“It contains us.” Setting Poetry’s Course in Tranströmer

[This piece began as an email between its author and Indiana Poet Laureate Karen Kovacik but grew deeper out of a discussion with Errant contributor Eric Sargent.  I have stolen freely from Mr. Sargent.  That’s what he gets for not writing it himself.]

Tomas Tranströmer’s “After a Death” seems a poem written to universalize a human response to a death and yet still to localize it in a Swedish geography.  And while one might want to read it as Tranströmer’s own response to a death, of life lived “after a death”, the very title requires you read it at a further distance.  It is “a” death, or in another translation, after “someone’s” death.

But even more than this, it seems a poem responding to another poem; or rather as a poem offering a change to the angle of vision found in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Death sets a thing significant”.  Tranströmer’s poem rather claims that death sets a thing insignificant.  Here is the Dickinson.

Death sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly

To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With “This was last her fingers did,”
Industrious until

The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then ‘t was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.

A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him,–
At rest his fingers are.

Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.

I read this as a pretty straightforward poem that is more intellectual than felt even as it ends in tears.  It is a proposition followed by evidence.  Death sets a thing into relief; what we “hurry past” as insignificant only gains power over us when it, a thing, a token, a totem even, carries death within it.  Here is a piece of human activity so quotidian that it has no meaning until it becomes a memento mori: a remembrance of one’s mortality.  In this perhaps we simply weep for ourselves as we consider the absence of others to be a harbinger of our own and consequently our currently insignificant or trivial acts.

Transtromer offers much more to confound the reading of his poem.  I have two translations, one by Robert Bly and one by Robin Fulton (the first American, the second British).  There is little difference in the two in terms of changes but these changes create some distinct emphases.  But first the two translations.  Bly’s, titled “After a Death”:

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

And now, Fulton’s, “After Someone’s Death”:

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long pale glimmering comet’s tail.
It contains us. It blurs TV images

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It deposits itself as cold drops on the aerials.

You can still shuffle along on skis in the winter sun
among groves where last year’s leaves still hang.
They are like pages torn from old telephone directories–
the names are eaten up by the cold.

It is still beautiful to hear your heart throbbing.
But often the shadow feels more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

“Once upon a time” this poem begins; “In the beginning” is another way to say it especially in light of our first image of a view of the night sky and a stellar sighting.  Once a shock, perhaps a big bang or a Word, left something behind.  That something sets the scale of the poem, its reach; a glimmering/shimmering comet’s tail.  This will be a poem of origins…

But wait, the poem begins, really, before “once” with the title’s announcement that these thoughts are rendered after a death.  This shock is not one of origins but of last things, endings.  In just the title and two lines Tranströmer has encouraged significant ambiguity.  Also too we must see one cause of this is the sole use of the indefinite article “a”–and generalizing, inclusive pronouns without clear antecedents–“it”, “you” and “they”–and even the “his” in the last line is only there as necessary grammar to match the gender of the samurai.  Detachment is the order.

I find the next sentence significant as far as translations go.  Bly has “It keeps us inside” while Fulton has “It contains us”.

Bly seems to want to shift quickly from the celestial distance to the more local geography of the perceived or seen comet as if seeing the comet’s tail is what keeps us home-bound or inside and sheltered.  But reading the Fulton you then generously allow the Bly to perhaps mean what Fulton says, “It contains us.”  The shock or the comet; the shock of death or the shock of beginnings?

Mourning can keep us hidden; we shrink from the world within our grief.  In this way it keeps us inside and also contains us.  The figuration of a shock that leaves behind not a comet but a comet’s tail is somewhat startling and perplexing because there is the sense of permanence to the idea, as if it’s left it there to stay, but how can a comet or a comet’s tail be fixed?  Also, a comet’s tail is water (shimmering/glimmering ice) but also the dust of the stars.  It is the stuff of life, of origins and in this our very being, our molecules and atoms are “contained”.

Tranströmer appears to offer the reader a humanizing life-line that serves as a kind of tether to the modern artifact of a “snowy” TV or a TV with blurred images.  This image is “of us” yet it is used to declare a kind of interference of reception.  We are no longer receiving clear signals and the stuff of the comet’s tail is the reason for the blur as it gathers on the “aerials”.  In Bly it gathers on telephone lines (another figuration for human messaging) while Fulton keeps the TV association with aerials (television antennae).

The middle stanza brings us further into the singular and human world, one in which we can readily see the poet as actor.  “You” go about the normal things–cross-country skiing–but these activities only continue to offer the receiver of the shock further ways to envision insignificance: he brushes the dead leaves still hanging on trees and compares them to pages torn from old telephone directories.  “Old” here implies distance again but now of time rather than space (are they different?).  But still he keeps us among the countless or numberless numbers–the “names eaten up (or swallowed) by the cold” are just names and as insignificant as the leaves already fallen and those stubbornly attached already dead; present to us, but already gone.

Finally, we might even imagine warmth allowed into the poem as beauty is figured as a throbbing heart.  But is it “yours” as in a companion or is it simply a self-reflexive pronoun?  It is beautiful that I am still alive.  BUT…the shadow is more real than the body.  Because it is always past and always future?  What you were is gone, what you will be is absent.  You occupy always this shadow land called living.

And we end with a further distancing; the human idea of defining classes and defining our ways of life in our words and labels is encapsulated in “samurai”–it gives us geography and the time-line of human history.  But this name, proper as it is, is like those in the directories, eaten up by time and space.  And the name itself is as evanescent and less “material” than not only the body of the samurai but also the armor of the culture that gives it meaning.

When Tranströmer closes the tight yet all-encompassing circle with the dragon, once a mighty mythical, magical creature by reducing it to a piece of human armor the snake of his figuration eats its tail; the scale of armor is a scale of measure and the comet’s tail, it’s significance as a portent, or harbinger and perhaps its confounding with the dragon has been reduced to such a scale as to be measured in this three stanza poem.

Wherein Dickinson has Death set a thing significant; Tranströmer has a Death set all things insignificant, even the first things that begin our poetry and fevered imaginings in attempting to put words to the ineffable; to make sense is the only inescapable human need.  A gift and curse of Hermes.

Tranströmer perhaps offers us a kind of reader’s key in this poem translated by the great May Swenson,”Strophe and Antistrophe”.  You see immediately the perspective of the “dragon’s scales” of “After a Death” made plainer still in the very first line. Here though, instead of setting out from Dickinson, Transtromer pushes off and away from Emerson who begins his essay “Circles”, “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.”

Perhaps a poet has only one subject (“repeated without end”) and, as long as there can be found new words and forms, the subject will keep composing verses through him.

The outermost circle belongs to myth. There sinks the helmsman
erect among glittering spines of fish.
How far away from us! When the day
suffocates in windless unrest–
like the Congo’s green shadow holds
the blue men in its vapor–
when all of this flotsam on the heart’s slow
twining river
piles itself up.

Sudden change: beneath the float of heavenly hulls
glide the tethered ones.
Stern high, at an impossible angle,
leans the carcass of a dream, black
against a pale red strip of coast.  Deserted,
the years drop downhill, quick
and silent as sled shadows, doglike, enormous,
run over snow,
reach the forest.

Compare the imagery in the two poems here and you will find exquisite reiteration: a heart, a shadow, snow, a dream landscape, and a mooring line.

You will find us once again contained in the vapor of “comet’s tail” but this time you notice our course owes its arc to the helmsman, yet relentless in his quest to overcome the waters of the forgetting, the poet sings his tethered song against “the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales…” (RWE, “Experience”)

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