The Half-Finished Heaven
Despondency breaks off its course.
Anguish breaks off its course.
The vulture breaks off its flight.
The eager light streams out,
even the ghosts take a draught.
And our paintings see daylight,
our red beasts of the ice-age studios.
Everything begins to look around.
We walk in the sun in hundreds.
Each man is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.
The endless ground under us.
The water is shining among the trees.
The lake is a window into the earth.
Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton (Bloodaxe Books, 1997/2011)
I heard this extraordinary poem being read by Kenneth Branagh earlier this year, in the final episode of the latest series of Wallander on BBC1. It was a particularly sobering episode, which depicted the eponymous detective coming to terms with an early diagnosis of dementia while he conducts an investigation for murder into a member of his extended family. The scene which especially stands out in my memory is of a suddenly furious Branagh raging and tearing at his clothes in a field, while his daughter, whom he no longer recognises, tries to comfort him. Later, his rage having dissipated, she asks him why he was not able to tell her what he had long suspected about his decline: ‘Because you’re my daughter,’ he says. If I see anything more moving or more devastating on television this year I will be lucky.
I am not giving too much away when I say the episode does not end well for Wallander’s quarry. Because he knew him personally he is invited to speak at the man’s funeral. As Branagh begins his eulogy, the viewer is shown a small circle of mourners standing by the graveside from a vertiginous camera angle. What we hear is the poem above.
I had read the poem before, but suddenly it felt fresh to me. From the way it begins with those emphatic abstract nouns that I was always warned to be wary of (‘Despondency’, ‘anguish’), to the way it shifts between different settings, of nature (‘The vulture breaks off its flight’), art (‘And our paintings see daylight,/ our red beasts of the ice-age studios’), and even the language of creation-myth (‘Everything begins to look around./ We walk in the sun in hundreds’), the poem is captivating because it does not attempt to diminish the presence of the ‘ghosts’ at its centre. The lines ‘Each man is a half-open door/ leading to a room for everyone’ remind me of the crowds pressing in on the speaker of another of Tranströmer’s poems, ‘Alone’, where ‘everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.’ It seemed bereft of any sense of comfort. Yet it seemed to match its moment perfectly. I wondered to myself if, sometimes, that is the best kind of acceptance we can wish for, one that names the ‘anguish’ we feel, and which returns us to the only place we can be certain of, the ‘endless ground under us’, whether we like it or not.