Reading Tomas Tranströmer.

Apr, 2019

Tomas Tranströmer’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 Tranströmer 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.


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





by Birgitta Hjalmarson

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

The girl’s breath misted the glass as she pressed her nose against the windowpane and looked out at the street. An eerie stillness ruled out there, no movement seen, other than snowflakes falling slowly from a black evening sky. In front of the house, a solitary lamp post shed a small circle of light. The father and the boy had shoveled the garden path free of snow, all the way from the white wooden gate to the front door.

In this town, on the west coast of Sweden, winter had come early that year. The war had ended less than a decade earlier. Memories of the camps already seemed distant, the guilt assuaged, for all the claims of ignorance of something that should have been known. But the girl and the boy knew nothing of that, especially not on an evening like this, the house warm and snug, the oil furnace humming in the cellar, the Christmas creche on display in the fireplace, the wise men in their richly colored robes, the ceramic ox looking down on the infant in the manger. Out in the bicycle shed, the hedgehog had bedded down for the winter, underneath a pile of twigs and leaves, its breathing suspended, its torpor all but complete.

From the sofa in the living room, the sister-in-law watched the wife. The sister-in-law came rarely to the house. She was a stranger to the children. Even the husband, her younger brother, had long since tried to understand who she was, or perhaps he understood it all too well, her desire for his wife, her need to see her, if only from a distance, and only once a year, as this evening in the living room, her mind taking note of the wife’s every gesture, her quietness and content, and yet that hint of strain, the skin below her eyes tinged with blue, and now the news, as the wife had whispered in her ear, even as they greeted each other in the hall, that she was expecting a third child.

The boy joined the girl at the window. He wore his new pullover sweater, an early Christmas gift. Early that morning, he and the father had gone to the country, the boy in the back seat of the Volvo, as they traveled along winding forest roads, with glimpses of the frozen river against the gray winter light. At the farmhouse, the grandmother had been waiting, a devout woman in black, made even more devout by the death of her husband years before the war. A horse dealer, he had lived on too grand a scale in a place where most of the forest had already been felled, leaving the ground scorched and too stony for crops. No one, not even the grandmother, had been willing to admit that his death had been a suicide. Rather, it was blamed on a sudden dizziness, which must have struck as he crossed the old stone bridge, his body floating ashore a couple of miles to the south.

While the grandmother stayed behind, the boy and the father had walked out into the forest, following the tracks in the snow, the boy carrying his grandfather’s rifle. The fox had waited for them, or so it seemed to the boy, at the far end of a meadow, the boughs of the fir trees weighed down by snow. As the father guided him, the boy raised the rifle to his shoulder, his finger on the trigger. The fox looked straight at them, as if in anticipation of what the boy would do next. Blood hammering in his ears, gun oil stinging his nostrils, all the boy could think of was the stillness of the fox, the frozen landscape around them, and the father wanting him to shoot. Just then, the fox turned and loped back in among the trees, and the boy lowered the rifle.

On their return to town, the boy and the father had found the Christmas tree toppled by the cat, ornaments scattered all over, the cat on the windowsill licking its paws. Order had been restored, the Christmas star rewired to the top of the tree, the tree itself secured to the wall, and the shards of the broken glass balls, covered with fake frost, swept off the floor. At last, after hiding in his room, the boy had come out to light the candles in the tree, not electric, as in the houses of his friends, but real, the candleholders made of brass with drip pans for the melting wax. He bowed before the aunt and joined the girl at the window, who kept wiping the mist off the glass. He was not at all sure that Santa Claus would come, especially not since the father was still in the house. In the past, the father had always disappeared just before Santa Claus arrived. Now, looking at his father converse with the aunt, the boy felt sorry for his sister, who clung to the notion that Santa Claus was no less real than the grandmother’s God.

The wife was still in the kitchen, preparing the sauce for the lutfisk, rich enough to conceal the blandness of the cod. The afternoon had grated on her nerves, and she had reached for one of those pills she kept hidden in the corner of the cabinet, behind the crystal glasses. She could hear her husband’s voice from the living room. A month earlier, her sister-in-law had helped her with a dress that needed to be let out. It was only natural that the wife should have asked her, the sister-in-law being a seamstress with clients coming to see her as far as from Berlin. In the bright atelier, the sister-in-law had bent at her side, one knee against the floor, as she pinned the dress around her waist, the porcelain pin heads like pricks of blood. Even now, the wife could feel the hands of her sister-in-law resting on her hips, longer than necessary, long enough for the wife to respond, as if a small animal had stirred inside her womb. That night, unable to forget, she had turned away from her husband in shame. The following morning, a messenger delivered the dress with a note from the sister-in-law, embossed in blue and gold, with hopes that the dress would now be a better fit.

To this day, the wife could see the husband enter the shop where she used to work, his collar raised, his coat of the latest cut. He had asked to taste almost every cheese in sight, buying two or three, as the other customers waited in line, the matrons smiling behind his back. When she married him, she had already been pregnant with the boy. Crushing his dreams to become an architect, she expected him to provide for her in style, all those dinners and bridge parties, the maids in starched aprons and caps. Once he became a successful businessman, he took her to Milan and Paris, the two of them sitting in their own loge at the opera house or walking hand-in-hand along the Seine. Even now, after all these years of living in this small Swedish town, when he thought she was asleep, he would leave their bed for the room in the attic. Here, when cleaning, she would see his blueprints spread on the drawing board, his pencils sharpened and lined up, his compass and triangles laid out the way one might set the table for a long-lost friend, someone who might still return, all those dreams stashed away, like her pills.

Now, as the wife entered the living room, she found her sister-in-law talking to the husband, the cat purring in his lap. Both children were at the window, looking out. This year, aware of the boy’s suspicions, she and her husband had agreed to hire a Santa Claus. Other parents in the neighborhood had asked to join, and an advertisement had been answered. The man, named Linder, was given not just the addresses but also the names of the children, their grades at school and the subjects in need of improvement. He should already be making his way down the street, sacks of presents waiting for him in garages and cellars, a glass of snaps offered him in each house, strong enough to warm his insides. The wife did not know this man, nor did her husband. According to the agency, he lived east of the river. People there had little to do with the people who lived in the villas to the west, but the agency had presented him as a retired engineer, very respectable, his own son long since grown.

Approaching the house, Linder saw the children’s faces in the window, noses pressed against the glass. His mask had holes cut for his mouth and eyes. Rubber bands attached his cotton beard to his face and dug into the skin behind his ears. He did not need the money, but he was willing to suffer it all, as long as he did not have to be alone on this one night, when once, underneath the stars, the shepherds heard the angels sing, “Glory to God on high!” Before he knocked on the front door, he stomped the snow off his boots, loud enough to make sure the children heard him. The husband and the wife shook his hand, as did the girl and the boy, curtsying and bowing, neither one brave enough to look him in the eyes. The woman, who introduced herself as the sister-in-law, remained seated, while the cat hissed at him and hid under her chair. He had seen women like that in the other houses too, widows and maiden aunts, their relatives taking turns in having them over for the holidays, as inconvenient as it was, and in this particular case clearly putting added pressure on the wife, whose hand had been cold and wet in his, before she quickly took it back.

Linder sat on a chair in the middle of the room. He emptied his glass of snaps, uttered a few Ho-Ho-Ho’s, pulled the presents out of the sack, and read out the names on the tags. When still in his thirties, he had come down from the north, building railroads through the wilderness, living in barracks with the other men, carousing and fighting, until a young woman from one of the villages stood at the barrack door, wanting to save him, her face tapered and pale. She had a child by a man, whose name she never knew. The boy, she said, needed a father, and so a deal was struck. She had been pliable, adjusting to his ways to please him, quoting from the Scriptures, and calling him a decent man. In the end she had bent too much, and she broke right under him, something erupting inside her; the doctors were unable to save her, or even explain what had gone wrong.

After the funeral, he moved with the boy to this town, where the railroad company paid him handsomely and called him an engineer. When Germany occupied Norway, the Swedish government allowed German trains to travel through Sweden to transport wounded soldiers back to their own country. He stood on the platform, as did many of the other townspeople, watching the trains roll by, the soldiers leaning out the windows to wave. Several newspapers published articles in protest, claiming that the trains carried not just wounded soldiers but also Swedish iron to be forged into guns. The townspeople jeered and shook their fists, the air hot with hatred, but one man – he recognized the husband, who now stood behind his seated wife, cupping his pipe, making sure his children behaved — had raised his right arm in salute, palm down.

The distribution of presents over, the mood in the room was one of comfort and warmth, all meant to convince the children that they were somehow in good hands. For a moment Linder too felt drawn in, but only until he met the stare of the cat, still crouching under the older woman’s chair, its pupils opening and closing, yellow slits against black. At the husband’s insistence, he accepted a second glass of snaps. It was then that the girl climbed up on his knee, her stockings white and crumpled at her feet. Someone ought to have stopped her, but no one did. She was too close to him, her scent of vanilla and milk, her slight body trusting his. He heard himself burst into song, his voice like the cranking of a rusty shaft, raucous words about lonely men around a fire, miles and miles of forest to the nearest town, the curses and profanities shielding them from the dark, but the girl still leaned against his chest, until he wrenched her away and the wife rushed in to gather her up. The girl was crying now, not loud, more a drawn-out sob, as if she had glimpsed the hunger in his eyes and made it hers.

From the window, the boy and the girl watched their father walk Santa Claus down the shoveled garden path, through the gate and out into the street. Stopping under the lamp post, the father handed Santa Claus an envelope, slapped him on the back, and returned to the house. The snow had stopped falling now. Pressing her cheek to the misty glass, the girl looked up at the stars. She told the boy she could see the star of Bethlehem leading Santa Claus on his way, his red hood bobbing and disappearing in the night. The boy put his arm around her shoulders and told her about the fox, all that wood stacked in front of their grandmother’s house, enough to take her through the winter, the empty stalls in the stable, halters hanging from iron hooks, the wood nicked from kicking hooves. He told her he was all she had.

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