Mind of Winter

Joseph Campana
January 18, 2012
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If anyone has one, a mind of winter, it’s Tomas Tranströmer.

I’ve been thinking about his poems lately, how each seems to place the reader in a crystalline picture frame full of snow. His ardent admirers now have even more richly deserved company thanks to his recent Nobel prize:

Interestingly, there’s nothing merely cold about these poems, however much ice accumulates in his Swedish landscapes.There is, instead, a consolation whose source is difficult to identify, even in the strange environment of “Below Zero.” It begins, “We are at a party that doesn’t love us.” Later in the poem, after a series of tortured if inexplicable complications, the speaker leaves the miserable party and its “cold colossi” and heads to another town where “Children are standing in a silent cluster waiting for the school bus, children no one prays for.” But then there’s the final image: “The light is growing as slowly as our hair.” Not an image of hope, but a sense that, slowly and inexorably, there is change and therefore also the gradual return of light to the wintry night.

But I have been thinking about how Tranströmer moves across media since I read and was captivated by “Schubertiana.” I’ll come back to his poems about music in a future post. For now, I’d like to notice the ways these poems seem to create around the viewer a kind a still life.Is this also a form of ekphrasis–not merely description or commentary but a way of entering the world of the poem to engage with it that includes the risk of becoming trapped on the other side?

Moments are hauntingly imagistic, like the wonderful “Six Winters” from For the Living and the Dead. Tavern Books has created a broadside of the first section: “In the black hotel a child is asleep. / And outside: the winter night / where the wide-eyed dice roll.”

Tavern Books

The world seems to contract in these miniature scenes. In the first, the sleeping child in the “black hotel” (is it supposed to be ominous or merely dark?) is unaware of the way turns the living into creatures of change and risk, their eyes rolling like dice. The third section is similarly stirring: “One wartime winter when I lay sick / a huge icicle grew outside the window. / Neighbor and harpoon, unexplained memory.”

Around the reader, the frame is sealed shut. Tranströmer wonders if this isn’t the fate of both the viewers of paintings and the objects of an artist’s gaze, especially in “Female Portrait, 19th Century”:

Her voice is stifled in the clothing. Her eyes

follow the gladiator. Then she herself is

in the arena. Is she free? A gilt frame

strangles the picture.

The mystery of ekphrasis. Is this a painting I should know? Did he invent it? And what’s going on inside this strangling frame? Is the woman in the painting with the gladiator or is she a viewer captured in the act gazing? I’d guess the former. But even if she’s in the painting, her eyes, following the gladiator, transport her in the way a viewer is transported.

The danger of looking at a painting is the danger of being caught in the frame. For a poet, such transport is perilous.

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