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Sideways Review: I am the turnstile

Rebecca Macijeski

on “Guard Duty”

by Tomas Transtrӧmer

trans. by Robert Bly

The Half-Finished Heaven

 

Here you were: walking through the stories that grew into today.

Here you are: thinking, breathing, alive.

Here you will be: words cycling through each other. All your poems are tightly-packed trees sleeping in their seeds—already written.

The task of writing can be lonely, but it is for all time.

Tomas Transtrӧmer’s poems are vivid and evocative and strange and remind me that I am alive. They call me to a kind of primal, immediate attention; they demand I remember where I have been and realize what I have not yet done. His poem “Guard Duty” translated by Robert Bly in The Half-Finished Heaven, presents a lone sentinel keeping watch at the gate of a fortress.

The guard is tasked to prevent some unknown force from breaching the barricade, but as dawn comes his abstract feelings of fear and uncertainty warm into an ecstatic knowledge. Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd role, he says, I am still the place where creation works on itself.

Even when I am alone and wordless, hoping a poetic line will present itself, I am still writing. When I spend a whole day wishing a poem and at its end find my notebook heavy on my lap stubbornly refusing to fill with words, I am still writing.

Transtrӧmer’s guard cries out in his own mind Things not yet happened are already here!

The guard’s epiphany becomes mine.

He reminds me that I am the sentinel of my own creativity and that, even when faced with the solitary and sometimes weary banalities of living, there is constant energy in the desire toward poetry. A hopeful imagination drives me toward the task of writing myself into the future.

The guard acknowledges his own power to bring the future into the present by proclaiming wildly in his final phrase, I am the turnstile.

He is, as I am through reading him, the space where time becomes rounder and allows the unknown of tomorrow to slip through into the reality of today. I am the turnstile.

Several months after digesting this poem I was lucky enough to travel to Europe with a group of fellow writers and to visit Duino Castle, the seaside estate where Rilke wrote several of his elegies named for the place. The afternoon was beautiful and hot, and from the balcony I watched swallows loop high above the water. We opened a translation of Rilke’s Elegies and read a few of his lines aloud, passing the large book gently between our hands. We read Rilke where he was and brought him back into is, speaking his poems out from the page into the air of their creation.

When it came time to leave I lingered back—walking slowly down the hill, silent under the lowering sun. The road curved to the left, obscuring the gate, and when I arrived there, alone, I smiled. Waiting for me was a turnstile. Transtrӧmer was right. Things not yet happened are already here! They were there in his poem, they are here in Rilke’s poems, and maybe, too, they will be in my poems—the ones not yet penned, but already written.

 ~

Rebecca Macijeski recently received her MFA in Writing from VCFA.  She equally enjoys poetry, fiddling, autumn leaves, and reading about neuroscience.

 ~

“Guard Duty” 
by Tomas Transtrӧmer
Robert Bly, translator
The Half-Finished Heaven: The best poems of Tomas Transtrӧmer
Graywolf Press
2001


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