Reading Matters: Tomas Transtromer – 1


2. a. m. : moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away points of light in a town,
flickering coldly at the horizon.

As when a man has gone into a dream so deep
that he’ll never remember having been there
when he returns to his room.

And as when someone has gone into an illness so deep
that everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm,
cold and tiny at the horizon.

The train is standing perfectly still.

2. a. m. : bright moonlight, few stars.

It so happened that the American poet Norbert Hirschhorn and I were talking about Tomas Transtromer just a few days before Transtromer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bert had recently come back from spending some weeks in Finland (and was now touching base in London between his regular visits to the US and to Beirut) so it was not surprising that the Swedish poet came into our conversation, though whether we discussed the possibility of his being awarded the Nobel, I can’t remember. If we had, one thing would have been certain – we would not have been the only ones. Each year, for some time now, friends and fans of Transtromer have congregated outside the building where he lives in Stockholm to celebrate an award that has long been overdue.

I first got to know Transtomer’s work in 1974, through a volume in the invaluable (as it was then) Penguin Modern European Poets series, one he shared with the Finnish poet, Paavo Haavikko. Looking back at it now, at those individual poems I marked, stanzas I underlined, I see it was the precision of the language, the imagery that caught me – specific, hard and clear – crystalline –  small evocations of another country, familiar but strange – the meaning, the connections still to be worked at, the wonder of the spaces in between.

I was fortunate enough to encounter Transtromer on two occasions: in the late 80s, when I heard him read and, afterwards, asked him to sign a book, in Swedish, for a friend; and again, more recently, when I was in Sweden filming a television documentary about the writer Henning Mankel. Mankel had helped organise, and largely funded, a conference on worldwide children’s literacy that was being held in Stockholm, and Transtromer – wheelchair bound now due to a stroke – was there with his wife, Monica, who read one of his poems to the packed audience which had stood to applaud him warmly and at length when he was presented on stage. And, meeting him afterwards, I was pleased to be able – amongst many others – to tell him how much his poetry had meant to me over the years.

Haunted me, I might say …

Dark pictures on the water, they have been hung away.

Like playthings from our childhood which have grown to giants
and accuse us
of what we never became