I have been thinking a lot recently about Tomas Tranströmer’s poem ‘Alone’.

When I first read it I was taken back to a childhood memory of a similar near-miss in the Jura mountains one winter with my family. Years later I was drawn in by its compelling first line (‘One evening in February I came near to dying here.’) as I recovered from cancer.

I very much admire the poem’s control and lack of self-importance. There is relish, certainly, in the way the details of the accident are portrayed, but crucially the tone is flattened to a whisper, to the point where only the essential is allowed to intrude:

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.

This abnegation of self and of family seems almost cruel on first reading. But the more I read it the more I am persuaded it is completely of a piece with what follows in part 2 of the poem.

The speaker whose name, family, and work identity ‘break free’ is the same we find searching for solitude in the poem’s final lines. If there is a note of judgement in the poem, it is not one of anger at the experience of near-death. Rather it is one that questions a world where ‘everyone is queuing at everyone’s door’, their faces ‘coated with clay’. This, not the car accident, is what the speaker seeks solace from.

More and more often I wonder if the accident in the poem stands as a metaphor for all ugly experience we would rather wish away or purge by other means. The poem seems to suggest that we are at our most vulnerable when we privilege behaviours associated with needing to be connected (hurrying, not paying attention, fear of solitude). The real threat posed in the poem is not driving at night on the ice, but making ourselves constantly available to others.