Shannon K. Winston: Tomas Tranströmer’s “Below Zero” is one of your favorite prose poems. Can you introduce the poem to us and explain why it’s so compelling?
Sarah Rose Nordgren: I’ve been returning to this poem—and specifically this translation of this poem—again and again since Robin Fulton’s version of Tranströmer’s collected poems, The Great Enigma, was published a dozen years ago. I think the strangeness and humor of the first sentence has a lot to do with what drew me in in the first place. On the one hand, it’s a very straightforward, almost terse comment. On the other hand, it raises a lot of questions, such as who the “we” is, and what the nature of this personified, unloving party is. We enter the poem in medias res, or in medias party, and have the simultaneous experience of recognition (many if not all of us have found ourselves at such a party) and searching for our bearings, as if in a dream.
As we proceed, the poem continues to both reward and elude our desire for solid ground. The party—still personified—will now let “its mask drop and show itself for what it really is,” but, with the mask, the party also loses its personification altogether, so that instead of a face beneath the mask we find a location—a “marshaling yard.” The final two sentences of the first stanza further elaborate this landscape, which is full of ominous, inscrutable signs.
I won’t close-read the whole poem here, but I think what I find so compelling about this poem is the way it keeps me right in the middle of knowing and unknowing, the familiar and the strange, the foreboding and the funny. Like a dream in which one finds that their childhood home is actually located on Mars, Tranströmer leads me through the poem with my eyes open, but not before making me spin around a few times first so I’m sufficiently dizzy. His images and language are clear and direct—the matter-of-fact tone creating the dark, ironical humor in places—but as soon as I see something, it transforms or dissolves into something else.
We are at a party that doesn’t love us. At last the party lets its mask drop and shows itself for what it really is: a marshaling yard. Cold colossi stand on rails in the mist. Chalk scribbled on the wagon doors.
It shouldn’t be said but there is much suppressed violence here. That’s why the components are so heavy. And why it’s so hard to see something else, too: a little reflection from a mirror, flitting on the house-walls and gliding through the unknowing forest of glimmering faces, a biblical text that was never written: “Come unto me, for I am full of contradictions, like you.”
Tomorrow I am working in another town. I swish toward it through the morning hour, which is like a big dark-blue cylinder. Orion hangs above the ground-frost. Children are standing in a silent cluster waiting for the school bus, children no one prays for. The light is growing as slowly as our hair.
SKW: You’re interested in the relationship between image and abstraction in poetry. Can you define what you mean by “abstraction?” How is abstraction working in relation to image in this poem? (Can you point to a few examples?)
SRN: By abstraction I really just mean any conceptual idea or statement, something taking place at the level of intellect or emotion rather than the level of the senses. Of course the common dichotomy between abstraction and image is a false one (like all dichotomies!), but it can be a useful way to think about how our minds and bodies (another false binary, of course) are interacting with the language of a poem. Really I think they exist on more of a continuum, and context matters a lot. The sentence in the second stanza, “That’s why the components are so heavy,” is a good example of what I mean, since it teeters somewhere near the center of the image-abstraction continuum. We know that “components” is a noun that often refers to something physical, and “heavy” is a physical quality, something we feel with our bodies. We’ve just been up in the first stanza visualizing “cold colossi” and graffitied wagon doors, so we’re primed to extend our image of this strange, foreboding landscape. However, as soon as we draw our attention to this “image,” it disintegrates before our eyes, primarily because we find that “components” has no clear referent in the poem. We look back to the previous sentence for causation and answers: “It shouldn’t be said but there is much suppressed violence here,” which doesn’t help us out. Components of what? Are we talking about something physical like a wagon door here, or are we experiencing a metaphorical heaviness? A heaviness of soul? The answer is probably both—the suppressed violence is making everything literally and physically heavy. It’s in the air, affecting physics, creating the landscape.
The thing that interests me about the relationship between image and abstraction in this poem is how the two seesaw and fold into one another again and again in a series of transformations. As we saw in the first stanza of the poem, Tranströmer uses a combination of abstraction (“We are at a party that doesn’t love us”) and image (“Cold colossi stand on rails in the mist. Chalk scribbled on the wagon doors”) as well as these in-between hinge-lines (“At last the party lets its mask drop and shows itself for what it really is: a marshaling yard”) as a way to propel the poem forward and create tension. This strategy makes me feel like I’m being continually placed and then re-placed in the poem in a series of revisions—“actually it’s like this, actually it’s like this”—that points to the very process of understanding: always in need of readjustment and refinement, always provisional.
SKW: How do abstraction and image produce a sense of the speaker in the poem? Or, stated differently, what about abstraction and image draws you into the poem?
SRN: Irony, secrecy, the feeling of hushed confidence. As he vacillates between the concrete and the abstract statement, the speaker is letting me in on something private, something he has a special insight into, something with high stakes (“… shows itself for what it really is….” “It shouldn’t be said but….” “And why it’s so hard to see something else, too…”), but about which he has to choose his words carefully. Maybe it’s hard to explain—reality keeps shifting out of his grasp—or maybe he’s worried that his words could come into the wrong hands. Perhaps the party is listening in.
We get hints here too of what many people love when they love John Ashbery: rhetorical patterning that gestures toward clarity and the colloquial exchange of information, but—and here’s a synesthetic construction for you—heard through a kaleidoscope.
SKW: What lessons do you draw from this poem about the role of abstraction in poetry? Are these lessons different for prose poems as opposed to poems written in verse?
SRN: It’s a cliché of poetry workshops that we need to “show not tell,” to focus on the well-chosen image and reduce or eliminate abstract, or “overly abstract” language from our poems. I’ve been telling my beginning-poetry students this for years, and I (mostly) stand by it. Even when a writer-professor isn’t a die-hard imagist him/herself, it generally seems like good advice for students who are newer to writing poetry. It tends to be easy for beginning writers to write abstractly about their thoughts and feelings, and they seem to do so naturally. It’s harder to learn to be specific and concrete, and to learn the truth in W. C. Williams’ “no ideas but in things.”
But this poem makes me want to ask, what if there are also “no things but in ideas”? Doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I think there might be something there. The ideas in this poem—the “suppressed violence,” the “party that doesn’t love us,” the “contradictions,” the “children no one prays for”—feel concrete, feel weighty and specific. They are heavy components, for sure. As a poet who’s equally excited by a good image and a good idea, I take instruction from Tranströmer about how the two can work together to create tension and energy in a poem, how both can enhance the other in equal measure. There’s no getting around ideas, and no “things” in a poem that aren’t already understood through a conceptual framework, since they are necessarily delivered to the reader through the system of language.
I think this is relevant to both lineated and prose poetry, but is perhaps especially relevant in prose poems which, without the tension created in the line, need alternative sources of tension. I’d argue that the tension between image and abstraction is one of the primary sources of energy in “Below Zero.”
SKW: Can you speak to the role of abstraction and image in “Moral Animal”? How have some of Tranströmer’s techniques in this poem inspired your own work?
SRN: In many ways, “Moral Animal” is quite different from Tranströmer’s poem. First of all, and most obviously, it’s not a prose poem. Secondly, it moves very differently. While Tranströmer’s poem develops through the stitching together of associative leaps and hinging back and forth between abstract and rhetorical statements and atmosphere-building images, my poem develops a singular line of thought and, in fact, is really about the process of thinking through a problem.
The main connection between the two poems is how they both—in their own ways—toggle back and forth between abstraction and image in what feels like an effort toward deeper understanding or revelation in the midst of high stakes. “Moral Animal” was kind of an exercise—an experiment—in making explicit the process by which feeling is turned into image in a poem. But rather than being just some artificial artistic move, there is a real “truth” to this process: Our feelings and thoughts, and the language we attach to them, do have a physical quality, a “thingness” or materiality that we have to contend with, hold, find space for. I wrote this poem because I was dealing with an extreme bodily and emotional desire and was trying to figure out “where do I put this?” as if it were a piece of furniture, or an animal that needed containment in a room of delicate things. It felt different at different moments, and thus the images I use to describe it morph over the course of the poem as I try to work toward precision and resolve.
While I wasn’t thinking of Tranströmer’s poem explicitly while writing “Moral Animal,” somewhere in the background his work gives me permission to write statements like “My desire was greater than any other/ person’s desire.” The ending, now that I think of it, also has a little hint of “Below Zero.” My poem ends with the perception of extreme subtlety, so that the poem resolves toward silence and stillness rather than toward an epiphanic bang. This is also Tranströmer’s move at the end of “Below Zero,” with his amazing (and haunting) statement, “The light is growing as slowly as our hair.”
SKW: If you were to give us a poetry prompt that asks us to think about abstraction and image and the lessons we learn from Tranströmer’s poem, what would it be?
SRN: Write a prose poem in which you alternate between sentences that are more abstract/conceptual statements (or questions) and ones that focus on striking images or sensory description. Don’t worry if the images and statements don’t build a clear narrative. Rather, focus on the development of a physical and emotional atmosphere. Let each abstract statement lead you associatively into the next image, and vice versa. Extra points for unsettling instances of personification.
Sarah Rose Nordgren
My desire was greater than any other
person’s desire, but I was connected
to all other people through it.
I abstracted it from the particulars
of my life so others might
recognize it close to home.
Free from those false details I found it
taking its own shape but still
stuck to me in places like a falcon
on fresh tarmac struggling to fly. I wanted to
free myself from it too since
I was now the most limiting factor
but was afraid I wouldn’t survive the hurt,
or that I’d become unrecognizable
to people I knew. If I didn’t act
however, ligatures were threatening
to pull me across a threshold
I hadn’t chosen. That was all yesterday.
This morning I find myself
in more or less the same dilemma
except perhaps resolved to
do the wrong thing. This makes
my desire cooler and more compact
with a weight similar to regret
or a goose egg. I’m able now to place it
near me on the table while I read.
Off and on it rotates slightly
and I feel my posture shift slightly.
”Below Zero” By Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton, from THE GREAT ENIGMA, copyright ©2006 by Tomas Tranströmer. Translation © 2006 by Robin Fulton. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
From Darwin’s Mother, by Sarah Rose Nordgren, © 2017. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Sarah Rose Nordgren is a poet, teacher, and intergenre text artist. Her two books of poetry are Best Bones (2014), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, and Darwin’s Mother. Her poems and essays appear widely in periodicals such as Agni, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review Online, Copper Nickel, and American Poetry Review, and she creates video and performance text art in collaboration with Kathleen Kelley under the name Smart Snow. Among her awards are two winter fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, and fellowships and scholarships from the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Conferences, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Originally from North Carolina, Nordgren earned her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and her MFA in poetry from University of North Carolina Greensboro. She’s currently at the University of Cincinnati where she is a doctoral candidate in poetry with a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Nordgren serves as an Associate Editor at 32 Poems.