My days begin with coffee. For close to forty years, my days begin with coffee. In a previous life, I’m sure I frequented London Coffeehouses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Am I dependent on coffee? Yes, yes I am. And yes, since I drink coffee I am cosmopolitan, I believe in the free flow of what is delicious around the world, and I certainly don’t build walls to keep out wonderful coffee beans from Ethiopia, Sudan, Madagascar and over seventy more countries where coffee is cultivated. Sorry nationalists, this brew steams international.
Certified Organic, promoting Biological Diversity, supporting Sustainable Development in Peru, Hand-harvested 100% Arabica whole beans, this is one deep, dark-roasted cup of Joe. Water boils, grinder chops up beans, steaming water fills the French Press, and within five minutes I’m drinking coffee or more accurately put, I”m drinking a forest floor. Onto translating Tomas Tranströmer and a poem from his first collection, 17 Poems.
Se det gråa trädet. Himlen runnit
genom dess fibrer ned i jorden –
bara en skrumpen sky är kvar nä
jorden druckit. Stulen rymd
vrides i flätverket av rötter, tvinnas
till grönska. – De korta ögonblicken
av frihet stiger ur oss, virvlar
genom parcernas blod och vidare.
Before I set forth my translation, a few comments about my approach. Since I’m still a beginner in learning Swedish, besides digging deep in Norstedts Stora Svensk-Engelska Ordbok I’m also reading Robin Fulton’s translation of Tranströmer’s collected poems entitled The Great Enigma. I’m also using Google Translate to work out some grammatical mysteries on my part, though Google can easily create their own syntactical mysteries. Also, my choices are very much based on my particular word-bent and style. I’m trying to create an English version of a Swedish poem out of a Swedish poet’s work which is faithful to my sense of what’s captivating in English. My amusement and edification and maybe yours.
Look at the grey tree. Heaven empties
through its fibers down to ground
leaving only a withered cloud behind when
the earth drinks too much. Stolen breath
wheeled in the wickerwork of roots, twined
to green. Short-lived moments
of our choosing rise from us, whirl
through the blood of spun thread and beyond.
So, instead of using the title “Context” which would be clearest choice in terms of the Swedish, I’m going with a word I find more interesting, and more to what I think Tranströmer is up to in this poem. After that, I follow the wonderful imagery created by this grey tree which serves as a conduit for the draining of Heaven or of the sky down into fallen leaves, branches, dirt, snails and all the other foliage of a forest floor. I choose “breath” instead of air to echo my choice of “Heaven” and a more archaic sense of air, and then follow the poet’s continuing work on what’s above us becoming what’s below us twisting in the underground. I offer “of spun thread” as a synecdoche for the Parcae, the Roman Fates, which Tranströmer references with “parcernas.” What a wonderful counter movement the poem offers as its images of human life in moments of liberty spiral up into the divine and further. There’s much to think about in Tranströmer’s metaphysics in this poem, the interrelations between Heaven and Earth, the twined existence of humans and gods, sky and ground and those of us in between. For now I’m pleased, but I may go back and have another view tomorrow, probably with another cup of coffee, which reminds me of a Bob Dylan song from the amazing Rolling Thunder Revue. I’m off for a walk around a lake. Bon Appétit!