In Stockholm's old town, the alleys are so packed with snow that you have to climb down to enter stores. The bridge railings seem to be dwarfed, and the black waters of the Baltic Sea, which spill into the city, shine oily and cold. It's December and all festivities are sequestered behind brightly lit windows. At three o'clock in the afternoon it is already dark.
Initially I wanted to walk over to Tomas Tranströmer's house, so that the joy of seeing him after so many years and the anxiety of not knowing how much he has changed might have time to counterbalance one another. In 1990, he had suffered a stroke, which left his right side paralyzed and greatly reduced his ability to speak. He can only move his left arm, but even in his wheelchair he travels abroad to participate at readings where he sits between the translator and his wife, Monica, who can read the minimal changes in his facial expressions. A wink-wink, a few sounds that he still can utter, and she is able to transform these hints of expression into a coherent answer that he corrects if it feels necessary. Ping-pong in the dark.
After the first bridge over to the island of Södermalm, I lose my way and call a taxi. A quick ride and Monica Tranströmer opens the door with a welcoming gesture that wipes away all doubts: Tomas Tranströmer sits in his favorite chair and seems to nod his head joyously. The movement is perhaps only imagined, since he cannot move in his reading chair, next to the baby grand piano, with all his music and books around him. The window looks out onto the harbor, the trees, their species, in front are only to be guessed—the Tivoli with its flashing lights shimmering across the dark water.
When I tell him that I have seen his photograph on the subway on my way from the airport, I believe I detect a small smile. But the postage stamp that Monica shows me I have not yet seen. A stamp! After receiving the Nobel Prize in 2011, he touched the king's chin with his left hand in a gracious caress, which turned him into the most popular poet in Sweden. Last year they even named a newly discovered beetle for him. We mention our common friends, the titles of their new books—a minute of silence for his German translator, Hanns Grössel, who had died that summer. Both Tomas and Monica had been very fond of him. There is news about Michael Krüger and Hubert Burda, whose Petrarca Prize put Tranströmer on the European map of poetry. And the next minute we are sitting at the table: pike dumplings and crayfish and Riesling and the rest of the champagne. The candles shine.
But there is so much fatigue in it. After lunch he takes a nap, and the rest of us, Monica Tranströmer, and Ann Tillgren, who has been Tranströmer's Nobel attaché, sit down for coffee in the living room in front of the bookcase—it is my guess it’s the one to which Tranströmer had dedicated a poem. In his correspondence with his American translator Robert Bly, the cabinet turns into a perfect example of Tranströmer's discretion. The previous year, Robert Bly had been visiting Sweden and had met Tranströmer's mother, who already was very frail. In the interim she had died. The cabinet in the poem that Bly was currently translating belonged to a “dead woman”—and Bly asked, in a letter, “Who is this 'dead woman' and how is your mother?” With great tact, Tomas wanted to avoid answering. In his effort to find emotional distance for the verse, he ended up helplessly calling her “the dead woman”—infusing the poem with a cold chill. And now we sit in front of the cabinet, and Tranströmer wants to hear the poem in German—he pays attention to every syllable of Hanns Grössel's translation, like listening to a familiar tune on an estranged instrument: He has lost all his nonnative languages, except a basic use of English. The bookcase is all he took from his mother's apartment: “Truth needs no furniture. I've gone one round on life's circle and come back to the starting point: a blank room.” Silence. Is it the loss? Is he tired, or overwhelmed? In a book, Monica finds a photo of his mother, which Tomas shows me and which he gently caresses with his left hand.
Still, the afternoon seems to make him happy, and to celebrate, he wants to play something on the piano—a sign of exuberance that surprises even Monica. To sit before the piano, he must be pulled out of the wheelchair. Monica stands in front of him and with careful movements, a soft pull and a strong embrace, she counterbalances his weight till he stands on his narrow feet. He turns with help of the stick and, guided by Monica, sits down on the piano bench.
In the first years after the stroke, one could often hear him playing in the background of phone calls. It sounded like harmonies being dragged out of the Baltics—slow hymns played on the harmonium when they were on the island of Runmarö, or on the piano if they have been staying in town. First it was music that returned to him, language followed second, as if he had to feel his way back from sound to word: “Like when the light goes out on the stairs and the hand follows—with confidence—the blind banister that finds its way in the darkness.”
In 1995, I would visit him on the archipelago island where the trees stand at arm's length in front of the cabin windows. The forest is very young and bright, and the rare butterfly, the Clouded Yellow, which young Tranströmer collected on his excursions and preserved in his cabinet, is long extinct. Today these cabinets are kept at the National Museum. In the afternoons, Tranströmer was sitting in the garden, his lap full of journals from the time before the stroke, in his hands, long lists of words, images, phrases. It was as if the images no longer reached out to him—and that he had reached back to them with his deaf glove of language.
In big letters he filled page after page with words that eventually might become a poem. There has always been an epigrammatic tonality in his lyrics, and there seems to be an epigrammatic structure now, as if the blank lines between the stanzas are suddenly double- or triple-spaced. The images stood on their own, but all references seem to be slightly bent in the direction of one moment: “I am carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case.”
Sentences like these had been written down in his notebooks before the stroke, but he only published them later. On Runmarö, we discussed one of the first new poems he only published after being sure that this wouldn't be his last published verse in book form: “As when you were a child and some tremendous hurt / was pulled over your head like a sack— / glints of sunshine through the mesh / and the hum of the cherry trees.” Does the poem prefigure his life, has the idea itself spoken, has a poet disappeared into his poem? Like Mandelstam wrote: “Poems are concepts of being: The poet's life follows them.” We can never hear, “take your grave and go” without this knowledge, even if the phrase is borrowed from the Bible.
He seemed to be surprised and curious about these images and poems, happy with everything that he still could accomplish. When we spoke about the new poems, there was no trace of bitterness in his words, but rather a serenity, a peering into the bottom of life. At readings, the audience could sense this. Sometimes he sat for hours and signed his name painstakingly into the books of his listeners.
Now, 2013 in Stockholm: Tranströmer chooses the score of Frank Bridge’s “A Vigil,” one of the many piano pieces written for the left hand, composed after the First World War for the numerous pianists who had lost their right arms and hands, like Wittgenstein's brother, for example. From all corners of the world, readers and friends have been sending him these scores after hearing he has been playing again. Tranströmer’s fingers stop, he starts a second time, and this time the modulation on the piano is perfect and nuanced—it is a great surprise. Concurrently, it is a deep shock that inside this almost motionless body such a richness of emotional landscapes prevails: Here sits a pianist who is the governor of his piece to an extent that he can bestow it with color, phrasing, warmth, until the piece is alive. The mute body speaks.
After the music, he is happy and glad. After two or three hours, one is convinced that the small shadows on his face may be deciphered correctly as a faint smile. But he is exhausted, and Monica suggests that we hear the CD that I have brought: Handel, played by Lisa Smirnova. He closes his eyes and nods as if he agrees with her judgment. He wants to look up something in the books behind his chair. No, it should be in the third volume, which Monica finally wrenches from the shelf. But he cannot find the passage, and Monica cannot help this time.
He closes his eyes and I say goodbye. Leaving the apartment, I want to memorize everything: the heavy oak landing, the wrought iron lift with the concertina door, the wreaths at the apartment’s entrances, the balloons from a children's birthday party, the mirror in the vestibule, the frosted window panes in the front door, the bricks on the house, the window on the fourth floor with his chair, the fourth-floor window around his back—the black water before his eyes, the steep slope with trees that can be seen from the window, down the stairs to the water, the window of the fourth floor, a wave—a wave.