Jeanne Murray Walker
Border-Crossing with Tomas Tranströmer
The Swedish poet was influenced by surrealists like Paul Éluard, as his earliest poems reveal, but he is no surrealist. As Robin Fulton has pointed out (in his introduction to The Great Enigma), while Tranströmer distrusts "oversimplified formulations, slogans, and rhetorical gestures," he has increasingly allowed himself to appear "as an element in his poems." That is why it's worth starting in the middle of The Great Enigma, where Tranströmer's voice begins to blaze the sometimes difficult trail of his images. Then it's easier to go back to the earlier poems.
Repeatedly Tranströmer speaks about the massive, terrifying powers we cannot control, about our vulnerability, about our urgent need of faith—even for those of us who have no faith—and about the "something" we can trust. It is alarming not to be in control of our lives and Tranströmer's poems document our predicaments. Landscapes give way to frightening subterranean topography. We're walking and suddenly an unnavigable mountain rises before us. In "A Winter Night," a storm reduces the narration to a solitary child's point of view. In "Under Pressure," a trustworthy, dutiful, questioning protagonist begins to grasp the limits of his knowledge and realizes that the most important journey is one he has yet to make alone. But, as in his early essay "Notes From the Land of Lap Fever," Tranströmer speaks of solitude with almost childlike joy.
In one of his best-known poems, "Further In," the Swedish poet describes his commute home, probably from work. The trip is boring, familiar, slow and congested:
On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon's scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windscreen
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
words in invisible ink
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far in the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it …
Trapped in his car, Tranströmer realizes that his time-wasting commute involves collaboration with his enemy. He is one of the dragon's scales. This realization leads to the message from—where? His unconscious? God? It tells him to go further, beyond the city, into the interior, the wilderness. So again Tranströmer crosses a border. In the dark of the forest he sees most clearly. Alone in this primordial place where others have not ventured, the poet finds one simple and primitive and unclaimed stone. "Everything depends on it," he claims.
It is interesting to read this deeply metaphorical narrative in light of Tranströmer's essay about his solitary trip into the Swedish wilderness. His life's work argues that by paying attention to our own "further in" wilderness, we might recover the part of us that has been left behind in our mad scramble to accommodate ourselves to speed, technology, commodities, and work. In our solitary journeys to the interior we are not alone. The poet ventures with us, as does the power he trusts. That source, which Tranströmer assures us we can connect to—simple and durable as a stone—has supplied him with wisdom that lights not only his country but every place he is read.
Jeanne Murray Walker directs the creative writing program at the University of Delaware. She is the author most recently of Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems (WordFarm).
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