Lifesaving Poems: Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Alone’

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It was a real treat to read Paul Batchelor’s concise and enthusiastic review of Tomas Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems in last Saturday’s Guardian Review.

It reminded me of what I value about Tranströmer’s poetry: the very odd sensation of witnessing experience as though from an altogether new perspective.

The poem I have included in my Lifesaving Poems series is one I have written about elsewhere on this site, the famous poem ‘Alone’, about a car accident and its aftermath in the writer’s life.

I was drawn to this poem long before the opening line ‘One evening in February I came near to dying here’ took on a special resonance when I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on Valentine’s Day, 2006. On first reading it reminded me of the time that our family car similarly skidded sideways on ice in the Jura mountains after we had spent Christmas with my mother’s family.

I especially liked the description of slow-motion panic and frustration: the ‘transparent terror that floated like egg white./The seconds grew – there was space in them -/they grew as big as hospital buildings’. I like the risk in these images, the connecting of the familiar and everyday to an abstract and real state of terror. But describing time as big is not especially new, maybe even cliched; and the poet risks overstating his case by linking this idea with what is perhaps obvious in this case of a car accident: hospital buildings. The effect is both immediate and otherworldly, apprehended as though pre-verbally in these highly cinematic images.

As Paul Batchelor rightly points out in his Guardian review, the second part of this poem describes the effect of this incident in the life of the poem’s speaker: ‘I must be alone/ten minutes in the morning/and ten minutes in the evening./- Without a programme.’ It is as though the events described in Part 1 of the poem take the speaker into a space in which only silence can provide succour and reassurance in a world where ‘Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door’.

There is a quiet determination in these lines, yet they do not attempt to offer an overt reassurance of their own. Tranströmer presents, he does not preach. In their take-it-or-leave-it finality the closing lines of this poem similarly guide the reader into a new contemplation of space and silence, advocating them neither as threatening nor essential.

Alone

I

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 as big as hospital buildings.

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

Then something 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.

II

I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland 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 programme.

Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.

Many.

One.

Tomas Tranströmer, from New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe), trs. Robin Fulton

Alone

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