I remember reading Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things mystified by the poet he returns to over and over again: I turn to him when I wish to come as close as possible to what cannot be said.
“Two truths approach each other. One comes from within, one comes from without–and where they meet you have the chance to catch a look at yourself.”
— Preludes, Tomas Tranströmer
In the compilation Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 edited by Robert Haas, I dove right into his poetry as if getting to know a new lover.
It was a slow process as I read unfamiliar details of unfamiliar landscapes, unlike how I read poems by Rilke or Vuong. Reading their poems in the first few pages alone had me falling right into their depths. Their poems magnified their character.
Reading Tranströmer on the other hand was a lot like roaming vast and empty fields, until you chance upon a small house in the clearing — obscure but undeniably reassuring.
I read each line and each poem dutifully, slowly getting used to his rhythm. But it wasn’t until I got to The Half-Finished Heaven was I finally able to understand why Teju turned to him.
It is in the small details of life, the tiniest gestures that we can draw the most essential. I loved how he was able to weave natural elements in ways that begets a deeper consciousness of our humanity, as he did in Stones (photo above) and in Late May (photo below). In poem after poem, Tomas made this evident.
In his poem How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins, he writes about wandering in a forest late at night, marveling at its peculiar beauty: “Next morning I see a sizzling golden-brown branch. A crawling stack of roots. Stones with faces. The forest is full of abandoned monsters which I love.”
Reading his poems was also at times a spiritual experience. Lulled by imagery and a deep appreciation for life around him, I was reminded of the little things that make for a fruitful life.
He was also melancholic in some, eliciting the kind of tenderness evident with Vuong’s poetry. In Answers to Letters, I could almost imagine the poet poring over what he had in his hands and both reminisce and resign himself to the ether.
Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 is a great introduction to Tomas’s work and I have so much gratitude for the translators and the editors who made the compilation possible.
It’s enough to compel me to delve deeper into his body of work.
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Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986
Edited by Robert Haas
April 9, 2000
Ecco (208 pages)
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.