Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dreaming in Swedish

My poems are meeting places.  Their intent is to make a sudden connection 
between aspects of reality that conventional languages and outlooks ordinarily keep apart.
—Tomas Tranströmer

On a bitter winter evening this past February, I left the bustling warmth of New York City’s Grand Central Station and headed to Scandinavia House.  The wind blew frigid air at me in a sideways slant, the sort of weather that usually keeps me pinned to my chair at home.  But there was a concert on, and I’d arranged to meet a fellow named Michael Douglas Jones.

The concert, by a group called Skogensemble, was playing music I’d never heard of.  As for the composers, I knew the name of only one, Ellen Lindquist, and hers only in connection with Douglas Jones and his organization Companion Star.

I looked forward to meeting Douglas Jones, and, whatever the music might be like, I figured it would be fun to hear a concert in such an unexpected place.  It also didn’t hurt that Scandinavia House has an onsite restaurant where I could order Swedish meatballs (for which I have an unaccountable weakness), and have a glass of wine before the event.

The evening at Scandinavia House was full of wonders.  Douglas Jones was a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting fellow.  He spoke with passionate animation about having had the chance to take part, as a performer, in the creation of musical compositions.  Companion Star is devoted to that ideal.

At the concert, I found out about a plucked string instrument, the kantele.  (Legend has it the first one was made from the jawbone of a giant pike.)  Lindquist’s piece, for solo amplified alto flute, put me deep in a forest with the proud, doomed alpha wolf Nakoda.

I left the experience yet more curious about Companion Star’s dream seminar/drömseminarium project, which takes its texts from the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer.  I resolved to buy a book of Tranströmer’s poems, but failed to follow through.  When Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize, I felt the sting of my sloth and ordered a book on the spot.  As happens all too often with Amazon up here, weeks went by, and the book didn’t arrive.

I finally got myself to a bookstore, chose a book of translations of Tranströmer recommended by a trusted friend, and settled down to read.  “Awakening is a parachute jump from the dream,” began Prelude.  Pretty good hook, I thought, and I read on.

I’ve been to Sweden, though only once, in summertime, a student’s Eurail Pass in hand.  Unaware that it takes longer to go the length of Sweden than it does from Hamburg to Cannes, I took a train to the Arctic Circle.

Night in northern Sweden came on slowly.  On the heels of a dazzling sunset, the dusky light lasted for hours.  Walking in the extended twilight was like slipping into a dream world, and sleep more like succumbing to a trance.

In The Blue House, Tranströmer describes a summer night as “a night of radiant sun.”  In Epilogue’s December, though, “The way here is stony:/daylight waits until noon/to reveal winter’s coliseum,/lit by unreal clouds.”

Sweden’s landscape, its weather and its seasons, its rowanberries, bats, and moths (Lamento's “small pale telegrams from the world') are in the marrow of Tranströmer’s poems.  From Solitary Swedish Houses:
A tangle of black spruce
and smoking moonbeams.
Here’s the croft lying low
and not a sign of life.
Till the morning dew murmurs
and an old man opens
—with a shaky hand—his window
and lets out an owl.
Tranströmer’s sense of dark and light are built out of his world’s particulars, as in this from On the Outskirts of Work:
Outside the lamps the September night is totally dark.
When the eyes adjust, there is faint light
over the ground where large snails glide out
and the mushrooms are as numerous as the stars.
In Winter’s Formulae, he writes, “This is not Africa./This is not Europe./This is nowhere but ‘here.’//And what was ‘I’/is only a word/in December’s dark mouth.”  From that deeply specific darkness, Tranströmer looks toward the return of light:
Three black oaks jut out of snow.
So rough, but nimble-fingered.
From their ample bottles
greenery will foam this spring.
Tranströmer slips between landscape and dreamscape, fashioning his own version of life’s sense.  In Dream Seminar, he writes of “A bedroom.  Night./The darkened sky is flowing through the room.”
The book that someone fell asleep from lies
     still open
sprawling wounded at the edge of the bed.
The sleeper’s eyes are moving,
they’re following the text without letters
in another book—
illuminated, old-fashioned, swift.
Tranströmer’s poetry has been translated into English repeatedly.  Robert Hass’s task in editing his book was to choose the best.  In his preface, Hass wrote that he worried
that a book like this, containing so many voices, might suffer from the loss of a sense of unity in its tone.  But it is my impression that Tranströmer’s voice, spare and clear, and the undistractable clarity and intensity of his vision have carried those small differences in tone.
I tried once, years ago, to teach myself Swedish.  I’ve long since lost the Swedish-English dictionary I used, and I remember not a word.  I’m left to trust in translations, and, for the most part, with Hass’s book, I feel I can.

Companion Star’s dream seminar/drömseminarium, created “collaboratively through improvisation,” will add to the canon of translation, but differently, as the project uses music and movement to convey Tranströmer’s vision and voice.  I’m eager for a chance to hear and see the results.

In Vermeer, one of the texts used in dream seminar/drömseminarium, Tranströmer writes
It hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick
but it’s necessary.
The world is one.  But walls . . .
And the wall is part of yourself—
Whether you know it or not it’s the same for everyone,
everyone except little children.  No walls for them.
The clear sky has set itself on a slant against the wall.
It’s like a prayer to emptiness.
And the emptiness turns it face to us
and whispers,
“I am not empty, I am open.”

Listening List

from Companion Star's dream seminar/drömseminarium

Jan Garbarek:  It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice

Ellen Lindquist:  Nakoda

Allen Pettersson:  Symphony No. 8

Karin Rehnqvist:  Där korpen vitnar (Where the raven blanches)

Sven-David Sandström:  To see a world

For a Spotify playlist, click on Dreaming in Swedish.

The composers and compositions on both lists are not ones with which I was familiar, but I chose a selection of 20th and 21st century composers that held appeal for me.  On Spotify, the ones included are Rolf Martinsson (Spotify erroneously omits the ‘n’), Allan Pettersson, Karin Rehnqvist, Sven-David Sandström, and Benjamin Staern.  (I was not able to find any of the Skogensemble composers represented on Spotify.)  The Spotify list includes the full jazz album by the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek on which the titles are all quotations from Tranströmer poems (thanks to George Mattingly for identifying this to me).  I encourage readers to identify other composers to include on the list.

The quotation and more information about Companion Star and a treasure trove of information about dream seminar/drömseminarium can be found here.  

Credits: The quotation at the head of the post can be found here. The excerpts from Tranströmer’s poems, as well as the quotation from Robert Hass’s preface, can be found here. With the exception of the images of the kantele and the dictionary, which can be found here and here, the photographs are my translation of Tranströmer's landscape in the language of the Hudson Valley hills.


Britta said...

Dear Susan,
thank you for this interesting and beautifully written blog! Yes, I think you can trust that translation - that is a feeling, not knowing this language either. Translation with soul doesn't need to copy word for word slavishly - it must get the rhythm and the core.
These are interesting poems - I like especially the one about the Wall (of course thinking of Robert Frost: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,... ").
I wish you a beautiful Sunday!

Britta said...

PS: Since a few days I follow a Swedish blog, "HWIT Blog", because I like the pictures. But I couldn't understand the text - so for the first time in my life I used the Google-translator: hilarious!!! So much fun - so jolly wrong! If I ever thought of making my life easier by not translating my own blogs myself and leave that to Google, I am cured! :-)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. an expert post again - certainly evocative of form .. I loved the descriptions and the feelings you and the poetry conveyed here. Fascinating ..

The Kantele - beautiful wood .. so lovely to see ..

I thought the translation was the poem til you mentioned Hass .. very concise with not a wasted word - oh to be a lady of few words!

Love these posts - thanks so much .. Hilary

shoreacres said...

I've not read your entire post, because I was stopped in my tracks by the title, the photograph, and the quotation from Tranströmer.

The photograph is as familiar as my living room - though far more evocative. I'm going to play with the words that have appeared on a pad next to me - perhaps there will be a tiny poem. I'll be back to share what comes...

Anonymous said...

I like the photographs that "are my translation of Tranströmer's landscape in the language of the Hudson Valley hills." I don't know if I'd ever thought of photographs as localized translations, but now that you've said it, the concept is a good one.

David said...

Much to investigate at leisure here, as always - glad you're back so soon! But just to say that the kantele has had a huge renaissance in Finland - young people play it in kantele orchestras; a bit like the ukulele craze here, or Viennese youth's assumption of the until-recently-dying Schrammel art.

Anonymous said...

About an hour after I read your article I suddenly remembered that Tchaikovsky's first symphony has a Russian title that translates as Winter Dreams or Winter Daydreams.

Mark Kerstetter said...

I've never enjoyed so much new music all at once, and you're a large part of that.

The passage from 'Vermeer' is really striking. I'm one of the many people who knew nothing of Tranströmer before he won the Prize, but I'm very attracted to the things I've seen. Thanks for the link to his book - there's a large section available to peruse.

Suze said...

' “Awakening is a parachute jump from the dream,” began Prelude. Pretty good hook, I thought,'

I heartily agree.

' It hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick
but it’s necessary.
The world is one. But walls . . .
And the wall is part of yourself—
Whether you know it or not it’s the same for everyone,
everyone except little children. No walls for them.

The clear sky has set itself on a slant against the wall.
It’s like a prayer to emptiness.
And the emptiness turns it face to us
and whispers,
“I am not empty, I am open.” '

I am so fearful and anxious about those walls. But I do see the 'necessary.'

Elaine Sexton said...

As a cultural critic Sue is exceedingly modest, taking pains to never overstep her knowledge of a particular subject. Yet it is clear she draws from a deep reading and understanding of sources she identifies, readings that show a keen eye and ear for savory details. I always learn from these posts. Her tandem reviews of music and poetry are a particular pleasure to read, so consistently sharp and insightful. She is always taking us places. Now that we are in Sweden I admire the way she offers us an “opening” using an excerpt of Tranströmer’s “Vermeer,” to link several genres at once, and so movingly. She lets former US poet laureate Robert Hass’s text identify what rests at the core of our sensory pleasures in music and poetry, and art.… something that’s so very hard to express, and that is “tone.” For those unfamiliar with the work of Tranströmer, “The Blue Room,” and her other selections are excellent, emblematic examples of his work, how concrete images can ferry abstractions. I’m not wildly enthusiastic about music that uses poetry as text, but this post certainly makes me want to tune in, and hear more.

Susan Scheid said...

Britta: Such wonderful insights into translation (and an amusing footnote about Google translate—yes, I’d say you are in no danger!). “It must get the rhythm and the core.” Perfect, and very much akin to what Elaine says in her comment, I think. I love that you thought of Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, too. For those interested, click here.

Hilary: The kantele was indeed lovely to see in “real life.” As I think of it, wood as used in fine instruments is one of its best and highest uses! As for wishing to be a “lady of few words”—with you, I would say every word counts, full of juicy tidbits of information!

shoreacres: I am waiting with bated breath for the result! About the photograph of the trees, too—interesting, isn’t it, how beautiful those plain, leafless trees and their shadow are, even though so familiar?

portraits of wildflowers: And this means that you read down to the very last line—I’m bowled over! I did like the idea of that. And then you came back with that great bit of information about Tchaikovsky. For other readers, FYI, portraits has some exquisite portraits of wildflowers— here, as just one example, is a really neat one.

David: Now, a kantele orchestra would be quite the thing! As for the resurgence of ukuleles, surely a resurgence of bongos can’t be far behind?

Mark: It pleases me no end, as I hope you know, that you’re enjoying exploring new music (using Dylan’s term, of course!). And yes, I agree entirely, about that passage from Vermeer. If he’d written no other lines but those, he’d have earned his place in the “pantheon,” seems to me. (BTW, Friko has a poem of his here.) PS: It’s Elaine, who has commented below, who put me on to that book.

Suze: It’s fascinating to me that you were struck by the “wall,” for when I think of you, full of exuberant life, what I think describes you is the last line—no walls, and not empty, oh, no, not at all, but open, ready to embrace all life has to give.

Elaine: As I’ve written to you directly, I’ve saved a copy of your comment to reread from time to time—such precious goods! And, of course, YOU are the one who recommended Hass’s book to me. Such a treasure trove that is. Thank you, again and again!

Rubye Jack said...

Tomas Tranströmer -
"and lets out an owl"
what does that mean
lets out an owl?
I don't know but I do know it gives me a sense of something profound as the old man let out the owl -- letting go of the night-death, wisdom let go, loss, isolation...

Susan Scheid said...

Rubye Jack: I'm pleased you plucked out that line, and I like your interpretation. I was quite struck by that line, such a strange image, but so very specific, concrete.

David said...

Bongos, dear Susan, are on the way out. I'm going to sound as callous as ghastly Boris Johnson if I say I associate them with crusties, but they do seem to be crying out 'be cool! Relax! Only rhythm matters!' Kanteles and ukuleles at least need a modicum of work.

Did you know, apropos of your beautiful leading picture, that Sibelius called one of the themes in his Sixth Symphony 'the shadows lengthen' (and another 'the song of the pine tree')? There's Nordic wood magic for you.

Suze said...

Perhaps this is why, Sue-- that those who crash through walls must first acknowledge them as worthy opponents?

Susan Scheid said...

David: So, I had to ask the edu-mate: who is Boris Johnson, then, what is a crusty?! Having sorted all that out, I can move on to Sibelius. I did not know about Sibelius’s Sixth and am pleased to be in possession of that new fact.

Suze: You’re on to something there as usual—I can just picture you now, smashing through a wall (without a scratch on you, needless to say).

shoreacres said...

So - back at last. On the basis of the photo and title, this is what came to me:

Wide-eyed and speechless
the ancestors linger
stretched beyond their capacity
to capture fleeing suns.

Taut as bowstrings
drawn across the dreaming land
they reach and rise,
their wooden song grown graceful in the falling of the leaves.

I really don't "write poetry", in the sense of sitting down to work in meter and rhyme - or whatever. But now and then my response to something comes in a more poetic form, as it did here.

When I saw the photo, I saw woodsprites and forest-dwellers - not to mention the terrible trees of Disney's "Sorcerer's Apprentice". Now, that's an evocative photo!

Wonderful post. I enjoyed the reading and the learning, and the unexpected response.

Susan Scheid said...

Shoreacres: I have commented on the haydnpockets post to alert readers of your wonderful poem, but I shall write here as well: I feel honored indeed to be graced with the gift of this poem. Thank you!

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