On December 10, 2011, Tomas Tranströmer received the Nobel Prize in Literature in his hometown Stockholm. On this occasion we are not only able to present Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry on lyrikline.org, made possible with the help of our Swedish lyrikline.org partner Ramus. but also got an interview with the young British filmmaker Martin Earle about his short film A Galaxy Over There (2009), based on on Tranströmer’s poem Schubertiana.
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.
Connect to Jenny Morelli’s Blog at: morelli.se
“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.