Skogsrå (Wood Nymph)

Swedish Forest

FOR MARIT LINDBERG

Jan-Litt worked as a charcoal-burner
(“Litt” because he was a little man).
He was used to boredom: he watched coal for a living,
was the enemy of every excess fire.
Numb with tedium, he had taken time out
for nineteenth-century daydreams,
for a swig of corn-brandy.
Like a fantasy, out of green forest haze,
the wood nymph slid,
dressed in the body of a woman wearing “fine long hair”,
chill eyes wide with another species’ feeling.
In this infinity of Swedish trees,
Jan-Litt offered her the bottle —
was he stunned into hospitality
or did he rise in the presence of this stark,
naked creature inexplicably to the occasion?
The wood nymph took the bottle from his hand
drank, then bit through the glass with her mouth:
the alcoholic shock
(or was it the taste of sap-blood?)
stung her into dropping it.
As she turned away, Jan-Litt saw
the perfect circle of bark midway down her back
and so realized this was no human being.
The brandy bottle with its broken neck survives to this day,
a jagged, incomparable heirloom
while Jan-Litt’s vision blazes

The Hurricane and the Poet

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One prompt for poetry is the intense experience, something out of the ordinary which reduces us to stunned silence. When words fail us, we turn to poetry in order to make sense of an occasion that defies the ordinary run of our vocabulary. Language, in such cases, is forced to reach for new resources. It has no choice but to rise above its habitual methods. Such experiences constitute a kind of high-level apprenticeship in “extreme” creativity

Tomas Tranströmer’s prose poem “Hurricane, Iceland” is a simple example of what I mean. The speaker, probably representing the poet himself, gets caught in a strong wind, an unusually strong wind. He tries to make this perfectly clear in the opening lines:

Inget jordskalv men himlabävning. Turner kunde ha målat det, fastsurrad. En ensam vante virvlade förbi nyss, flera kilometer från sin hand.

Not earthquake; rather, skytremor. Turner could have painted this, lashed up tight [fastsurrad]. A solo/unpaired/single glove whizzed past just now, several kilometres from its hand.

The three moves here all attempt to convey magnitude. The first makes use of an indirect kind of simile. The hurricane is compared, by implication, to an earthquake, but since it happens in the sky, the poet invents the compound word himlabävning, made up of himmel = sky, firmament + bävning = trembling, shaking. This audacity at once brings home to the reader something of the power of the weather the poet faced on that day: the shock of the hurricane is at least partly duplicated in the shock of the unexpected comparison.

Tranströmer’s second magnitude is a cultural one. The reference to the English artist Joseph Turner is there to remind us of the fact that the artist had a fondness for painting violent natural scenes — titles such as “Eruption of Vesuvius” (c. 1817) or  “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”  (1842) alone suggest this particular bent of his imagination. But, as the poem makes explicit, he would have to have been fastsurrad or “strapped up tightly” to avoid being carried off as he worked. This incidentally poses a bit of a problem in translation: the tendency is to want to fasten Turner down, but obviously he would need to be upright to make his art. At the same time, despite this binding, he would have to have at least his painting arm free.

Perhaps this thought about arms crossed Tranströmer’s mind as he added a third image to complete his presentation. The word ensam in Swedish looks as if it might mean “one-some”, but its most common meanings include “sole” and “alone, lonely”. The poet uses it here to underscore the fact that gloves come in pairs. The image is shifted from merely striking to exhilarating with the addition of the phrase flera kilometer från sin hand. The intrusion of the word “kilometres” between the hand and its accompanying glove magically, I think, conveys the enormous interval involved.

So far, we have an evocation of an extreme weather event. Tranströmer goes on to increase the drama by adding a life-threatening predicament:

Jag ska ta mig fram i motvind till det där huset på andran sidan fältet. Jag fladdrar i orkanen. Jag är röntgad, skelettet lämnar in sin avskedsansökan. Paniken växer medan jag kryssar, jag går i kvav, jag går i kvav och drunknar på torra land! Vad det är tungt, allt jag plötsligt har att släpa på, vad det är tungt för fjärilen att bogsera en pråm! Äntligen framme. En sista brottning med dörren.

I will make my way into the wind across to that house on the other side of the field. I flap/flail about [fladdrar] in the hurricane. Having been X-rayed, my skeleton hands in its notice. The panic mounts as I criss-cross back and forth, tacking: I’m going down, I’m going down, drowning on dry land! How heavy they are, all these things I suddenly find myself having to drag with me, and how heavy it is for a butterfly to drag a [whole] barge after it! I made it. A final struggle with the door.

The speaker has no choice but to make his way in impossible conditions to the distant house. The meaning of “fluttering” links back to the wind, and is close etymologically to the Swedish verb fladdra, but the word seems a bit feeble to me in this context: possibly “thrash” or “flail” would be truer to the situation, if less linguistically accurate, here (Robin Fulton uses “flutter” in his version: it certainly prepares us much better for the butterfly image). The bit about X-rays may seem out of place, but the dislocation of terms here, especially the phrase “to hand in one’s notice”, gives it power by dint of its incongruity. At this point, maritime references come to the fore to drive home the point about the speaker being both out of his habitual element and seriously in danger. They culminate in the topsy-turvy image of the butterfly-tugboat towing a barge [en pråm] behind it. By putting the cart before the horse here, the poet once again evokes the magnitude of the wind. At the same time, there may be a hint of something existential here: as the panic increases, the speaker is made to feel the full weight of his being on the Earth.

Of course, after that, the poem has to tell us what happened. Did the hurricane victim make it to safety or not? Tranströmer provides the following resolution:

Och nu inne. Och nu inne. Bakom den stora glasrutan. Vilken egendomlig och storslagen uppfinning är inte glaset — att vara nära utan att drabbas . . . Ute rusar en hord av genomskinliga sprinters i jätteformat över lavaslätten. Men jag fladdrar into längre. Jag sitter bakom glaset, stilla, mitt eget porträtt.

Finally inside. Finally inside. Behind the big pane of glass. No strange or rather magnificent discovery, [this thing] glass [I’m not sure about this interpretation! Fulton has “What a strange and magnificent invention glass is”] — to be so close without being struck [drabbas] . . . A hoard of transparent sprinters the size of giants rushes by outside over the lava plain. I no longer flutter/flail about [fladdrar]. I sit behind the glass, calm: my self-portrait.

His relief is palpable, signalled by the repetition of the simple phrase “Finally inside”. Along with the simplified language, the mood shifts: things gets mundane. There is one final, showy image of the weather, but what counts most is the glass and its calm. The speaker may see actually himself reflected in the pane — hence the words mitt eget porträtt (“my own portrait”) — but by now he is stilled, like the language of his text. His days as a butterfly have come to an end.

This is language at home in its habits: composed and equal to the task. Only when it is called on to deal with something larger than ordinary life, like a hurricane, is it put to the test. Such ordeals are vital though. When a writer comes to grapple with the more subtle, less dynamic occasions of human being, she has at her disposal a model of sorts for the precision, the power, and the quality she needs in order to communicate her experience unforgettably. She has, in other words, an idea at least of how to hurricanize herself against banality, chattiness, blur.

Here is a link to Robin Fulton’s full translation, “Icelandic Hurricane”, on Tranströmer’s official website.