What Tranströmer expresses so eloquently in these lines is the idea that our lives are fleeting in relation to our history—the “cold sphinx, / empty arenas”—and even more so in relation to “Light and silent constellations. / The cold sea.” We are ultimately condemned to silence and have to make do with “the small script of the grass / and the laughter from cellars.”
Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola (Green Integer, 2010), translated by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl, depicts the poet’s own speechlessness caused by a stroke in 1990, while depicting the lives and works of important figures in art, such as the composers Franz Liszt and his son-in-law Richard Wagner. Along with the themes of silence and music, the collection takes its name from Liszt’s work La lugubre gondola, which was inspired by Wagner’s sickness and death in Venice. Due to the magnificent work of translators McGriff and Grassl, Tranströmer’s voice itself becomes the “sorrow gondola” that is rowing down the millennia-old canals of history and art.
The potential for music and utterance represents the gift and the burden of the artist faced with speechlessness, as the opening poem “April and Silence” exemplifies: “I’m carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case.” Allusions to Greek mythology, the Bible, and more recent historical events, such as WWII and the fall of the Soviet Union (which coincides with Tranströmer’s stroke), expand the burden of unique talents to the burden of being in power. The lines, “Earrings [that] dangle like the sword above Damocles,” a “King Midas / … who turns everything he touches into Wagner,” and a “Jesus [who holds] up a coin / with Tiberius in profile / a profile without love / power in circulation” aptly express this weight, shared by the poet, for “what happens is always more than we can carry.”
Tranströmer and the speaker’s burden are perhaps the same—the sorrow of an artist forcefully silenced as he confronts death. In the title poem, “The Sorrow Gondola (no. 2),” Tranströmer weaves his own sorrow with that of other artists. The poem shifts between three characters: a “moth-eaten” Liszt “hauling his suitcase through the slush and the sun alone;” Richard Wagner “grown weary / the face a white flag;” and the speaker who dreams “everyone in the room wore a white mask. / Impossible to know which was the teacher.” The incredible weight of these lines pins the reader to the page, especially with the recurring image of the gondola continually described as “overloaded”: “overloaded with their lives,” “overloaded with the crouching stones of the future,” and at one point, even overloaded with garbage. Tranströmer’s voice resurrects the major tragedies in history and art while battling with “the deep that wants to climb into a man without showing its face.”
Tranströmer’s attempt to unmask the face of his own tragedy, is best exemplified in the poem titled “From July ’90.” He writes: “It was a funeral / and I recognized that the dead man / read my thoughts / better than I could.” The intimacy between the speaker and the dead echoes Tranströmer’s near death experience due to his stroke. While at the same time the lines “I drove home exposed / by the glassy shine of summer / by the rain and calm / shot-through by the moon” suggest a certain sense of shame and confusion. The speaker is no longer capable of separating night from day, sun from rain; his voice is inadequate and full of holes when describing his interior in relation to the outside world.
Gradually, in this bilingual collection, the silence and darkness encroaches on the speaker, and lines become more and more sparse. In his sequence of haiku, “Haikudikter,” imagery of rapid movement, as in “The white sun / trains alone, running toward / the blue mountain of death,” is juxtaposed with imagery of complete silence: “power-lines / stretch through the kingdom of frost / north of all music.” This image also evokes the desire to connect and to communicate; yet, both are, as Tranströmer suggests, “north of all music.” What Tranströmer expresses so eloquently in these lines is the idea that our lives are fleeting in relation to our history—the “cold sphinx, / empty arenas”—and even more so in relation to “Light and silent constellations. / The cold sea.” We are ultimately condemned to silence and have to make do with “the small script of the grass / and the laughter from cellars.”
Reading Tomas Tranströmer’s poems in translation, we can feel the icy stream of history reverberating through its original Swedish to English, its West Germanic sister. These poems do not slow down for us, but propel us “to row up through the silence. / The eternally streaming moment and its stain. / The eternally bleeding point of the moment.” Tranströmer’s poems bring to the page the moment, the stain, and the point that connects us all.