Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sound poetry (in both senses)

Full title: Inspired Notes
Author: Tomas Tranströmer; translated by John F. Deane
Genre: Poetry
Attributes: 80p, paperback
Publisher: Dedalus Press (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The poems in this collection grow out of something like a struggle with silence. They intensify their rhythms gently, they don’t disrupt, don’t do violence to the world. And yet, they do cast lights that renew the reader’s view of the same world. As if, through some mystery of language, they wake up with their eyes inverted, or with their ears replaced by other organs of sense.
What’s really worth pointing out is that Tomas Tranströmer is set to do poetry without shying away from the big things of his art. Life and death, for instance:
“In the midst of life it happens that death will come
taking the measurements of man. The visit
is forgotten, life goes on. But the costume gets
sewn in the silence.”

(“Black Picture Postcards”)
Many of his poems carry with them this shadow of ancient wisdom, like hieroglyphs from a pyramid or like runes on stones up north. Some of them sound like chants, others sound like riddles, others still like aphorisms. What unifies them is a massive presence of the narratorial “I,” which dominates almost all the poems in this collection. Autobiography grows out of this pronoun intersecting close-up observations and anecdotes. In the latter, the self of the poet is spotted living in corners, where it can safely enjoy its own powers of observation.
At times, the world is so great it becomes impossible to handle.
“I drag like a grapnel over the bottom of the world.
Everything that I don’t need gets caught.”
At other times, however, the “I” grows strong. Very strong. It does so with the help of the poet’s tools: language, words, verses, sounds. Mostly sounds. Tranströmer has a hunger for sounds and for their uttering – a poet who comes out of silence to produce poems whose utterances are exact, sharp, almost scientific, almost capable of generating a science of signs. I say almost, because there’s something that keeps these poems from becoming scientific specimens: the fact that they don’t stand examination. They are too concerned with parallelisms and comparisons to pay any lip service to a rigid science. When they handle measurements they do so in order to create reference points for the metaphors that will follow. As for instance here:
“Four billion people on the earth.
And they all sleep, they all dream.
In every dream faces crowd in, and bodies –
the people dreamed of more numerous than us.
But they take up no space…”
(“Dream Seminar”)
Wondering at the number of inhabitants of the earth is only a poetic trick here, of course: through the mimicking of surprise, a channel is built, through which the readers are drawn inside a familiar territory. And there, in that territory, they are left to ponder, while the rest of the poem unfolds, like armies on battlefields or like shoals of fish in deep waters. In the case of “Dream Seminars,” these shoals move direction with every instance of dreaming and with every reflection on the “perpetual new rehearsals.” These – competent specimens of oneirology – make reality fly at the first opening of an eyelid (or, to keep close to the poet’s words, of “the eyelids’ monastery walls”).

Tomas Tranströmer. Source: The Drift Records
Sometimes (quite often), Tranströmer’s poems take the rhythms of prose. There is a sense of narration going on. Take the example of the very first poem in the collection, “Short Pause in the Organ Recital.” The verses tell a story. They tell it with the breadth of long-winding lines and the breath of proper story-telling.
“The organ stops playing and is deadly silent of the church but only for a few seconds.So the faint humming passes through from the traffic outside, the greatest organ.”
The first line and a half put into words the motions of the world and the silence of the church. But they do nothing poetic. They resound like a glass ball in an empty glass: tautological, if you like, scene-setting at best. It’s with the arrival of the second half of the last line that poetry creeps in; it’s the metaphor that awakens us to this fact of poetry. And once that’s established, poetry comes in waves; it comes with thunders and seisms, with more metaphors:
“There glides the outside world like a transparent film and with shadows struggling in pianissimo.”
And so the two worlds (the outside and the inside) get mixed up and confused, as it should happen under the spell of poetry; memory hops on stage – but only to place the individual even deeper inside history:
“and as near to me as my blood, and as far away as a memory from a four-year-oldI hear the long-distance truck go by, causing the six-hundred-year-old walls to tremble.”
One could talk forever about these lines, because they inspire chatter in the reader, a sort of questioning of the grounds of the real, and an inspiration to look for similar anecdotes in one’s own life. That’s why Tranströmer’s poetry is captivating. Captivating as its discrete sounds.