Reading this old collection of poetry by this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature showed me pretty clearly just how little poetry I read. It took me a while to get into the rhythms of the technique, and even though the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer is extraordinarily lucid (his accessibility is often praised by some critics, and derided by others), I admit there are lines in some of his work that simply went over my head–I couldn’t connect them to the pieces’ main themes.
Still, at the risk of revealing myself to be a poetic Philistine, let me say this: what I understood, I liked.
Tranströmer strikes me as a gifted sage of modern times: he ruminates on the nature of life in a fractured, technological world, not offering answers so much as asking penetrating questions. Part Socrates, then, and part Thoreau, he produces images like this one, from “Schubertiana”:
The immense treeless plains of the human brain have
gotten folded and refolded ’til they are the size of a fist.
That might be quintessential Transtromer: a response so intensely emtional that it becomes physical, to the tensions of modern urban disconnection, presented in an idiom that mirrors the problem.
As the title suggests, that poem was about a classical composer. It also contains lines of pure lyric beauty, like this one:
The long melody line that remains
itself among all its variations, sometimes shiny and
gentle, sometimes rough and powerful, the snail’s
trace and steel wire.
But make no mistake, as compelling as descriptions like that are, he has bigger fish to fry here. Perhaps the keynote line of this whole collection lies near the end of his poem, “The Gallery”:
It is so seldom
that one of us truly sees the other.
Overall, Truth Barriers was a pleasure to read, and I’d gladly read more of Tranströmer’s work.