Tomas Tranströmer in New York
Under the library and above the subway
slender and quiet as the letter T, he stood
reading on stage
Defender of footnote names
of that which disappeared but left behind traces:
unplayed music, words no longer read
Underneath him silent passengers going by
above him the endless rows of books
Archaeologist, slowly crushed between layers of earth,
expressing himself as fine-toothed as a fern in stone.
Winter dismantles its dead now
fish appear just beneath the ice
white, belly up and bent
Shyly they are adored
like some parting gift
of the receding frost
How come they can’t melt along with
the rest so they could thaw from being frozen stiff
and swim again, swim away really hard
the little kid holding my hand asks: could they do that?
A lot can be done in spring (ask the trees)
but no I say: dead is dead;
bread is bread the child echoes, red
is red; that rhymes. And I nod.
The photo-shopped girls in bus shelters
I really am hard pressed to imagine how
they must have been before being retouched
and nondescript, they’re hiding
something somewhere, their own history
which though it cannot be seen, is at best guesswork
The eye cannot get a hold on the too cosmetic
slithering along their superficial surfaces
this beauty is only for sale, not to behold.
So let beauty disfigure its face again
let the flaws in the weaving of the fabric return
the slight deviations in the pattern of the cloth.
Back to the original, back
to time that does its work
writing history on the skin
so I can again read them for what they really are
these scentless girls that sing the praises of perfumes
behind the double glazed glass of bus shelters.
Bernlef (1937-2012) was a poet, novelist and translator of Swedish and American literature who established an international reputation with his 1984 novel Hersenschimmen, published in English as Out of Mind, in which he describes the onslaught of dementia from the point of view of sufferer. It has been translated into some 20 languages. Although his poetry is less widely known, he was highly prolific and the author of almost a thousand poems, characterised in general by their clarity and almost conversational tone. Guernica Editions of Canada published a selection of his poetry, A Still Life, in 2016.
From A Still Life: Selected Poems 1960-2010, Guernica Editions, 2016
The original of Tomas Tranströmer in New York’ is in Geestgronden, Querido, Amsterdam, 1988; of ‘That Rhymes’ in Aambeeld, Querido, Amsterdam, 1998; and of ‘Beauty’ in Kantkeningen, Querido, Amsterdam, 2010.