March 30, 2015

Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer dies at 83

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TranstroemerSwedish Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer died last week at the age of eighty-three. His work was distinguished by “shrewd metaphors couched in deceptively spare language, crystalline descriptions of natural beauty and explorations of the mysteries of identity and creativity,” Bruce Weber writes for The New York Times.

His oeuvres is also fiercely lean: published over the course of six decades, his more than fifteen books clock in at just a few hundred pages, though they’ve been translated into sixty languages. In addition to being a hugely popular poet in both his home country and (to a lesser extent) abroad–John Freeman says “he is to Sweden what Robert Frost was to America”–Tranströmer was also an accomplished pianist, a psychologist, and an amateur entomologist.

Upon the poet’s selection for the Nobel Prize in 2011, David Orr wrote, “The typical Tranströmer poem is an exercise in sophisticated simplicity, in which relatively spare language acquires remarkable depth, and every word seems measured to the millimeter;” the Swedish Academy said, “Through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”

Here, in honor of Tomas Tranströmer, is his poem “The Indoors is Endless,” available from the Poetry Foundation:

The Indoors is Endless

It’s spring in 1827, Beethoven
hoists his death-mask and sails off.

The grindstones are turning in Europe’s windmills.
The wild geese are flying northwards.

Here is the north, here is Stockholm
swimming palaces and hovels.

The logs in the royal fireplace
collapse from Attention to At Ease.

Peace prevails, vaccine and potatoes,
but the city wells breathe heavily.

Privy barrels in sedan chairs like paschas
are carried by night over the North Bridge.

The cobblestones make them stagger
mamselles loafers gentlemen.

Implacably still, the sign-board
with the smoking blackamoor.

So many islands, so much rowing
with invisible oars against the current!

The channels open up, April May
and sweet honey dribbling June.

The heat reaches islands far out.
The village doors are open, except one.

The snake-clock’s pointer licks the silence.
The rock slopes glow with geology’s patience.

It happened like this, or almost.
It is an obscure family tale

about Erik, done down by a curse
disabled by a bullet through the soul.

He went to town, met an enemy
and sailed home sick and grey.

Keeps to his bed all that summer.
The tools on the wall are in mourning.

He lies awake, hears the woolly flutter
of night moths, his moonlight comrades.

His strength ebbs out, he pushes in vain
against the iron-bound tomorrow.

And the God of the depths cries out of the depths
‘Deliver me! Deliver yourself!’

All the surface action turns inwards.
He’s taken apart, put together.

The wind rises and the wild rose bushes
catch on the fleeing light.

The future opens, he looks into
the self-rotating kaleidoscope

sees indistinct fluttering faces
family faces not yet born.

By mistake his gaze strikes me
as I walk around here in Washington

among grandiose houses where only
every second column bears weight.

White buildings in crematorium style
where the dream of the poor turns to ash.

The gentle downward slope gets steeper
and imperceptibly becomes an abyss.

Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.

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