Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My Grandmother sings SWEET BIRD

This picture was taken by my mother at Grandma Susie's 90th birthday celebration. She is singing "Sweet Bird" her father's favorite song. When she was dying six years later, she said her father was coming to get her in the wagon. She used to ride on the wagon seat beside him. Since she lived in Arizona and I grew up in New York, I didn't know her very well. She had a dry, soft, powdery withered cheek that I was told by my mother to kiss. I didn't want to. Kids can be pretty stupid.

Probably because he got the Nobel Prize for poetry in 2011, a translation of Transtromer's long poem from 1974 Baltics has recently been published here in a bilingual edition with the Swedish on facing pages. It is in a handsome volume that includes many black and white photos taken on the island where his family's summer home has been for three generations. The photographer, Ann Charters, wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac and also took many photographs of the beat generation. Her husband, Samuel Charters, has translated Transtromer for many years. The photos were taken on their visit to the island in 1973. I love this book! I like having the Swedish there to look at, I love the photographs; I love the size of the book and the smooth paper. Most of all I love the poem; it is generous enough to include many different kinds of things in the most elegant, free and thoughtful way. The passage I picked for you tonight is the one about the poet's grandmother on page 57.

"My grandmother's story before it's forgotten: her parents dying young,
the father first. When the widow realizes the disease will take her, too
she walks from house to house, sails from island to island
with .her daughter. "Who can take care of Maria?"
A strange house on the other side of the bay takes her in.
They could afford to do it. But the ones who could afford to do it
       weren't the good ones.
Piety's mask cracks. Maria's childhood ends too soon,
she's an unpaid servant, in perpetual coldness.
Year after year.Perpetually seasick behind the
long oars, the solemn terror
at the table, the expressions, the pike skin crunching
in her mouth: be grateful, be grateful.
                                                       She never looked back.
And because of this she could see The New
and seize it.
Break out of the bonds.

I remember her, I used to snuggle against her
and at the moment she died (the moment she passed over?) she
        sent out a thought
so that I, a five-year-old, understood what had happened
a half an hour before they called."

Tomas Transtomer, Baltics, Tavern Books, 2012, page 57.
Translated from the Swedish by Samuel Charters.

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