Book Review: Windows & Stones by Tomas Tranströmer

Windows & Stones: Poems by Tomas Tranströmer
translations from the Swedish by May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972; reprint, 2011

Tomas Tranströmer, with his reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, has gained something close to celebrity status in Europe and even the United States in the sense that only the Nobel can afford such status: long well-known in the literary world but not a household name to the general population, the Nobel has put him in the greatest spotlight any poet could desire. Now, people are wondering “who is this Swede who won the Nobel this year—and what has he written?”. No time could be better to release a volume of his selected poems translated into English and that is exactly what the University of Pittsburgh Press has done, returning an updated version of its 1972 book of Tranströmer in English translation to the shelves. Windows & Stones is, and has always been, a perfect introduction to Tranströmer in English and as beautiful as the Swedish language is, it is not a majority language and Tranströmer has himself known for years that to reach the greatest readership he needs translations. To this end, he has taken his poetry to India, to the Middle East, to everywhere he could in person and in translation yet it is fair to say a good, short, yet comprehensive introductory volume in English translation probably will reach the most people worldwide. Thus, the stakes for this slim book are high, especially in the light of the Nobel.

First though, perhaps we should reflect for a moment on the Nobel Prize in Literature itself: though commonly considered the most important prize in the literary arts—the one even people outside of literary circles know of and admire—what do we know of the majority of men and women who have won it? These laureates, who are they? Of course, they include T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison but how many remember or have even heard of Roger Martin du Gard? Like any prize given to a comtemporary, living, person, the Nobel to some extent is faulted by the very fact it doesn’t have the longest span of time to take into consideration the lasting merits of those its honors, even though it does in general look at a writer’s works over an entire career. Still, it cannot project what writers will be read in two or three decades let alone a full century and in contrast, those who will appeal mainly only to scholars and graduate students hunting fodder for their dissertations. In the sciences it is no different: the biochemist Kary Mullis saw the Nobel ceremony as a grand opportunity to practice his pranks and practical jokes that he had as a slightly awkward, sci-fi loving grad student play around the lab. (He teased security forces with a laser pointer when he went to to pick up his Nobel, for one thing.) The botanist and geneticist Barbara McClintock on the other hand did not even have a telephone in her Long Island home and was thereby fully unaware she had even been selected for the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for her work on genetic elements of control until she walked into her lab Monday morning and heard the welcome news on the radio: “Oh dear” was supposedly the response of the matronly scientist. Aside from writers of fiction being awarded the Nobel for their efforts—that is, when a poet doesn’t get it instead—the Nobel itself often appears in fiction, television, and the movies as a shorthand for the vast acumen of a character—normally a scientist—who has won it, for few things make for a marker of true genius like the Nobel.

So to see that Tranströmer’s greatness, thus recognized by the most legendary of prizes, is broadcast far and wide and to as diverse and vast a readership as possible, we find publishers now doing the good work that Tranströmer the man has done his entire career of trying to get his poetry out there to the reader, the listener. Tranströmer is often praised as a writer adept at capturing the simple beauty and truths of nature in a nearly-religious tenor on the page, but he is no simple man. Trained as a psychologist, he practiced his profession as a clinician in adolescent psychology for a number of years while writing his poetry at night. He is also an accomplished pianist and his love of music has always worked in tandem with his efforts as a poet. Yet as much as someone like the farmer, laborer, and poet John Clare, Tranströmer infused his poetry with the material of his day job and while he may not have been out in the pastoral fields with ox and horse as Clare was, his experience with troubled young patients also come forth in his poems, often as an undercurrent of counterpoint to the grandness and godliness he finds in nature. To take up each day as one’s work the problems of young patients who are bothered by demons and depressed, injured, damaged to the point of needing intensive professional help has to be a taxing venture; certainly, mental health professionals often seem to have one of the more thankless jobs in all of health care. Tranströmer was a man unknowingly ahead of his time, using an arts and medicine approach of therapy of the literary word before such was a trend—before entire journals were devoted to the application of literature as a healing modality.

So Tranströmer had his nature which he dearly loved—the natural landscapes and lakes of rural Sweden—but he also had his clinical practice and his piano. He never set out as a poet to become all things to all people, I think, yet he came very nearly close to that mark via the depth, scope, and long trajectory of his writing. Here was a man who wrote right through the entire time period of some of Western poetry’s most crucial developments over the latter half of the twentieth century and he was aware of those trends and developments, to be sure, but he stood mostly apart from them and found his foundation in the pastoral views he shared in his own work. Tranströmer has been called a Christian poet, a religious poet, and he is in a sense but what most critics who offer him these titles really seem to mean is that he is a poet adept at touching on both the grandness of the natural world as observed by humankind and also the very complex inner world of emotion private to us mere humans who inhabit this grand sphere. Poets as diverse as John Clare and the Central Asian poet and mystic Ali-Shir Nava’i were men whom Tranströmer found to share a synergy between observed landscape (or cultural landscape) and the mental analysis of the same whether expressed via sound or words. He was not interested in the type of “modern” experimentation or confessionalism of many poets of the twentieth century yet explored the same ends via very different means: always a poet who showed more than he told, who spoke more of the general than the personal yet all the while maintaining the most personal, most humanistic and intimate realities within his commonality.

In a tradition approriate to that of a Christian poet, Tranströmer creates poems that regardless of their exact topic at hand always provide either insight, succor, or a furthering of our own sense of wonder. The everyday intersections of nature into our lives Tranströmer rebuilds as true wonders seldom seen, though these moments are endlessly availible to each of us just as they are to him, as he notes in his poem “Winter’s Formulae”:

I fell asleep in my bed
and woke up under the keel.

Thus the stage is set for adventure though with very few words: the keel of course conjures a boat, an older ship perhaps—and that Nordic love, lore, and need for seafaring, too. This verse is also a prime example of how Tranströmer sets up a sense of mystery in his writing; a sense of an unexacting yet alluring atmosphere where great promise of adventure is yet to come. There is, even in his advanced years and advanced verse, a boyish nature in Tranströmer’s poetry: there is an element of desire—no, I would daresay even thirst—for new places and grand vistas, the exotic even if we must for now content ourselves to find such in the familar ground of home. Tranströmer’s Sweden is the bridge and airport to an extended world and no matter where he writes—or writes about—he brings to his subject an especial sense of concern and delight. He is, verily, a man capable of falling asleep in his normal bed yet waking as if by some magic instead in a boat set to sea.

What I couldn’t say
filled and grew like a hot-air balloon
and finally floated away through the night sky.

With these lines in the poem “To Friends Behind a Border” Tranströmer sums up the plight of anyone trying to reach someone who lives in a place where we cannot go, we cannot write to, we cannot get a letter or telephone call inside as that place is all locked up. Likewise, for anyone living within a nation where speech is censored and people are kept from open expression of their ideas, the same can be said: there is much that one cannot say due to borders such as these. During the horrible times of the Yezhovshchina under Stalin’s rule when people—especially writers and other intellectuals—lived in great fear, such could well have been said, that all those words that couldn’t be spoken, couldn’t be written, couldn’t be shared, seemed to drift off into the atmosphere somehow, free yet unknown.

However, as noble as Tranströmer’s concern for those “behind borders” is, the really powerful aspect is how he deals with this topic while all the while adroitly applying the language of nature, the language of supple wonder he has employed time and again elsewhere. For him, it seems, there is no border between the personal and the political nor the natural and the poli-social. Such qualities without a doubt are a high part of what earned Tranströmer the Nobel. Another reason for the admiration of Tranströmer that brought him a Nobel plus scores of other awards and honors is his fluid longevity: over the years, the decades in fact, his poetry has both adapted to the times and concerns of the day but also retained his simple, humble, and very personal voice. Some of his poems—such as “The Name” where the speaker falls asleep in his car by the side of a road only to awake and not know his own name—seem like they could be the work of an older man dealing with dementia, yet this poem was written between 1970 and 1971 according to the book. The speaker considers his emergency a bit but “eventually my life comes back to me. My name reappears like an angel.” It is classic Tranströmer: a man diverges from the expected course of daily life to take a nap in the middle of nowhere, in the backseat of his car in fact as a child might, only to awake and find he cannot recall who he is yet when he is restored to such knowledge, it is not only the escape from a psychological or medical crisis but an event of nearly holy, supernatural, powers and meaning. In poems such as “The Name”, Tranströmer reminds me of much of the theorist and novelist Hélène Cixous’ writing in her anthology Stigmata: Escaping Texts where she also concerns herself with an absence of names and their return and, as her title would suggest, how entire texts “escape” unseen, unheard. Like, Cixous, Tranströmer is very concerned with personhood, with what it means to have a name in the first place, a concern probably evolved to some degree out of his work as a clinical psychologist.

Somewhat separate but still very connected to Tranströmer’s way with nature in his poetry is his manner in dealing with geography: for Tranströmer, like many northern Europeans, the world is very interconnected. When your own nation is as small as Sweden, travel to other neighboring nations is natural and to be expected. Most Swedes at least visit Denmark, if not further afield and holidays in France or the Balkans or elsewhere are not uncommon. Of course, the war years also greatly changed the European view of geography and Tranströmer’s own generation saw an acute transformation of geographical ontology between the effects of war and the effects of new technologies such as telecommunications and air travel. Tranströmer, for his part, became adept at writing about nature—and people—whether in Sweden, Iceland, the Balkans or even Oklahoma. His constant, steady hand in description displays a control and mastership of his faculties as a writer that many other authors could learn from and a calm, sure, even, touch that a ship’s captain or fighter pilot would envy. Critic Hephzibah Anderson felt that in awarding Tranströmer the Nobel, a writer who was little-known outside his native country won the most-respected of literary honors, however, if Tranströmer has been little-known, it has not been his own fault in the least. He has not only encouraged ample translations and promoted his own work, but has never cloistered his poetry away to the concern of Swedish or even Nordic places or topics alone. Branching out, as he is always it seems doing, he has taken in every place visited and even every letter exchanged with a far-off friend as possible material for the basis of a poem.

In February life stood still.

There, in one line, one opening to one short poem, we have a perfect example of the universal nature of Tranströmer’s poetry yet of his firm grounding in Nordic climes and environs all the same. Life might well stand a bit more still in Lund than in Miami in February, but poems such as the one this line comes from, “Face to Face” speak in plain, sincere, secure, speech to the condition at hand as a universal one. To read Tranströmer in the Swedish is even more direct at most junctures, with his language being forward yet descriptive without leaning towards the overly verbose. May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg did a masterful job in finding English analogs for the type of plain-spoken language Tranströmer employed in his native Swedish and Windows & Stones demonstrates a very strong faithfulness to the tenor of how Tranströmer writes.

The tugboat is freckled with rust.
What is it doing so far inland?
It’s a heavy, quenched lamp in the cold.

Thus opens “Sketch in October”, one of the poems included in this collection that is perhaps most representative of how the world sees Tranströmer—the world that knows him, at least that is, if what Anderson claims carries any merit. We have the cold, the water, the physical items as metaphor of other tangible things, other objects that they in some hapless way come to resemble. This last point is not an aside, as in much of Tranströmer’s writing we locate cases—such as the tugboat—where one object appears more like another and most often it is some object that in its own inaction it comes to resemble more something else, often something smaller, something less mobile or less powerful than it should in its own powers convey. On a good day, a tugboat is after all the one part of the puzzle that allows a massive cargo ship or tanker to enter a port without a mishap; it is the literal guide in unknown, dangerous, waters. A tugboat found inland, away from its normal port and duties, would in fact be as listless and worthless a creature as a table lamp turned off and even rolled over on its side. (The original Swedish can be translated in fact to suggest the lamp is upended as well as “heavy”, but in this case our translators ignored this aspect—one of the few cases in these translations where I found them somewhat wanting.)

Another powerful aspect of Tranströmer’s word-smithing is that he is keen to see man-made objects within natural surroundings in a pragmatic, direct, manner without losing the heart of the poet about it, either. Something as mundane yet essential as a tugboat is not made ugly for ugly’s sake nor is it exalted but instead is cast into its role and duties with a no-nonsense approach that would make a logistics officer or accountant proud. Each bird, each airplane, each train, each road, each hill, each stream or creek to yet be forded or crossed with a sure bridge—they’re all fair game for our poet. Tranströmer approaches the world as a whole, just as it actually is, as a place to explore, record, and tell about later. This is why his poems, though often quite short and lean on details, seem robust and full. He will start off a poem with words such as “lying on his back under tall trees”, as he does in “Breathing Room: July” that are personal, inviting, and uncomplex. In a sense, he conjures all those inviting vistas every landscape painter and every New Age musician has desired to create in our minds—places beautiful but ones we could with ease position ourselves right into in a most inviting way. Tranströmer’s high success rate in this regard is made manifest by his uncanny ability to discern exactly what such pastoral, personal, experiences entail. After the stroke he suffered years ago, one might fear he would have lost some of his faculty towards such empathy but instead his poetry did not appear to suffer at all from his physiological losses and in fact may have become all the more nuanced.

In all, though covering only a portion of his career, Windows & Stones presents Tranströmer’s writing in a select yet comprehensive, short yet fit, manner that should invite the reader to explore this poet further. The Nobel Prize will without doubt serve as a fine catalyst for more translations, criticism, and exploration of the Swede but I can think of no finer a point to open his pages than here, with this book. Tranströmer the sublte, Tranströmer the lover of nature, Tranströmer the humble yet steadfast diplomat on behalf of a poetic nation of his own creation—all these men step forward in this volume. While this book will not fill the complete need for translations of Tranströmer in English, we would truly be impoverished without it.


Filed under: Book Review, Mike Walker, Poetics, Prose