‘Six Winters,’ Tomas Tranströmer

In the black hotel a child is asleep.
And outside: the winter night
where the wide-eyed dice roll.

An élite of the dead became stone
in Katarina Churchyard
where the wind shakes in its armour from Svalbard.

One wartime winter when I lay sick
a huge icicle grew outside the window.
Neighbour and harpoon, unexplained memory.

Ice hangs down from the roof edge.
Icicles: the upside-down Gothic.
Abstract cattle, udders of glass.

On a side-track, an empty railway-carriage.
Still. Heraldic.
With the journeys in its claws.

Tonight snow-haze, moonlight. The moonlight jellyfish itself
is floating before us. Our smiles
on the way home. Bewitched avenue.

(trans. © Robin Fulton)
From 'För Levande och Döda', 1989.

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer loved writing haiku, and the three line poems above, though they don’t exactly fit the Japanese form, are clearly linked to it. Like much of Tranströmer’s work, the lines are stripped down to essentials and some of the images and ideas have to be teased out like riddles. They leave a huge space for the reader's imagination.

These winter memories are a child’s eye view of the world near the Arctic circle. The wind from one of the most northern inhabited islands - Svalbard - 'shakes in its armour' of immobilising cold.  Icicles dangle from the gutters like harpoons or cow’s udders, ‘upside-down Gothic’; the poet wanders down a ‘bewitched avenue’ transformed by winter. I love the image of the moon as a jellyfish floating in the dark ocean of space.  And the idea of the ‘elite dead’ also resonated with me; in England only the rich could afford headstones.  The poor were buried either in unmarked graves, or with a wooden cross which quickly rotted away.

There’s an alternative translation of this sequence, by John F. Deane, but because Tranströmer writes in such a pared down way, there are only minor differences. He's a good poet to translate because he’s so precise and leaves little room for a translator’s personal interpretation. A couple of year's ago I translated a few of his poems, including 'Midwinter', and it was an instructive exercise. My favourite translations are by Robert Bly, who was a friend of the poet.


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