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Saturday, January 13th, 2007
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The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems

by Tomas Transtromer

Tickling the Literary Palate

A review by Chris Faatz

There are lots and lots of books that are published into the great silence of dusty bookshop shelves and reviewers' forgotten back corners each year. And, I'd be willing to bet the proverbial dollar to the proverbial donut that poetry finds itself in this predicament more than virtually any other genre. And, it's a shame. Just like it's a shame that there's not really a large general readership for poetry. Believe it or not, the books are out there -- however you feel personally about it, sales of Garrison Keillor's anthology Good Poems speaks eloquently to that fact -- all that they're lacking for are readers.

There are, however, a few books that lift their heads above the waters, however briefly. In the past year, at Powell's, we've seen remarkable success with Richard Jones's stellar Apropos of Nothing and Linda Gregg's In the Middle Distance. Two books that I wish we'd done better with are Benjamin Alire Saenz's Dreaming the End of War and Luis Rodriguez's My Nature Is Hunger.

However, it's a new year, and a new pile of books to winnow through. Winnow through with joy, of course -- I can't think of a more pleasant vocation.

One book that really stands out, right from the beginning, is Tomas Transtromer's The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. Transtromer needs little introduction; the great Swedish poet has been consistently translated into English for years, and has been championed by many, not the least of whom is Robert Bly.

However, I tried to approach The Great Enigma as though it were a new book, by a new poet -- someone unheard of, a fresh, new voice on the block. The fact that I'd read but little of his work before made this a pretty easy task.

And what a reward it was. The Great Enigma is truly a fantastic book of poems, lovingly translated and rendered into English by Robin Fulton, and demonstrating a completely unique geography of the imagination that leaves the reader gasping, eagerly turning the page to discover the beauty and wonder of each new foray into language.

And beautiful and wonderful they are. On balance, most of the poems are either quite short (although, there's a transcendent long poem called "Baltics"), some even following the Haiku form, or that of prose poems. The thing they all share is that they're heavily image-driven. Again and again, Transtromer delicately delivers something entirely and freshly new to tickle his reader's literary palate. Try this for example:

Sailor's Yarn

There are bare winter days when the sea is kin to mountain country, crouching in grey plumage, a grief minute blue, long hours with waves like pale lynxes vainly seeking hold in the beach gravel.

On such a day wrecks might come from the sea searching for their owners, settling in the town's din, and drowned crews blow landward, thinner than pipe smoke.

(The real lynxes are in the north, with sharpened claws and dreaming eyes. In the north, where day lives in a mine both day and night.

Where the sole survivor may sit at the borealis stove and listen to the music of those frozen to death.)

Transtromer's poems are populated by the sea, by the coast, and by the woods and darkness of his native Sweden. He apparently worked most of his life as a psychologist, thus, perhaps, his fascination with things that might have arisen only from dreams, from the archetypal forms that lie deep, deep within us all.

"It's spring and the air is very strong. I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the clothesline." Ah, I wish all poetry was this good


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