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.