Good Evening, Beautiful Deep
on Tranströmer’s Sorrow Gondola
The great subject of the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer—sometimes it seems as though it is his only subject—is liminality. He is a poet almost helplessly drawn to enter and inhabit those in-between states that form the borderlines between waking and sleeping, the conscious and the unconscious, ecstasy and terror, the public self and the interior self. Again and again his poems allude to border checkpoints, boundaries, crossroads: they teeter upon thresholds of every sort—be they the brink of sleep or the brink of death, a door about to open or a door about to close. These thresholds are often ensorcelated places, where a stone can miraculously pass through a window and leave it undamaged, where the dreams of a sleeping couple (in Robin Robertson’s translation of the lines) “will meet as colours meet / and bleed into each other / in the dampened pages of a child’s painting-book.” Indeed, in his finest individual collection, called Sanningsbarriaren in its original Swedish and The Truth-Barrier in most English translations, he concocts a neologism which perfectly encapsulates his lifelong fixation with the liminal. Yet this inhabitant of borderlands and denizen of thresholds is also deeply suspicious of binaries and dichotomies, of Manichaeism in any form.
In Tranströmer’s universe, conditions are too much in flux, too subject to sudden and radical change, to ever permit dualistic thinking: every emotion can without warning turn into its opposite, every perception of what Whitehead called “the withness of the body” can turn into an out-of-the body experience. In one of his best-known poems, “The Open Window,” composed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we first glimpse the speaker shaving to the lulling purr of his electric razor, but suddenly the razor becomes a helicopter, and the speaker is looking down from its cockpit to the distant earth below. “‘Keep your eyes open!’” says the helicopter pilot in Robert Bly’s translation of the poem, “‘You’re seeing all this for the last time.’” How does ones one return to reality and sanity after experiencing a vision as apocalyptic as this? Tranströmer’s solution is at once sensible and consummately strange: he will now see the world with a kind of double vision: “I didn’t know which way / to turn my head— / my sight was divided / like a horse’s.” This is, I suppose, Tranströmer’s way of expressing Keats’s concept of negative capability. Tranströmer is certainly a man, who, in Keats’s memorable phrase, is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” And yet he differs from Keats insofar as he sees this condition as inevitable—and inevitably anxiety provoking. In fact, he sees this condition as our fate in contemporary society.
Despite this, Tranströmer is a poet of astonishment rather than dread; his forays into the unknown and the self-annihilating are ones which the speaker always returns from, relatively unscathed. Because of his interest in the realm of dream and his unerring ability to fashion surprising and original metaphors, he has often been labeled a surrealist. But his poems are shorn of surrealism’s romantic privileging of randomness and the unconscious. Although his work abounds in visionary moments, he examines them as a scientist would—not rhapsodically, and certainly not as some sort of magus or shaman. For many years the poet was employed as a child psychologist in his native Sweden, and even when he describes conditions of great emotional and psychological duress, he does so with the nonplussed detachment of a man in a lab coat jotting down notes on a clipboard. His stance is the epitome of grace under pressure. “The Name,” in Robin Fulton’s translation, is a prototypical Tranströmer poem, both in its themes and its approach:
I grow sleepy during the car journey and I drive under the trees at the side of the road. I curl up in the backseat and sleep. For how long? Hours. Darkness has fallen.
Suddenly I’m awake and don’t know where I am. Wide-awake, but it doesn’t help. Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that wakens in a backseat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack. Who?
At last my life returns. My name appears like an angel. Outside the walls a trumpet signal blows (as in the Leonora Overture) and the rescuing footsteps come smartly down the overlong stairway. It is I! It is I!
But impossible to forget the fifteen-second struggle in the hell of oblivion, a few meters from the main road, where traffic glides past with its lights on.
Tomas Tranströmer has been publishing poetry since the 1950s, and though the body of his work is rather small, there is a unity and uniform standard of excellence in his verse that recalls that of Elizabeth Bishop: the poems are all of a piece, and none of them are minor or self-imitative. Tranströmer turns eighty this year, and I count myself among the many who regard him as one of our greatest living poets, if not the greatest. During the annual month or so of gossip and rumor-mongering that precedes the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Tranströmer’s name is often mentioned, and perhaps on the occasion of this essential poet’s eightieth birthday, the Swedes may finally award the prize to one of their own.
Tranströmer has of course found many readers in America, and he has been well served by his English translators, most notably Robert Bly and Robin Fulton, but also by younger poets such as Malena Morling and Michael McGriff. With her translation of Tranströmer’s 1996 collection, Sorrow Gondola, Patty Crane joins this distinguished company, and I for one find her translation of the collection superior to other versions drawn from the volume. Crane is best at capturing the grave and austere music of late Tranströmer because she has a better ear than Bly, because her vocabulary is free of the often-cumbersome Britishisms of Fulton, and because she avoids the excessively minimalist approach of McGriff’s recent rendering of the book. Crane’s success is due partly to her own abilities as a poet. More importantly, though, Crane lived for a number of years in Stockholm, and during that time worked closely with the poet and his wife, Monica, to find the most nuanced but exact English equivalents to the originals.
Sorrow Gondola is Tranströmer’s most subtle and elegiac book, and the pathos of the volume is compounded by the likelihood that it will be Tranströmer’s final individual collection. In 1990 Tranströmer suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed and impaired his powers of speech. The book’s title poem was completed shortly before the poet’s stroke, and it is one of his most ambitious efforts. Like his great long poem Baltics, the poem’s method is juxtapositional, alternating sections devoted to the relationship between the dying Richard Wagner and his father-in-law Franz Liszt with vignettes drawn from the poet’s own life and dream-life. The poem is majestic and melancholy, and seems in some eerily unconscious way to foreshadow the poet’s own encounter with disability. The poem’s final two sections are classic Tranströmer. We first see Liszt composing and playing the piano sonata which gives the poem its title, and the section is stately and sinister by turns. The final section, brusque and fragmented, relates an ominous dream:
The clavier, which kept silent through all of Parsifal (but listened), finally has something to say.
Sighs . . . sospiri . . .
When Liszt plays tonight he holds the sea-pedal pressed down
so the ocean’s green force rises up through the floor and flows together
with all the stone in the building.
Good evening, beautiful deep!
The gondola is heavy-laden with life, it is simple and black.
Dreamt I was supposed to start school but arrived too late.
Everyone in the room was wearing a white mask.
Whoever the teacher was, no one could say.
How wondrous these lines are! The hallmarks of Tranströmer’s method are abundantly in evidence: the unsettling anthropomorphism of the clavier finally “having something to say,” the conflation of Liszt’s music with the relentless power of the sea, and a dream that seems meant to instruct but instead ends in enigma. And yet, within this mixture of moody atmospherics and uncertainty comes the wonderfully bracing line that seems to me the most crucial in the poem, “Good evening, beautiful deep!” (Incidentally, Crane does a significantly better job than other translators of rendering the line’s sense of terror and wonderment. Bly’s “Good evening to you, beautiful deep!” sounds unintentionally comic. McGriff makes it sound like a lyric from a show tune: “Good night, beautiful deep!”)
For readers encountering Tranströmer for the first time, Crane’s translation will be an ideal introduction to an indispensible poet. For readers who know Tranströmer, it will remind them yet again that he is a writer of immense originality and depth, who among living poets has only a handful of equals.