Another look at Tranströmer’s ‘Alone’

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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.

4 comments

    • Anthony Wilson

      Dear Mary Thank you: that’s exactly how I feel about it as well. As ever with good wishes Anthony Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere

      >________________________________

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  1. Jeff Schwaner

    Transtromer brings up the many/one phenomenon/conundrum at the end of this poem, and it’s one of many times he confronts it in its various guises, both positive and negative. I think in the first part of the book the act of losing control in one’s placement in the world is key here–sliding on ice in a man-made vehicle where such an act immediately makes the “many” all potentially causes of his own death. There is of course a constant recognition of both the sense of security and threat in the approach or closeness of the many around us–but also the inevitable undeniable distance between the “one’s” consciousness and anyone else’s. I have always read that first section of the poem to be talking about the that moment of the realization of death’s likelihood, that joining the “many” is a shrinking and flattening event–suddenly all the details of his life are meaningless, how strongly he may have loved or cared for his family–without his “one” consciousness to carry it on it will all soon be diminished to a newspaper statistic (white male, middle-aged, married with children, died in the accident). Here, his identity slides away from his control much as the car does across the ice. Without warning it goes from being a thing with its own volition and direction to a thing whose identity is solely that of what is to be acted on by the rest of the world.

    Where I think your analysis really rings true is in the second part, with the added wrinkle in my read anyway that to access the living experience of being part of the “many” one must get alone, away from other people. It’s a fascinating concept with endless wrinkles; another poet who I grapples with this is A.R. Ammons, and I like to read these two poets in tandem sometimes for this reason.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thanks so much for leaving this comment Jeff. I love what you say about the poem, esp part 1. It reminds me of that poem of his which begins something like ‘We are at a party which does not like us’. I love his ability to cut through to the essence of what is going on in so called civilized settings. I will check out AR Ammons as his work is not very well known to me and I keep seeing his name everywhere. Thanks again for your support and interest
      Anthony

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