Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ghost Story

In the library where I work we have half a dozen different translations (from Swedish into English) of poetry by Tomas Tranströmer (now eighty years old and winner of the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature). In three of the collections I found the same poem, called The Bookcase, written after the death of the poet's mother, who raised him on her own after divorcing his father. English versions were published in 1971 by Robert Bly, in 1972 by May Swenson, and in 1987 by Robin Fulton. Swenson's effort seemed to me by far the most successful. Hers is the text that appears below.

It was brought from the dead woman's apartment. It stood 
empty a few days, empty until I filled it with books, all the 
bound ones, those bulky tomes. With that act I had let in 
the underworld. Something swelled up from below, mounted 
slowly, inexorably, like mercury in a gigantic thermometer. 
You must not turn your head away.

The swarthy volumes, their closed faces. They're like the 
Algerians who stood at the Friedrichstrasse border crossing, 
waiting for the Volkspolizei to check their passports. My own 
passport lay a long time in various glass cubicles. And 
the fog all over Berlin that day, it is also in this book-
case. An old despair lives in there, it tastes of 
Passchendaele and the Treaty of Versailles – the taste, in 
fact, is older than that. The black heavy tomes – I come 
back to them – they are themselves a sort of passport, and 
they are so fat because they have accumulated so many stamps 
through the centuries. There is one trip, apparently, for 
which your baggage can't be heavy enough, once you've 
embarked, when finally you . . .

All the old historians are there, and are invited to 

climb up and look into our family. Nothing can be heard, 
but the lips move all the time behind the glass ("Passchen-
daele" ...). One is reminded of a venerable government office 
– now follows a true ghost story –a grand building where 
portraits of long-dead men hang behind glass, and one 
morning there appeared a blur on the inside of the glass. 
They had begun breathing during the night. 

The bookcase is even more powerful. Glares straight across
the zone boundary! A shimmering membrane, the shimmering
membrane of a dark river in which the room is forced to
mirror itself. And you must not turn your head away.