• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Staring Through the Stitches

New Collected Poems

by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton
Bloodaxe Books Ltd./Dufour Editions, 219 pp., $21.95 (paper)

Two admirable postwar poets, Wislawa Szymborska (born in 1923 in Poland) and Tomas Tranströmer (born in 1931 in Sweden), troubled by what they saw as the moral insufficiencies of both formal religion and Marxist optimism, have sought spiritual understanding outside organized institutions. Of course, few reflective persons who lived through the same period were exempt from such thoughts. But lyric poets, who may be as aware as any novelist of what is happening in society, must condense social questions into personal ones and must transform written language by giving it rhythmic breath and musical cadence. Both Szymborska and Tranströmer are poets of striking brevity: Szymborska questions the conventional movements of thought in our mental and social life, while Tranströmer meditates on the powerful unseen, unconscious forces that underlie our moments of waking awareness. Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996; Tranströmer is frequently, and justly, mentioned as a poet deserving the same prize.

I have written on these poets before, always aware how much better a Polish or Swedish critic could describe their originality. Relying on translation, one has to trust the translator. Stanislaw Baranczak (whose translations of Shakespeare now appear on the Polish stage) and his American collaborator Clare Cavanagh have been translating Szymborska for some years, and Czeslaw Milosz has testified to Stanislaw Baranczak’s amazing versatility in finding English equivalents for Polish verse and Polish equivalents for English verse. The British poet Robin Fulton has for several years been composing and revising, with Tranströmer’s help and advice, the translations printed in this newest collection. I am grateful to Baranczak, Cavanagh, and Fulton (as well as other translators) for bringing me the work of these poets.

When I first read Szymborska, I was taken with her offbeat angle of vision; she treats bleak reality whimsically, mordantly. I thought sometimes of Emily Dickinson: just as Dickinson began with valentines and poems that were “appealing” in the manner allowed to nineteenth-century women, so Szymborska (in the earlier poems she has allowed to be translated, which come from her third volume and subsequent ones) sometimes begins in the fanciful tones of a reflective girl. In a poem called “Still Life with a Balloon,” for instance, Szymborska decides that at the moment of death, instead of seeing returning memories, she would prefer to re-encounter—so as to reject—“lost objects”:

Avalanches of gloves,
coats, suitcases, umbrellas—
come, and I’ll say at last:
What good’s all this?

Safety pins, two odd combs,
a paper rose, a knife,
some string—come, and I’ll say
at last: I haven’t missed you.

The list goes on to include a lost key, affidavits, permits, questionnaires, and a watch, and finally arrives at the poet’s first loss—a toy balloon “once kidnapped by the wind.” We could interpret this lightness with respect to a serious subject as in part a reaction by the poet to what has been described as the “heavy” socialist realism of her first two, untranslated, books.

It became Szymborska’s aim as a poet to find a way to incorporate her “serious” political and social concerns into a “light” manner, or (to put it in reverse) to find a way to incorporate the wry into the devastating. It is understandable that a tragic rhetoric would have been impossible for her. The facts of life in Poland—war, dictatorship, censorship, judicial murder, loss, and death—have overwhelmingly attracted tragic treatment, and when the tragic manner becomes predictable, freshness of perception and language are lost. Besides, Szymborska instinctively questions—overtly and mockingly—all received ideas. “An Effort”—an early poem responding (I presume) to Burns’s song “O my love is like a red, red rose”—is a woman’s impatient responseto male erotic idealization (known to be false even by the men who make it up):

Alack and woe, oh song: you’re mocking me;
try as I may, I’ll never be your red, red rose.
A rose is a rose is a rose. And you know it.

But Szymborska equally scorns her youthful self for trying to become the rose that men want her to be. We see her in adolescence:

I worked to sprout leaves. I tried to take root.
I held my breath to speed things up, and waited
for the petals to enclose me.

The poet is left in her thirties with her “lone, nonconvertible, unmetamorphic body,” unsure that she will please any man. The poem on the facing page (“Four A.M.”) defines bleak dawn as “the hour of thirty-year-olds” who feel estranged from nature, chilled by the loss of love, and appalled by the actuality of death: it is

The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.

These lines mark the limit of the mournful tone in the young Szymborska, and she immediately turns on herself with a salutary astringency:

No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we’re happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.

The poems I have been citing come from Szymborska’s third volume, Calling Out to Yeti, published in 1957. Forty years later, the tone has become more somber. One of the new poems in the present collection, “Some People,” concerns refugees, and renders their plight abstractly so that the poem could fit Rwanda or Indonesia or Bosnia:

Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something close to all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles…

So far, this is a visual poem—a magazine photograph. But soon the poem shows its superiority to photography by entering the feelings of the refugees, whose pitiful supplies are dwindling:

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

The poem becomes a film of successive events, and sound is added:

What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.

Whereas a “poem of witness” of the melodramatic sort would now go further into horror, Szymborska’s poem turns away from the dead child to show the bewildered tediousness of an interminable journey on foot through baffling foreign landscapes:

Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across an oddly reddish river.

Even danger has become both sporadic and eternal:

Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane seems to circle.

The intolerable uncertainty of their future affects the minds of the refugees, as the poet again turns to the reaction of the plodding families:

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.

The refugees can hardly tell the difference any longer between apprehension and hope, as they peer dimly toward an unknowable end:

Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.

In a final Szymborskan surprise, the refugees put their hope in free will: the “someone” they will encounter can perhaps choose to be a protector rather than an oppressor:

If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

Some People” is typical of the mature work of Szymborska. It is a list; she likes lists. It is rigorous; she believes in facing the truth. It involves social experience; life for her is rarely one of individual isolation. It identifies with the oppressed; she cannot shut her eyes to her own privilege as it is refracted by suffering people elsewhere. It is both objective and subjective, both documentary and empathetic. And it is menacing: almost everything that is horrible has already been done to the refugees, and the probability is that what awaits them is more suffering and eventual death. Yet, “After the final no there comes a yes,” says Wallace Stevens in “The Well-Dressed Man with a Beard,” “and on that yes the future world depends.” The refugees—and Szymborska—want to think that a good person exists among the possibilities of the future. Typical of Szymborska is the arid “if”—“If he has a choice.” Her restless skepticism questions a categorical statement even as she makes it.

Szymborska’s writing frequently depends on questioning clichés. Here, for instance, are some lines any of us might have heard uttered about persons we knew who have died:

How many of those I knew
men, women
have crossed that threshold
passed over that bridge—

How many, after a shorter or longer life
good, because it’s beginning,
bad, because it’s over
have found themselves on the far shore—

I’ve been given no assurance
as concerns their future fate…

Except for the last two lines, such an utterance draws on conventions of funeral sermons:

Yes, we knew him well; he has now crossed the threshold to another world, passed over the bridge from time to eternity. He was fortunate to have lived his life, and though we must grieve that it came to an end, we know that he is now on that far shore of death.

In “Elegiac Calculation,” Szymborska explodes all these platitudes and carries further the hint of doubt in the last lines quoted. We can imagine her gritting her teeth as she finds the clichés—much as she hates them—rising in her very own mouth. All she can do is interrupt and interrogate them as they rise. Here is her actual poem of death, made out of the rags of her repetitively torn text of pieties:

How many of those I knew
(if I really knew them),
men, women
(if the distinction still holds)
have crossed that threshold
(if it is a threshold)
passed over that bridge
(if you can call it a bridge)—

How many, after a shorter or longer life
(if they still see a difference),
good, because it’s beginning,
bad, because it’s over
(if they don’t prefer the reverse),
have found themselves on the far shore
(if they found themselves at all
and if another shore exists)—

I’ve been given no assurance
as concerns their future fate
(if there is one common fate
and if it is still fate)—

The poem continues on in this way; and we must imagine all of Szymborska’s thoughts as having gone through a comparable ordeal-by-interrogation before they are permitted to appear on the page. Just as Dickinson’s poems are the cinders of a past conflagration, so Szymborska’s poems are the remnant of many refuted hypotheses.

In her Nobel lecture, “The Poet and the World,” Szymborska said, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.”’ Ideologues, she remarks, always “know”: “They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish the force of their arguments.” Poets are different:

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print