Spells Against Loneliness – Part One

Spring has been a missing person these past few weeks. And in its place the damp chill weather here on Vancouver Island has invited loneliness. The image that captures this loneliness for me is a tree –stripped of leaves and bare. That image stares back at me from all directions these days. And the dark, menacing green of the ever-present firs provides no solace.

What, if anything, can be antidote to this loneliness, this malaise? Poems! Poems that name that loneliness, describe that sadness but also remind me to look harder past the bare, drear cloth of these days for what my mind knows is obvious but my heart doesn’t believe – the signs of Spring’s first light green threads. Two poems, in particular, have been the potion I drink to dispel these seasonal blues.

The first poem, one I will feature in part one of this blog, is by Tomas Transtromer, the celebrated Swedish poet born in Stockholm in 1931. In 2010 the Guardian newspaper touted him as a leading candidate for last year’s Nobel prize in literature won by Mario Vargas Llosa. In addition to being a prolific poet, Transtromer was also a practicing psychologist for many years.

The second poem is by Pier Giorgio Di Cicco born in Italy in 1949 but now a long-time resident of Toronto. De Cicco is a man of many parts: priest, city planner and second Poet Laureate of Toronto from 2004 to 2009, I will look at his poem in detail in part two of this blog to be posted separately.

In spite of a debilitating stroke in 1990 that affected his speech, and now confines him to a wheelchair, Transtromer has continued to write and to appear at major writing events. He has even managed to keep playing the piano, one of his passions, but with one hand. In 2007 he flew to Toronto to accept a Lifetime Recognition Award for Excellence in Poetry from the Griffin Trust. Transtromers’ trademark is his use of spare imagery and, not surprisingly, the resulting rich starkness of his poems also mirror the harsh beauty of his native land.

Face To Face

In February life stood still.
The birds refused to fly and the soul
grated against the landscape as a boat
chafes against the jetty where its moored.

The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth
measured by the stubble poking through.
The footprints grew old out on the ice crust.
Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.

Suddenly, something approaches the window.
I stop working and look up.
The colours blaze. Everything turns around.
The earth and I spring at each other.

trans. Robin Robertson from The Deleted World, Enitharmon Press, 2007

There is a numinous and mystical aspect to Transtromers work. It suggests vividly the presence of something looming at the edge of consciousness, at the edge of the page. The image of the soul in this poem arrests me. The sense that the soul is caught, trapped here in the world, a boat chafing against the concrete reality of the jetty; tethered, when it is designed to be free, out on a greater ocean. If some of his poems touch on the religious it is not as dogma or in the thrall of some specific theology. It is as if he reaches out and touches something indescribable and then anchors his poem back in concrete reality.

In another poem called the Outpost, Transtromer says “I am the place/ where creation is working itself out.” In an interview in 1973 he says “This kind of religious idea recurs here and there in my poems of late, that I see a kind of meaning in being present, in using reality, in experiencing it, in making something of it. And I have an inkling that I’m doing this as some sort of task or commission.”

The last lines of Face To Face contain a primal exultation. No matter how tied up, tied down, we feel, especially when the world we see around us seems dormant or dead, this poem says something past the window blazes with transcendent life. “The earth and I spring at each other”. What a shocking triumph, recovery, from the tone of the first stanza.

A few weeks ago I planted two amaryllis bulbs; a late planting and the bulbs so brown and parchment dry on the surface. Within a week the parchment skin cracked and green showed through on the sides. Then a week after that the first green tongue of the stalk-to -be broke out of the top of one of the bulbs. This, for me, was such an echo of Transtromer’s last line. His poem in some way has made the green of that first shoot greener, brighter. My sense of loneliness dissipates.