The sky over Beijing on an October morning in 2008 was the color of a bruise, a livid yellow-brown that, my friends explained, was a sandstorm off the Gobi Desert, plus inversion, plus smoke from the coal that heats and powers the city, plus automobile exhaust. Visibility was minimal. You could make out cars going by in the street and barely make out figures walking on the opposite sidewalk. They looked like people wading through morning haze in a T’ang dynasty poem. It seemed a metaphor for contemporary China: the Gobi desert for the vastness of it, the coal smoke for the industrial revolution, phase one, and the carbon dioxide for the industrial revolution, phase two.
By the next morning a wind had come up, a light rain had passed through, and the sky was pure azure. From our slight elevation in the north of the city we looked out over crisp blue air and high clouds, the sprawl of endless neighborhoods, and, hovering over them, a forest of cranes—Beijing transforming itself. In the interim, I’d sat in an auditorium listening to a poetry reading, in Chinese and English, and seen the premiere of a new Chinese film. Both were so surprising that they made the suddenly transformed weather also seem like a metaphor.
The film, 24 City, directed by Jia Zhange Ke and written by him and a poet named Zhai Yongming, tells the story of the closing of a factory in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province. The factory, a dinosaur of the planned economy, was situated in an immense, paternalistic company town where thousands of people had worked at jobs and lived their lives, performing the tasks involved in fabricating airplane engines and refrigerators. The combination of long, slow pans of empty buildings, the animated faces of the storytellers, the way their stories made a fifty-year history of their country, the sudden, meditative cuts to spaces of silence in which objects spoke, made for a sense of elegy and wonder at the shapes lives take and the way people live inside the worlds given to them—a mix which also gave the film a terrific sense of aesthetic risk and surprise.
Zhai Yongming, the poet who had cowritten the film, was born in 1955 in Chengdu, so she was writing about a world that she was familiar with. I knew that she had been sent away for two years of rural reeducation during the Cultural Revolution, and that she had published her first book of poems, a work about the lives of women, in 1984. That was about the time that a new generation of poets appeared in China who had broken with the official aesthetic line of the Communist Party. Critics, disapproving of their militant subjectivity, labeled them the “Misty School,” and many of them went into exile after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. But they were a clear sign that Chinese poetry had come alive, and settling in to hear another generation of poets, I had no idea what to expect.
The reading consisted of one live and surprising voice after another. The poets, men and women, ranged in age from their late thirties to early fifties. They belonged, as did Zhai Yongming, to what critics were calling the New Generation. All of them seemed to me interesting, and—the most surprising thing about them—interesting in different ways. Over the years I’d attended a few international literary gatherings at which Chinese poets had read their work. In those years, in the 1980s and 1990s, you did not, in the first place, know whether the poets you were hearing were the actual poets, given the People’s Republic’s tight control of its public culture, but you did know that, if they were the actual poets, they were nevertheless writing in some utterly opaque code. Poets from around the world—from Vietnam and the Netherlands and Brazil and Canada, quite different from one another, coming from quite distinct literary traditions—were part of the same conversation. They were trying to invent in language, trying to say what life was like for them, to bear witness to it, to find fresh ways of embodying the experiences of thinking and feeling and living among others. That was what I was suddenly hearing in Beijing—that familiar, exhilarating sound, not so much of poetry, but of the power of the project of poetry. It felt like something very alive and new was stirring in China.
By Jenny Morelli for Vi-magazine November 2007
English translation from Swedish by Martin Rundkvist. Copyright © 2007 Jenny Morelli and Vi-magazine; English translation copyright © 2007 by Martin Rundkvist.
Tomas Tranströmer’s poems translated by Robin Fulton (Copyright © 1987 by Robin Fulton) and Martin Rundkvist.
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“I’ve put worse things in the mailboxes of worse people”, I said loudly to myself as I slipped my poetry book Pertaining to Livestock into Tomas Tranströmer’s mailbox last summer. Spending a few days at the Swedish Writers’ Association’s summer house in the Stockholm archipelago, I learned that he lived not far off.
It did feel a little silly to drop an unsolicited book of poetry in the mailbox of a celebrated poet. It almost felt stalkerish, and thus my spoken mantra. But still, earlier that day the thought had sprouted as I lay on the jetty, listening to the radio, hearing a librarian tell me, “Water and music, they’re the bare necessities”. Those words got my courage up.
Tranströmer also got a letter where I told him I know his poem “Madrigal” by heart, the one ending “I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the washing-line”. And I told him I believe poetry – like water and music – is colored by the area it springs from. I was a little nervous that Tranströmer might find the poems of my youth too hard-boiled, flavored by the landscape I inhabited then. But I hoped he would get to hear “The Present is the Little Sister of Eternity” or “Verse for Grandpa”, pieces that speak to the heart. Tomas Tranströmer has suffered from aphasia for years, with speech and reading impediments. I knew that. I also know that his wife Monica often reads to him.
After a few weeks, I checked my answering machine. There was Monica Tranströmer, thanking me for the book and asking me to call her. Poetry had been read in the garden. Tranströmer had laughed and liked some of it!
And autumn comes. Tomas Tranströmer and painter Peter Frie are in the news with an art book, haikus and landscape paintings. And one day with a limpid sky and towering air I park my bicycle outside the red brick building where Tomas and Monica Tranströmer live. The murky stairs have burgundy walls and an old elevator takes me to the fifth floor. When Monica Tranströmer opens the apartment door I’m struck by intense daylight, reflecting off the coppery green roof outside the kitchen window. That’s some roof!
– Yes, Czeslaw Milosz also liked that roof, it reminded him of his childhood in Lithuania, she says. Behind her in the hallway is Tomas Tranströmer. He extends his left hand and then walks, supported by a cane, to an easy chair in the well-lit room, beside a lilac-blue hydrangea on a window sill. A sliver of the sea and the flaming treetops of Djurgården are visible between two buildings. Tranströmer’s right hand is folded onto his belly like the head of a bird or a fork in a branch. Monica heads for the kitchen, making espresso, arranging cookies on a plate.
I’ve seen this couple before. At least from a distance. In 1993 there was a Nordic Poetry Festival in New York, with poets from all Nordic countries, including of course the “Grand Old Swede” Tomas Tranströmer. I remember the moans of the Swedish intelligentsia when national TV interviewed me there. “Good lord, why are they interviewing her when there are so many great poets at the festival? Tranströmer is there!” But now Monica Tranströmer tells me that she did everything she could at the time to keep herself and Tomas away from the ravening media. In an interview from the 1980s the man tells literature scholar Matts Rying that he doesn’t enjoy playing the poet role the media expects of him.
Louise Korthals & Tom Jönsthövel
“The Blue House,” a prose poem by Tomas Tranströmer
It is night with glaring sunshine. I stand in the woods and look towards my house with its misty blue walls. As though I were recently dead and saw the house from a new angle.
It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow. When someone who has lived in the house dies it is repainted. The dead person paints it himself, without a brush, from the inside.
On the other side is open terrain. Formerly a garden, now wilderness. A still surf of weed, pagodas of weed, an unfurling body of text, Upanishades of weed, a Viking fleet of weed, dragon heads, lances, an empire of weed.
Above the overgrown garden flutters the shadow of a boomerang, thrown again and again. It is related to someone who lived in the house long before my time. Almost a child. An impulse issues from him, a thought, a thought of will: “create. . .draw. ..” In order to escape his destiny in time.
The house resembles a child’s drawing. A deputizing childishness which grew forth because someone prematurely renounced the charge of being a child. Open the doors, enter! Inside unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Above the bed there hangs an amateur painting representing a ship with seventeen sails, rough sea and a wind which the gilded frame cannot subdue.
It is always so early in here, it is before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.
A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.
“The Blue House” from The Blue House, translated by Göran Malmqvist, published by Thunder City Press. Copyright © 1987 by Göran Malmqvist. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Published: 7 Dec 11 18:38 CET
The annual Nobel Lecture in Literature, honouring 80-year-old Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, opened in Stockholm on Wednesday with an introduction by Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.
Whereas many literature laureates prepare special lectures for the occasion, Tranströmer’s lecture featured readings of 13 poems from throughout his career coordinated with musical accompaniment.
Tranströmer looked on as his work was set to music and sung by the Gustaf Sjöqvist’s Chamber Choir and Uppsala Chamber Soloists, among other performers. “Good poetry is a powerful thing. It can change our picture of the world, making it clearer, sharper, more comprehensible. And forever,” Englund said.
“We should not be taken in by the understated tone of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. Several of the real wonders of our existence are constantly present: Memory, History, Death, Nature – nature not least. But each not as an overwhelming exterior presence, nor as something that assumes life under our gaze. In your work it is the very opposite: ego, the individual, is the prism into which everything is drawn. It gives us a feeling of context, even obligation,” he continued.
“Dear Tomas, it is impossible to feel insignificant after having read your poetry. Neither is it still possible to love the world for the wrong reasons.”
“But what makes great poetry great is not only that it clarifies or reveals something already present in our world, but also that it has the ability to actually widen the boundaries of that world. Therein lies its power,” Englund said.
The first poem recited was “Minnena ser mig” (Memories Look at Me), originally published in 1983:
A June morning, too soon to wake,
too late to fall asleep again.
I must go out – the greenery is dense
with memories, they follow me with their gaze.
They can’t be seen, they merge completely with
the background, true chameleons.
They are so close that I can hear them breathe
although the birdsong here is deafening.
December 7, 2011, 4:59 pm
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
English-language admirers of Tomas Transtromer, the Swedish poet who will receive this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature in a ceremony in Stockholm on Saturday, will soon have to make room on their shelves for another book.
On Monday Graywolf Press acquired the rights to “Air Mail: The Correspondence of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer,” a collection of some 200 letters tentatively scheduled for publication in early 2013.
The book, already a best seller in Sweden, will contain the full correspondence between the two poets, starting in 1964, when Mr. Bly began publishing Mr. Transtromer in his journal The Sixties, and ending in 1990, when a stroke left Mr. Transtromer paralyzed on the right side, complicating his ability to write and speak.
The letters “range across all kinds of subjects,” Jeffrey Shotts, the editor who acquired the book, said in an email. ”Poetry, of course, and the back and forth of translation, critical reception of Transtromer’s work in the United States, politics in Sweden and the United States, the Vietnam War, travel plans, literary gossip, and even Transtromer becoming Bly’s son’s godfather. It is a remarkable portrait of a long-standing (and ongoing) literary friendship.”
By CHRISTOPHER HYDE
The other day, a friend gave me a card from master woodcarver Robert Jones of Thomaston depicting a working French horn that he had made out of wood rather than brass. (Search for “58scallop” on YouTube to see it yourself.) The instrument is most certainly a tour de force, but I was wondering why anyone would go to all that trouble.
Then I looked at it from a little distance and found that the French horn is a work of art in itself, aside from the sounds it makes. The contrast of multiple curves, bell, circles and straight lines is somehow deeply satisfying.
Perhaps Jones’ next endeavor should be a tuba, which artist Rene Magritte turned into a collection of intestines in his painting “Le temps menacant.” Jones has already carved a working trumpet and trombone.
Perhaps aesthetics has as much to do with the design of an instrument as sound quality. There is really no acoustic reason why a violin, viola, cello or bass viol looks the way it does except for its resemblance to the female form. Near-perfect violin forms have been found from the Cycladic period of Greece (5,000-4,000 B.C.E.). They are thought to have been idols of a mother goddess.
Artists and musicians have always known this. Witness photographer Man Ray’s alteration of a postcard entitled “Violon d’Ingres,” by painting f-holes on the back of a female nude. Ingres has the first laugh, however, with his portrait of Paganini cradling his violin.
The harp is yet another ancient shape, reduced to its most basic form — a triangle with a curved hypotenuse, depicted in another Cycladic sculpture from 3,000 B.C.E. The modern harp has more florid decorations (the frame of the Cycladic version is a snake), but even the most primitive have bells and whistles that have nothing to do with the sound.
The woodwinds have their own beauty. I like to have a flute on the mantelpiece even though I can’t play a note on it, as an example of the aesthetic appeal of the machine. The bassoon, the oboe and the clarinet are also works of art that have evolved from simple origins, both musically and aesthetically.