I am not an expert on Tomas Tranströmer but . . .
. . . his death this week created ripples in my life. Over the years I have mentally processed bits by him and about him, a sort of incomplete Swedish jigsaw, and thanks to Bloodaxe, I have the Robin Fulton translations in New Collected Poems. Tranströmer has been a distant but interesting star for me, rather than a central influence, though one poem in particular has fascinated me for a good while. More of that later.
This week the link was shared on FaceBook of a lovely little film made by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and Neil Astley in 2011, the year Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I hadn’t known (so much I don’t know!) that Tranströmer was an accomplished pianist. Nor did I know he had a stroke in 1990, leading to paralysis of his right hand. I didn’t know he continued to play (most beautifully) with his left hand alone.
Nor did I know, till visiting the official website today, that three years ago, on his eightieth birthday, he had a beetle named after him. Tranströmer, it seems, was also a bit of an entomologist, and the ‘Tranströmers tornbagge’, found at the island of Gotland, now bears his name. How endearing such details are.
The poem I have most puzzled over and repeatedly gone back to is called ‘The Outpost’, from Paths in 1973 – so it was written a long time ago. I have read it as though it was a dream, probably because in the poem the poet flies ‘like a shaman’, and my own dreams often feature flying. Watching the short film I referred to earlier, I was suddenly encouraged in this method of reading by what I learn Tranströmer himself said in a BBC Radio 3 interview in 1990:
‘I have worked since 1957 as a psychologist, it’s an important part of my life and because poetry grows out of the total experience of life you have, the experience of the psychology work is there, is there in everything I write. To be able to understand modern poetry – because I, like most people, I had hesitations, I had inhibitions for reading modern poetry – I was 16,17 years old when I started – and at the moment when I realised I could read the modern poems as if they were my dreams, all the inhibitions disappeared, and at the same time I was able to write modern poems.’
‘The Outpost’ is a poem (dream) that opens with an odd situation; in lots of ways it doesn’t even make sense.
There’s a tent, inside which other people are sleeping ‘stretched out like spokes in a wheel’ but the poet is ‘ordered out in a heap of stones’, and it’s night time. He’s on his own.
He flies to the body of a woman in her bikini, in the sun, he flits ‘over warm moments’. To me, this is the sensation you sometimes have in a dream – that you can take yourself to pleasant, nourishing memories, at least for a little while. He doesn’t want to be alone. He wants the comfort of closeness and it’s there – it’s in his past, he can draw on it.
But then ‘they’re whistling me back through space – / I crawl out from the stones Here and now.’ Who are ‘they’? The people sleeping in the tent? Maybe. But only in a symbolic sense, I suspect. I think ‘they’ are the events of the future, as opposed to the past.
Because from this point, the poem seems to be about the challenge of inhabiting the moment, the living instant. It’s about not zooming off to the past for comfort, or making the future happen in anticipation. Just being. Here and now. There is a wonderful sentence, one that clings after reading the poem: ‘I am the place / where creation is working itself out.’ I think it’s a sort of Hamlet moment, the bit where the Prince of Denmark says (I know you will remember):
If it be now, ’tis
not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it
be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.
In Tranströmer, the events that will come are queuing up, ‘a murmuring crowd outside the gate’. His task is simply to be. They will arrive. They will come through one by one. Through him, ‘the turnstile’, ‘creation is working itself out’.
What a strange poem this is! A dream of reality. A dream about staying still and letting it happen, whatever the happening is. Although the feeling of the impending future does seem to me like an ominous pressure. No wonder it stuck in my mind. I’ll put it in below and you can see what you think.
The book from which it is drawn is Bloodaxe New Collected Poems, from which I also recommend you read (at least) ‘C Major’, on page 57, and ‘Alone’ page 76. But different people have different poems from Tranströmer that are special to them. They are like magic keys: they open something you feel you understand, although you don’t actually understand it.
I’m ordered out in a heap of stones
like a distinguished corpse from the iron age.
The others are back in the tent sleeping
stretched out like spokes in a wheel.
In the tent the stove rules: a big snake
that has swallowed a ball of fire and hisses.
But out in the spring night it is silent
among cold stones that are waiting for day.
Out there in the cold I begin to fly
like a shaman, I fly to her body
with its white marks from her bikini –
we were out in the sun. The moss was warm.
I flit over warm moments
but can’t stop for long.
They’re whistling me back through space –
I crawl out from the stones. Here and now.
Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role – I am the place
where creation is working itself out.
Daybreak, the sparse tree-trunks
are coloured now, the frost-bitten
spring flowers form a silent search party
for someone who has vanished in the dark.
But to be where I am. And to wait.
I am anxious, stubborn, confused.
Coming events, they’re there already!
I know it. They’re outside:
a murmuring crowd outside the gate.
They can pass only one by one.
They want in. Why? They’re coming
one by one. I am the turnstile.
Tomas Tranströmer: New Collected Poems translated by Robin Fulton
Bloodaxe Books, 1997 p. 100