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Tomas Tranströmer, one of Sweden’s leading poets, studied poetry and psychology at the University of Stockholm. His numerous collections of poetry include Windows and Stones (1972), an International Poetry Forum Selection and runner-up for the National Book Award for translation, and The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (2006, 2011), Robin Fulton’s translation of Tranströmer’s complete body of work. His longstanding friendship with poet Robert Bly, who has also translated and edited some of his work, is documented in Air Mail (2001), a collection of more than 25 years of their correspondence. Tranströmer has also published a memoir, Minnena Ser Mig (Memories Look At Me) (1993). He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011.
Tranströmer’s poetry, building on Modernism, Expressionism, and Surrealism, contains powerful imagery concerned with issues of fragmentation and isolation. “He has perfected a particular kind of epiphanic lyric, often in quatrains, in which nature is the active, energizing subject, and the self (if the self is present at all) is the object,” notes critic Katie Peterson in the Boston Review. Critic and poet Tom Sleighobserved, in his Interview with a Ghost (2006), that “Tranströmer’s poems imagine the spaces that the deep then inhabits, like ground water gushing up into a newly dug well.”
In addition to the Nobel Prize, his honors include the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, the Aftonbladets Literary Prize, the Bonnier Award for Poetry, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Oevralids Prize, the Petrarch Prize in Germany, the Swedish Award from International Poetry Forum, and the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize. His work has been translated into more than 50 languages.
Tranströmer suffered a stroke in 1990, and after a six-year silence published his collection Sorgegondolen (Grief Gondola) (1996); this collection was translated into English by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl as The Sorrow Gondola (2010). Prior to his stroke, he worked as a psychologist, focusing on the juvenile prison population as well as the disabled, convicts, and drug addicts. He lives in Sweden.
The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X
and her ear-drops dangle like swords of Damocles.
As a mottled butterfly is invisible against the ground
so the demon merges with the opened newspaper.
A helmet worn by no one has taken power.
The mother-turtle flees flying under the water.
“National Insecurity” from New and Collected Poems by Tomas Transtromer, translated by Robin Fulton. Published in 1997 by Bloodaxe Books. www.bloodaxebooks.com Source: New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1997)
After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
translations are by Robert Bly from The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations by Robert Bly, published by Harper Collins. Copyright © 2004 by Robert Bly.