Breathing Space July
The man who lies on his back under huge trees
is also up in them. He branches out into thousands of tiny branches.
He sways back and forth,
he sits in a catapult chair that hurtles forward in slow motion.
The man who stands down at the dock screws up his eyes against the water.
Docks get older faster than men.
They have silver-gray posts and boulders in their gut.
The dazzling light drives straight in.
The man who spends the whole day in an open boat
moving over the luminous bays
will fall asleep at last inside the shade of his blue lamp
as the islands crawl like huge moths over the globe.
Tomas Tranströmer, from New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2011), translated by Robin Fulton
‘Breathing Space July’ was the first poem by Tomas Tranströmer that I can remember reading. I was in my early twenties and beginning to think about teaching. I found myself working in a community arts project, based in a tiny church hall somewhere round the back of Euston Station. Each morning we would head out in our rickety van and present ourselves at various venues across North London to take workshops in creative writing, reminiscence, drama and so on: at mental health day centres, residential homes for the elderly, primary schools, and even a hospice. The hospice work was completely new to me. I had never set foot in one before, and was nervous of meeting people who did not have long to live.
Not having a plan of how to proceed, we proceeded. We asked our clients (we insisted on calling them that, never patients) what they would like. What they really wanted most of all was to be read to, they said. Not just any old thing, they said, but poetry. Again, not having a notion of how to proceed, we hit on the idea of bringing in anthologies, trusting that their breadth and range would work their own kind of magic. This brought into play the question of which anthologies to bring. My own bookshelf at the time consisted of The Rattlebag and The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. Because it was thicker, I chose The Rattlebag.
In no time at all clients were asking for favourites: Keats’s Ode to Autumn, Frost’s Birches, anything by John Clare. We threw in surprises too. Among which was ‘Breathing Space July’ by Tomas Tranströmer. I’d love to be able to report that our clients immediately fell for the poem, and that it became a fixture on the request-list. In truth, I cannot remember. I’m not even sure why I chose to read it. For variety, perhaps. Or because I loved the title. (I was in a band at the time and had an unspoken desire to steal it for an album…) Very probably, our clients slept. Or, not wanting to hurt our feelings, murmured ‘Very pretty’, or ‘Very nice’ as we finished reading the poem.
I think it is for these reasons I have always associated Tranströmer’s poetry with a sense of everyday mystery living on the edge, or in the midst, of the final questions. Death was never far away at those readings, but for a moment it seemed as though we pushed it back a fraction, if only at arm’s length, as though it, too, could become a fleeting feature of nature, memory or dream.