One in a series of posts about my favorite poets or books of poems.
The cover of Selected Poems, circa 1989.
Back in 1996, I wrote an appreciative piece about Tomas Transtromer in a monthly literary scandal rag called Captain Kidd Monthly, which my wife and I published while living in Charleston, South Carolina. We had a regular column called “Davey Jones’s Locker” where we or a guest editor would extoll the virtues of a great writer or work which we felt was under-appreciated. Here’s what I wrote back then:
Every time I open Tomas Transtromer’s Selected Poems–the only book of his verse available in America right now–I get the creepy feeling that I’m looking at the inner walls of my brain through the eyes of someone who knows it all better than I do. I forget all my favorite poets, and find myself exclaiming to folks who I know don’t even read poetry, “Hey, you! Read this! This guy is the greatest living poet today!”
Open this book like the I Ching, to any page, and you’ll find your world transformed. I’ll do it right now for you–
A FEW MINUTES
The squat pine in the swamp holds up its crown: a dark rag.
But what you see is nothing
compared to the roots, the widespread, secretly creeping, immortal or half-mortal
I you she he also branch out.
Outside what one wills.
Outside the Metropolis.
A shower falls out of the milk-white summer sky.
It feels as if my five senses were linked to another creature
which moves stubbornly
as the brightly clad runners in a stadium where the darkness streams down.
The first line in his book–“Awakening is a parachute jump from the dream”–sets the stage for a career of perfectly realized poetry. Even in a volume translated by several hands (and edited ably by Robert Hass) the singular volice is unerring and clear. From his poem “Answers to Letters”:
Was the letter ever answered? I don’t remember, it was long ago. The countless thresholds of the sea went on migrating. The heart went on leaping from second to second like the toad in the wet grass of an August night.
Transtromer finds the seams and cracks between disparate segments of experience and follows them to the inner swirl of mind that both covers and uncovers meaning–
In the day’s first hours consciousness can own the world
like a hand enclosing a sun-warm stone.
The skydiver stands under a tree.
With the plunge through death’s vortex
will light’s great chute spread over his head?
Back in 1996 I actually bought ten copies of Selected Poems and gave them away to interested customers at Chapter Two Bookstore where I worked, as kind of an act of thanksgiving to celebrate a new edition of of the book, first published in 1986. Since then, Scottish poet and translator Robin Fulton has come out with the most comprehensive edition of Transtromer’s published work. Hass’s edition is still in print, and Robert Bly has at least one volume of translations of Transtromer in print as well. You can check them out here. Fulton’s translations have become my favorite, and that volume (entitled The Great Enigma) includes his short autobiographical piece “Memories Look at Me” as well. But Transtromer survives practically any translation, one of the many things I find magical about his work.
When my wife and I look at art or photographs, we often use the phrase “I can imagine living with that” about stuff we like. It’s not a comment on art-as-furniture; it’s more of a feeling that you establish a relationship with art you like, and that relationship grows and changes over time, and the art that lasts is the stuff that worked for you twenty years ago and ten years ago and still works for you today, even if it works in a different way. We have the same complex relationship with the work of our favorite poets. I titled this post “Favorite Poets” but I could also call it “Poets I Live With” because from the moment I first picked up one of his books in the library in 1989 I have been living with Tomas Transtromer’s work, growing with it and appreciating it.
Read more about Transtromer at his official site