Monday, April 20, 2009

Loneliness - Tomas Transtromer



One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars---
their lights---closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew---there was space in them---
they grew big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.

Then a hold caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked---a sharp clang---it
flew away in the darkness.

Then---stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.


I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Ostergotland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible---to live
in a swarm of eyes---
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
---Without a program.

Everyone is queuing for everyone else.



---Tomas Transtromer, translated by Robin Fulton

Tomas Transtromer's Loneliness

There is something to be said for the unexpected. Experiences and instincts are often reliable and because of this reliability when a surprise arises we are unsure of the situation. What we know to be true is proven false. This might lead us to doubt ourselves and question the world around us. When the unexpected occurs in a poem it can be disorienting, but it can also be refreshing. Tomas Transtromer's poetry is riddled with the unexpected. Characterized by jolts of imagination, Transtromer's images are more unique than any other poet I've ever read. The similes and metaphors that populate Loneliness are fitting examples of Transtromer's startling sense of comparison. The unexpected lives quite naturally within the poetry of Tomas Transtromer; how else could we explain a poem about loneliness, a state associated with sorrow and deprivation, that ultimately shows how life is lacking without time spent by ourselves.

Loneliness is a poem of two distinct parts. The first section describes a frightening near-death car accident: “One evening in February I came near to dying here.” Through this viewpoint, the poem's speaker is alone with his mortality. This version of loneliness, in which the speaker finds himself powerless, is terrifying. “The approaching traffic had huge lights” and as it closes in on our speaker we clearly come to identify these cars as agents of death. On a more elementary and nostalgic level Transtromer compares the speaker's situation to being “a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.” How this fear is articulated is one example of Transtromer's gift with crafting wondrous similes and metaphors. With the lights of the fast charging cars upon him, our speaker is alone in his fight to steady himself and his own automobile. He jerks the wheel “in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.” Comparing the fine line of life and death to something as delicate as an egg white is amazing, but the simile acquires its genius when we realize that the egg white comes from an egg. He's taken this fear over death and aligned it with the flimsy center of something meant to give new life. How wonderful is that? It's such a deft touch that we almost feel an unexpected calm in our speaker's moment of disarray. But our speaker feels this as well, admitting that “you could almost pause / and breathe out for a while / before being crushed.” And just as it appears our speaker is destined for a horrible fate, “a helping grain of sand / or a wonderful gust of wind,” something minuscule allows the car to break free and “scuttle smartly right over the road.” This section, which documents the horrible alone that we face at the end of our lives, concludes with our speaker in a trance of “stillness” and bystanders braving the “whirling snow / to see what had become of me.”

The second section of the poems flips the coin to show readers an utterly different side of the same emotional state. Loneliness is not laced with fear in this part of the poem, but instead it focuses and centers our speaker. He needs time alone to become the best version of himself. Transtromer begins the section by taking a walk through desolate frozen fields where he has “not seen a single person.” It would seemingly be a desolate loneliness, but as we learned earlier Transtromer loves to splash the unexpected in his poems. He tells us “In other parts of the world / there are people who are born, live and die / in a perpetual crowd.” This sincere stanza reverses the poem's tone. Where others would have been a great comfort to our speaker in the first part of the poem, now they are “a swarm of eyes.” Away from “the murmuring,” Transtromer declares that he “must be alone / ten minutes in the morning / and ten minutes in the evening. ---Without a program.” He wants to break from the “many” to find his himself as “one.” It is a simple desire vested in the clarity that accompanies simplicity. He seeks out his loneliness, viewing time spent with himself and no one else as sustenance.

So what are we to think of loneliness? Tomas Transtromer has given us two opposing views, both presented with imagination, emotion, and sincerity. Our expectations have been toyed with and if you're like me you're scratching your head. I'm not sure we are meant to decide on one part of the poem as being superior to the other. Instead, I'm comfortable thinking that Transtromer intended to show the complexity of loneliness, to surprise us yet again by proving that it's more than an emotion of sadness and longing.

1 comment:

Lois E Hunter said...

I had not read these two poems of his before, thank you for posting them. I enjoyed your thoughtful review of them.