LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Tomas Tranströmer “Female Portrait, 19th Century”

Her voice is stifled in the clothing. Her eyes / follow the gladiator. Then she herself is / in the arena. A gilt frame / strangles the picture.

from THE GREAT ENIGMA: new collected poems, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006),p. 192.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The sign of contradiction might more fruitfully be seen as witnessing to a porosity on the boundary, asking from us more finesse for the equivocities of finitude. And perhaps this is not entirely alien to the philosophy of ambiguity sought by Merleau-Ponty. Metaxological finesse for these equivocities reads the sign of contradiction in terms neither servile nor sovereign and not in terms of a false choice between the intimate and the universal in the religious community of agapeic service. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 185.

It’s 9:30 on a sunny morning and I’ve missed my deadline for this post. The sloth induced by all the bad news is the cause. But I opened Transtromer and was, well, saved. If I don’t do my spiritual exercises with lyric, producing the trifold texts of this format, I can’t go on. And that’s a big problem.

Transtromer is one of the poets I turn to now. For decades I’ve loathed the hyperbolic formula that reconfigures salvation as in “our hope is in the X” (plug in “wilderness” or whatever floats your boat) but now I see. Trust in good verses sums up my apocalypticism.

The FRAME OF REFERENCE gives the philosophical setting of my “religion.” Transtromer’s lyric illustrates it. It fulfills the promise of the lyric narrative to take us through the labyrinth to the abyss. This describes the human condition, and its particular salvation.

So I say. Whatever. We are led to a question. That seems to repeat the formula of Four Quartets. But I think Transtromer improves on Eliot, who depends on the Christian universal (truth). Transtromer depends on the sudden silent sound of the lyric voice, which questions the framing of the question by the poet-in-the-poem. That is, the intimate universal.

See now the FRAME. What is this “sign of contradiction”? Read all about it.

Now I can go on.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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