, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Romanesque Arches

Inside the huge Romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half
Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel with no face embraced me
and whispered through my whole body:
“Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”
Blind with tears
I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka, and Signora Sabatini,
and inside each of them vault opened behind vault endlessly.


Tomas Tranströmer, widely acclaimed and translated Swedish poet (he was also a psychologist who specialized in work with convicts and drug addicts) is perhaps the most renowned Scandinavian poet of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. His awards include the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry Lifetime Recognition Award. In 1990 he received the Nordic Council Literature Prize for his collection For the Living and the Dead wherein “Romanesque Arches” first appeared. My own encounter with the poem was in The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, a fascinating collection featuring selections from several of the volumes published over the course of the poet’s life. It is sensitively translated by Robin Fulton, who also wrote the Foreword to the book.

In an early (1973) interview with Gunnar Harding (Swedish poet, novelist, essayist and translator), Tranströmer said: “… I respond to reality in such a way that I look on existence as a great mystery and that at times, at certain moments, this mystery carries a strong charge, so that it does have a religious character, and it is often in such a context that I write. So these poems are all the time pointing toward a greater context, one that is incomprehensible to our normal everyday reason. Although it begins in something very concrete.”

“Romanesque Arches” seemed to leap out at me as I perused The Great Enigma, perhaps because I’d just finished reading a fascinating book titled Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers. (The novel is set for the most part in Venice, and is an ecstatic meditation on the city, its landscape and architecture, its denizens, and its connection—and the individual’s deepest psyche’s indestructible connection—to mythic, Apocryphal time.)

Tomas Tranströmer has just died, after a brief illness, at the age of 83. Thank-you, Linda (at https://shoreacres.wordpress.com/), for your comment alerting me to his passing. Thanks also to Jeff (at http://jeffschwaner.com/) for introducing me to Tranströmer’s poetry.