders, charged with devising placements and interventions that would best serve their future. Eventually he was able to leave salaried work and live by his writing, continuing, as before, to play classical music on the piano. He and his wife and their two daughters have lived quietly in Sweden, with occasional travels to other parts of the world, travels marked by poems recalling places from Izmir to Oklahoma. In 1990 came the stroke, and then Tranströmer’s fortunate regaining of the ability to write, if not to speak.

The inner evolution of Tranströmer’s life is more gripping than the outward narrative. In 1993, in a memoir called “Memories Look at Me,” the poet described the central event of his psychic life—an adolescent breakdown of a terrifying sort, “possibly my most important experience”:

During the winter when I was fifteen I was afflicted by a severe form of anxiety. I was trapped by a searchlight that radiated not light but darkness. I was caught each afternoon as twilight fell and not released from its terrible grip until the next day dawned.
[One night] suddenly the atmosphere in the room was tense with dread. Something took total possession of me. Suddenly my body started shaking, especially my legs.... I screamed for help and Mother appeared.... My dread intensified and from dusk to dawn would not leave me alone....
The most important element in my existence was illness. The world was a vast hospital. I saw before me human beings deformed in body and in soul. The [lamp]light burned and tried to hold back the terrible faces but sometimes I would doze off, my eyelids would close, and the terrible faces would suddenly close in on me....
Was I insane? Almost....
A few years previously I had wanted to be an explorer. Now I had pushed my way into an unknown country where I had never wanted to be. I had discovered an evil power. Or rather, the evil power had discovered me.

The besieging dread gradually lessened with the coming of spring, and health was restored by Tranströmer’s self-exorcism: playing the piano. During that autumn term he had shot up from one of the smallest students to one of the tallest, under the influence of the relentless hormones of puberty, no doubt responsible for at least part of his breakdown which, interestingly, was a continuing nightmare of the non-aesthetic: it was, he says, “the deformed and the sick who invaded my nocturnal consciousness.” From that wrenching transformation at fifteen, the entomologist emerged an aesthete.

He began writing poems at school during boring classes, and at twenty-three he published his first book of poems, some of them cast into classical meters. Fulton rightly keeps to those forms in his translation; Robertson sometimes chooses to ignore them. The satisfying thing about the sapphics is the short fourth line of the stanza, allowing Tranströmer (in my adaptation of Fulton and Robertson below) to sound wonderfully like an alliterative Anglo-Saxon poet. Both stanzas of “Ostinato” end with the ocean/horse agitating the sea, and the concluding two-beat sea-wave bears us back to Beowulf:

Tuggar blint sitt betsel av tång och
           skum över stranden. . . .
Havet rullar dånande fram och frustar
           skum över stranden.


Blindly chewing its bridle of seaweed,
    it snorts up
           surf over sea-strands. . . .
The ocean rolls thundering on and
    snorts up
           surf over sea-strands.

As time went on, Tranströmer wrote in free verse, but he never forsook (as his late haiku demonstrate) an attachment to strict form.

ALTHOUGH TRANSTRÖMER began as a spare poet, soon abandoning some early elaboration, his poetry underwent a remarkable expansion in 1974, when he wrote a riveting six-poem sequence called Baltics, stimulated (as Fulton’s introduction tells us) by his “finding of a log-book kept by his maternal grandfather in the 1880s, listing the ships he piloted.” To read the sequence, which takes up fifteen pages in Tomas Tranströmer: Dikter och Prosa 1954-2004, is to find an altered Tranströmer, shaken to his depths by his full absorption of the fact of death. He has described Baltics as “a long letter to the dead,” where “the words knock in vain and nothing sticks.”

In the sequence, Tranströmer depicts in separate vignettes his beloved grandfather and grandmother, rendering their historical context through old photographs, narrating seafaring griefs, contemplating leaning tombstones. The utter extinction of human beings brings out some of Tranströmer’s harshest passages, difficult to bear even in English. On a twelfth-century baptismal font, he sees that “the mason’s name/is still visible, shines out”—and then, as the knife of time slices into the line—“shines out/like a row of teeth in a mass grave:/HEGWALDR.” Time defeats the poet:

I don’t know if we are at the beginning
    or coming to the end.
The summing up can’t be done, the
    summing up is impossible.

And the knife slices in again violently, this time with the poem’s symbol of outraged protest—the scream of the mandrake, a forked plant resembling a human figure. Its pulling-up out of the ground—because its death-scream was fatal to men—had to be delegated, the old sources say, to a dog. The summing up of time’s ravages will extract from the poet the human equivalent of the mandrake’s inhuman cry:

The summing up is the mandrake—
(See the encyclopedia of superstitions:
                miracle-working plant
which when torn out of the ground
    gave off such an appalling scream
a man would drop dead. A dog had to
    do it.)

The people in the old photographs have become an erased species: “They’re all beautiful, irresolute, in the process of being rubbed out.” A man looks straight out of an old picture, whispering, “Here I am.” The poet comments: “But who ‘I’ am/there’s no one anymore who remembers. No one.” What did the vanished man die of? “TB? Isolation?” No one knows; we know only that “once coming up from the sea/...he stopped/and felt the black bandage on his eyes.” There is the knife again, telling us that there is a black bandage ahead for us. In a later stanza in Baltics, with eerie vision, Tranströmer, long before his own stroke, relates the story of a composer’s end:

Then, cerebral hemorrhage: paralysis
    on the right side with aphasia,
can grasp only short phrases, says the
    wrong words.
Beyond the reach of eulogy or
But the music’s left, he keeps
    composing in his own style.

Tranströmer, too, keeps composing in his own style after Baltics, but returns to his early abbreviated structures. He has never again written a panoramic poem.

AS THE POET'S gaze broadened, there appeared occasional pieces reflecting world events. Among these, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty,” written after the death of the deposed Shah of Iran, now seems prescient. It identifies two forces in the world, rationality and ideology: on the one hand, a man sits appalled as he reads about the Ayatollah’s violent theocracy, and on the other hand an inflamed follower of the Ayatollah—a woman in a black burqa, “pious and full of hate”—cries out for jihad. Between them—the man reading the newspaper and the jihadist—lies the world of which they are the custodians. They seem “two who shall never meet,” but in truth, says Tranströmer, the screaming woman is his “other I,” the “hidden sister” of the fearful reader. Seemingly rational cultures can give themselves, as wholly as religious zealots, to irrational violence (we recall the child Tomas discovering Nazi evil). Here is the whole of “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty”:

His glance flits in jerks across the
Feelings come, so icy they’re taken for
Only in deep hypnosis could he be his
    other I,
his hidden sister, the woman who joins
    the hundreds of thousands
screaming “Death to the Shah!”—
    although he is already dead—
a marching black tent, pious and full
    of hate.
Jihad! Two who shall never meet take
    the world in hand.

Tranströmer is not often so immediately topical; his determinedly tacit poems reflect a modern sensibility rather than modern events. But the poems pose, if indirectly, the insistent questions that can no longer be stilled with primitive or superstitious or tribal answers. How are we to respond to the apparently inalterable presence of social inequity? How are we to value our lives in the absence of a subsequent privileged or penal eternity? How do we find terms with which to characterize our inner lives, if we are biological selves rather than immortal souls? It is no accident that a psychologist who worked with alienated youth should raise by implication such urgent and evolving questions.

Tranströmer’s “public” poems arrive bafflingly: we sense their seriousness without always being able to say what they are being serious about. The sardonically named “National Insecurity” offers not an op-ed but four pictures: a female government official draws an X; a demon merges with the daily newspaper; a helmet worn by no one has taken power; a mother turtle flees. What are we to make of these pictures as representations of 1996?

The Undersecretary leans forward and
    draws an X
And her eardrops dangle like swords
    of Damocles. 

As a mottled butterfly is invisible
    against the ground
So the demon merges with the opened

A helmet worn by no one has taken
The mother turtle flees flying under
    the water.

Only one of these pictures comes into the poem from the past; the others paint the present. The disclosed past caused, and is still causing, the present. The anonymous bureaucracies of modern régimes ensure that “a helmet worn by no one has taken power,” and nobody will take responsibility for the—what? massacre? torture? extermination?—that will follow the implementation of the earringed Undersecretary’s fatal X. The events announced in the daily headlines—as the speckled wings of the newspaper open up before the eye—seem the work of some implacable devil. The denizens of the natural world, sensing imminent ecological destruction, flee to protect their young.

I cannot be sure that all my inferences are correct, but the point is that Tranströmer himself has provoked me to make them. I well remember the first time I read this poem and thought: earrings, butterfly, the devil, a helmet, a turtle-what have these ill-assorted things to do with each other? How is a reader supposed to connect them? Yet Tranströmer’s terse and deliberate assertions carry the force of conviction: I had better cooperate with him to find out what this “national insecurity” is. The joy of seeing the poem come together with a click is not misplaced, even if the conjectured click is sometimes off the mark: one absorbs in any case the ascetic method demanded by the poet’s unsentimental and analytical mind—the lines so tightly drawn, the synapses so electric, the utterance so sinewy. Such a poem has burned away the dross of the topical to expose the abstract undeniables: merciless politics, demonic events, abused nature.

TRANSTRÖMER's post-stroke volume, The Sad Gondola—named after Liszt’s composition of the same name, recalling the black Venetian gondolas that bear the dead to the cemetery of San Michele—is raw with pain. In the opening poem, “April and Silence,” the poet reveals that he can no longer speak. Speech lies visible but out of reach. Reflections deny themselves to the seeking mind, images to the seeking eye. The mute violin is shut in its black case. Spring itself is unredeemable—or almost. The poet himself is a quasi-posthumous shade:

Spring lies desolate.
The velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side
without reflections. 

The only thing that shines
is yellow flowers. 

I am carried in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case. 

The only thing I want to say
glitters out of reach
like the silver
in a pawnbroker’s.

(Later in the volume, the family silver that is still visible in the pawnshop’s window sinks irretrievably into funereal depths beyond visibility: “The table-silver survives in big shoals/deep down where the Atlantic is black.”)

In spite of his desolation, the poet concedes a symmetry of joy and grief by means of the phrase opening the second and fourth stanzas, “the only thing”: “The only thing that shines is the yellow flowers,” and “The only thing that I want to say/glitters out of reach.” A shining bestowed, a gleam withheld. This is the poet’s observant but deprived existence in the “half-dead gray forest/where we have to work and live.”

Tranströmer’s latest volume, The Great Enigma, closes with ten groups of haiku, themselves often enigmatic. One, beginning “He writes,” offers three unlinked elements. The first is an unceasing present-tense action—is it one of plenitude or frustration?

           He writes, writes, and writes...

The second is a past-tense hideous description of an unnavigable city:

           Glue floated in the canals.

And the third presents a tenseless mythological icon:

           On the Styx, that barge.

One can make these elements into a narrative: a writer in Venice—who has gazed in horror as the canals for his gondola’s passage to the cemetery became viscously unnavigable—is forced to await instead the unpredictable arrival of Charon’s barge to ferry him across the Styx. As he waits, he writes, writes, and writes, unable to say whether well or ill, aware only that he writes. Why? To say all that he can say? To allay his dread? To serve a compulsion? He himself does not know the answer. The analogy of canals turned to glue to arteries lined with plaque is unavoidable.

To the question of why the poet should confront the reader with such obscurity, the only answer is that to be honest the writer has to enact in the poem his own manner of registering existence. This is Tranströmer’s way. Just because it is so taxing to formulate perception in that dialect we call “poetry,” we find Tranströmer immersed in that difficulty. Even in drowsiness he is harassed by the obligation to conceive words for some content as yet undescribed:

I lie down to sleep. I see strange
and signs scribbling themselves behind
    my eyelids
on the wall of the dark. Into the slit
    between wakefulness and dream
a large letter tries to push itself in vain. 

In a more sinister version of that harassment, it is history itself behind a wall, seen not in the transparency of filtered chronicle-pages but in the stained obscurity of the faces of the living dead who press to have their life retold, their portraits painted:

I read in books of glass but saw only
    the other:
the stains pushing through the
It was the living dead
who wanted their portraits painted....

Not all of Tranströmer’s poems pose riddles. But even when he takes up familiar themes—the loss of faith, the death of friends, the catastrophe of war, the solitude of the self—he generates unexpected metaphorical embodiments of the themes. An empty rural church in “The Dispersed Congregation” rouses in him an unnervingly material image of a broken arm:

Inside the church: vaults and columns
white as plaster, like the plaster
around the broken arm of faith.

And the death of friends is embodied in the image of Socrates drinking the hemlock: “Friends! You drank the darkness/and became visible.” A familiar quotation (“In the midst of life we are in death”) is transmuted into the visit of a stealthy tailor:

In the middle of life it happens that
    death comes
to take man’s measurements. The visit
is forgotten and life goes on. But the
           is sewn on the quiet.

The crossing of explicit theme and arresting symbol is itself rewarding, especially for the reader new to Tranströmer. But the mysterious inexplicit is in fact the mark of his most original work, reflecting the very inexplicitness of the psyche itself. A Tranströmer poem does not easily declare itself. When it invents an image, the image may not be selfexplanatory. The sinister and shocking “Like Being a Child,” from 1996, announces no explicit tether to a life event, but one cannot help thinking that its “great insult” must be an abstract version of the poet’s stroke. Although, says the poet to himself, you still have your sight and hearing, they have become so restricted that the spring season—with its returned sun and its cherry trees humming with bees—can give you no joy. In your impeded sight, the melting ice becomes threatening water-rings approaching your undefended self, and the increasing foliage intimates a somber darkening of the sunlight reaching the ground. Your only defense against despair is to set yourself to see what you can under the new and awful circumstances:

Like being a child and a sudden insult
is jerked over your head like a sack
through its mesh you catch a glimpse
    of the sun
and hear the cherry trees humming.

No help in that—the great insult
covers your head your torso your knees
you can move sporadically
but can’t look forward to spring.

Glimmering woolly hat, pull it down
    over your face
stare through the stitches.
On the straits the water rings are
    crowding soundlessly.
Green leaves are darkening the earth.

“Pull it down over your face/stare through the stitches”: it is an excruciating command, but every committed poet struggles to obey it.

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. This article appeared in the February 2, 2012, issue of the magazine.