A standing ovation greeted the veteran Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer at this year's South Bank Poetry International. More than 50 years since his first collection appeared, he is now disabled by a stroke and unable to read his work, so this new selection was read by the Swedish actor Krister Henriksson.
The poet Robin Robertson has chosen to translate poems from collections published from 1954-1996, all inhabiting an autumnal, if not distinctly wintry, mood and setting. In Sweden, Transtromer is known as "the buzzard poet", for his aerial view of the landscape and human endeavour. Like Shelley and Rilke, he is a chronicler of angels and ascension, though, unlike them, he writes in a spare, almost cinematic style, which Robertson has taken great pains to emulate, while ensuring that mystery is not lost in too literal a translation.
Transtromer's subjects often feel that they have woken from the dream of life. The constant inversion of dream time and reality, of night and day, of the horizontal and vertical worlds, are abiding themes for this writer, a psychologist by profession who has worked principally with those deemed to be outcasts from society.
The poems also exhibit a photographic imagination in which light and dark are often transposed, as in the beautiful opening image of "The Couple": "They turn out the lamplight, and its white globe/ glimmers for a moment: an aspirin rising and falling/ then dissolving in a glass of darkness."
The "deleted world" is what happens when the lights go off, whether in the bedroom, or in the forest when the night bus stalls in the snow and the visual world shuts down. The brittleness of the Swedish winter means that fractures appear in the spiritual world, too, opening up "a crack/ where the dead/ are smuggled over the border". A consciousness of political borders separates the writer from old friends behind the Iron Curtain: "We will meet in two hundred years/ when the microphones on the hotel walls are forgotten."
Though frail, and without the use of his right arm, Transtromer delighted the South Bank audience with two small pieces of piano music, played with the left hand, reminding many that he is also a fine poet on the subject of music and musicality. This bilingual book provides an excellent introduction to the work of this major European poet.
Ken Worpole's 'Last Landscapes' is published by ReaktionReuse content