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By Tomas Transtromer
Chosen and translated by Robert Bly
Minneapolis, Minn: Greywolf Press, 2001
ISBN: 978-1-55597-351-3
97 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2014

I generally read poetry aloud to myself. There may be some music, softly in my background. I don’t read loudly since Sally, my partner, is working at her computer in a near-by room, or perhaps still asleep in the early morning. I’ve done this for years; it’s just my way to be with poetry.

I think the poetry of Tomas Transtromer is the most fitting poet I’ve ever read in this manner, and that includes the musical e.e. cummings.

Transtromer’s poetry, unknown to me until quite recently, has changed my voice, my reading, and my timing. I began to notice that I was reading more slowly, distinctly, in a much deeper voice than I normally use. It was an odd awareness, and I began to pay attention to it, to note it more carefully. Somehow, in a way I’d never experienced before, Tomas Transtromer seemed to dictate my reading of his poems, and it all seemed so right.

Many of the poems are very short, just expressing a mood (often quite dark), or a set of feelings at some everyday event. “The Couple” is a short example, but almost any randomly selected poem seems to draw out this reaction and behavior in me.

The Couple

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.

Another example is “A Winter Night”

A Winter Night

The storm put is lips to the house
and blows to make a sound.
I sleep restlessly, turn over, with closed
eyes read the book of the storm.

But the child’s eyes grow huge in the dark
and the storm whimpers for the child.
Both love to see the swinging lamp.
Both are halfway toward speech.

Storms have childlike hands and wings.
The caravan bolts off toward Lapland
and the house senses the constellation of nails
holding its walks together.

The night is quiet above our floor
(where all the died-away footsteps
are lying like sunken leaves in a pond)
but outside the night is wild!

A more serious storm is moving over us all.
It puts its lips to our soul
and blows to make a sound. We’re afraid
the storm will blow everything inside us away.

“Nocturne” is quite eerie. There are four stanzas, each painting a dark image as he drives home. The homes are living in the dark, sleep coming to the occupants, the countryside following him home, followed by his own going to bed and slowly dropping off to sleep. So little happens, but he creates powerful feelings in this reader.

“Morning Bird Song” was simply awesome. He creates several images connected only in the fact that they may be experienced in the early morning. He wakes his car, someone else is buying a paper, a freight car stands on a track, people are hurrying to the office and birds rise up.

“The whole universe is full!”

The poem grows, but he shrinks, then the poem takes over.

“It’s getting bigger, it’s taking my place,
it’s pressing against me.
It has shoved me out of the nest.
The poem is finished.”

I loved it!

We sometimes speak of food or drink leaving an after-taste. We even say this when we are pleased with the food or drink itself. I often have ominous after-feelings when reading Transtromer, even when the poetry itself stunned me or sent shivers up my spine. Two poems on facing pages did this to me, “After a Death” and “Under Pressure. The first of these two begins:

“Once there was a shock
that left behind a long shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV picture snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.”

Midway through the volume the editor begins to sprinkle in some prose poems. This raises a question in my mind – what is the difference between a poem and a prose poem? So far, in my reading of 3 or 4 of Transtromer’s works, I don’t see much difference except how the lines are divided. The prose poems don’t seem any more or less story-like than his traditionally formed poems. I’m not yet clear of any significant difference.

As I transition back to poems in more standard form I do begin to feel a somewhat different sense of rhythm in the “poems” than in the “prose poems.” But I’m still not sure if it my imagination or a real difference. “A Place in the Woods” is an eerie prose poem in which, deep in the woods, among the trees, there is a sense for the poet of gravity itself being reversed. The house seems anchored in the sky, the sun’s light flowing upward. It made me feel peaceful and quiet.

In “Start of a Late Autumn Novel” he arrives on a remote island, goes into his little house to sleep and as he lies, awaiting sleep, he says:

“I lie on my back, unsure if I’m asleep or awake. A few books I’ve just read sail by like schooners on the way to the Bermuda Triangle, where they will disappear without a trace.”

Oh my, did I ever sit up and take notice!!!! Just 14 years ago I was starting to read a novel and commented to my partner that I’d recently read a novel with a character much like the woman in this book. She looked over my shoulder and said: “Bob, you read that book about two years ago!” And so I had. It was that experience, realized in Transtromer’s words, that books I was reading were sailing off into a Bermuda Triangle, disappearing with little trace, that led me to start make written comments on what I was reading FOR MYSELF!!! Later I started putting these notes and comments, like this set, on to my web page and have enjoyed many many responses of all sorts from people who’ve come across them. I’d like to think that Transtromer, himself, may have had something like my experience as well.

I would recommend the works of Tomas Transtromer to all. He has a gentle but very different view of the world.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett