June 27, 2012

Book: Review of two Tranströmers

New interpretations of the Swedish poet

‘The Deleted World’ By Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Robertson. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 41 pgs., $13.

‘The Great Enigma’ By Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton. New Directions; 262 pgs., $17.95.

Excepting, of course, the Nobel Peace Prize, nowhere is there more expectation than the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Forget that America has been snubbed since Toni Morrison won the award in 1993 — the literature community is rejoicing that the 2011 prize was awarded to one of the most enigmatic, subtly influential poets: Tomas Tranströmer of Sweden.

But Americans, by and large, have no clear idea who Tranströmer is, nor how deeply he has influenced American poets, especially since the 1960s and ’70s when American poets Robert Bly and May Swenson were among the first to translate and publish his work in the states. The subtle influence on our own poetics, in retrospect, was not so subtle after all, but pervasive: evocative images that suggest a dark undercurrent of the human psyche, poems that wrestle with the shadow of a rising oppression, the palate of shades that paint the emotional reality of the 20th century world — anxiety, despair, outright fear. Tranströmer’s work bodes well for the American 21st century with its omnipresent unease, economic insecurities and backlash of fear against “others.”

At first glance, the poems seem misty, uncertain, vague to the point that critics have suggested that Tranströmer has no clear political vision, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. With poems that seem initially difficult, one must begin somewhere, and Robin Robertson’s translations in “The Deleted World” offer a passage into the work that, according to the Nobel committee, “gives us fresh access to reality.” The book consists of only 15 poems, allowing the reader to savor resonant images such as this from “A Winter Night”:

A darker storm stands over the world
It puts its mouth to our soul
and blows to get a tone. We are afraid
the storm will blow us empty.

The poem, originally published in 1962, is every bit as relevant today.

The longer view is achieved by Robin Fulton’s “The Great Enigma.” Fulton, who has been translating Tranströmer for more than 35 years, shows a clear sense of the poet’s universe. “The Great Enigma,” re-released for the Nobel announcement, represents the collected poems of Tranströmer’s career, the ultimate inventory. Fulton is noted for his close renderings of the poet’s language rather than, as with Robertson, trying to capture the “original intent” of the poet, which requires distortion to some effect. But Fulton’s translations maintain a fierce intensity, as in “Black Postcards”:

In the middle of life it happens that death comes to take man’s measurements. The visit is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is sewn on the quiet.

Though a recent review by David Orr in The New York Times pitted one translator against another, there is little reason not to see the two books as complementary. In any case, both versions offer a re-introduction of a fine poet, who may yet come to have a second wave of influence upon the sensibilities and vision of the burgeoning American poetry scene.