For the Living and the Dead

by Tomas Tranströmer

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1477

If he were not Swedish, Tomas Tranströmer would have won the Nobel Prize in Literature by now. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a disproportionate number of Scandinavian writers were awarded the laurel, provoking charges of parochialism. Still, in the years immediately after World War II that trend continued. The decade of the 1960’s—the first in which no Scandinavian writer was chosen—marked a turning point. Only once in the forty years since 1955—in 1974, when two Swedish writers, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, were cowinners—has the Nobel in Literature returned to Scandinavia. Clearly, being Swedish is now a liability.

There may be another reason, however, why Tranströmer—despite the enormous admiration of his peers—has not been recognized as one of the indisputably major poets of the postwar era. He has never centered himself in the literary world. Trained as a psychologist, he worked from 1960 to 1966 at a prison for boys, then began working with the occupationally handicapped. There is moreover a reticence and spareness to his work, perfectly embodied in the title of his first book, 17 Dikter (1954; 17 poems), published when he was twenty-three. HisSelected Poems: 1954-1986 is virtually a “complete poems” in English translation (only a handful of poems are missing), yet this book representing his lifework is quite modest in size.

Now readers have For the Living and the Dead. This new collection includes 34 poems (four of which appeared in Selected Poems, though two of those in versions by different translators) and—in the middle of the book—a brief, idiosyncratic memoir of childhood and adolescence, “Memories Look at Me.” Daniel Halperin, who edited the collection, remarks that for each poem included here, he was able to choose from among multiple translations. (One measure of Tranströmer’s impact is the extent to which his work has attracted gifted translators.)

Robert Bly, who was one of the first to bring Tranströmer into English, has observed that the images which appear in a given Tranströmer poem “come from widely separated sources in the psyche. His poems are a sort of railway station where trains that have come enormous distances stand briefly in the same building.” That is a marvelous insight. Again and again, Tranströmer’s poems record a deeper reality breaking through the surface of awareness.

Consider the first lines of the first poem in For the Living and the Dead, “The Forgotten Captain”:

We have many shadows. I was on the way home
in the September night when Y
climbed out of his grave after forty years
and kept me company.

The bulk of the poem evokes images of North Atlantic convoys during World War II, in which the captain of the title was mortally wounded, dying in a hospital in Cardiff, Wales. In the next-to-last stanza, however, there is a sudden shift:

The photo from the turn of the century shows a beach.
Standing there are six dressed up boys.
They have sailboats in their arms.
What serious expressions!
The boats that became life and death for some of them.
And to write about the dead
is also a game that gets heavy
with what is to come.

In many ways, this poem chosen by Halperin to open the collection sets the tone for the book as a whole. Many of the poems involve transactions with the dead; in many, there is a shifting between realms: from the present to the past, from everyday reality to dream. There are glimpses that penetrate that quotidian reality. Thus we read of the convoy ships “that would survive/ and the ones that had been given The Mark/ (invisible to everyone).” Similarly, in the poem “Grief Gondola No. 2,” which takes its title from a composition by Franz Liszt after the death of his son-in-law, Richard Wagner: “Wagner has received the Mark, his famous Punchinello profile sags now/ his face is a white flag.” So there are insistent reminders that “the Real” has dimensions that we habitually ignore.

His prose memoir suggests that Tranströmer has been attuned to “otherness” since childhood. Divided into seven brief sections, and roughly chronological, beginning with his earliest memories and concluding with a harrowing time when he was fifteen, Tranströmer’s recollections are tantalizing. The spareness that serves him well as a poet is here somewhat frustrating, going against the logic of the memoir as a genre. It is impossible not to wonder why we are given these fragments, and no others.

There is a partial answer in the opening sentences of the first section, titled “Memories”: “‘My life.’ Thinking these words, I see before me a streak of light. On closer inspection it has the form of a comet, with head and tail. The brightest end, the head, is childhood and growing up.” And that is what, from his vantage at sixty (his age, he tells us, as he is writing this), the poet reconstructs.

Tranströmer’s parents were divorced when he was three years old or so, and he lived with his mother, a schoolteacher. (His father was a journalist.) His mother’s parents lived nearby, and he was close to his grandfather, a retired ship’s pilot. An only child, Tranströmer was absorbed in his interests. One of the sections of his memoir is titled “Museums,” another “Libraries.” He spent a lot of time in both—and also “out on endless expeditions,” collecting insects. (He still has them in his collector’s boxes: “A hidden mini-museum of which I am seldom conscious. But they’re sitting there, those insects. As if they were biding their time.”) He read all of the books on the library’s Africa shelf, and dreamed of going there.

Other sections recall his school experience and the war. (“It was the spring of 1940. I was a skinny nine-year-old stooped over the newspaper, intent on the war map where black arrows indicated the advance of German tank divisions. These arrows penetrated France and for us, Hitler’s enemies, they lived as parasites in our bodies.”): Tranströmer recalls how disturbed he was by the “lukewarm attitude” toward the Nazis, “that opportunistic wait-and-see stance which was so widespread in Sweden,” where “neutrality” was the official government policy.

The section on the war concludes with a rare visit with his father, who took him to a party. “There was a relaxed and tolerant atmosphere and I could do what I wanted. I withdrew by myself and sidled along the bookshelves of this strange house.” There he found a newly published book, The Martyrdom of Poland; “I settled on the floor and read it nearly cover to cover while the voices filled the air.” What he read in that “terrible book” confirmed what he had felt about the Nazis.

The most striking section of the memoir, however, is the concluding one, “Exorcism.” Of all the sections it is the one with the strongest narrative thrust. It begins with a matter-of-fact statement, which is immediately translated into a characteristic Tranströmer metaphor: “During the winter when I was fifteen I was afflicted by a severe form of anxiety. I was trapped by a searchlight which radiated not light but darkness.” He tells with great precision how it began, after he had seen a film about an alcoholic, which ended with a scene of delirium. That night, in bed, he “reran the film in my mind’s eye”: “Suddenly the atmosphere in the room was tense with dread. Something took total possession of me.” He began to shake and cramp.

The cramps went away, but the nighttime terror did not. It held him in its grip for months. “A few years previously I had wanted to be an explorer. Now I had pushed my way into an unknown country where I had never wanted to be. I had discovered an evil power. Or rather, the evil power had discovered me.” At that time, Tranströmer writes, he was skeptical of religious consolations: “No prayers, but attempts at exorcism by way of music.” Then, as winter gave way to spring, the interior darkness “miraculously” lifted, though only gradually. He found that he was himself again. “Still, it is something I have taken part in. Perhaps my most important experience.”

Thus Tranströmer concludes, somewhat cryptically, leaving us to ponder why this was perhaps his “most important experience.” Notice that in his account he offers in retrospect no reductive or dismissive explanation. “I had discovered an evil power. Or rather, the evil power had discovered me.” That is a straightforward report of something real. And the significance of the experience may lie there—that it permanently altered Tranströmer’s sense of the texture of reality. Awareness of undercurrents, hidden depths: That is good preparation for a psychologist—or a poet.

Source for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 21, 1996, p. 4.

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