2 am: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light in a town,
flickering coldly at the horizon.

As when a man has gone into a dream so deep
he’ll never remember having been there
when he comes back to his room.

As when someone has gone into an illness so deep
everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm,
cold and tiny at the horizon.

The train is standing quite still.
2 am: bright moonlight, few stars.

Tomas Tranströmer
from New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2011), translated by Robin Fulton


‘Tracks’ was the second poem of Tomas Tranströmer that I remember encountering, in a slightly different version from the one above, translated by Robert Bly in The Rattlebag. I was in my early twenties, a fact I can authenticate from the dated inscription by my wife.

The poem made an immediate impact on me, as so many poems did in those days, by relating it to my own personal experience. It isn’t a flawless method, but it worked for me at the time. The poem put me in mind of busking across Europe with my brother by InterRail. Frequently, it seemed, our train would come to a halt in the middle of absolutely nowhere, with just the noises of the cooling diesel and what sounded like the odd slamming door for company. It wasn’t winter, of course, as in Tranströmer’s poem, and we didn’t venture as far north as Sweden; but the effect was the same: of some great mystery taking place as it were with us right in the middle of it, without having a clue what was going on around us. Sometimes there were ‘few stars’, sometimes the ‘points of light in a town’, sometimes nothing. Mostly we slept.

These days I read the poem quite differently. I am drawn to the way the poem is structured around two ‘bookending’ stanzas, which describe the landscape and the halted train, the two central stanzas providing some sort of imagistic commentary or interpretation on the poem’s events. I am particularly drawn to the lines about a person going ‘into an illness so deep/ everything his days were becomes[…] a few flickering points, a swarm,/ cold and tiny at the horizon.’ Again, drawing on my own experience of treatment for cancer ten years ago, the idea of a person ‘going into’ an illness seems very real to me. But it haunts me, too. It suggests active participation, a decision of the will, perhaps, where one would assume none has been made. The lines also suggest a great sense of distance between the life lived before and after the illness in question. This also rings true to me. The person experiencing serious illness is both different from and the same as the one who is healthy. The person looking back at the experience of illness is a different person again.