Tuesday, October 04, 2016

stone sober

Autoroute food: Aire de Terres-les-Graves, near Bordeaux, 30th September 2016

I return with a head full of almonds, some of them sweet, and some of them bitter with the intensity of a suppressed cure for cancer.

I can't spin down to earth yet, and Tomas Tranströmer's poems of dreaming and waking, which I'm re-reading for the umpteenth time, have an air about them, an air like the burly October crowns of the trees as we drive back north,  a new and pressing intensity of interest.

As the bites of insects and the brush of a jellyfish begin to quieten on my skin, as the smell of diesel is showered away, I am, or someone is, that traveller with the dispersed ego who appears in Tranströmer's characteristic present tense.

In day's first hours consciousness can grasp the world
as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.
The traveller is standing under the tree. After
the crash through death's turbulence, shall
a great light unfold above his head?

(The end of "Prelude", the first poem in Tranströmer's first book, 17 Poems )

Behind waking life there is a deeper and larger community of the sleeping, the dreaming and the dead. In this larger community we can meet each other: opposites purged of our divided cultures, languages and - that current tool of the demagogue - "national identities" (".... divided cultures and people flow together in a work of art..." as Tranströmer described his poetry). He was writing in a more blessed time than today, in some ways. This makes his poems doubly precious because no-one could write them now, but also they are limited simply by not having the problems of 2016. So it must always be.

All of these thoughts run around my reading of the following poem, from The Wild Market Square.

Nineteen Hundred and Eighty

His glance flits in jerks across the newsprint.
Feelings come, so icy they're taken for thoughts.
Only in deep hypnosis could he be his other I,
his hidden sister, the woman who joins the hundreds of thousands
screaming 'Death to the Shah!' - although he is already dead -
a marching black tent, pious and full of hate.
Jihad! Two who shall never meet take the world in hand.

(The Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was deposed in February 1979. He died in exile in Egypt on 27th July, 1980.)

Tranströmer links, but sharply contrasts, his two protagonists: the newspaper-reading male whose emotional life is so  cold that he himself believes it is rational thinking; and the impassioned woman (seen, no doubt, on the TV) who has joined a celebratory mob in Iran, so seemingly emotive and irrational that she yells for a death that she knows has already happened, what's more in a cause directly against the interests of Iranian women, as you might reflect from a westernized perspective. (It was well known, however, that the Shah's human rights record was far from spotless, to say nothing of the royal family's relentless accumulation of personal wealth.)

From our later perspective TT's foray into the Islamic world feels  - a weasel word, this - a touch "simplistic";  he has not witnessed so much debate around the word "jihad" as we have done since; and we can sense that the Islamism glimpsed in his poem is still something comfortably far away and picturesque. The marching black tent is not marching in the direction of the Stockholm archipelago.

But even though I feel these things, they somehow don't harm the poem. In fact you could say that subsequent events have sharpened it.

This depends partly on how we read the final words. Do this ill-assorted pair of people truly mould the world (as, since the poem was written, Islamism may certainly be said to have done), or do they merely take the world in hand in a helpless, clutching kind of way? But the poetry seems to refuse to make this distinction,  just as it refuses to regard dreaming as unimportant compared to waking. This poem still carries the neutral sense of the image I quoted from that early poem: of grasping a warm stone.

In most ways I approve that refusal to make the distinction. But I also think I see why Tranströmer's influence on mainstream poetry is as potent as it is. *

His poems overwhelm us with the simple strength of their acceptance of the imaginative life.  But by proposing the life of nature and dreams and the dead as valuable topics, he also offers, for those who want to find it, a most reassuring apology for educated western lifestyles.

[Translations by Robin Fulton.]

* Wikipedia continues to report that there was a mixed response to his Nobel Prize in 2011, but this is extremely misleading. Of course the newspapers sought out the usual cynical quotes about the committee being Eurocentric in general and Swedocentric in particular. But it was swiftly apparent that these quotes betrayed an embarrassing ignorance of contemporary poetry. Tranströmer may have been Swedish but he was not, as the newspapers too readily assumed, an obscure figure outside Sweden. On the contrary, his poems had been very widely translated and very widely admired: his international reputation was right up there with Ashbery or Walcott. Indeed he exemplified the ideal of being both a local poet and a world poet: something much dreamed of by mainstream poets and readers, but not often so unequivocally achieved..

 Morning tea and shower: Área de servicio La Ribera, near Oropesa, 27th September 2016

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