For the Living and the Dead: Poems and a Memoir

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9780062189738: For the Living and the Dead: Poems and a Memoir

Combining poetry and a memoir of his childhood in Sweden in one volume, For the Living and the Dead once again demonstrates Tomas Tranströmer’s gift for capturing and grounding the elusive, luminous details of our modern world. A work that bridges the space between those real and unreal elements of life, it suggests that a surprising, redemptive cohesion can exist within a universe of opposing forces.

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Review:

The first volume by Tomas Transtromer in almost a decade, For the Living and the Dead includes an unusual bonus: a prose memoir about the poet's childhood, which goes some distance to explain why he became an adolescent psychologist. In other respects, however, the collection is of a piece with Transtromer's earlier work. Why, he seems to ask, are words so sadly inadequate to convey our meaning to others? His solution in the face of this inadequacy is to merge the intimate lyric--as familiar in its tone as a personal letter--with the most stringent economies of language.

It has been said that Transtromer's work comes across well in translation because of its striking imagery. This is partly true, but he has no less firm a grasp on musical structure, cadence, and pacing. All these qualities are present in "Grief Gondola No. 2," translated by Robert Bly. An homage to Liszt, the poem resembles a musical composition, complete with theme, variations, and coda: "The heavily loaded gondola carries their lives, two return tickets and a one-way.... The heavily loaded gondola carries life, it is simple and black."

Transtromer is not a poet of the everyday, but one who needs a rupture of routine to steal his glimpse into another world. The poems are urgent encounters in which Transtromer seems to be in constant transit. Most often he depicts himself as a passenger, and an invisible one: "The carp in the pond are always moving, they swim while they sleep, / they are an example for the faithful: always in motion." But when the poet can enter into a communion with his subject--including, ultimately, the fellow-traveling carp in "Streets in Shanghai"--he persuades the reader that along with seeing, he has been seen as well. --Mark Rudman

About the Author:

Tomas Transtromer, recipient of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Stockholm in 1931 and is a psychologist by profession. One of Sweden’s most distinguished poets, he has also received the Bonnier Poetry Prize and the Petrarch Prize in Germany. He lives in Stockholm with his wife, Monica.

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