Journal

by Birgitta Hjalmarson

Reading Tomas Transtromer

Sep, 2018

READING TOMAS TRANSTROMER

Tomas Transtromer’s poems won’t leave you alone. They’re dark, infused with dread, but also shot through with light, as when, nearby, a string quartet plays Schubert.

So much we have to trust to be able to live our daily day without sinking through the earth! Trust the masses of snow that cling to the mountainsides above the village. Trust promises to keep silent and the understanding smile, trust that the telegram about the accident doesn’t refer to us and the sudden axe blow from within doesn’t come.

I interviewed Tomas in 1988. It was a sunny morning in San Francisco, a city known for its fog. He was in the US to read from his work. We met at a downtown hotel. Car horns honked from Union Square. The tape recorder balanced precariously on a small table. Were there coffee cups too? It seems there ought to have been.

He was 57 years old at the time, tall and wiry, like a distance runner. What struck me the most was his modesty. Had he preferred to be somewhere else, he didn’t show it.

He said, “It would have been more natural for me to be a musician or a painter.” As a teenager, he had inherited a piano and soon learned to play. But at his high school, an all-boys Latin gymnasium in Stockholm, emphasis had been on the written word. He and his classmates passed notes to each other behind the teacher’s back, attempts at poems, bidding for approval but more likely spurned. He was not the only one who became a writer. “If it hadn’t been for their influence, I might never have become a poet myself.” Now his reader was Monica, his wife. He said she knew him so well and would detect a false note if she heard it. “And you can’t tell yourself?” I asked. He smiled. “Perhaps not.”

In Schubertiana, the poem with the string quartet, he muses on Schubert himself. As is often the case, the sublime rubs shoulders with the comic.

And he who catches the signals from a whole life in some rather ordinary chords by a string quintet, he who gets a river to flow through the eye of a needle is a fat young gentleman from Vienna, called ‘the little mushroom’ by his friends, who slept with his glasses on and stood himself up punctually at his writing lectern in the morning. At which the music script’s wonderful centipedes set themselves in motion.

A staccato of honks erupted from the square, accompanied by screeches from a cable car. Tomas nodded when I wanted to close the window. In the hush that followed I asked how his poems evolved.

“They often begin with a sudden idea, as when I read something that surprises me, something I feel has a special meaning for me. I don’t know what the meaning is, but I want to find out, and I must start a voyage to a place where the secret is disclosed. It starts with fragments in my notebooks. Sometimes the fragments develop into an idea, a wholeness, perhaps something playful, not very serious. As soon as I start writing, everything changes. Often the writing takes me to a place where I didn’t expect to go at all. Several different fragments may belong to the same poem. I just didn’t see it from the start. Completing a poem takes a long time for me. What’s most difficult is finding the links or the tissue between its different parts. I know this part and that part belong together. But how? What’s the bridge between them? The bridge will build itself if I let it. All I can do is wait.”

“And your subconscious?” I asked. “What role does your subconscious play in all this?”

 “The subconscious is always active. But sometimes it’s not active in the way I want it to be. The conscious will is sometimes very strong. I want to build the poem in a certain way. Perhaps the poem isn’t meant to be that way. There’s something else that wants to happen, that wants to be done with the poem. There must be a balance between reckless intuition and conscious will.”

He said he did not consider himself a very difficult poet. “I think I give my readers a certain resistance at the outset. I’m a modernist, no doubt, but at the same time I’m not very abstract. Perhaps for a person with a good visual imagination I’m not difficult at all. For a person with a more abstract, intellectual approach, I’m probably more difficult. My poems must enter through the senses, rather than the intellect. The intellectual part of the poem develops after you have first read it in a more primitive way.”

After he went back to Sweden, we never met again. Seven years later, in 1996, he sent me a copy of The Sorrow Gondola. The blow of the axe had come. A stroke had paralyzed the right side of his body and robbed him of speech. But he kept on writing, pointing to the words in the dictionary as Monica wrote them down. His images were as startling as ever, steeped in loss.

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

All that shines
are yellow flowers.

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

The only thing I want to say
gleams out of reach
like the silver in a pawnshop.

But, a few pages on, he appears to be at peace.

What happens is always more than we can carry. There’s nothing to be surprised about. These thoughts carry me as faithfully as Susi and Chuma carried Livingstone’s mummified corpse through Africa.

In 2011 he won the Nobel Prize. Hours before the announcement, journalists and photographers crowded the staircase to the apartment where he and Monica lived. I heard he played the piano, albeit with only one hand.

Four years later the world learned that Tomas Transtromer had died. By then I had moved to the coast north of San Francisco. I walked into the forest, all the way up to the ridge. Under a redwood I came across a freshly killed deer. Partly hidden under sticks and leaves, the carcass was gutted, bones shining white, coat stippled with blood now dry. Silence was all around. The cougar may well have watched me, perhaps from one of the branches above. Common wisdom told me to move on, but the closeness of death made me stay.

The thing was, I felt no fear.

Poems:

Schubertiana (translated by Samuel Charters)
April and Silence (translated by Michael McGriff & Mikaela Grassl)
The Cuckoo (translated by Michael McGriff & Mikaela Grassl)

 

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