By Teju Cole
Tomas Tranströmer, who was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, has for years now been one of my ports of refuge. The books of his poetry on my shelves never remain unopened for long. I turn to him when I wish to come as close as possible to what cannot be said. This past decade was full of dark years, and I returned again and again to poets. They kept watch over me and, to adopt a phrase of Tranströmer’s, I survived on milk stolen from their cosmos.
I read Walcott, Bishop, Ondaatje, Szymborska, Bonta, and a dozen other marvelous writers, but above all I read Heaney and Tranströmer who, in different ways, fused the biggest questions with personal experience.
To read Tranströmer—the best times are at night, in silence, and alone – is to surrender to the far-fetched. It is to climb out of bed and listen to what the house is saying, and to how the wind outside responds. Each of his readers reads him as a personal secret. For this reason it is strange to see this master of solitude being celebrated in the streets or showing up as a trending topic on Twitter and a best-seller on Amazon. He usually dwells in quieter precincts.
Tranströmer’s poems owe something to Japanese tradition, and early in his career he wrote
haiku. Reading him, one is also reminded of American poets like Charles Simic (for his surrealism) and Jim Harrison, Gary Snyder, and W. S. Merwin (for their plain speech and koan-like wisdom). But Tranströmer casts a spell all his own, and in fact the strongest associations he brings to my mind are the music of Arvo Pärt and the photography of Saul Leiter.
swim out in a trance
on the glittering dark water.
A steady note of a tuba comes in.
It’s a friend’s voice: “Take up your grave and walk.” (From “Two Cities”)
His poems contain a luminous simplicity that expands until it pushes your ego out
of the nest, and there you are, alone with Truth. In a Tranströmer poem, you inhabit space differently; a body becomes a thing, a mind floats, things have lives, and even non-things, even concepts, are alive. His memoir, “Memories Look At Me,” inspired me to title my weekly column for the Nigerian newspaper NEXT (for the year the column ran) “Words Follow Me.”
There is much following in Tranströmer, much watching, from a distance and from close by, and the trees, pasts, houses, spaces, silences, and fields all take on invigilative personae.
There are many dreams.
dreamt that I had sketched piano keys out
on the kitchen table. I played on them, without a sound.
Neighbors came by to listen. (From “Grief Gondola #2”)
Tranströmer is well translated into English (even if he wasn’t, until this week, a best-seller), and there are versions by May Swenson, Robin Fulton, Robin Robertson, and others. My favorite book of the poems is “The Half-Finished Heaven,” a selection translated by Robert Bly. Bly’s language is so clean and direct it seems to bypass language itself. This was the volume I turned to the most during the horrors of the Bush and Cheney years.
Even though around the same time my own belief in God had faded away, I found that I needed to somehow retain belief in a cloud of witnesses. I had strayed away from religious dogma, but my hunger for miracle speech had not abated.
Tranströmer’s mysterious poems, hovering on the edge of the unsayable, met me right at this point of need.
‘I open the first door. It is a large sunlit room. A heavy car passes outside and
makes the china quiver.
I open door number two. Friends! You drank some darkness and became visible.
Door number three. A narrow hotel room. View on an alley. One lamppost shines
on the asphalt. Experience, its beautiful slag.(From “Elegy”).
And, from “The Scattered Congregation,” which is in five short parts, these lines:
We got ready and showed our home. The visitor thought: you live well. The slum
must be inside you.
Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way to the Address. Who’s got the Address? Don’t
know. But that’s where we’re going.
There’s a kind of helplessness in many of the poems, the sense of being pulled along by something irresistible and invisible. There are moments of tart social commentary, a sense of justice wounded (“the slum must be inside you”—for many years, Tranströmer worked as a psychologist at an institution for juvenile offenders).
There is also in the poems a kind of motionlessness that is indistinguishable from terrific speed, in the same way Arvo Pärt’s music can sound fast and slow at the same time. It’s a good thing I’m unembarrassable about influence, because I realize now how many of Tranströmer’s concepts I have hidden away in my own work. When I’m asked in interviews what my favorite thing about New York, I usually answer with a line lifted from “Schubertiana”:
Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the houses where eight
million human beings live.
The images with which Tranströmer charges his poems bring to mind the concept of
“acheiropoieta,” “making without hands”; in Byzantine art, acheiropoeitic images were those believed to have come miraculously into being without a painter’s intervention. The Shroud of Turin and the Veil of Veronica are the most famous examples.
These were images registered by direct contact, and they were usually images of the Holy Face of Christ. (Albrecht Dürer, in his immodest way, was alluding to such images when he painted his deliriously detailed full-frontal self-portrait of 1500.) I feel Tranströmer’s use of imagery is like this, and like contact printing, in which a photograph is made directly from a film negative or film positive.
There is little elaborate construction evident; rather, the sense is of the sudden arrival of what was already there, as when a whale comes up for air: massive, exhilarating, and evanescent.
The satisfaction, the pleasure, the comfort one takes in these poems comes from the way they seem to have pre-existed us. Or perhaps, to put it another way, the magic lies in their ability to present aspects of our selves long buried under manners, culture, and language.
The poems remember us and, if we are perfectly still, give us a chance to catch sight of ourselves