Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Janeen Pergrin Rastall reads “Weather Picture” and “Allegro” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton.
Janeen, I’m a total lover and believer in the power of the small poem and we’ve got that going on here in both the poems you’ve read for us today. Is brevity and concision typical of Tranströmer’s poetry? Are those characteristics something you implement in your own work?
Janeen: While Tranströmer does have some longer narrative pieces like “The Baltics”, brevity and precision are characteristics of his poetry. Tranströmer wrote, “I have tried to write as unsentimentally and nakedly as possible…” I, too strive for a stripped down poem. I try to write with immediacy; perhaps my decades of writing computer code could be to blame. I admire Tranströmer’s ability to create drama with so few lines. He wrote collections of haikus including this one:
Here’s a dark picture.
Poverty painted over,
flowers in a prison dress.
From The Great Enigma: New and Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006)
Chris: Why did you choose to share these two poems together? Is there a similar essential feature present in both? Or, does each poem have its own unique essential elements?
Janeen: I chose these two poems to show Tranströmer’s use of language. Both poems are concise yet approachable and full of amazing imagery. The subject matter and tone make his poems feel contemporary. “Weather Picture” is from an early collection, Secrets on the Way and is a classic example of how he captures a place, in particular the sea and islands of Sweden. Living across from Lake Superior, I connect with these landscapes. The line “a dog barking is a hieroglyph…” is such a perfect and unexpected simile. Reading his poems is like having synesthesia or living in a Dali painting. The world becomes hyperreal. Like so many of his poems, “Allegro” appears deceptively simple. Tranströmer played the piano and music was a vital part of his life. The poem could be seen as a joyous celebration of the Hayden’s compositions. Tranströmer was a psychologist. Is the poem also a prescription: wave music, a haydenflag against depression? “Allegro” was published in 1962 shortly after Tranströmer’s trip to the Middle East, the building of the Berlin War and dark days in Vietnam, Hungary and Alabama. Perhaps the poem is a brave statement about how art can teach us to survive and protect us from the madness of the world?
Chris: “Allegro” is interesting to me because it has the potential to be horrific, especially with the couplet “The music is a glass-house on the slope/ where stones fly, the stones roll.” There’s no way this glass house is going to make it, but Tranströmer negates the whole scene when he states that each stone passes through the house and “each pane stays whole.” Which, it just dawned on me, is that a play on whole/hole? But more seriously, what do you make of this sort of duality of the home—a thing seemingly fragile yet it’s able to go unharmed?
Janeen: Exactly, Chris. He is waving his haydenflag, letting us know as the stones are flying at us, when we feel most vulnerable that we will be okay. We will not splinter, crack. We have music and art. We can take everything thrown at us, absorb it and remain unchanged.
Chris: You mentioned that reading Tranströmer is like living in a Dali painting. Is embracing the weird (for lack of better words) something that you always enjoy doing when you read poetry? Or is Tranströmer’s weirdness just particularly well done? And, if you enjoy embracing the weird, are there other poets who you enjoy reading that make you feel like you are in a Dali painting?
Janeen: I love poems that lead me to unexpected places. I also love Imagists. I have a list of poets’ whose books sit beside my bed. Some of them are: Czesław Miłosz, Charles Simic, Wisława Szymborska and Anna Swir.
Janeen Pergrin Rastall lives in Gordon, MI (population 2). She is hopelessly in love with Lake Superior, the great saltless sea. She is the author of In the Yellowed House (dancing girl press, 2014) and co-author of Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016). Her chapbook, Objects May Appear Closer won the 2015 Celery City Chapbook Contest. Her work has been twice nominated for a Best of the Net Award and for the Pushcart Prize. Visit Janeen at her author page: janeenpergrinrastall.wordpress.com
Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and Still: the Journal. Chris is currently severely hung over in East Tennessee.