(World Literature Today)
In 2011, Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015), a highly regarded but perhaps not widely known Swedish poet, translator and psychologist, received the Nobel Prize in Literature. I wrote a short blog post about him and featured some of his poems. I did not, however, delve into a discussion of his biography, since it was up at the Nobel site, and I was somewhat indifferent to his selection. Given some of the bizarre Nobel literature choices (save Alice Munro) since Tranströmer, and the ongoing scandals linked to the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature Nobel, Tranströmer's honor looks like a recent high-water point for that organization.
His poetry certainly holds up; a lyric poet to the core, he has a gift for creating mystery and drama out of observations of everyday life, and a skill for utilizing metaphor to suggest great depths below and beyond the surface of the visible world. There is something charged and spiritual in so many of his poems that while I think it might be wrong to call him either a metaphysical or a religious poet, he is, I think it fair to say, a poet of the spirit and, conversely, of immanence. In the three poems of his I quoted back in 2011, you can see this most directly in "Strophe and Antistrophe" (I love that title), when he is describing both reality and something within and beneath--beyond--it: "Sudden change: beneath the float of heavenly hulls / glide the tethered ones. / Stern high, at an impossible angle, / leans the carcass of a dream, black / against a pale red strip of coast."
The sensory and sensuous apprehension of the world pulses dialectically in these lines, which paint a picture, but not a verisimilitudinous one. Instead, it is painterly in the stricter sense, of capturing what lies in in the mind, before the eyes and fingertips, while being interpreted and transformed by them. As it turns out, Tranströmer was alert to how other artists might be engaging with the world around them, and in "Vermeer," his short poem about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), the Dutch Golden Age painter, whose exquisite intimate portraits had to wait several centuries before they received widespread acclaim. Careful, slow, deliberate, with an exceptional eye and gift for depicting light, he is now praised as an Old Master.
In "Vermeer," beautifully translated by Samuel Charters and which I am borrowing from the Painters and Poets blog, Tranströmer is chattier than usual, and appears to have devised a formal game for himself, which entails repeating "wall," one pictorial element that appears in the first of the images below, in nearly all of the stanzas. One way to read this repetition apart from being a result of observation and description of the paintings is by noting some of its possible metaphorical meanings; a wall of time separates us from the lifeworld and vision of Vermeer, and no amount of research can make him, his process or his perception of the world fully knowable. (David Hockney created a stir when, a few years ago, he argued and demonstrated the several of the Old Master painters like Vermeer, may have used optical devices, including special lenses and camerae obscurae, to produce works of such pinpoint precision.) That has stopped writers and even Hollywood from trying, though; Vermeer's iconic "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (one of its many names) spurred an eponymous 1999 historical novel, by Tracy Chevalier, which then became a belauded 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson--as well as an allegedly dreadful 2008 play, which I've never seen.
Yet what does a work of art--a poem, a short story or novel, a play--about someone from the past do but allow us another means to "know" that gone world, to access, imaginatively, its vistas, its landscapes, including of feelings? Like a filmmaker with magic powers, Tranströmer is taking us into Vermeer's scenes, his world--"straight through the wall into the bright studio / into the second that goes on living for hundreds of years"--captured and preserved for posterity in these paintings, aware of course that in so doing, it can disorient us--"it hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick / but it is necessary"--but, as so many of these poems have shown, that defamiliarization is salutary in the end. A new sense of language, of time, of space, of ourselves and others, however brief and temporary, is important, so that, like the "emptiness" and against the nihilism, we can say as the paintings--and something within them--say, "'I am open."
by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Samuel Charters
No sheltered world . . . on the other side of the wall the noise begins the tavern begins with laughter and bickering, rows of teeth, tears, the din of bells and the mentally disordered brother-in-law, the bearer of death that everyone must tremble for. The great explosion and the delayed tramp of rescuers the boats that strut at anchor, the money that creeps into the pocket of the wrong person demands piled on demands Cusps of gaping red flowers that sweat premonitions of war. Away from there and straight through the wall into the bright studio into the second that goes on living for hundreds of years. Paintings titled The Music Lesson or Woman in Blue Reading a Letter -- she's in her eighth month, two hearts kicking inside her. On the wall behind her hangs a wrinkled map of Terra Incognita. Breathe calmly . . . An unknown blue material is nailed to the chair. The gold upholstery tacks flew in with unheard-of speed and stopped abruptly as if they had never been anything but stillness. The ears ring with either depth or height. It's the pressure from the other side of the wall that leaves every fact suspended and holds the brush steady. It hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick but it's necessary. The world is one. But walls . . . And the wall is part of yourself -- Whether you know it or not it's the same for everyone, everyone except little children. No walls for them. The clear sky has set itself on a slant against the wall. It's like a prayer to emptiness. And the emptiness turns its face to us and whispers, "I am not empty, I am open."
Tomas Tranströmer,"Vermeer," from Painters and Poets, originally in Art and Artists: Poems, an anthology of ekphrastic poems by Emily Fragos, Knopf, 2012. Copyright © Tomas Tranströmer, Emily Fragos, 2012. All rights reserved.
Here are a few Vermeer paintings that Culture Trip's Lani Seelinger recommends you see if you are unfamiliar with his work. Tranströmer's poem explicitly references the first two, I believe.
|The Little Street (1657–58), oil on canvas,|
|The Music Lesson or A Lady at the Virginals|
with a Gentleman, c. 1662-65, oil on canvas,
Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace
|View of Delft, 1659-60, oil on canvas,|
Mauritshuis, the Hague