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In day's first hours consciousness can grasp the world
as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.
Translated into fifty languages, the poetry of Tomas Transtromer has had a profound influence around the world, an influence that has steadily grown and has now attained a prominence comparable to that of Pablo Neruda's during his lifetime. But if Neruda is blazing fire, Transtromer is expanding ice. The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems gathers all the...
In day's first hours consciousness can grasp the world
as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.
Translated into fifty languages, the poetry of Tomas Transtromer has had a profound influence around the world, an influence that has steadily grown and has now attained a prominence comparable to that of Pablo Neruda's during his lifetime. But if Neruda is blazing fire, Transtromer is expanding ice. The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems gathers all the poems Tomas Transtromer has published, from his distinctive first collection in 1954, 17 Poems, through his epic poem Baltics ("my most consistent attempt to write music"), and The Sad Gondola, published six years after he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1990 ("I am carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case."), to his most recent slim book, The Great Enigma, published in Sweden in 2004. Also included is his prose-memoir Memories Look at Me, containing keys into his intensely spiritual, metaphysical poetry (like the brief passage of insect collecting on Runmaro Island when he was a teenager). Firmly rooted in the natural world, his work falls between dream and dream; it probes "the great unsolved love" with the opening up, through subtle modulations, of "concrete words."
Prelude Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams. Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveler sinks toward the green zone of morning. Things flare up. From the viewpoint of the quivering lark he is aware of the huge root systems of the trees, their swaying underground lamps. But aboveground there's greenery-a tropical flood of it-with lifted arms, listening to the beat of an invisible pump. And he sinks toward summer, is lowered in its dazzling crater, down through shafts of green damp ages trembling under the sun's turbine. Then it's checked. this straight-down journey through the moment, and the wings spread to the osprey's repose above rushing waters. The Bronze Age trumpet's outlawed note hovers above the bottomless depths. In day's first hours consciousness can grasp the world as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone. The traveler is standing under the tree. After the crash through death's turbulence, shall a great light unfold above his head?
Storm Here the walker suddenly meets the giant oak tree, like a petrified elk whose crown is furlongs wide before the September ocean's murky green fortress. Northern storm. The season when rowanberry clusters swell. Awake in the darkness, listen: constellations stamping inside their stalls, high over the treetops.
Evening-Morning Moon-its mast is rotten, its sail is shriveled. Seagull-drunk and soaring away on currents. Jetty-charred rectangular mass. The thickets founder in darkness. Out on doorstep. Morning is beating, beats on ocean's granite gateways and sun is sparkling near the world. Half-smothered, the gods of summer fumble in sea mist.
Ostinato Under the buzzard's circling point of stillness ocean rolls resoundingly on in daylight, blindly chews its bridle of weed and snorts up foam over beaches. Earth is veiled in darkness where bats can sense their way. The buzzard stops and becomes a star now. Ocean rolls resoundingly on and snorts up foam over beaches. III Five Stanzas to Thoreau Yet one more abandoned the heavy city's ring of greedy stones. And the water, salt and crystal, closes over the heads of all who truly seek refuge.
* * * Silence slowly spiraling up has risen here from earth's recesses to put down roots and grow and with its burgeoning crown to shade his sun-heated doorstep. * * *
Kicks a mushroom thoughtlessly. Thunderclouds are piling on the skyline. Like copper trumpets crooked roots of trees are resounding, foliage scatters in terror. Autumn's headlong flight is his weightless mantle, flapping till again from the frost and ashes peaceful days have come in their flocks and bathe their claws in the wellspring.
* * * Disbelief will meet him who saw a geyser and escaped from wells filled with stones, like Thoreau disappearing deep in his inner greenness artful and hopeful.
Gogol The jacket threadbare as a wolf pack. The face like a marble slab. Sitting in the circle of his letters in the grove that rustles with scorn and error, the heart blowing like a scrap of paper through the inhospitable passageways. The sunset is now creeping like a fox over this country, igniting the grass in a mere moment. Space is full of horns and hooves and underneath the barouche glides like a shadow between my father's lit courtyards. St. Petersburg on the same latitude as annihilation (did you see the beauty in the leaning tower) and around the ice-bound tenements floating like a jellyfish the poor man in his cloak. And here, enveloped in fasts, is the man who before was surrounded by the herds of laughter, but these have long since taken themselves to tracts far above the tree line. Men's unsteady tables. Look outside, see how darkness burns hard a whole galaxy of souls. Rise up then on your chariot of fire and leave the country!
Sailor's Yarn There are bare winter days when the sea is kin to mountain country, crouching in grey plumage, a brief minute blue, long hours with waves like pale lynxes vainly seeking hold in the beach gravel. On such a day wrecks might come from the sea searching for their owners, settling in the town's din, and drowned crews blow landward, thinner than pipe smoke. (The real lynxes are in the north, with sharpened claws and dreaming eyes. In the north, where clay lives in a mine both day and night. Where the sole survivor may sit at the borealis stove and listen to the music of those frozen to death.)
Strophe and Counter-Strophe The outermost circle belongs to myth. There the helmsman sinks upright among glittering fish-backs. How far from us! When day stands in a sultry windless unrest- as the Congo's green shadow holds the blue men in its vapor- when all tiffs driftwood on the heart's sluggish coiling current piles up.
Sudden change: in under the repose of the constellations the tethered ones glide. Stern high, in a hopeless position, the hull of a dream, black against the coastline's pink. Abandoned the year's plunge, quick and soundless-as the sledge-shadow, doglike, big-travels over snow, reaches the wood.
A storm drives the mill sails wildly round in the night's darkness, grinding nothing.-You are kept awake by the same laws. The grey shark belly is your weak lamp.
Shapeless memories sink to the sea's depths and harden there to strange columns.-Green with algae is your crutch. A man who takes to the seas comes back stiffened.
The Stones The stones we threw I hear fall, glass-clear through the years. In the valley the confused actions of the moment fly screeching from treetop to treetop, become silent in thinner air than the present's, glide like swallows from hilltop to hilltop until they've reached the furthest plateaus along the frontier of being. There all our deeds fall glass-clear with nowhere to fall to except ourselves.
Context Look at the grey tree. The sky has run through its fibers down in the earth-only a shrunk cloud is left when the earth has drunk. Stolen space is twisted in pleats, twined to greenery.-The brief moments of freedom rise in us, whirl through the Parcae and further.
Morning Approach The black-backed gull, the sun-captain, holds his course. Beneath him is the water. The world is still sleeping like a multicolored stone in the water. Undeciphered day. Days-like Aztec hieroglyphs. The music. And I stand trapped in its Gobelin weave with raised arms-like a figure out of folk art.
There Is Peace in the Surging Prow On a winter morning you feel how this earth plunges ahead. Against the house walls an air current smacks out of hiding. Surrounded by movement: the tent of calm. And the secret helm in the migrating flock. Out of the winter gloom a tremolo rises from hidden instruments. It is like standing under summer's high lime tree with the din of ten thousand insect wings above your head.
Midnight Turning Point The wood ant watches silently, looks into nothing. And nothing's heard but drips from dim leafage and the night's murmuring deep in summer's canyon. The spruce stands like the hand of a clock. spiked. The ant glows in the hill's shadow. Bird cry! And at last. The cloud-packs slowly begin to roll. IV
Song The gathering of white birds grew: gulls dressed in canvas from the sails of foundered ships but stained by vapors from forbidden shores. Alarm! Alarm! around refuse from a cargo boat. They crowded in and formed an ensign-staff that signaled "Booty here." And gulls careered across watery wastes with blue acres gliding in the foam. Athwart, a phosphorescent pathway to the sun. But Väinämöinen travels in his past on oceans glittering in ancient light. He rides. The horse's hooves are never wet. Behind: the forest of his songs is green. The oak whose leap's a thousand years long. The mighty windmill turned by birdsong. And every tree a prisoner in its soughing. With giant cones glinting in the moonlight when the distant pine glows like a beacon. Then the Other rises with his spell and the arrow, seeing far and wide, flees, the feather singing like a flight of birds. A dead second when the horse abruptly stiffens, breaks across the waterline like a blue cloud beneath the thunder's antenna. And Väinämöinen plunges heavy in the sea (a jumping-sheet the compass points hold tight). Alarm! Alarm! among the gulls around his fall! Like one bewitched, without anxiety, standing at the center of the picture of his joy, eleven corn sheaves bulging. Reliance-an alp-top humming in the ether three thousand meters up where the clouds sai! races. The puffed basking shark wallows guffawing soundlessly beneath the sea. (Death and renewal when the wave arrives.) And peacefully the breezes cycle through the leaves. On the horizon thunder rumbles dully (as the herd of buffalo flees in its dust). The shadow of a fist clenches in the tree and strikes down him who stands bewitched in his joyous picture where the evening sky seems to glow behind the wild boar's mask of clouds. His double, envious, arranges a secret rendezvous with his woman. And the shadow gathers and becomes a tidal wave a tidal wave with riding sea gulls darkened. And the port-side heart sizzles in a breaker. Death and renewal when the wave arrives. The gathering of white birds grew: gulls dressed in canvas from the sails of foundered ships but stained by vapors from forbidden shores. The herring gull: a harpoon with a velvet back. In closeup like a snowed-in hull with hidden pulses glittering in rhythm. His flier's nerves in balance. He soars. Footless hanging in the wind he dreams his hunter's dream with his beak's sharp shot. He plunges to the surface, full-blossomed greed, crams and jerks himself around his booty as if he were a stocking. And then he rises like a spirit. (Energies-their context is renewal, more enigmatic than the eel's migrations. A tree, invisible, in bloom. And as the grey seal in its underwater sleep rises to the surface, takes a breath, and dives-still asleep-to the seabed so now the Sleeper in me secretly has joined with that and has returned while I stood staring fixedly at something else.) And the diesel engine's throbbing in the flock past the dark skerry, a cleft of birds where hunger blossomed with stretched maw. At nightfall they could still be heard: an abortive music like that from the orchestra pit before the play begins. But on his ancient sea Väinämöinen drifted shaken in the squall's mitt or supine in the mirror-world of calms where the birds were magnified. And from a stray seed, far from land at the sea's edge growing out of waves, out of a fogbank it sprang: a mighty tree with scaly trunk, and leaves quite transparent and behind them the filled white sails of distant suns glided on in trance. And now the eagle rises. V
Elegy At the outset. Like a fallen dragon in some mist- and vapor-shrouded swamp, our spruce-clad coastland lies. Far out there: two steamers crying from a dream in the fog. This is the lower world. Motionless woods, motionless surface and the orchid's hand that reaches from the soil. On the other side, beyond these straits but hanging in the same reflection: the Ship, like the cloud hanging weightless in its space. And the water around its prow is motionless, becalmed. And yet-a storm is up! and the steamer smoke blows level-the sun flickers there in its grip-and the gale is hard against the face of him who boards. To make one's way up the port side of Death. A sudden draft, the curtain flutters. Silence ringing, an alarm clock. A sudden draft, the curtain flutters. Until a distant door is heard closing far off in another year. * * *
O field as grey as the buried bog-man's cloak. And island floating darkly in the fog. It's quiet, as when the radar turns and turns its arc in hopelessness. There's a crossroads in a moment. Music of the distances converges. All grown together in a leafy tree. Vanished cities glitter in its branches. From everywhere and nowhere a song like crickets in the August dark. Embedded like a wood beetle, he sleeps here in the night, the peat bog's murdered traveler. The sap compels his thoughts up to the stars. And deep in the mountain: here's the cave of bats. Here hang the years, the deeds, densely. Here they sleep with folded wings. One day they'll flutter out. A throng! (From a distance, smoke from the cave mouth.) But still their summer-winter sleep prevails. A murmuring of distant waters. In the dark tree a leaf that turns.
* * * One summer morning a harrow catches in dead bones and rags of clothing.-He lay there after the peat bog was drained and now stands up and goes his way in light. In every parish eddies golden seed around ancient guilt. The armored skull in the plowed field. A wanderer en route and the mountain keeps an eye on him. In every parish the marksman's rifle hums at midnight when the wings unfold and the past expands in its collapse and darker than the heart's meteorite. An absence of spirit makes the writing greedy. A flag begins to smack. The wings unfold around the spoils. This proud journey! where the albatross ages to a cloud in Time's jaws. And culture is a whaling station where the stranger walks among white gables, playing children, and still with each breath he takes he feels the murdered giant's presence.
* * *
Soft black-cock crooning from the heavenly spheres. The music, guiltless in our shadow, like the fountain water rising among the wild beasts, deftly petrified around the playing jets. The bows disguised, a forest. The bows like rigging in a torrent-the cabin's smashed beneath the torrent's hooves-within us, balanced like a gyroscope, is joy. This evening the world's calm is reflected when the bows rest on strings without being moved. Motionless in mist the forest trees and the water-tundra mirroring itself. Music's voiceless half is here, like the scent of resin rising from lightning-damaged spruce. An underground summer tot each of us. There at the crossroads a shadow breaks free and runs off to where the Bach trumpet points. Sudden confidence, by grace. To leave behind one's self-disguise here on this shore where the wave breaks and slides away, breaks and slides away.
Excerpted from The Great Enigma by Tomas Tranströmer Copyright © 2006 by Tomas Tranströmer. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 19, 2007
Tomas Tranströmer is a Swedish poet who is one of the strongest and most frequently honored artists of the time. Robin Fulton has translated and curated the bulk of Tranströmer's published poems in this magnificent book THE GREAT ENIGMA: NEW COLLECTED POEMS and it is a rare treat. In one tome are some of the most moving conversations with and about nature this reader has ever read. Tranströmer's ability to alter the landscape of the sea and the cliffs, the islands and havens, with an imagination that defies comparison: it is a staggering achievement. Able to succeed in both the very short and the epic form, he finds those niches in our psyches and makes them into words we could never generate. 'It's spring and the air is very strong. I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the clothesline.' Perhaps it is his training and practice as a psychologist that allows his entry into our heads the way few other poets can achieve. A solid (yet one of many equally powerful) examples would be the following 'Sailor's Yarn': 'There are bare winter days when the sea is kin to mountain/ country, crouching in grey plumage, a grief minute blue,/ long hours with waves like pale lynxes vainly seeking/ hold in the beach gravel./ On such a day wrecks might come from the sea searching/ for their owners, settling in the town's din, and drowned/ crews blow landward, thinner than pipe smoke./ (The real lynxes are in the north, with sharpened claws/ and dreaming eyes. In the north, where day lives in/ a mine both day and night./ Where the sole survivor may sit at the borealis stove/ and listen to the music of those frozen to death.)' Few collections of poetry are as satisfying as this and to Robin Fulton's translations must go a lot of the credit. This book is stimulus for the adventurous imagination as well as for the lover of great sea songs. Highly recommended. Grady Harp
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