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The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems Paperback – 6 Oct 2006

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: New Directions (6 Oct. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780811216722
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811216722
  • ASIN: 0811216721
  • Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,489,779 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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About the Author

Robin Fulton, a Scottish poet and longtime resident of Norway, has been translating Transtromer for over thirty-five years.

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Format: Paperback
The earlier poems in this collection (from '17 poems', 'Secrets on the Way' etc.) seem to be unchanged since Mr. Fulton's earlier collection of translations, 'Collected Poems' published by Blookaxe in 1987. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if those earlier translations are worth reprinting. Unfortunately they are not.

Mr. Fulton takes a great many liberties with the swedish text and often looses the lyricism and verbal impact of the original. And worse, some of his decisions are frankly bewildering.

For example, the poem 'Kväll - morgon'/'Evening - Morning' from '17 poems' begins:

"Månens mast har murknat och seglet skrynklas." Which means literally "The mast of the moon has rotted and the sail shriveled."

Mr. Fulton translates this as:

"Moon - its mast is rotten, its sail is shriveled." He goes on to hide the other objects (Seagull, Jetty) behind a hyphen and then brings the stanza to an odd climax with the line "The thickets founder in darkness". The actual line from Tranströmer reads "The thickets collapse in the dark". Collapse continues the theme of ruin (rotten + shriveled above) and the dark has more of an impact than darkness (but of course the definite noun is a bugbear when translating from any Nordic language).

Every translation is a compromise. The original will never truly shine through and there are sacrifices which have to be made for flow, metre etc. but even so I think Mr. Fulton's efforts could be bettered.

With that in mind I eagerly await delivery of 'The Half-finished Heaven' translated by Tranströmer's friend Robert Bly, and 'The Deleted World' translated by Robin Robertson.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program)

Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars 26 reviews
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In the Comet's Tail 15 Oct. 2011
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
How can you write about a poet without quoting? And if he has already achieved such extreme compression of ideas as 2011 Nobelist Tomas Tranströmer has, what can more words add? So I will try to use his own words as much as possible, starting with a complete poem, "Eagle Rock," from his last published collection (The Great Enigma, 2004):

Behind the vivarium glass
the reptiles
unmoving.

A woman hangs up washing
in the silence.
Death is becalmed.

In the depths of the ground
my soul glides
silent as a comet.

How unexpected is that word "comet," a moving body of light in the heavens, challenging the below-ground dark of death! This from a man in his seventies, robbed of the power of speech by a stroke some dozen years before. The brief poems from this last period have not been published in English before this volume, which shows the poet's development from young adulthood to old age. The image of the comet returns again in the book's final section, a prose memoir from 1993 describing his childhood and adolescence, thus bringing the life-cycle full circle: "My life. Thinking these words, I see before me a streak of light... a comet." After talking about youth -- the bright dense head of the comet -- he goes on: "Further back, the comet thins out -- that's the longer part, the tail. It becomes more and more sparse, but also broader. I am now far out in the comet's tail, I am sixty as I write this." The image of racing time returns, as most of his images do, in another poem, "A Page of the Nightbook" (1996): "A period of time / a few minutes long / fifty-eight years wide." And again in the prose-poem "Answers to Letters" (1983): "Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years could pass in a moment."

In his memoir, Tranströmer tells of sitting in Latin class while the students read out verses of Horace one by one then attempted their own halting translations. "This alternation between the trivial and decrepit on the one hand and the buoyant and sublime on the other taught me a lot. It had to do with the conditions of poetry and of life. That through form something could be raised to another level. The caterpillar feet were gone, the wings unfolded." This says a lot for the poet's love of brevity, but it reminds us that the butterfly was once an earthbound caterpillar too. Tranströmer's poems may be surreal at times, but the secrets they hold are by no means arcane; they are as universal as they are personal. His butterfly is no exotic species: "I love that cabbage-white as though it were a fluttering corner of truth itself." (Streets in Shanghai, 1986). The process of translation, which was Tranströmer's first inspiration, poses a special challenge to his translators, but Scottish poet Robin Fulton has been working with him for thirty-five years; his versions have the immediacy of English originals.

Fulton also contributes a most helpful introduction. He half-advises the reader to start at the end, so I did. I thumb back like snapshots in an album. A music-lover consoled by lugubrious Liszt who in his younger days had thrilled to Haydn. A traveler in the cities of many continents, who ends as he had begun, among the heaths, forests, and coastline of his native land. A successful lover walking down the street when "All the question marks began singing of God's being" (C Major, 1962). A young poet arriving on the literary scene like a commando: "Waking up is a parachute descent from dreams" -- the opening line of "Prelude" (1954), the first poem in the collection. But what strikes me most in this retrospective glance is the elegiac nature of so much of Tranströmer's poetry, as though half his life has been spent preparing to write that final full stop. There is the foreboding of his magnificent poem, "Alone" (1966), an account of a near-death experience on an icy road. The trains that cross his landscapes stop without reason, and only sometimes continue on. But nothing expresses it as beautifully or simply as the second of his two "Black Postcards" (1983), in which you almost hear the voice of Emily Dickinson:

In the middle of life it happens that death comes
to take man's measurements. The visit
is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit
is sewn on the quiet.

Unlike many Nobel laureates, Tomas Tranströmer is not a political writer performing on the world stage. He is a private man, a rare one who shares his privacy, and eminently worth reading.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Transtromer: More than Meets the Eye 19 Nov. 2011
By L. Glaesemann - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When I first learned that Poet Tomas Transtromer was this year's Nobel Laureate in literature, I was both ecstatic and perplexed--the former because I had another opportunity to read and to respond to what the literary community regaled as this year's crowning achievement, and the latter because I had never heard of him even though I have been reading, writing, and teaching literature most of my adult life.

If you do not remember, last year's winner was Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian writer whose historical fiction novel Feast of the Goat--a story about the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic--set my heart ablaze with his ability to describe poignant historical events. My only minor critique was that his style and content sounded reminiscent of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

With Tomas Transtromer, there is no real comparison. He has been by far the most original, the most satisfying, and the most complete modern poet (he probably is upset that I have called him modern and a poet!) I have encountered. What is even more impressive about him is that literature has never been his field of study (that would be history, psychology, and amazingly geography)even though he has been writing prodigiously for the last forty years. It is truly fortuitous that the rest of the world now has the opportunity to enter this "silent rebel's mind," for we can benefit from his poetry in so many capacities.

An amateur compared to those who have followed Transtromer's life and works, my prosody may likely sound frenetic for the simple reason that my training has been in English, and, honestly, that is a slight limitation since Transtromer purposely tries to be an atypical poet. What I wish to convey is the approach that I have taken to understand and to enjoy his poems for one must remember that Transtromer envisions the world from the apex of the universe, not the pedestrian sidewalk.

If you are new to Transtromer and lack a solid background in poetry, do not panic. My background could not have prepared me for what I was about to read either. In the foreword Robin Fulton suggests that the reader not attempt to read the text chronologically, as the poems do not necessarily build upon themselves. In an interview Transtromer commented that his later poetry was a reaction to his overly romantic ones in his early twenties, but that does not mean that they are less worthy than what he produced later in his life.

If anything, Transtromer characterizes his youthful poems as too insular or possibly too bound to his home topography. However, strangely enough, when I finished reading the sections 17 Poems and Secrets on the Way, I found myself befuddled at a conscious level but somehow dreaming "better" at an unconscious level, as if the poems' meanings were only clairvoyant during the REM stage of sleep. While some may yearn for this interior struggle, I quickly embraced Fulton's advice and shifted my focus to Transtromer's memoir.

Written in 1993, "Memories Look at Me" is Transtromer's benevolence heaped upon us. It is here where I made my deeper connections and here where I understood that Transtromer does not function as what we think of the "typical" poet. We happen upon his childhood and the fact that his journalist father left his wife and son early on, and, as a result, the young Transtromer grew up poor. There is his grandfather, whose nineteenth century lexicon lingered in his mind; a rich childhood friend who possessed so much while he had so little. It is as if he provides this biography only to tell us what he is not.

Interestingly, of likely lasting impact was his awareness at the age of eight that he was "special" from the other students; for example, he loved touring museums and reading books from the adult section of the library or at his father's party from cover to cover. There is his time in primary and especially secondary school where both teachers and students quickly recognized his geniuses not only in writing but above all in geography!

He may be private today, but some of his adolescence could be characterized as passive-aggressive. During World War II, he recalled how he was thoroughly anti-Nazi even though most of his secondary teachers were ardent supporters. There was his rebellion against one of his teachers who hated that he refused to write conventional poems with proper capitalization (which likely explains the lowercase lettering of the title of his book!) Ultimately, though, there is nothing political, nothing peculiar, and nothing scintillating other than, well, himself. There is the poet, the "great enigmas," and likely a spiritual realm that he describes throughout much of his poetry.

As one can tell from the number of previous paragraphs, there is much to be gained from reading his memoir. The next step is to understand how Transtromer uses a multitude of physical settings and historical events as a springboard into an ironic dream-like awareness of a spiritual transcendence. I hesitate to use the word "routine" because that is misleading, but even Fulton comments that much of Transtromer's poetry starts with the concrete in order to climb toward a "larger context."

The "cycle" of much of Transtromer's poetry is one in which a season--i.e. fall, winter, spring, summer--is invoked, often followed with a specific month such as June, November, December, and February--and then paired with a particular hour such as midnight and two a.m. He uses this physical context as a way to depict an epiphanous moment, an unconscious feeling, an indescribable yet definite sense of otherworldliness, or an unlikely reaction that only takes formation in a dream.

There is also the historical event--the Nile Delta, Lisbon, a man from Benin, an African diary, history itself, and women of the nineteenth century--who populate his poetic canvas, and, frankly, appear to live outside the confines of what one would consider traditional European history. Though the people are caught up in their historical moments, they also transcend theirs; leaving us with the impression that Transtromer disagrees with the concept of contextualizing poetry. The tone of his poems is quiet to the point of deathly silence, but then again it is at these moments that we often make our greatest discoveries. There is a structure to Transtromer's events, but there is not a clearly defined structure to his poem--it is largely image driven. Then again, as we rethink history, often that is what it becomes over time: an image that becomes a part of who we are.

Finally, there is Fulton's foreword, which includes an extensive analysis of Transtromer's poetry. My suggestion is that you read this after you have finished reading his poems. As you can tell from my paltry attempt, analysis has its limits when it comes to his poetry. His poetry is not something that can be summed up or broken apart but rather must be approached in the right manner. In my humble opinion, that can only occur when you accept that he has chosen to allow you into his world of ideas. Once inside, do not take your admission for granted, for leaving it will be as challenging as entering it!

This is likely my longest review of a book that I have done on Amazon, but I think Transtromer is worthy of one. As enigmatic as my review has been (usually, I am quite the concrete-sequential thinker), I feel as if it has been the most rewarding because this is the most organic understanding I have had of the human condition save for a religious institution. If you are willing to invest the time, "the great enigma" we call life becomes less perplexing and certainly more cherished.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wise Man Said It's Not Over Till It's Over!!!! 21 April 2013
By Richard C. Geschke - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In the forward of this book of poetry written by Robin Fulton He gave us new readers of Transtromer much sage advice which I did not take heed. Mr. Fulton's advice to all new readers was to "read back from recent to early work" which he believed would be more helpful than reading forward. Being a traditional and stubborn reader I took no notice of his advice.
Also in the forward Transtromer told Fulton that his earlier poems were very much abstract and complicated. As he grew older his poetry gained more traction and indeed more understanding. The very title of this book "the great enigma" brought this reader to his knees halfway through the readings. The title is amply named as the definition of enigma is a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation.
As I traversed the oeuvre of Transtromer's works I noticed that my enjoyment and understanding of his poetry became more enlightened as the years passed. Struggling as I was going through his works I noticed many reoccurring events. The author's favorite color is blue, his writing references death and the past and also he shows a great l love of the sea and the night sky containing the likes of moonlight. His writings also took us into the wilderness of the woods which he frequented numerous times.
On my journey of frustration in finding meaning to the writings, I started to notice some concrete understandings, weak though it was. Such poems titled as Song, Elegy, Solitary Swedish Houses, Weather Picture, The Tree and the Sky, November with Nuances of Noble Fur and A Winter Night whetted my appetite for more of Transtromer's poetry.
The keys to my epiphany to Transtromer's works and there meanings happened in the last words of prose coming straight from Thomas Transtromer himself. Titled "Memories Look At Me" was the key to his total works. This was the last segment of the book. Indeed Transtromer reveals the heart and soul of his being. In doing so, the author really de-enigmatises his works. I fear "Word" does not recognize de-enigmatise, oh well the program will have to deal with it. You as the reader will understand what I mean. Fulton was right; I should have read this book in reverse. My mindset in reading this book went from three stars all the way to five stars. This is why when doing a review you must always read to the end!!!
4.0 out of 5 stars The Great Enigma 3 July 2016
By G. Branch - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A review of a Nobel prize winner? Not my place, but I will make a few comments here that are simply opinion.

First, I'd recommend reading the forward and his memories at the end of this collection before the rest. Helps to place him in geography , history, and his general reactions to specific points in his life. Overall this collection reveals a very personal sort of poet. By that I mean he seems to write from his own recollections and impressions just to express the experience in words. He doesn't seem to attempt any commentary about politics or such like.

Second, all the technical stuff related to poetry like meter etc. is way beyond my knowledge level, but as a plain old reader I liked most of this collection. It tended to the somber with little splashes of color here and there---generally as spring return to the countryside. Have to wonder how much the climate affected his life and writing.

Last. Would I return to his writing? Yes, that's one of the beauties of poetry. It can be fresh at each reading.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sudden Reality from the Void 6 Feb. 2012
By Philip Vassallo - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If translator Robin Fulton comes anywhere close to realizing the power of Tomas Transtromer's poetry, then the Swedish legendary man of letters is worthy of his 2011 Nobel Prize for literature. "The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems," covering the complete body of Transtromer's verse, is full of beautiful surprises, sudden bursts of reality that leave readers aware of the miracle of common experiences.

The last stanza of Transtromer's poem "A Winter Night" creates such vivid a moment as it moves from the interior of a house on a dark, cold, windy night to the terrain of our imagination and its place in our existence:

Over the world goes a graver storm.
It sets its mouth to our soul
and blows to produces a note. We dread
the storm will blow us empty.

Transtromer journeys across Dostoyevskyan frozen wastelands, Hopperesque anxious villages, and Munchian desolate rooms, all which unfold as stark scenarios but always revealing radiant insights into our humanity. "Schubertiana" begins in a vast expanse near New York City, the narrator an outsider looking in, and concludes with an intimate piano performance for four hands. But it is the pivotal stanza between these two moments that awaken the senses to an epiphany:

The string quartet is playing. I walk home through warm forests with the ground springy under me,
curl up like an embryo, fall asleep, roll weightless into the future, suddenly feel that the plants have thoughts.

Transtromer finds poetry everywhere, a fact that make him immediately accessible to a wide audience. And he sees connections that bring us to a heightened reckoning of harmony with all we encounter, as in this stanza from "The Dispersed Congregation":

But the church bells must go under the earth.
They hang in the sewage tunnels.
They toll under our steps.

Reading "The Great Enigma" brings the gifts of sharing Transtromer's remarkable vision and capturing a clearer image of oneself.
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