Alone, by Tomas Tranströmer

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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

 

 

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. At first I found this a tad wilful. But since learning about the practice of mindfulness (awareness of present experience with acceptance and trust) I begin to view the playground bullies, the queue, and the accident, as spaces on the same continuum.

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 poem seems to argue that the real threat to our state of mind is not driving at night on the ice, but making ourselves constantly available to others.

 

First version of this post published on 5 January, 2014

5 comments

  1. Rebecca Adams

    Anthony, I think you’re right. The acute terror is the near-death in the car accident. Just as dangerous is the wave of, or our collision with, too many faces/ the demands of social response, and loss of the preciousness of the un-invaded self.

    Thank you for your beautiful essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Linda Goulden

    ‘The seconds grew – there was space in them’ and the ‘breathe out’ as well as the healing hinted at in the ‘hospital buildings’ feel linked to the mindfulness of those ten minutes of solitude as well as the unexpectedly positive being fully alive on the edge of possible death. I’m not sure I saw that when I first read this poem although I liked it from the first.

    Liked by 2 people

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