In the 1989 poem “Golden Wasp,” Tomas Tranströmer provides a telling remark about his project: “We’re in the church of keeping-silence, of piety according to no letter.” Tranströmer’s particular piety requires only receptivity as an active principle of personal engagement with the world. It places images together in unexpected and beautiful ways and holds them steady enough to create unmistakable tension, even if it doesn’t always tell the reader what that tension is for.
Tranströmer, a psychotherapist as well as a poet, remains one of Sweden’s most widely translated and discussed living poets. His shortest poems are his most characteristic, and they may be his best. He has perfected a particular kind of epiphanic lyric, often in quatrains, in which nature is the active, energizing subject, and the self (if the self is present at all) is the object. Off-kilter and mystical, many of these poems approach the surreal and have an American parallel with Emily Dickinson’s slant of light: “There’s a tree walking around in the rain, / it rushes past us in the pouring grey. / It has an errand. It gathers life / out of the rain like a blackbird in an orchard” (from “The Tree and the Sky”).
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