Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tomas Transtromer / The Deleted World

Tomas Tranströmer

The Deleted World, by Tomas Transtromer, with versions by Robin Robertson

Venture into the wild and wintry world of Sweden's great 'buzzard poet'

Wednesday 22 November 2006
A standing ovation greeted the veteran Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer at this year's South Bank Poetry International. More than 50 years since his first collection appeared, he is now disabled by a stroke and unable to read his work, so this new selection was read by the Swedish actor Krister Henriksson.
The poet Robin Robertson has chosen to translate poems from collections published from 1954-1996, all inhabiting an autumnal, if not distinctly wintry, mood and setting. In Sweden, Transtromer is known as "the buzzard poet", for his aerial view of the landscape and human endeavour. Like Shelley and Rilke, he is a chronicler of angels and ascension, though, unlike them, he writes in a spare, almost cinematic style, which Robertson has taken great pains to emulate, while ensuring that mystery is not lost in too literal a translation.
Transtromer's subjects often feel that they have woken from the dream of life. The constant inversion of dream time and reality, of night and day, of the horizontal and vertical worlds, are abiding themes for this writer, a psychologist by profession who has worked principally with those deemed to be outcasts from society.
The poems also exhibit a photographic imagination in which light and dark are often transposed, as in the beautiful opening image of "The Couple": "They turn out the lamplight, and its white globe/ glimmers for a moment: an aspirin rising and falling/ then dissolving in a glass of darkness."
The "deleted world" is what happens when the lights go off, whether in the bedroom, or in the forest when the night bus stalls in the snow and the visual world shuts down. The brittleness of the Swedish winter means that fractures appear in the spiritual world, too, opening up "a crack/ where the dead/ are smuggled over the border". A consciousness of political borders separates the writer from old friends behind the Iron Curtain: "We will meet in two hundred years/ when the microphones on the hotel walls are forgotten."
Though frail, and without the use of his right arm, Transtromer delighted the South Bank audience with two small pieces of piano music, played with the left hand, reminding many that he is also a fine poet on the subject of music and musicality. This bilingual book provides an excellent introduction to the work of this major European poet.

Ken Worpole's 'Last Landscapes' is published by Reaktion

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tomas Traströmer / National Insecurity

Illustratio by Ernest Descals

National Insecurity

By Tomas Tranströmer
The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X
and her ear-drops dangle like swords of Damocles.

As a mottled butterfly is invisible against the ground
so the demon merges with the opened newspaper.

A helmet worn by no one has taken power.
The mother-turtle flees flying under the water.

 New and Collected Poems by Tomas Transtromer,T
translated by Robin Fulton. 
Published in 1997 by Bloodaxe Books. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tomas Traströmer / The Tree and the Sky

The Tree and the Sky
By Tomas Tranströmer
Translated by Robin Fulton

There’s a tree walking around in the rain,
it rushes past us in the pouring grey.
It has an errand. It gathers life
out of the rain like a blackbird in an orchard.

When the rain stops so does the tree.
There it is, quiet on clear nights
waiting as we do for the moment

Friday, March 27, 2015

Tomas Traströmer / After a Death

By Tomas Tranströmer
Translated by Robert Bly
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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Denise Levertov / Talking to Grief

Talking to Grief

Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Denise Levertov / Libation

La luz del paraíso
Photo by Triunfo Arciniegas

Raising our glasses, smilingly
we wish one another not luck
but happiness. After half a lifetime
with and without luck,
we know we need more than luck.
It makes no difference that we're drinking
tomato juice, not wine or whiskey -
we know what we mean,
and the red juice of those virtuous
vegetable-fruits is something we both enjoy.
I remember your wonder, as at a miracle,
finding them growing on sturdy vines
in my old aunt and uncle's sun-room
ripe to pluck at the breakfast-table!
We were twenty-three, and unappeasably hungry...

We agree on tomatoes, then-and happiness?
yes, that too: we mean growth, branching,
leafing, yielding blossoms and fruit and the sharp odor
                                                                                                      of dreams.
We mean knowing someone as deeply,
no, deeper, than we’ve known each other,
we mean being known. We are wishing each other
the luck not to need luck. I mill
some pepper into my juice, though,
and salt in the ancient gesture; and what would be wrong
with tipping out half a glass
for the gods?
                                                    We smile.
After these months of pain we begin
to admit our new lives have begun.

“The Freeing of the Dust”
New Directions Publishing, 1975.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Denise Levertov / The Good Dream

Photo by Triunfo Arciniegas
The Good Dream

by Denise Levertov


because we had met again
we rolled laughing
over and over upon the big bed.

The joy was
not in a narrow sense
narrow in any sense.
It was

that all impediments,
every barrier, of history,
of learn'd anxiety,
wrong place and wrong time,

had gone down,
It was the joy

of two rivers
meeting in depths of the sea.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Beautiful Lies / The poetry of Jorie Graham

Graham uses gaps and ciphers to represent intuitions that arent yet made of words.
Graham uses gaps and ciphers to represent intuitions that aren’t yet made of words.Photograph by Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images

Graham started as a poet of brilliantly dissected subjectivity, more attuned to the flaws and the anomalies in her point of view than in anything she witnessed. But something dramatic happens in the course of “From the New World,” as her meticulous frame-by-frame inspection of reality begins to yield evidence of, among other things, ecological peril. Graham has become a twenty-first-century nature poet the old-fashioned way, by counting cherry blossoms and returning birds. Lyric poetry, with its traditional itemizing of the natural world, flower by flower, cloud by cloud, has, in her work, become a forum for ecological consciousness.

Graham is a wizard at representing spatial environments, no easy task in a verbal art that largely avoids narrative. When a crow shows up in “Double Helix,” a new poem, it “makes the wall’s temporariness / suddenly exist.” The illusion of depth and dimensionality is achieved here by a version of what Keats, in his marginalia to “Paradise Lost,” called, admiringly, Milton’s “stationing.” The crow is seen against the wall, or, in a moving passage from a recent poem, “Cagnes sur Mer 1950,” Graham’s mother’s presence is projected against a screen of other memories:

I am the only one who ever lived who remembers

my mother’s voice in the particular shadow

cast by the sky-filled Roman archway

which darkens the stones on the down-sloping street

up which she has now come again suddenly.

In a poem, the representation of space depends to an unusual degree on the management of actual space on the page. The poems in “From the New World” are exceptionally responsive to their placement on the page. Though Graham reads the work aloud beautifully, I think of her as a poet best appreciated through silent reading of the printed word. Graham’s free-verse poems draw and redraw their borders in space, adjusting as new sensation enters from the fringe. Whitman’s “noiseless patient spider” comes to mind: “It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself” onto the blank page, a “vacant vast surrounding.” In Graham, an industrious “scirocco,” “working / the invisible,” gives it form; a poet is a creature who thatches her lines across emptiness, driven to “go over and over / what it already knows.”

Graham, who is sixty-four, is the Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard. She was raised by American parents in Rome, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, film at N.Y.U., and writing at Iowa, where she received an M.F.A. in poetry. She has won almost every major literary award, including a MacArthur and a Pulitzer. She would be on anyone’s list of the most influential American poets of the past fifty years, but many readers, even those with the best intentions, find her work “unintelligible” and “deliberately intended to frustrate the reader,” to quote the critic Adam Kirsch. Graham, however, insists on, and has defended in print, her use of “associational logic,” a muscle rarely worked by prose: its “occlusion, or difficulty,” she wrote, “healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition.”

And so we have a standoff of the kind that has cropped up again and again in poetry at least since the nineteen-twenties. The idea that calculated literary difficulty is a positive feature that writers intend seems odd, but it comes with a distinguished provenance: it is associated primarily with T. S. Eliot, whom Graham counts among her first influences. Like Eliot, Graham has attracted her share of hecklers, as well as legions of accomplished exegetes. As will happen eventually, I think, with Graham, readers who reconsidered Eliot’s poetry with fresh eyes, after the tide of monographs receded, found him to be a poet of personal immediacy and ragged emotionality: “the victim,” as Randall Jarrell suggested, “of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions.”

For Graham, those obsessions have been, from the start, unapologetically thinky. She is sometimes derided as a “philosophical” poet, though her poems that are most directly concerned with philosophy, such as those about Pascal and Heidegger, usually function as refutations of philosophy, or (and it amounts to the same thing) as applications of it to the moods and the senses, which abstract thought often, erroneously, supposes it can bypass. Poets tend to graduate from the particular to the abstract, moving from observable reality toward its clandestine laws: from daffodils to solitude, from waves and minutes to Time. Graham works in the opposite direction, moving down a steep slope from abstraction to concrete experience. The titles of some of her books give you the idea—“Materialism,” “The End of Beauty,” “Place”—as do the titles of some of her best-known poems. “Reading Plato,” a poem from her second volume, “Erosion” (1983), is a partial rebuttal of Plato’s theories about mimesis. Graham describes a “friend” tying fishing flies, “his good idea, / what drives / the silly days / together.” Poetry is another good idea that drives the days together, a deception intended to trap “what slips / through my fingers, / your fingers.” Plato’s bad idea was to see art as a “lie,” the copy of a copy: the gods possess the original, nature knocks it off, and the poets assemble their counterfeit counterfeits. But Graham’s poem is the “story / of a beautiful / lie” (with the wordplay on “line”—fishing line, line of verse—intended), her attempt, modelled on that of the fishermen she describes, to “pass / for the natural world.”

Some poets’ concerns evolve throughout their careers. Graham’s own metamorphoses, as “From a New World” makes clear, have instead been driven by tensions that have remained consistent since her first work. In an early poem and one of her most anthologized, “The Geese,” Graham finds herself in a natural environment already scored by aesthetic orders: the geese that fly overhead in formation, “as urgent as elegant, / tapering with goals,” and the spiders that work “closest at hand, / between the lines.” Between these two grids, her attention shuttling from one to the other, human life takes shape in the form of Graham’s own “lines.” In “Thinking,” a poem from “The Errancy,” Graham’s volume from 1997, a nearly identical dilemma takes a different shape. A crow perches on a telephone wire:

The wire he’s on wobbly and his grip not firm.

Lifting each forked clawgrip again and again.

Every bit of wind toying with his hive of black balance.

Every now and then a passing car underneath causing a quick rearrangement.

The phonelines from six houses, and the powerlines from three

grouped-up above me . . .

If you make writing hew so closely to the object it describes, in this case a crow, then every “rearrangement” of the bird forces a rearrangement of language. The poem is called “Thinking” because it forces us to confront the difficulty of keeping that mental crow on its mental wire.

These adjustments taking place within individual poems are also broadcast across the arc of Graham’s career. Her early poems tended to be written in short, serrated lines that sometimes mimicked the canny movement of her subjects: a snake that “kept on / disappearing” or a salmon—“quick, glittering”—swimming up a narrow channel. Later, Graham lengthened the lines but shortened the stanzas, which were sometimes numbered like slides or specimens. More recent work is written in violently alternating long and short lines, which results, oddly, in an effect not of duration but of volume, as though two people were sparring over the controls. This extraordinary stylistic range stems from Graham’s wish to make a lavish formal show of her epistemological turbulence, her poems’ provisional victories over their own inefficacy. An epigraph from the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt, which Graham used for “The Errancy,” applies to her work as a whole: “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.” Every poem, Graham suggests, is part net and part wind, its finely knotted phrases and lines straining to “hold,” for longer than an instant, the presence passing through them. The poems often end in ellipses, dashes, or other forms of open-ended punctuation, not out of some vague allegiance to indeterminacy or “post-modernism” but for the same reason that Wile E. Coyote often looks so baffled while chasing the Road Runner: the prey, Graham’s quicksilver mental activity, has once again thwarted its language traps and bolted into the next canyon.

Because her poems enact the states—bewilderment, estrangement, panic, elation—that they describe, they are unusually subject to their own mental actions. Graham is sometimes faulted for language that is fuzzy or provisional; she is perhaps most notorious for poems that leave actual blank spaces or x and y variables where meaning apparently cannot, in the moment, be supplied. If there is one quirk in her writing that has fed her detractors, it is the use of these lacunae, as though the poet had forfeited her role as a kind of dowser or metal detector, looking everywhere for language’s buried substrate. But the poems need gaps and ciphers because Graham’s subjectivity, responding in the moment, requires placeholders, a way of representing intuitions that aren’t made of words, or not yet. Such gaps have become especially pronounced, and especially important, in poems like “Futures,” from “Sea Change,” in which Graham sees, in a blighted pond, not only the perceptual evidence of ecological destruction but also the Western philosophical structures (“master & slave”) that underlie it, as well as its sickening consequences: “the crop destroyed, / water everywhere not / drinkable, & radioactive waste in it.” Far from insulating the poems from the pressures of the real world, these passages have confronted them by showing how language frays under culturally and historically adverse conditions.

This book conveys how poetry might function not as a well-wrought urn or cri de cœur but as an extension of the senses into realms where crucial sensory witness has been largely impossible. There are four new poems here, among the finest that Graham has written, and the first to be published following her recent diagnosis of cancer. We have many devastating poems about illness and mortality, but few that monitor the bleak sensorium of a modern hospital room, where the depersonalizing conditions of the “new world” are brought terrifyingly close to the body. “Prying” shows Graham, the great mover through space, restrained, prone, at the mercy of medical machines and their beleaguered captains. Here is its opening:

As if I never wake from this blackout again, again this minute they lay it out

on the wheeling transporter, so silent, then the surgical table,

my body, my citizen, anesthesiologists back from coffee break, cables

on mylar headrest taking my head down now, arms into armlock,

then positioners, restraints—day talk

all round—the guidewires in, the intravenous ports, the drip begun.

It is a classic Graham environment, with its “cables,” “ports,” “restraints,” and “drips,” versions of all of which Graham once encountered in the world at large, and found cause, often, to celebrate. She has always sought, through the envoy of the senses, commerce with what she has variously called “the world” and “the real.” Now, in these latest poems, that mission circles back to its point of origin. The body in illness—the old, familiar body—has become the ultimate new world. ♦

Published in the print edition of the March 30, 2015, issue.

Dan Chiasson, a contributor to The New Yorker since 2007, teaches English at Wellesley College. His most recent book of poems is “The Math Campers.”


Denise Levertov / The needless

by Denise Levertov

He told me about
a poem he was writing.
For me.
He told me it asked,
'When I mean only to brush her gently
with soft feathers,

do the feathers
turn into needles?'
His telling me

was a cloud of
soft feathers, I closed
my eyes and sank in it.

Many weeks
I waited. At last,
'Did you, were you able

to finish that poem
you told me about,

'No', he said
looking away.
Needles paused

for an instant on my skin
before they drew blood.

"Poems 1968-1972"
New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1987