The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011. His books sell thousands of copies in Sweden, and his poetry has been translated into 60 languages. Born in 1931, grew up in Stockholm, but spent many long summers on the island of Runmarö in the nearby archipelago. Swedish nature and landscape have inspired much of his poetry, especially Runmarö, the Baltic coast and the country’s lakes and forests. But Tomas Tranströmer is as much a poet of humanity as he is of nature. He worked as a psychologist for most of his life. He has been married for over fifty years to Monica Tranströmer, who became his voice to the world after he suffered a stroke in 1990. Since then he has only published two poetry collections and a short memoir. The stroke deprived him of most of his speech and left him unable to use his right arm. But Tomas Tranströmer is also an accomplished classical pianist. Unable to speak more than a few words, he can still express himself through music, despite only being able to play left-hand piano pieces. Swedish composers have written several left-hand piano pieces especially for him to play. This film by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and Neil Astley combines contemporary footage of Tranströmer, including his piano playing, with archive film and recordings of his readings. In the archive recordings, he reads the poems in Swedish, and the English translations are by Robin Fulton, from the UK edition New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011), and the US edition The Great Enigma: New and Collected Poems (New Directions, 2006); these two books have the same content but have been published for separate readerships. The two left-hand piano pieces Tranströmer plays in the film are by Fibich and Mompou. Swedish poems © Tomas Tranströmer from Dikter och Prosa 1954-2004 (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2011). For more information see http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/
Ross Shideler, UCLA professor of Comparative and Scandinavian literature, discusses the Nobel Prize winner’s work
No earth tremor, but a skyquake. Turner could have painted it, secured by ropes. A single mitten whirled past right now, several miles from its hand. Facing the storm I am heading for that house on the other side of the field. I flutter in the hurricane. I am being x-rayed, my skeleton hands in its application for discharge. Panic grows while I tack about, I am wrecked, I am wrecked and drown on dry land! How heavy it is, all that I suddenly have to carry, how heavy it is for the butterfly to tow a barge! There at last. A final bout of wrestling with the door. And now inside. Behind the huge window-pane. What a strange and magnificent invention glass is—to be close without being stricken. . . Outside a horde of transparent splinters of gigantic shapes rush across the lava plain. But I flutter no more. I sit behind the glass, still, my own portrait.
“Icelandic Hurricane” by Tomas Tranströmer from The Blue House, translated from the Swedish by Göran Malmqvist, published by Thunder City Press. Copyright © 1987 by Göran Malmqvist. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Fortunately, Bloodaxe Books, the major British and European publisher of Tranströmer books in English, commissioned a documentary that captured events as they unfolded on October 6, 2011, the day that Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The previous August, British documentary filmmaker Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed Tranströmer in his apartment playing the piano. Robin Fulton’s translations appear as subtitles for the Swedish-language readings Tranströmer recorded prior to a stroke in 1990 which rendered him speechless. The poems in Swedish include “The Nightingale in Badelunda,” “Allegro,” “From the Thaw on 1966,” “The Half-Finished Heaven,” “April and Silence,” “From March 1979,” and “Tracks.”
Performed by Louise Korthals & Tom Jönsthövel (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
“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.