20 Poems by Tomas Transtromer06/05/2010
by Tomas Tranströmer
Translated by Robert Bly
Seventies Press (1970)
Regarded by many as one of the great poets of the 20th century, it’s difficult to imagine a time when Tomas Tranströmer’s work was new to readers here in the US. In 1966 New Directions 19 (edited by James Laughlin) featured 15 Tranströmer translations by Eric Sellin, thus marking the Swedish poet’s first North American ink. Four years later, Robert Bly published the first Tranströmer book in the US, 20 Poems, in his groundbreaking Seventies Press.
Born in a working-class Stockholm neighborhood in 1931, Tranströmer has lived a unique life as a poet. He has never been affiliated with a university, an artistic school or movement, a literary magazine, a publishing house, or the Swedish Academy; instead he made a living as a prison psychologist in a juvenile corrections institute. He has also earned a reputation as a skilled literary translator, entomologist, and classical pianist. He suffered a stroke in 1990 that has hampered the mobility of his right side, yet he continues his life as a poet (and performs one-handed piano recitals throughout Europe).
Tranströmer’s is a style best described as engaged with the liminal. He probes the connections between the realms of the conscious and subconscious, the visible and the invisible. His poems often begin in the empirical world and leap forth into the mysteries of the unseen. 20 Poems is deftly translated, and represents the period of Tranströmer’s writing that established him as an important and influential poetic figure.
They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.
Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.
AFTER A DEATH
Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.
It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.
Like many of Bly’s Seventies Press books, Tranströmer’s 20 Poems is becoming an obscure and expensive title. The paperback (featured here) runs between 30 and 100 dollars, and the hardcover generally runs well over 100 dollars. Consult our Bookseller Hall of Fame to find this and other Tranströmer obscurities. For those with shallow pockets, we recommend the following, all of which are in print and easy to find: Selected Poems: 1954-1986, edited by Robert Hass (Ecco, 1987); The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly (Graywolf Press, 2001); The Great Enigma, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006).
The Olives of Oblivion was an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.