Memoir Stockholm

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Monica and Tomas Tranströmer meet newspaper and TV reporters at their home in Stockholm, Sweden October 6, 2011, the day of the Nobel Prize Literature announcement.

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In February 2007, Steven Ford Brown traveled from Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport. Spain to Stockholm to accept an Artist Residency at the Swedish Writer’s Union Offices in the City Center. During his residency, Brown spent an afternoon with Monica and Tomas Tranströmer at their home in Stockholm.

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I first met Tomas Tranströmer in 1983 in Texas when he came to a university to lecture. The Department had an excellent lecture series of visiting writers: poets Ai, Marvin Bell, Lorna Dee Cervantes. Edward Hirsch, William Matthews, playwrights Edward Albee and Ntozake Shange, writers Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gass and George Plimpton.
As a university graduate student, I met Tomas and his wife, Monica, at the airport for transport to a hotel near campus. Students in the Writing Program did not know who Tranströmer was as his reputation was primarily in Europe. During the car trip to campus, we discussed his forthcoming week-long visit. As we talked, we discovered a mutual connection with writer Robert Bly as I had met him in the 1970s and published a profile feature on his poetry in a literary magazine. The Tranströmers were delighted as their close relationship with Bly dated to the 1960s when the two men began corresponding with each other between Minnesota and Sweden.

The arrival of Monica and Tomas on campus coincided with the visit of Howard Moss, Poetry Editor of The New Yorker magazine. Ambition is very much an American trait, and most of the writing students spent time with Moss on the chance he might choose their work for publication. That left the Tranströmers alone with me for a week, so I gave them a guided tour of the city. We visited a music store where Tomas could buy sheet music for piano to add to his growing library at home. Since childhood, Tomas had played piano, and he was as talented with music as he was with poetry. Tomas concluded his visit with a public reading before an enthusiastic audience.

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As I talked with Tomas during the week, I gave him several books published by Ford-Brown & Co., Publishers, and Thunder City Press, two publishing companies I owned. Over a decade, I published literary work by Argentine Enrique Anderson Imbert (Department Chairman and Professor of Hispanic Literature at Harvard University), Chinese poets Bei Dao and Shu Ting, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize winner Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. The published list of writers also included American writers Mark Doty, Andrew Glaze, Pulitzer Prize poet Carolyn Kizer, John Logan, Dave Smith, and Paul Zimmer. Texas writer Larry McMurtry contributed a personal introductory essay to a collection of literary criticism on the poetry of former Texas Poet Laureate Vassar Miller, published with a grant from the Texas Commission for the Arts in Austin. A beautiful edition of Winter Night: Prose Poems, translations from the German language of Austrian poet Georg Trakl, illustrated by artist Dennis Harper, also caught his eye. Before the week finished and Tomas was to leave, he asked if I would publish an American edition of his poetry translated from Swedish to English. The book would be a small selection of prose poems from a book published in Sweden. I said yes, and the result was a bilingual (Swedish to English) book titled Det Blå huset (The Blue House). It included the original Swedish prose poems and translations to English by Göran Malmqvist, a prominent Swedish writer, literary critic, Nobel jurist for the Literature Prize, and friend of Tranströmer. 

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Monica Bladh and Tomas Tranströmer marry, 1958. Foto: Gösta Wirén.

The Swedish Consulate in New York City provided a cultural arts grant to my publishing company to pay for publication. The book itself was typeset in English in America and Swedish text typeset in Stockholm. David Chorlton, an Englishman who had lived in Vienna, Austria, before moving to the United States to live in Phoenix, Arizona, designed the cover as a beautiful blue painting. Printed as a limited edition of 1,000 copies, I sent 300 copies to Tomas in Stockholm. Tomas liked his frequent American literary tours and wanted a small cache of books to give away as a gift to new people he enjoyed meeting in his travels through the American landscape from New York City to San Francisco and places in between.

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In 2010, Tom Jönsthövel, my Dutch friend from Amsterdam, Netherlands, visited Boston, Massachusetts, where I then lived. We met in Amsterdam and discovered synergy in our creative interests: filmmaking, international literature, and music. During his visit to Boston, we discussed a project for the forthcoming Official Tomas Tranströmer Website. Fond of the title poem of The Blue House book, I suggested we develop a video concept for distribution via the Youtube Channel. Tom had a reputation as a filmmaker and musician in the Netherlands but was also a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) focused in Applied Mathematics from the University of Delft School of Technology. Tom asked his friend, Dutch actress-singer Louise Korthals, to read the poem for video production in Amsterdam. Kind enough to contribute, Korthals is well known in the Netherlands for her music performances, television appearances, and theatre roles. Tom filmed and edited raw footage of the video and composed the soundtrack music. Posted to YouTube, “The Blue House” video has been viewed more than ten thousand times. Note: Tom Jönsthövel now lives and works as  a Global Innovation Manager for Energy Transition for one of the largest corporations in Oslo, Norway.

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“The Blue House”

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 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 that plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

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“The Blue House” by Tomas Tranströmer from The Blue House, translated by Göran Malmqvist of Sweden, published by Thunder City Press. English translation Copyright © 1987 by Göran Malmqvist. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Video of “The Blue House” copyright © 2011, 2021 by The Lion Publishing Group LLP and Estate of Tomas Tranströmer for United States and Europe.

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I corresponded with Monica and Tomas in Sweden after they left Boston. I would not see Tomas again until 1988, when I moved from Texas to Boston, Massachusetts. Having served as a Board member of the Houston Poetry Festival, The New England Poetry Club invited me to join as a governing Board Member. The Poetry Club was organised with at Harvard University in 1915. Poets and undergraduate students Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, and Amy Lowell organised reading and lectures. The Poetry Club quickly became one of the most prominent literary institutions in New England, sponsoring a reading series that is now the oldest continuous reading series in the United States.

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Robert Frost, Harvard University (1899)

Within a year of joining the Board, I used my previous non-profit grant writing experience to write a successful request for $5,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., to support the reading series. The NEA grant included a stipend and travel expenses to bring Tranströmer from Sweden to Cambridge for a reading.

Tranströmer read to a large audience in a seminar room at Harvard University in Cambridge. More than 200 people filled seats and lined walls as he read. In reading, Tomas provided explanations of the poems and used his dry sense of humor to add levity. And then there were the poems: the beautiful, luminous, remarkable poems. 

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The after-party was at the Cambridge home of Diana Der Hovanessian, President of the Poetry Club. I made my way through the party to Tomas. He said it was strange to see me in New England’s snowy landscape after first meeting each other in the dry, flat Texas landscape. He was in robust health and engaged with the party people.

A year after Tranströmer’s visit to Harvard University, I encountered Diana in a restaurant in Harvard Square. She told me she had received news from Sweden that Tomas had suffered a severe medical stroke in Stockholm. The details were unclear. This stunning news was a shock. I knew he was a man in his late 50s and had lived a healthy lifestyle. Details began to emerge later.

After a decade of employment in administration in the European Banks Department of a private investment firm in Boston’s Seaport District, I resigned and departed Boston in late 2006 to visit and live in various European cities: Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, Paris, and Stockholm.

I spent six months living in the Netherlands in an apartment in Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein Square, the district where painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) first established his painting studio. Today Rembrandt is known only by his first name as the wunderkind 17th-century artist who became one of the most famous painters of Europe. It should be noted that Rembrandt was also an integral member of the Dutch Golden Age of Painting (1581 – 1672 ) that included Johannes Vermeer, Bartholomeus van der Heist, Pieter de Hooch, Paulus Potter, and Hendrick Corneliszoon van Vliet.

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The Rembrandt and Anne Frank Museums near my apartment were on the Prinsengracht Canal parallel to the Keizersgracht in central Amsterdam. The Van Gogh Museum was nearby in the Museum Square in Amsterdam South.

After six months of living in Amsterdam, I departed by train at the Centraal Station to Barcelona, Spain. Barcelona is the capital city of the Catalonian region of Spain. With a population of 1.6 million, it is the seventh-largest city in the European Union.

I rented an apartment in the Eixample District from a Catalan school teacher fluent in English. The location was ten blocks from the Basílica de la Sagrada Família, the stunning Roman Catholic minor basilica that began construction in 1882 as designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. In 1984 UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) designated Sagrada Família as a World Heritage Site. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the church in the Roman Catholic faith as a minor basilica. Four major basilicas in the Diocese of Rome are an essential part of the global network of major and minor basilicas of Catholic churches, totaling 1,810 worldwide.

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While in Barcelona, I obtained a residency at the Swedish Writers Union in Stockholm. In February 2007, I flew from Barcelona to Arlanda Airport in Sweden. A train into the city center and a taxi to an older part of Stockholm delivered me to a four-story building that included an apartment owned by the Writers Union.

1375457The Swedish Writers Union, first established in 1893, is the central professional organization for literary translators and writers in Sweden. The Charter of the Union “safeguards the economic and moral interests of the members by defending the freedom of expression of journalists, media, and press by ensuring compliance with stipulations and laws regulating copyright” according to the requirements of the country of Sweden and the European Union. The office of the Writers Union is in Stockholm on Drottninggatan. The building also houses a guest apartment with rooms for visiting translators and writers.

I found the director waiting in a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor. The apartment was spacious with large windows, private bedrooms, a kitchen, and a common area. I was the first to arrive to share the flat with a middle-aged German man from Berlin, Germany, who wrote plays for radio and television, and a charming young Russian woman named Anya from Moscow, Russia. She translated fiction by John Cheever, William Faulkner, and Kurt Vonnegut into Russian. Over dinner, we discussed our different experiences in the literary world.

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I found the director waiting in a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor. The apartment was spacious with large windows, private bedrooms, a kitchen, and a common area. I was the first to arrive to share the flat with a middle-aged German man from Berlin, Germany, who wrote plays for radio and television, and a charming young Russian woman named Anya from Moscow, Russia. She translated fiction by John Cheever, William Faulkner, and Kurt Vonnegut into Russian. Over dinner, we discussed our different experiences in the literary world.

Greeting Tomas in the living room, he became animated and happy to see me. I could see, however, the effects of the stroke. Paralyzed on the right side of his body, he was unable to speak. Monica assisted him in communicating with me as Tomas gestured with his left hand and silently mouthed words to her in Swedish.

I presented him with a book, Century of the Death of the Rose, my translation from the Spanish of Ecuadorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade. I knew he would be sympathetic to the style of poetry. His eyes lit up as he directed Monica to retrieve a magazine from his study. The Danish literary magazine Bogens Verden featured his photos on the cover. Published in Copenhagen in 2006, the entire issue was devoted to his life and work to celebrate his 75th birthday. With his left hand, he directed me to a page. The text was in Danish, but there was a separate list in English of his top ten favorite poets and their poems. What a surprise! My poet Carrera Andrade was on the list. The list also included American poets Robert Bly, T.S. Eliot, W.S. Merwin, French poet Paul Eluard, and several other prominent European poets of the past century. The magazine included numerous literary articles, interviews, poems from his long literary career, and photographs. 

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I mention this gift book of Jorge Carrera Andrade to Tomas only in that his readings in world literature were more extensive than one might imagine. In the 1960s, when books from different parts of the world traveled slowly, it would be unusual for a Swedish writer to know of a Spanish writer from a very distant country like Ecuador. Ecuador is a small country in northwestern Latin America, bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the east and south, the Galápagos Islands of Darwin, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Remarkably, Tomas found access to the poetry of Jorge Carrera Andrade from six poems translated to English by Thomas Merton in an anthology, Modern European Poetry, edited by Willis Barnstone (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), which was available at that time in Europe.

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In the  world of music, there is a genre of piano compositions written for one hand. The innovation in creating such compositions evolved from the handicaps of pianists who had lost a left or right arm or hand. As a result of World War I in Europe (1914 – 1918), there was an extraordinary increase in the number and kinds of wounds of combatants. The introduction of modern mechanized weapons (airplanes, machine guns, land mines, tanks) and close hand-to-hand combat increased the number and severity of wounds of surviving soldiers.

A musician before the war in Vienna, Austria, Paul Wittgenstein enlisted as a Second Lieutenant in the 6th Dragoon regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army. Dispatched to the Eastern Front, in modern-day Poland against the Russians, his right arm was badly wounded in the bitter battle of Galicia, Ukraine (also known as the Battle of Lemberg). Captured by the Russian army, his right arm was amputated at the shoulder in a hospital in a prisoner of war camp in Osten, Siberia.

After the war Wittgenstein not only trained himself to play piano with one hand, “he devised novel techniques, including pedal and hand-movement combinations, that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist.” (Wikipedia).

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The commissioned score for piano for the left hand was not just limited to Wittgenstein. The Czech violinist Otakar Holimann lost the use of his right hand in World War I and switched from violin to continue a musical career playing piano with his left hand. Numerous prominent composers also produced original music scores and arrangements for pianists with handicaps. Composers who took up the challenge included Frenchman Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Lithuanian Leopold Godowsky, Frederic Mompou Dencausse (a Catalan from Barcelona), German Richard Strauss, Manuel Ponce of Mexico, and Russian Sergei Prokofiev.

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Despite his handicap as a result of his stroke, Tomas continued as an accomplished pianist and often performed piano concerts in Sweden. He recorded a compact disc of readings of poetry, the poetry recorded before his stroke, with his performances on the piano of well-known compositions for left hand by notable composers. The complete recordings are included on a compact disc Klangen sager att friheten finns (The Sound is a Declaration of Freedom), Bonniers Forlag, 2002.

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As I talked with Monica and Tomas the Swedish afternoon grew late. The windows of the apartment were gathering darkness into its rooms. I thought of lines from “The Couple,” a Tranströmer poem: “They switch off the light and its white shade/glimmers for a moment before dissolving / like a tablet in a glass of darkness.”

Tomas left the room to go to the bedroom to rest. Monica and I moved to the kitchen. She opened a closet to reveal a large stack of books. They were all the Tranströmer books of that time translated from Swedish into sixty other languages. The time of our meeting was exciting because new books had just been translated and published in Arabic and Chinese. There were five copies of my own The Blue House book in the stack. There were additional books translated into Italian, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, and many other languages. We sat and talked.

Our conversation moved to Robert Bly, now also in his seventies, and Monica remembered the first time they met Bly in the 1960s. She likened the relationship of the two men during those years to young schoolboys, inflamed by the passion of their explorations in the new global modernism of poetry. Both Bly and Tomas shared Nordic heritage, as Robert was born of emigre Norwegians in Minnesota. Bly would become the most reliable ally of Tomas, his dear friend and translator, translating the best-known collections of Tranströmer books. Bly was essential in helping establish the reputation of Tranströmer in English in America and throughout the world.

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Swedish poetry to an American in the 1960s was an exotic they never even thought about. The hip college crowd and cultural intellectuals of the era knew the films of Ingmar Bergman and novels, plays, and poetry of August Strindberg, but no one knew anything about Swedish poetry. Then Bly began translating and presenting the poetry of Tranströmer to English language audiences. Along with his essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke,” on the concept of deep image poetry, and his translations of Rolf Jacobsen (Norway), Juan Ramón Jiménez (Spain), Kabir (India), Antonio Machado (Spain), Rainer Maria Rilke (Austria-Hungary), Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden), and César Vallejo (Peru), he was creating a powerful new presence for world poetry in translation on the American poetry scene.

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In 1975 Boston’s Beacon Press published Bly’s edition of Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelof, and Tomas Tranströmer. The book was immediately influential by introducing several generations of poets that demonstrated the lineage of modernism in Swedish poetry. Bly translated and published early American editions of Tranströmer English poetry collections, including Twenty Poems, Night Vision, Truth Barriers, and The Half-Finished Heaven. In 1979, Ironwood, a literary magazine edited by Michael Cuddihy in Tucson, Arizona, published a special issue on the life and literary work of Tranströmer in essays by prominent American and Swedish writers.  

Over the next four decades, an increasing number of translators published Tranströmer books in America, Australia, China, Europe, and United Kingdom. He also became popular on the American poetry reading circuit. One of the jokes Tomas told me was he was being paid so much money by American institutions and universities he had to visit Swedish tax officials to ask how to do his taxes. He was not used to the celebrity he suddenly had in America. His popularity was so strong he could lecture and read on the East Coast in Boston, New York City, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, move on to several universities in the Midwest, and then schedule West Coast appearances in Seattle, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

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I had developed a friendly relationship with Anya at the Swedish Writer’s Union, and as I prepared to depart from Stockholm she offered her email and suggested we stay in touch for possible future literary events in America, Europe, or Moscow. On my way to Arlanda Airport, I stopped at Drottninggatans Bok & Bild bookstore to look for a French Edition of Tranströmer’s Poèmes sélectionnés (Selected Poems), published by Éditions Gallimard in Paris. An elderly man who spoke English owned the bookstore crowded with books from Europe and Russia. Moving through the literary section, I ran my finger over spines of shelved books and titles glowed as my imagination took flight in the music of the Czech, French, German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish languages. I imagined the voices of Gloria Fuertes, Günter Grass, Victor Hugo, Milan Kundera, Anna Swir, and Leo Tolstoy, famous writers of Europe and Russia, calling out to me through history and time!

Paying for three books, I discovered later I dropped the slip of paper with Anys’s name and email as I pulled out my credit card. Two weeks later she visited the same bookstore on her way back to Russia. She later emailed and explained the bookseller found my slip of paper on the floor and held it. The bookseller seeing her name on the credit card as same on the slip with her email address returned it to her. A month later, she continued contact to update me on her translation of the John Cheever short story she was translating in Moscow.

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Royal Academy of Art, London

I made my first trip to Europe in 2000 for business. I flew to Iceland, Dublin, Ireland, and then London. I had an appointment that first day and walked from the apartment of a work colleague living in London  down Bond Street towards Piccadilly Square. Halfway to the Square I happened to see from my left banners hanging from a building advertising an art exhibit of Polish painter Tara de Lempicka. She was an artist I greatly loved and valued for her exquisite Art Deco paintings, but also for the avant garde attitude that informed her life and personality. The building turned out to be The Royal Academy of Art.  I entered the gallery on the second floor and suddenly felt this opportunity to see her original paintings was not an accident. It was a destiny by which we would meet in her chosen landscape of the art gallery so that I could experience the full range of her painting career. The displayed art collection of 58 paintings was a survey of the chaotic life of a painter who had migrated from Poland to Russia and then (in the middle of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919) to Paris where she established her new painting studio. Her time in France would one of the most productive periods of her creativity. The Royal Academy Exhibit included loans of paintings from the art collections of American celebrity collectors: designer Donna Karan, singer Madonna, actor Jack Nicholson, and singer Barbara Streisand. Europeans who loaned  artwork for the Exhibit of de Lempicka included the estate of French Doctor Pierre Bocard, German designer Wolfgang Hoop, estate of Austrian Baron Raul Kuffner, and British composer and lyricist Sir Tim Rice whose many works for the musical stage include Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Evita.

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An avalanche of reviews from the London press celebrated the debut of the Lempicka art collection at The Royal Academy. Published reviews appeared in a wide range of British magazines and newspapers: Art Forum, Culture PLC, Daily Mail UK, The Guardian, Photography $ Visual Arts, and More Gioia. The reviews celebrated her allegiance to Art Deco’s dedication to brilliant colours, modernism’s sleek architecture and curves, and rejection of various of the old and dusty motifs of the artistic past, Firmly entrenched in her art aesthetic was celebration of women who were painted as both modernists but also on par with the men of the time. She did not shy away from painting women as sexual objects instead of women as poseurs, or limp, demure dolls who merely existed to be a decoration. She painted women who were heavier in weight than might be considered appropriate. But then these were not the oversized women favoured by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640). de Lempickka saw such women as beautiful and alluring but in many instances they are in control of the space they are in as well as the life they live. In one of her most important and famous paintings, Autoportrait (Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti1929), she paints herself as the race car driver of a very fast Bugatti Type 35. The German sports car won over a 1,000 races on the European racing circuit in the 1920s, including the European Grand Prix. Women rarely drove cars then, especially race cars and yet here is de Lempicks painted by herself at the wheel of a Buggati race car, dressed in racing gear (leather racing helmet, gloves and protective coat) looking bored with it alt. It is an image of a fiercely independent woman who was in charge of her art and life and racing through life as the rest of the world moved at a pace that was not fast enough for her.

After London I flew to Amsterdam, Netherlands, then to Barcelona, Spain, and then Paris. In Paris I visited the global Headquarters of UNESCO, toured the Left Bank, the historic home of bohemian artists, intellectuals, painters, photographers, and writers who made the city famous as a home and refuge for anyone who wanted to experience the best of Europe. There was turmoil on the continent from 1900 to the 1930s: The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, World War I, Civil War in Spain, impending war clouds gathering for World War II. A tsunami of artists, intellectuals, and professionals (anyone who could afford to leave) fled their homelands to seek safety in Paris. From Spain filmmaker Luis Buñuel, painters Salvador Dali and Picasso Spain fled to Paris. Tara de Limpicka and artists of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider Group) chose exile from Poland and Russia respectively to the Left Bank. 

My trip to Paris I anticipated greatly as I had dreamed of the city and its artistic and intellectual history. Settled in a hotel on the Left Bank close to the Musee de Orsay, I drank until inebriated with a local French writer in a  café (a centuries-old tradition for foreigners), stood under intense sunlight from the glass roof of the Musée d’Orsay (a former Beaux-Arts railway station converted to a museum on the bank of the Seine River), before I moved into the galleries to fall in love with glorious paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gustav Klimt, Henri Rousseau, and Georges Seurat.

The Seine River in Paris is 776.6 kilometers (472 miles) from the English Channel, a body of water part of the Atlantic Ocean, that partitions England from the French mainland. The river from the Atlantic Ocean and runs through the 7th arrondissement of Paris that includes the Eiffel Tower. The Seine Rive flows through the French countryside in a southerly direction to Paris and then as it moves into the city veers away from The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile and is embraced on the left bank by the Louvre Museum and the right bank by the Musée d’Orsay as if the two museums were beautiful jewels connected by the blue water of the Seine as a  bracelet in embrace of the river. Victor Hugo’s Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is one kilometer downriver from the two museums. The National Library of France (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), the largest and oldest library in Europe, has a collection of 40 million books, 5,000 Ancient Greek manuscripts, and contemporary manuscripts of French writers Apollinaire, Collette, Diderot, Proust, and Sarte. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is a distance of four kilometers from the Musée d’Orsay and Louvre Museums.

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My trip to Stockholm in 2007 was the end of my trips to Europe. A visit with Monica and Tomas had been especially meaningful as they had become friends in both my life and imagination. At the Writer’s Union before I left I shared a conversation with Anya about our mutual interest in the American and Russian writers of our reading histories. As we talked on a bench in the garden, the sky and world around us expanded as literary angels looked down upon us and listened to our conversation. The sky above was busy towing its infinite, luminous blue cargo net of birds, clouds, human dreams, and sunlight towards the end of the day. We said goodbye and separated in two different directions: I would return to America and Anya back to Moscow. Inspired by the fullness of this trip on the way to the airport, I suddenly wanted to sneak aboard a train and continue on a night trip to Portugal, to Lisbon to enjoy more Europe! Not less, but more Europe.

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As the plane took off from Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport to America, I thought of how I first met the Tranströmers in 1983 at a university in Texas and then again in 1990 in Boston when Tomas read at Harvard University. Over the years, I flew from America across the Atlantic Ocean to Dublin, Ireland then London, visited Amsterdam for six months, took trains to Paris and Barcelona to live for a year, and then flew across the European continent to Sweden for a residency at the Swedish Writers Union. This journey beginning in 2000, combined with all the years of travel, now totaled six thousand miles, six cities, one Atlantic Ocean (the only one!), two continents, and covered twenty-seven years, ending in Stockholm, a city only 1,000 miles from the Arctic Circle. The distance from the Artic Circle at the top of the world to Antartica at the bottom of the world is 12,500 miles! 

From Stockholm I could in my imagination and memory see forever into the future and everything that had come before. I had come here to this Swedish city to simply close a circle with the Tranströmers, as this would be the final visit to Europe for years still to come.

It was reassuring to know despite severe medical misfortune, Tomas was still strong, in good spirits, and still vibrant. Every day he wrote and practiced piano, and Monica was a constant loving presence at his side. When last I saw Tomas, I understood he had insisted on not the defeat of disability, but the embrace of the victory of an active and continuing life. He still performed piano concerts and readings, although he would now have Monica, an actor, or fellow poet read for him.

NOTE: Tomas Tranströmer passed away in 2015 at his residence in Stockholm after a brief illness. His wife Monica was with him in his last days. He was 83 years old. One of the most respected poets in Europe and the world he was widely read in many countries and languages. On the day he left this world behind he had published many poems that both honored and offered prayers for every human being on planet Earth who lived their lives as ordinary people who worked, loved, and dreamed of a better world.

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Gambling in the United Kingdom has been a recreational activity for three centuries, and the British will bet on almost anything. In book mad London, the betting parlors on an annual basis post odds on the potential nominees and winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As recently as October 5, 2011, the odds at Ladbrokes Coral, the leading London betting parlor, to win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature were on either Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said) or Tranströmer. This morning in the few hours before notification of the winner, it looked as if the odds had swung to American poet and singer Bob Dylan or Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Several European newspapers were reporting online Bob Dylan. The news (at 2:51 PM Swedish time, 8:51 AM Boston time) came early this morning in Boston: It’s Tranströmer! The Nobel announcement on European television was thirty-six seconds long. The Secretary of the Nobel Committee in reporting Tranströmer as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature referred to Tranströmer’s “luminous poems that show us all a new window of reality.”

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Tomas Tranströmer is one of the few poets today to have a global readership. Translations of his poetry into sixty global languages are popular in those countries. An idea or image in a line of poetry by Tranströmer translates very well into the Arabic, Chinese, Greek, or Hebrew heart and mind. Imagine a room of college students in Brazil, Croatia, Indonesia, or Thailand debating the meaning of “After a Death,” a well-known Tranströmer poem written after the death of John F. Kennedy.

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A Tranströmer poem will indeed include windows and striking images of perception that communicate across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic barriers. He is a populist poet, a traditional role in global societies that has declined in a modern world tied together by technology. Among scholars and the general reading public in countries such as Egypt, India, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, there is still great respect for poetry and its tradition. In the West, we have given ourselves over to technology. We are wired into the grid twenty-four hours a day. Against a daily backdrop of a blizzard of words and images from global news, the internet, and social media, we need natural impulses to resurface to help return us to a connection to the natural world.  Everywhere we travel and at home the flickering screens of cell phones, tablets, and computers consume us. In international cities around the world on   platforms for modern high-speed bullet trains hundreds of passengers hold high cell phones fishing for an internet cloud connection. In this digital age, the staggering flood  of images and texts have overwhelmed all other forms of communication. Consider that in this era, Twitter is the digital version of yesterday’s haiku.

Tomas Tranströmer is an international literary figure of great stature. With translations of his poetry in more than sixty languages, he is the most widely read poet in our lifetime. He has helped bring Sweden to the world and the world to Sweden. His poetry offers opportunities to see things in new ways, to view ourselves against the backdrop of cities and landscapes, the inner and outer worlds in which we simultaneously live. His poetry speaks to us of what it is to live, love, and thrive as a human being in this troubled world.

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Copyright © 2011, 2021 by Steven Ford Brown.

All rights reserved.

Monica Bladh and Tomas Tranströmer marry, 1958. Foto: Gösta Wirén.