A Journal of poetry and kindred prose

The Umbrella
Book Review

The Deleted World

Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, Enitharmon Press, 2006
Versions by Robin Robertson
by Rob A. Mackenzie

This bilingual collection from Tomas Tranströmer, one of Sweden’s greatest poets, is a slim volume. The translations are by Robin Robertson whose book, Swithering, won the UK Forward Prize for Best Collection of 2006. The Deleted World contains only fifteen poems, and it has been published in the same year as a comprehensive Collected Poems, The Great Enigma (translations by Robin Fulton). What’s the point of this book?

Some may argue that there is no point. Indeed, that was my first reaction—before I’d read the poems. But now I take everything back. It’s a long time since I’ve read successful poems of such intensity, and the translation is characterized by Robin Robertson’s keen sense of sound and rhythm.

The collection is built around a theme, which might be expressed in terms of deletion, transience, the thin, shifting line between existence and absence. The Swedish landscape is described with startling imagery—startling in itself and also for the way it draws, with pinpoint accuracy, psychological states, political torment, and mystical struggle.

The world, for Tranströmer, hangs by a thread. The slightest movement of a branch or breath of wind can send it off-course, and the threat of extinction is always near. From Winter’s Code:

The bus negotiates the winter night:
a flickering ship in the pine forest
on a road as narrow and deep as a dead canal.

Few passengers: some old, some very young.
If it stopped and switched off its lights
the world would be deleted.

Tranströmer’s metaphors are never gratuitous. They transform a landscape and bring to light what otherwise would have remained hidden. Simple imagery draws out complex fears and desires, and the images are imaginative, at times breath-taking. From Autumn Archipelago:

A storm from the north. It is the time of rowanberries.
Awake in the night he hears - far above the horned tree—
the stars, stamping in their stalls.

And from Sketch in October:

The tugboat is freckled with rust. What is it doing so far inland?
It’s a heavy burnt-out lamp, tipped over in the cold.

The problem with many poems that deal with the likes of darkness, storms, rust, cold, and burnt-out lamps is a tendency to fall into resigned melancholy. Such poems often brood a lot but don’t do much else. Tranströmer doesn’t fall into this trap, partly due to his precise observation, and partly because his poems can’t be reduced to a single mood. They reflect the complexity of human emotion with unsparing honesty. They reject false hope and easily-won solutions, as in Black Postcards:

In the middle of life, death comes
to take your measurements. The visit
is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit
is being sewn on the sly.

But there is redemption, even if not of a traditional variety, as in this from Midwinter:/

There is a silent world,
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled over the border.

Tranströmer finds hope only from within the harsh landscape he writes about. Whatever lies beyond, one can only get there from here. In some poems, the best one can do is survive. In A Winter Night, threats rage like the storm which “puts its mouth to the house/and blows to get a tone,” while we take shelter as best we can, afraid that the storm “will blow us empty.” Others are more hopeful, but hope isn’t earned easily. The stagnant, frozen landscape has to be endured before the “colours blaze” and “the earth and I spring at each other” in Face to Face, although even that word “spring” seems double-edged.

These are poems of the highest calibre, each living up to Don Paterson’s description of what a poem should aim to be—“a little machine for remembering itself.” Fifteen poems wouldn’t normally be much to get for your money, but poetry like this has a value beyond mere currency and ought to be treasured.

Rob A. Mackenzie was born in Glasgow in 1964 and has lived in Edinburgh for 18 months after several years in the North of Italy. He has published poems in many UK literary magazines. His chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by Happenstance Press in 2005. One of his poems was commended in the UK National Poetry Competition 2005. His blog is Surroundings.