Tranströmer's Thoreau

by Michael Peverett

Funnel Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis)

[Image source:]

Five strophes to Thoreau

So another has left the heavy town's
ring of voracious stones. Crystal-clear salt is
the water that comes together round all true
                         escapers' heads.

Up a slow vortex silence has climbed to here
from the middle of the earth, to put down roots and to grow
and with a leafy crown to shade the man's
                         sun-warmed steps.


The foot kicks thoughtlessly at a mushroom. A thundercloud
grows big on the rim. Like copper trumpets
the tree's bent roots sound a note and the leaves
                          scatter frightened.

Autumn's wild flight is one's own light cape,
its flap-flapping, till once more from frost and ashes
comes the flock of calm days to bathe its
                          claws in the spring.


Believed by nobody is the one who saw a geyser,
who escaped the stone-lined well like Thoreau and who knows
like him to vanish deep in inner greenery,
                            wily and hopeful.

Runmarö cottages

[Image source:]


This is my quick translation of one of Tomas Tranströmer's early poems (published in 17 Poems  / 17 dikter, 1954). Previously I've always read Tranströmer in Robin Fulton's translations, but now that I'm reading the Swedish I discover that Fulton's translations are often quite free and sometimes not so clear as the original.  Of course my own translations are always the clearest!  Though in this case I will probably confuse readers with the "steps" at the end of the second stanza: I'm thinking of external wooden steps up to the veranda of a summer cottage.

And that's what I think Tranströmer had in mind too. Many of the images here relate to the common Swedish summer departure from the city into nature, and the poet himself is the "another" of the poem's opening line.


Interesting discussion of the poem by Henrik Gustafsson and Niklas Schiöler in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, Fall 1998

They also supply translations of the three additional stanzas in the original 1951 version of the poem (they were positioned as 2, 6 and 7). Tranströmer realized his poem could get along better without them.

I don't really agree with their symbolic interpretation of the thunder and the wild autumn, nor with their over-interpretation of "stenad brunn" in the final stanza as a stagnant well. Google searches confirm that the phrase merely specifies a well lined with stones, which is how most Swedish wells were made in the past. But the water in a well, though not fast-flowing, oughtn't to be stagnant. For me the main point (aside from recalling the city's "voracious ring of stones" in line 2) is to suggest the difficulty of clambering out.

Yellow Foot Chanterelles (Craterellus  lutescens) and Funnel Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis)

[Image source: This image was taken on Runmarö, the island on the Stockholm archipelago where Tranströmer had his summer cottage.]

Tranströmer himself saw geysers in Iceland in 1951. Geysers are very rare phenomena, there are only about 1,000 worldwide.

The poem is characterized by an insistent crossover of images that doesn't necessarily follow the prose sense. (For example the ascending vortex and the man's wooden steps in Stanza 2.) In the fifth stanza it's difficult to ignore the connection between the geyser and the stony well of the following line. Momentarily, we glimpse a Thoreau exploding out of the city-well with a geyser's force. But only momentarily. The verb "flytta" in the following line (to move, leave, depart or flit) is far from explosive. Quietness is re-established. Significant actions, we learn, may often be quiet ones. So, of course, may trivial ones.

More distantly, both this geyser and this well make connections with the spring of stanza 4 and the crystal-clear water of stanza 1. The latter, I think, is the icy, only-slightly-saline water of the Stockholm archipelago. And I think the image is of someone swimming, the waters merging round his head rather than over his head.


[Image source:]

Thomas Good (1901 - 1970)

by Michael Peverett

[Image source:]

From Thomas Good's poem "Chronometer":


Give me the mid-ocean of a dream
I’ll settle with Apollo
Till the flood of fear, the false equation seem
Vanished in a mirror sandwiched in the dunes.

We have left you, earth to groan, cancelled your riper song
With the tinkling of bones, the inverted stones
Of impalpable wishes, shapeless shells
Of stubborn homes, fleeced fields, phallos of the petrol-pump
To be mined, and divined, and defaced like a skull in a mask.


But the cool instance of a forgotten glove
Moaned in the crazy oven of my hell
No one could lift her through the mustard-clouds
Across the foreshore of the insulated infinite
Or leave her nailed where the god impaled
Ripens the greengage hours.

Fancy painted a thrifty courtship, post-card praise
Love’s barter in the oast, her laughing premium paid
With never a yes or no to say, buds and berries of positive days
An almanac happiness, in violent sepulchral ease
The book tossed away for a boy, in a cesspool of sense, on a dungheap of joy.

Better beget in the peak of the hour, near the weeds grow the flowers
Than in a chapel of fools slouch away from the too fertile worm
And to live on a spring, for a whim, not to stink with a too moist outhouse happiness
Ignoring the breeze of a birth and the bellowing breasts.


Wolverhampton-based Richard Warren's valiant researches into the obscurer reaches of British art and literature, 20th century vintage,  have thrown up another distraught gem in the work of Beeston-born Thomas Good, a 1940s poet who reminds me somewhat of Peter Yates, who I wrote about recently. But Good is less controlled,  more unpredictable.

These two short extracts from the 24 stanzas of  "Chronometer" give an idea of the breadth of  content allowed into the poem, the navigation so perilously close to the edge of losing us completely, the sometimes thrilling sensuousness of "greengage hours", "moist outhouse happiness", "bellowing breasts" etc.

Typical of the era are its unfettered judgmentalism (both condemnatory and self-condemnatory), its disillusioned world of "fools" (a term much-used in those days, now less so), and its peculiarly exclusive focus on male experience.  And, characteristic of '40s poetry in particular, lots of unlocated use of "the" ("the flood of fear", "the mustard clouds", "the insulated infinite").

You wouldn't guess it from these extracts, but "Chronometer" mainly springs from thoughts of the South of France, then under Occupation (Nov 1942-Summer 1944).  (Good and his family had moved to near Aix-en-Provence in 1937, hoping to relieve a fresh onset of Good's recurrent nervous anxiety. They returned to England near the start of the war.)

That war-time background is overt in e.g. "Let the almonds and the vines of Prussia bend and bleed / In reparation" ; though it's of course rather a perverse way of putting it, Prussia not being known for its vines and almonds. The poem doesn't do war reportage. Perhaps it even disdains so small a topic. What it laments is not so much war as modernity.  The poet's anguish about Provence is confessedly absorbed into Good's own personal-universal psychological journey, "his wound a turgid jewel in the brain"; quite a bit of the poem is slightly-reshaped autobiography. Good has been called an uneven poet, and "Chronometer" comes to rest in old-fashioned apostrophe ("O France, O England.."), a very long way from the arresting thicket of syntax in its opening stanza:

I have an inkling that the taste of forgotten lemons
Skins unsalvaged, returning near the ebb of summer-time
Now the dioxide fastens my sorrow, conjures a city, shapes a song
From a crucified chaos opens a circle, deflects the borrowed wheel
Of futility, which even the partially blessed are said to feel.

(Though even here, the thought did cross my mind that inside every extraordinary poem there's an ordinary one trying to get out.)

But still, "Chronometer" is a motley kind of triumph, its torrent of askew images enlivening pretty much every stanza; it's a poem you want to keep on re-reading.  And here, in 1944, Good was already trying to deal with a pressing issue that now affects most poets in a globally-conscious world. Culture happens here, war there. Yet the poetry cannot operate in happy ignorance. (We know, for example, that Aleppo is happening now.) The poet's mind is strung to a distant conflict but without real involvement and therefore without resolution. Or is there a defensible way of articulating how our own psychological or spiritual experience bears on larger movements of violence and suffering?

A Selection of Thomas Good poems:

Profile of Good's life and work:

Accompanying blog post:

Thomas Good's "Carrion":

A poem by D. S. Marriott

Eskimo (after Wiley)

And once again this wedge is my
hypothesis, for what is denied isn’t
a true beginning, and what you
see below isn’t an answer,
or a final step, but truth’s living
flesh being hacked to pieces.
But then that’s poetry’s falsehood.

And at the end of these words
I will ask you endless questions
for hours and hours on end
taking turns to write or yell
accusations, and I will tell you
the proof of what happened,
and with this confession
you will be unable to contradict
or resist me, or turn back from the rim
of remembrance, and thus return to the dim
constellations of memory.

And you will forget what you did,
and I will take you to
the grey zones where all the bones are buried.

A hunger should be cold
cut with shards of catastrophe.
A tsunami that simply refuses to die where bush fires
go out, and tidal waves recede,
waiting for the rescuers to arrive. It’s the end of virtue;
a slag-heap of the endlessly perishable,
a lake where thought itself, neither slough nor swale,
drags us down into darkness.

Because every ‘might’ve’ should be hard, relentless,
as indifferent to the surrender that wants no part
as to the desire that asks for it
for they are both the same
I will show you what happened
the night before your innocence,
when what might have been
was just one of those days when truth is forfeit,
and what happens is itself already damaged,
and it’s hard to decide whether the most guilty
is the one who runs away,
or the one who spends every day 
in thrall to the sanctuary of forgiveness
because he’s already erased all traces?

Go on then go on then, try me if ya name’s man.
And once again truth is held up as a threat,
and I will look at you
during a pause in the interrogation,
and soon it will be your turn again, and there will be
no restraint in the cells when the little one wanders away
and black as death the conquest.
And I will hear your screams again,
and during the beatings
the words ‘I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there’
will return like skiffs already covered over by banks of chromatic rain
in a vast sea of heartlessness—
and your lips will seek another hearing,
and you will listen to the tapes silent, but horrified.
And the wish not to be pagan,
head bowed, wrecked by humiliation,
sent scuttling back to the island
and to the waters that should never
have been stepped in, and the body
which all year long has been the source of the sun’s empty interrogation,
and you will admit to the dead no sacrifice.

And I will ask you once again,
and you will look at me and see
my pupils burning with sunlight and fire,
and your eyes looking at me will see
why sacrifice of the dead is the only thing that matters
even though all that will be saved are dungheaps.
And all of us blinded as we head back to the blue,
the ice-fall and snows,
the avalanche and glaciers that bury you also.

Man knows he will never escape
and so walks on the beach anonymous: was this the intricate, blank sun?
Will the guards look after me, bring me lunch, as I am,
or are they just waiting to leave again? The bars
are overflowing and dangerous, each incident must be met with a chill
forbearance in the noonday sun, then massaged
as flaccid, dingy outlines net each pilgrim.
Only then does everything pass down to extinction
down there, as each journey opens with hope, and thought
enters the great, carnal round of beginning, sun-blinded,
its naming programmed in neon, your confession an epic
that takes in the whole world, now, but a homecoming,
a reunion, with no one to sing the story or knit its arrival.
And even the oracle rages for its lack of vision
to bet on the thing that never happens but always will.

Slowly it dawns, in the clubs and lobbies.
The sun is fate. The clue lies in how it takes shape in the kiosks
the glare of immortality, and none the wiser for seeing it.
And the thought that life is but a shadow
falls like guano across the most famous landmark on the island,
but it was only the body of a dog petrified once more
tales of what happens, and the fear of what fails to etched into our travels.

The police take up their places. Near but far and always waiting
to explore every inch of the island, looking for temporary truths amid the locals,
finally all those inebriated with thoughts of death & glory.
And a new song emerges from all the rapturous things on earth,
the bars, the cafes, the grey stucco houses and storefronts
the sanious delirious bruise of an island, and all the waves
versions of waves flattened under the sea’s immense weight.
The tides taking us farther and farther out,
where we flounder, lost in what we will & don’t know, that no sea dispels.

Peter Yates: "The Explorers"

Border of the Mud Desert near Desolation Camp, 1861. Painting by Ludwig Becker

[Image source: . State Library of Victoria, ID H16486.]

post by Michael Peverett

In the locale of  Peter Yates' “The Explorers” the hands on the clock don’t move, but the compass needle does.

Explorers moving through the vivid lands
Of moveless time: inebriated urge
Towards the dreamed Americas, the end
Where last magnetic rays of sunlight bend
Till vertical and horizontal merge
In final contact, touch of ungloved hands.

The axis in the mind projecting hope,
The folded mountains and the cobalt sea
Emerge; shadows of sunlight on the rock
Seduce the senses, wind the moveless clock,
Give birth to wishes, fears; the will to be
Immortal, and the twitching fingers grope.

The compass moves, glint of the Phoenix eye;
November and the melancholy wind,
Snow on the marbles tombs: elastic flesh
Expands, consumes; fakes with its fuse a flash –
The image, vivid, flickers in the mind,
The vibrant, beautiful, exciting lie.

These are the first three of twenty-nine stanzas. The stanza-form is, by Yates’ standards, simple; six five-stress lines rhyming abccba. There are only a few internal rhymes (tombs, consumes). There are harsh chatters of prolonged alliteration, like a burst of machine-gun fire. The “iambic” flow is a constant in all his poems. Each of these stanzas gathers a sense of purpose towards the middle, when the rhymes are closer together and we feel we’re “getting somewhere”, and then loses it, reaching its firm full stop with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The form makes each stanza seem self-contained and isolated from its fellows.  

Progression is by noun-phrases. Nouns are preceded by the definite article, though this is somewhat disguised by elision of particles (for example, in the first stanza we assume “the inebriated urge”, “the last magnetic rays”, “the touch of ungloved hands”). Nevertheless, the appears 155 times in “The Explorers”, and a/an just six times. What’s going on here? When we read “the vivid lands” our faces are held down, coerced by the poet’s imagination. But when we read (as above, in the third stanza) “a flash”, a familiar context is implied: we are referred to the world outside the poem in which we have seen other flashes; this is but one of them. Yates makes very sparing use of that context in his early poems. You might like to know that the next time we run across a, it is “a stifled cry”, and the next time “a shriek”. These three faint animal interjections are pitifully crushed by the engine of the poem.

“Snow on the marbles tombs” may be a misprint, but don’t be too sure; tombs may be a verb. Verbs have a tendency to seem like nouns in this moveless operation. Several stanzas (like the first) manage without any direct verb. But one verb – “move” – is insistent.

Again the compass moves; the visions pass
and burn like spectral fevers in the eye.
The thunder speaks, the fatal axis moves,
Recedes, slips off its safe and formal grooves
To where gigantic mirrors multiply
Only the total being of their glass.

O wanderers, betrayed by swamp and slime,
Receding from alacrity of youth
To move in lonely circuits of the brain
Down pensive passages, propelled by pain
In search of moments motionless with truth,
Adrift, lost in the wilderness of time.

Explorers moving through imagined space
Led by equator’s never ending line
In search of pyramids and plangent curves;
Creating new sensation with the nerves;
New instruments to heat the blood’s decline;
New formulas to hide the ego’s face.

Explorers sinking in bewildered blood
I watch you through my lenses, see you move
In search of final islands, and that place
Where lost and rigid parallels embrace
With kiss and crackle of electric love
The separate polarities of good.

Insensate time: clock without face or hands,
Revolting torso with the abstract eye
Made hideous by hate, I see you move
In moveless moments in which secret groove
Towards what formula or frozen lie
Only the lucid madman understands.      

                                                            (Stanzas 7-11)

What, then, moves? The explorers, the compass, the mind’s eye; the poet’s mind and the reader’s eye. 

They move through a dense thicket of repetitions, deterring progress. The poem does the opposite of providing a mimesis of journeying; it provides, instead, a non-progressing obstacle. There is nothing to drink; it is the explorer’s own need that inebriates.

But voyagers on gleaming parallels
Still reach towards the image in the mind... 

(Stanza 16)

“Gleaming” gives us a sense of relief. Like the “kiss and crackle of electric love”, it falsely suggests something drinkable, and also something speedy – the gleam, as it were, shoots ahead of the voyagers. But this is deceptive relief under a burning sun. Consider that arresting phrase in Stanza 2, “shadows of sunlight”.

“The Explorers” continues Yates’ long quarrel with thought, and is a toxic mindscape. Nothing is fixed there (we have already seen the November wind), and much else comes within its compass; including, with some reticence, war-time Britain.

            And in the towns, where death becomes an art...             (St 21)

But Yates keeps his focus on the tangle of the self:

Where being is itself the subtle crime                             (St 25)

His own mind, no doubt one of the hungry explorers too, snags on non-progressive images of futility:

And speedboats with no destination move
Tracing their foaming circles of false love                       (St 28)

So much for speed. Through much transmutation, Yates’ poems remain fixed on their object, and this idea is still lurking forty years later in the slow barge of the memorial to his wife:

Metaphor burns me with the edge of dreams.
Love holds in need, by net of names
The intricate and simple, grief and joy,
Green water rippled by a swan.

A hand, a shape, a scarf of hair -
Pure drunkenness of open air!
I follow where the dead have gone
The hidden path once printed with your name.

You wander in the dark
Beyond the comfort of my arms!

Through scalding tears of reverie
I watch the lion sun with blazing mane
Creep from his cloud, and slowly pace
The secret meadow where we used to lie –
He draws across your flickering lake
The Yew tree’s shadow like a sombre barge.

(In Memoriam E.Y.)


[Peter Yates was born in 1911. I hope it is fair to consider him (though such considerings always involve a falsifying diminution) as a poet of the forties. At any rate, his first two collections were published by Chatto in 1942 and 1943, and gained some attention. In many ways they will seem to be characteristic of the era (in Britain); “The Explorers” is from this period. One further collection appeared in 1951; he also published two verse plays, which were staged. Petal and Thorn, a low-key selection of old and new poems published by Peter Ward, appeared in 1983, and that’s what I’ve been reading. This is all I know about his career as a writer, but the inescapable impression is that he was talked about in the early forties as someone with “promise”, a “poet to watch” in the words of Stephen Spender. And then time went by and, gradually, he wasn’t. The blurbs carry less authority. If Graham Greene is only quoted as saying (of The Assassin) “in his minor characters and prose scenes Mr Yates shows himself a dramatist of great promise”, then one is bound to guess that Greene had serious reservations about the verse part of the play. The modest later poems were I imagine written for Yates himself.

There is a brief comment on his work on p. 192 of A. Trevor Tolley’s The Poetry of the Forties (1985).


“Peter Yates (1914 - ) was born of British parents in India and educated at Sevenoaks School and London University. Before the Second World War he lived a wandering life in America, Sumatra, and …” (Ian Hamilton, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, 1996). Unfortunately, my library doesn’t have a subscription, so I can’t read the full article. This sounds like our poet, though the date of birth doesn’t quite match my information.

There are online references to a Peter Yates Selected Poems titled The Garden Prospect and published by Jargon (in Kentucky) in 1980.  I think this might be a different poet (born in 1909 according to one online page).

The relatively well-known British architect Peter Yates (1920-1982) is someone else. So is the British director Peter Yates (1929-2011) (Bullitt, The Saint).

And I think it’s another Peter Yates again, a Californian, who wrote articles and books about contemporary music (e.g Twentieth Century Music, 1967) and organized some important concert-series in LA. ]


New poetry for November

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett - 3 from Rivering

Malik Crumpler - Return of the Divine Librarian

Tom Betteridge - STRING GROWTH

A poem by Tom Betteridge


Download pdf


Previous poem by Tom Betteridge: Of a Silent District

A poem by Malik Crumpler

Return Of The Divine Librarian

“He has finally returned to us. 

Download pdf


More about Malik Crumpler

Three Poems by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

3 from Rivering

A summer in the River Dart

Black Rock

Sharpham Point

Grendel’s Head

New poem by James Goodwin

After 'Sun Ship'

  “the ground as habitual day star
       as lowered concentration of void”
                 —Will Alexander, Compression & Purity

Download pdf of poem

James Goodwin 2016

A poem by Vicky Sparrow

Big C little c

Test the cold waters of Common Sense
you old pro
your fingertips touch the image
lilac blue stones beneath the skin
and the reeling fishes
who would dance in the shallows were it not for
the looming bulk above
that’s you
compassionate reflection of your losses
losses for all in this blue
seeping cold in your core
a staircase for the fish
your ribs
your sea coloured flag
the dead

and your strange low voice
strangles out the cool light
now engulfing
you’re a woman in purple
don’t forget
the radiance of those who adore
and the new course you’ll steer her on
this desolate echo
the shifting image beneath your fingers
each word another stone in your pocket
a quiet death for you
how nice to say goodbye?
the noise you made for others’
a slash in your purple dress to finger in front the blue
and the flower crushed underfoot:
under current
it’s more personal, coming from a woman.

Leave them alone – you activist of Law,
our men and women
are ours
divided by nature justly make no mistake justly
harangue and harass
this moving reflection
speaking sense
a brave wrap-around sense that fits anyone
who speaks English
with its natural cadences
with the rise and fall of a language
booting your throat
like a goitre beneath the skin
I hear you calling again desolate
but I can’t tear my eyes from these eyes
who are staring at me
from under water
and between my fingers shiver til they break
and break and break the language the deep

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