It is always intimidating to approach the collected poems of a Nobel Prize winner. It’s also rare that the majority of a Nobel Prize winner’s work can be read in a single evening. Tranströmer has repeatedly been praised by critics for his approachability – and this must be due in some measure to his brevity of form and sparseness of total output.
The Great Enigma (2004) is the Swede’s most recent publication, and white space threatens almost to overwhelm the tiny haiku or haiku-like pieces, admirably rendered to syllabic count by Tranströmer’s translator, Scottish poet Robin Fulton. These boil the imagery of giants, birds, shadows, fish and trees of his strange natural world down into floating pods of philosophy:
The darkening leaves
in autumn are as precious
as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Throughout the collection, images sometimes look deceptively like Scandinavian versions of Yeatsian symbolism. Tranströmer’s mountains and stars do not function in the same hieroglyphic manner, however – they are evocative, but work together to construct an otherworldly world instead of an abstract discourse.
In terms of repertoire, the rockstar approach of playing a short set to leave the fans wanting more is so successful as to be regrettable in Tranströmer. This is not so much the case in his dense lines of verse (which are careful rather than abrupt) as in the paragraphs of prose poetry interspersed throughout his collections. Many of these (among them, ‘Funchal’, ‘Icelandic Hurricane’, ‘The Blue House’, ‘The Bookcase’, away from which ‘One is not allow to turn one’s head’ and ‘Below Zero’, in which ‘We are at a party that doesn’t love us […] a marshalling yard’) are so compelling they imply separation from a longer descriptive piece or narrative – sometimes from the same one.
‘The Clearing’, for instance, sets up a characteristically eerie fairytale landscape: ‘Deep in the forest there’s an unexpected clearing which can be reached only by someone who has lost his way’. The subsequent piece does not follow on syntactically, but it does consist with the setting: ‘The forest is full of abandoned monsters which I love’. ‘How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins’, teases with content as well as performative title, suggestive ellipses (‘There’s no one in any of the houses round about…’) and unelaborated assertions (‘The other world is this world too’) leading towards neither middle nor end.
Included at the back of this edition are excerpts from Tranströmer’s memoir, Memories Look At Me. These autobiographical ‘Chapters’, most of which barely span three pages in total, are allusive in style, generating intrigue rather than presenting revelation. But reticence about personal or private matters is certainly not unusual in an artist, and is imminently more forgivable than a lack of output.
From Bells and Tracks (1966) onwards and certainly by the 1970s subject matter is expansive enough to satisfy a wide range of curiosities. But reading Transtromer’s work altogether is a frustrating experience, not only because there doesn’t seem to be enough of it, but because so much of it actually feels unfinished. Less may be more in some circumstances, but good writing is good writing and don’t we want more of that? As it is, Transtömer (who suffered a debilitating stroke in the early 1990s) has been able to say very much by publishing, comparatively, very little. Still, it is difficult to feel satisfied with this ‘little’, with its feeling of fragmentation: like unfulfilled promises hanging in the cold Scandinavian air.