Editor’s note: Steven Ford Brown traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, in February 2007, for a Residency at the Swedish Writer’s Union. During his time in the city, Brown spent an afternoon with Monica and Tomas Tranströmer at their home. Tomas Tranströmer received the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature on October 6, 2011.
By Steven Ford Brown
I first met Monica and Tomas in 1983 in Texas. I had left my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to attend a graduate writing program and nominated myself to pick them up at the airport. We immediately had a connection, since I had met Robert Bly in the 1970s and published a special profile feature on his poetry in a literary magazine I edited for the English Department of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The Tranströmers were delighted as their close relationship with Bly dated back to the 1960s.
The arrival of the Tranströmers on campus coincided that week with the visit of Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker. Ambition is very much an American trait, and most of the writing students chose to spend time with Moss on the chance he might choose their work for publication. That left the Tranströmers alone to me for the week so I gave them a guided tour of the city. We lunched at an Asian restaurant and 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. The rest of the week he conducted a poetry workshop and met individually with students. He concluded his residency with a reading before a large and enthusiastic audience.
At the airport, despite just meeting them and spending only a week together, I was sad to see them go. As the plane lifted into blue skies toward Europe, I thought of Tomas as good and kind, gentle in his way, perceptive as in his poetry. The connection and love I saw between Monica and Tomas made it impossible over the years to think of one without the other.
Tomas was aware I was a publisher, and before he left asked if I would publish a small selection of prose poems from a book soon to be published in Sweden. I said yes, and the result was then the only American selection from the book, a beautifully designed bilingual (Swedish to English) chapbook, 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.
Illustrated in striking blue watercolors by artist and poet David Chorlton of Arizona, the Cultural Office of the Swedish Consulate in New York City provided funds for publication. I mailed five hundred copies to Tomas in Stockholm, and he gave them all away to new friends he met and liked on his next American reading tour.
In 2010, Tom Jönsthövel, my Dutch friend, visited Boston from Amsterdam, Netherlands. I had a particular fondness for the title poem of The Blue House book and suggested we develop a concept for a video poem for distribution via Youtube. Tom was not only a Ph.D. in engineering from Delft University in the Netherlands, but he was also recognized as a musician and filmmaker in Europe. After returning to Amsterdam, Tom asked a friend, actress and singer Louise Korthals, to perform a reading of the poem for a video production. Tom composed the soundtrack music and filmed and edited the video.
Dutch actress and singer Louise Korthals in Amsterdam, Netherlands
“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 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” by Tomas Tranströmer from The Blue House, translated by Göran Malmqvist, published by Thunder City Press. English translation Copyright© 1987 by Göran Malmqvist. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I corresponded sporadically with Monica and Tomas after they left. I would not see Tomas again until ten years later. Soon after I moved from Texas to Boston, I became a member and board member of the New England Poetry Club. Founded in 1915 at Harvard University by Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, and Amy Lowell, the Poetry Club sponsored a regular reading series, the oldest continuous series in the country. Within a year of joining the Board, I used my previous grant writing experience to write a successful grant of $5,000 to the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., for support of the reading series. The NEA grant included a stipend and travel expenses to bring Tomas Tranströmer from Sweden to Boston for a reading in Cambridge.
Tranströmer read to a large audience in one of the seminar rooms at Harvard University. More than 300 people filled seats and lined the walls of the room as he read. In reading, Tomas provided explanations of his poems and used his dry sense of humor to add levity. And then there were the poems, the beautiful, luminous, remarkable poems.
The after-party was held in Cambridge at the home of Diana Der-Hovanessian, president of the Poetry Club. I made my way through the party to Tomas, and he remarked how strange it was to have previously seen me in the flat, dry landscape of Texas, and here again in the snowy landscape of New England. He was in robust health, vibrant, engaged with the party people.
Some years after Tranströmer’s visit to Cambridge, I encountered Diana Der-Hovanessian in Harvard Square, and she told me Tomas had suffered a stroke. The details were unclear. This stunning news was a shock. I knew he was still a man in his late 50s and had lived a healthy lifestyle. Details began to emerge from various sources over the next year.
In 2006, I resigned from long term employment at a private investment firm in Boston’s Financial District and left to live in various European cities: Amsterdam, London, Paris. Flights then within the European Union were cheap: $100 American to fly from London to Rome. After spending several months in Amsterdam, I flew to Barcelona and rented an apartment from a Catalan school teacher who was fluent in English. The location of the apartment was ten blocks from The Basílica de la Sagrada Família, a stunning Roman Catholic minor basilica that began construction in 1882 from a design by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.
While in Barcelona, I obtained a residency at the Swedish Writers Union in Stockholm, and in February 2007, traveled from Barcelona to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. From the airport, I took a train into the center of the city and taxied to the Writer’s Union, a four-story building that included an apartment owned by the Union. The building was clearly marked with the name of the Union and address in Swedish, but the passcode for the door did not work, so I had to wait until someone came out to go in. I found the director waiting for me in a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor. It was small but nicely appointed with private bedrooms and a common area. I would share with a middle-aged German man from Berlin, who wrote plays for radio and television, and a young, attractive Russian woman from Moscow, who taught at a university and translated fiction by Cheever, Faulkner, and Vonnegut into Russian. Over dinner, we discussed our different experiences in the literary world.
Once settled, I called Monica and arranged a meeting at their apartment. The Tranströmer residence was in an older building and included an ancient, creaky elevator with ornamental iron gate. The apartment itself was spacious and charming. Through large windows oriented to the harbor, we could see the ferries as they departed to Finland.
When I walked into the room, Tomas became animated. I could see, however, the effects of the stroke. Paralyzed on the right side of his body, his arm was perpetually curled to his chest. He possessed very little speech. He communicated with Monica in his own way that she telepathically understood and translated for me.
I presented him with a recent 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. The entire issue was devoted to his life and work in celebration of his 75th birthday. With his good hand, he directed me to a page. The text was in Danish, but there was a separate list in English of his top ten poets and their poems. What a surprise! My poet Carrera Andrade was on the list. The list also included Robert Bly, T.S. Eliot, Paul Eluard, W.S. Merwin, and other classic poets of the century.
I mention this gift book to Tomas only in the sense 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 might seem strange a Swedish writer would know of a writer from a small, distant country like Ecuador, a country in northwestern South America, bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the east and south, and the Galápagos Islands and Pacific Ocean to the west. Remarkably, Tomas found access to the poetry of Jorge Carrera Andrade in an anthology, Modern European Poetry, edited by Willis Barnstone (New York: Bantam Books, 1966). Carrera Andrade had already lived on and off for decades in France as Chancellor of the Ecuadorian consulate in Marseilles, Consul General in Le Havre, Ambassador to France in Paris, and principal contributor to management at UNESCO, also in Paris. With a French wife and fluent in French, as well as a translator of French poet Pierre Reverdy into Spanish, for book publication, Carrera Andrade was seen in French literary circles as more European than South American, although he was Ecuadorian and remained so in his outlook politics and writing throughout his life.
With strong tea in porcelain cups and delicate pastries on a polished silver platter, we had a small party. Then Tomas played the piano only with his left hand. He had retained his musical powers, and they were now fully concentrated in his left. Although it is true the right side of his body suffered the strongest blow from the stroke and his right arm and hand were now helpless, he could still walk with a cane and was insistent he not be helped. He had spent part of his career as a psychologist helping accident and stroke victims with their disabilities, so he was unusually well prepared to deal with this transformative act to his body.
In the musical world, there is a whole genre written for piano for the left hand. The genre of compositions evolved from handicaps of pianists who had lost an arm or hand. The German Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm during World War I, but he resumed a musical career by asking several composers to write pieces for piano that required only the use of one hand. One of the most important pieces written for Wittgenstein was “Concerto for the Left Hand” by Maurice Ravel.
The Swedish afternoon outside grew late. The windows of the apartment gathered the darkness into itself. 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 to go to his study. Monica and I moved to the kitchen. She opened a closet to reveal a large collection of books. They were all the Tranströmer books translated from Swedish into some 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 in the stack. We sat and talked. Our conversation moved to Robert Bly, now also in his seventies, and she remembered the first time they met Bly in the 1960s. She likened their relationship during those years to young schoolboys, inflamed by the passion of their explorations in the new modernism of poetry.
Swedish poetry to an American in the 1960s was an exotic if they ever even thought of it. The hip college crowd and cultural intellectuals of the era knew the films of Ingmar Bergman and plays 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 Juan Ramón Jiménez, Kabir, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado, Francis Ponge, Rainer Maria Rilke, Tomas Tranströmer, and César Vallejo, he was creating a powerful new presence for world poetry in translation on the American poetry scene.
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, and Truth Barriers. In 1979, Ironwood, a literary magazine in Arizona, published a special issue on Tranströmer with essays by prominent American and Swedish writers.
Over the next four decades, an increasing number of translators published Tranströmer books in America and the U.K., as he became popular on the U.S. university reading circuit. One of the jokes Tomas told me was he was being paid so much money by American universities he had to visit Swedish tax officials to ask how to do his taxes. He was not used to the celebrity that he suddenly had in America, and at the time he was rarely paid large sums of money in Sweden or Europe to lecture and read.
As I departed Sweden, I thought of how I had enjoyed the company of the Tranströmers in three landscapes on two continents over three decades. It is not often in life we have the good fortune to meet someone we admire, someone who has influenced our life and work. It was also reassuring to know despite misfortune Tomas was still strong. He still wrote and practiced piano every day, and Monica was a constant loving presence at his side.
When last I saw him, 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.
October 6, 2011, 6:31 a.m. Boston
Day of the Nobel Prize announcement
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, it’s no surprise betting parlors annually post odds on the potential nominees and winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As recently as October 5, the odds at Ladbrokes, 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 Bob Dylan or Haruki Murakami. Several European newspapers already were reporting online it was Dylan. And then news came early this morning: 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 2011 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, referred to Tranströmer’s “luminous poems that show us all a new window of reality.”
The international press reacts to announcement of Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize
To understand the beauty, power, and reach of Tranströmer’s poetry, it is useful to know translations of his poetry into Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Macedonian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Vietnamese are admired in those countries. An idea or image in a line of poetry by Tranströmer translates very well into the Arabic or Chinese heart and mind. Imagine a room of college students in China, Croatia, Indonesia, Israel, or Vietnam debating the meaning of “After a Death,” a well-known Tranströmer poem written after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
A typical Tranströmer poem will indeed include windows and striking images of perception that have the ability to translate to a common readership across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic barriers. Thus he has become 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 China, Egypt, India, Japan, Lebanon, and Pakistan, there is still great respect for poetry and its tradition. In the West we have given ourselves over to technology; we are wired into it. Against the daily backdrop of a blizzard of words and images from the Internet, we need powerful impulses to help return us to a connection to the natural world. The flickering screens of cell phones and computers consume us. In this digital age, poetry has lost its attraction. 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 we simultaneously live in. His poetry speaks to all of us of what it is to live, love, survive and thrive as a human being in this troubled world.
The King of Sweden presents the Nobel Prize to Tranströmer
Reprinted from the blog Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene, October 15, 2011, Copyright © 2011 by Steven Ford Brown. Used with permission.