silent rage

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Leaflet
Tomas Tranströmer

The silent rage scribbles on the inward wall.
Fruit trees in bloom, the cuckoo calls out.
This is spring’s narcosis. But the silent rage
paints its slogans backwards in garages.

We see all and nothing, but straight as periscopes
handled by the underworld’s timid crew.
It’s the war of minutes. The broiling sun
stands over the hospital, suffering’s parking lot.

We the living nails hammered down in society!
One day we’ll come loose from everything.
We’ll feel death’s air under our wings
and be milder and wilder than we are here.

Original

Flygblad
Det tysta raseriet klottrar på väggen inåt.
Fruktträd i blom, göken ropar.
Det är vårens narkos. Men det tysta raseriet
målar sina slagord baklänges i garagen.

Vi ser allt och ingenting, men raka som periskop
hanterade av underjordens skygga besättning.
Det är minuternas krig. Den gassande solen
står över lasarettet, lidandets parkering.

Vi levande spikar nedhamrade i samhället.
En dag ska vi lossna från allt.
Vi ska känna dödens luft under vingarna
och bli mildare och vildare än här.

Photo by Adam Sherez on Unsplash

in the hundreds

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When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.

dismal months

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Fire-Jottings
Tomas Tranströmer
Throughout the dismal months my life sparkled alive only when I made
love with you.
As the firefly ignites and fades out, ignites and fades out — in glimpses we
can trace its flight
in the dark among the olive trees.

Throughout the dismal months the soul lay shrunken, lifeless,
but the body went straight to you.
The night sky bellowed.
Stealthily we milked the cosmos and survived.

Original

Eldklotter
Under de dystra månaderna gnistrade mitt liv till
bara när jag älskade med dig.
Som eldsflugan tänds och slocknar, tänds och slocknar
– glimtvis kan man följa dess väg
i nattmörkret mellan olivträden.

Under de dystra månaderna satt själen hopsjunken
och livlös
men kroppen gick raka vägen till dig.
Natthimlen råmade.
Vi tjuvmjölkade kosmos och överlevde.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

the suit of the smiling mortician

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“But every suit, since it isn’t eternal, lasts as long as it lasts; and soon, under the fraying clothes of the ideal we’ve formed, the real body of the person we dressed it in shows through. Romantic love is thus a path to disillusion, unless this disillusion, accepted from the start, decides to vary the ideal constantly, constantly sewing new suits in the soul’s workshops so as to constantly renew the appearance of the person they clothe.” –Fernando Pessoa

Black Postcards
Tomas Tranströmer
I
The calendar is full, future unknown.
The cable hums the folk song from no country.
Falling snow on the lead-still sea. Shadows
wrestle on the dock.

II
In the middle of life it happens that death comes
and takes your measurements. This visit
is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is
sewn in the silence.

Original
Svarta vykort
I
Almanackan fullskriven, framtid okänd.
Kabeln nynnar folkvisan utan hemland.
Snöfall i det blystilla havet. Skuggor
brottas på kajen.

II
Mitt i livet händer det att döden kommer
och tar mått på människan. Det besöket
glöms och livet fortsätter. Men kostymen
sys i det tysta.

killer bees

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Epigram
Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden)
The buildings of the capital, the hives of the killer bees, honey for the few.
He served there. But in a dark tunnel he unfolded his wings
and flew when no one was looking. He had to live his life again.

—–
(the original Swedish read by the Nobel laureate himself)

Kapitalets byggnader, mördarbinas kupor, honung för de få.
Där tjänade han. Men i en mörk tunnel vecklade han ut sina vingar
och flög när ingen såg. Han måste leva om sitt liv.

 

Image by Boris Smokrovic

Rest in Peace, poet Tomas Tranströmer

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I wrote about Swedish Nobel Prize winner, poet Tomas Tranströmer, before. He wrote many evocative poems, but my favorite – and the one most appropriate now, at his passing – is “Svarta vykort”.

Svarta vykort

I
Almanackan fullskriven, framtid okänd.
Kabeln nynnar folkvisan utan hemland.
Snöfall i det blystilla havet. Skuggor
brottas på kajen.

II
Mitt i livet händer att döden kommer
och tar mått på människan. Det besöket
glöms och livet fortsätter. Men kostymen
sys i det tysta.

Rough translation:

I
The calendar is full but the future is blank.
The wires hum the folk-tune of some forgotten land.
Snow-fall on the lead-still sea. Shadows
scrabble on the pier.

II
In the middle of life it happens that death comes and takes your measurements.
This visit is forgotten and life goes on.
But the suit is sewn in silence.

Another appropriate poem, however irreverent, is Piet Hein‘s “Noble Funerals Arranged”, hinting the irony or injustice of most Nobel winners receiving their awards so late in life that the monetary reward that comes with the honor won’t do much good in supporting that person’s art (not that the award is meant to do that):

Noble Funerals Arranged (Piet Hein)
The Nobel Prize
needs a candidate.
Of course, by the hopeful crowd
you’re stunned,
but none is sufficiently
well-known or great,
or sufficiently
Moribund.
Remember, it’s not a
scholarship late –
it is
a funeral benefit fund.

Rest in peace, Tomas Tranströmer.

For the Philatelically Inclined: Homoerotic Finnish Postage Stamps

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Just hours before I saw that Finland had introduced these unusual and rather groundbreaking postage stamps featuring homoerotic images, I had a playful debate with someone about “the best stamps ever”.

Homoerotic philately in Finland

Homoerotic philately in Finland

Now, sure, I write and talk about stamps a lot – but I am no philatelist. I have never collected or thought about the value of stamps (other than when the price goes up and my postal costs – as a lifelong pen pal type – go up). I have always sought to get the most interesting or visually stimulating stamps because I assume that is the kind of stamps my pen pals (and anyone receiving mail from me) would want to see. Not patriotic row on row of American flags! No. Give me the Johnny Cash or the March on Washington! Or Harvey Milk or… Jimi Hendrix! Give me the Imagine Peace Tower or Eyjafjallajökull! Give me the cutest depictions of animals ever on Swedish Christmas stamps – or even Swedish luminaries (albeit from totally opposite ends of the cultural spectrum – Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer and footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic!). Give me heart-shaped French designer Valentine stamps! Just not something boring. So the playful argument ended up with a UK resident telling me he was going to outstamp my stamp prowess (I argued that my Swedish wildlife Christmas motif was the best ever, hands down). He claimed he could outdo it.

But before that could happen, I saw the breaking news – Finland had unleashed these stamps by influential artist Tom of Finland. Well, announced them, anyway. The real release, according to the Finnish post website, is in September.

Not that Finland has bored us too much with stamp design before (quite unlike Scandinavian nation, Norway – almost the world’s most boring stamps in my humble opinion. Bore-wegian stamps!) – they’ve given us Angry Birds, police cars, a whole lot of postal representations of Finnish design (and when it comes to design, is there any better?), an homage to their world-leading education system, Tove Jansson, teddy bears for Valentine’s Day (Teddy feels honored of course), Moomin, ice hockey, loads of nature – and that is just in the current lineup.

Postcards from Paradise” – Flesh for Lulu… “I fell under your spell…