from FIELD, Fall 2012, Tomas Tranströmer: A FIELD Symposium
Out in the Open
Late autumn labyrinth.
A discarded bottle lies at the entrance to the wood.
Walk in. The forest in this season is a silent palace of abandoned
Only a few, precise sounds: as if someone were lifting twigs with
as if, inside each tree-trunk, a hinge was creaking quietly.
Frost has breathed on the mushrooms and they've shrivelled up;
they are like the personal effects of the disappeared.
It is almost dusk. You need to leave now,
find your landmarks again: the rusted implements out in the field
and the house on the other side of the lake, red-brown
and square and solid as a stock-cube.
A letter from America set me off, drove me out
on a white night in June through the empty suburban streets
among built blocks, cool as blueprints, too new to have memories.
The letter in my pocket. My unquiet raging stride a kind of prayer.
Where you are now, evil and good really do have faces.
Here, it's mostly a struggle between roots, numbers, transitions of
Those that run messages for death don't shy from daylight.
They govern from glass offices. They swell in the sun.
They lean over their desks and look at you askance.
Far away from that, I find myself in front of one of the new
Many windows merging into one window.
The light of the night sky and the swaying of the trees are caught
in this still mirror-lake, up-ended in the summer night.
Violence seems unreal
for a while.
The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low,
throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the
A man crouches over something in the field.
The shadow reaches him.
For a split-second he is in the middle of the cross.
I have seen the cross that hangs from cool church arches.
Sometimes it seems like a snapshot
translated by Robin Robertson
I've been writing a lot recently about sentimentality. Contemporary critics have an uncannily fine radar for hints of it in literature, and when a literary type accuses a poem of being "sentimental," she damns it completely. But what exactly does the word mean, beyond a general sort of ickiness?
The standard definition, that a sentimental poem is laden with an overabundance of inappropriate or contrived emotion, is wrongheaded in fairly obvious ways. After all, it's easy for any reader to come up with a work of clearly sentimental literature in which the abundance of emotion is neither too much, contrived, nor inappropriate. Is one easily too emotional, for instance, about the death of small child, or inappropriately sad about the death of one's father? Can a strong emotional response to the ravages of war—at a time when news of war seems to surround us—be so quickly tossed aside as "contrived"? As a literary editor, I have seen many poems on just such subjects that, though clearly sentimental (and, therefore, not very good), are guilty of none of these specific literary transgressions. They are sad, angry, yearning in the right very strong measure, and still sentimental as hell.
Perhaps, I thought, a clue to what we mean when we call a poem sentimental today might lie in the past. And this got me thinking about the great Modernist poets—specifically the World War I poets who saw in sentimentality not mere tastelessness or overabundance, but political danger. For them, sentimentality, the Victorian Romantics' tendency to glorify valor, battle, nationalism, was itself cause for deep unease. Sentimental language lent itself too easily to war propaganda. Too quickly, it became politically dangerous language, arousing in ordinary citizens weird fondnesses for destructive notions of purity, exciting popular nationalism, whipping people into war frenzy. (And if you're not familiar with WWI propagandist Jesse Pope, who figures prominently in Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," you have only to look to the Bush administration's expert use of sentimental language during the run-ups to our more recent wars.)
Considered this way, sentimental language—in poetry or politics—is simplifying language. It has less to do with too much emotion than it does with reduction, with the sentimentalist's failure to think about a large subject, one we feel emotional about, with complexity. Had we thought complexly about America's role in the world, we probably wouldn't have gotten mired in Iraq. Had the bad poets I alluded to above thought complexly about a God that allows a young child to die, or the situation of being rendered suddenly fatherless, I doubt we'd accuse their poems of sentimentality. This isn't to say that emotion always interferes with complexity—of course, it doesn't—but that great poems think with nuance and complexity about their subject matter and that, at core, a descent into sentimentality is usually accompanied by the reduction of a complex situation into an inappropriately simple one.
With this in mind, I'm ready to accuse a great deal of contemporary political poetry—poetry of outrage, of cool ironic distance, of moral furor—of simplification that at least borders on sentimentality. And, more than this, I'm interested in the idea that many great political poems might not be those we recognize immediately as political—that is, they are poems born of complex situations in which no thinking person could help but feel strongly in multiple, conflicting ways. Ambivalence, not certainty, might be the natural position of the complex thinker at work on a difficult moral (political) subject. Perhaps that complex thinker, who I imagine lives in every great political poem, arrives at a strong conclusion. Perhaps he doesn't. Perhaps his conclusion is continued ambivalence. One version is neither more nor less "political" than the other—though both certainly avoid sentimentality (or its cousin, dogmatism).
Take, for example, Tomas Tranströmer's "Out in the Open," a brilliant, ambivalent, complex, utterly unsentimental poem—a poem that is political because it thinks hard about a political situation. The triggering subject here—the thing Tranströmer says "set me off"—is certainly the "letter from America" mentioned at the start of section 2, in actuality a letter from the poet's friend and translator Robert Bly, who had recently co-founded Poets and Writers Against the Vietnam War and, years later, would assert (in a 2002 interview with poet Ray Gonzalez) that this poem is clearly "about the Vietnam War." (The poem was originally published in Sweden in 1966; Bly would go on to translate it and publish it in his seminal The Seventies some years later.) What a series of highly nuanced responses that letter sets off in the mind of the poem's speaker, who, in three unequal sections, shifts from one troubled setting to another, each imbued with symbolic danger, violence, and hints of war.
In the first, Tranströmer sets us near the "entrance to the wood," in which familiar landmarks fall away. Here, the speaker struggles to describe his experience of the forest, but can only reach for metaphors whose objects are ominous, unsatisfying, and, weirdly, mundane:
Only a few precise sounds: as if someone were lifting twigs with
as if, inside each tree-trunk, a hinge was creaking softly.
Frost has breathed on the mushrooms and they've shriveled up;
they are like the personal effects of the disappeared.
Ultimately, the forest landscape, with all its undercurrents of death, anxiety, and victimhood, does nothing to ease the mind of the speaker, who, thinking of his familiar, civilized landmarks, tells himself, "You need to leave now."
And leave he does, to "suburban streets / among built blocks, cool as blueprints, too new to have memories. / The letter in my pocket." In America, he asserts, "evil and good really do have faces," whereas in Sweden things are a little less clear-cut. "Here," he writes, "it's mostly a struggle between roots, numbers, transitions of light." Nevertheless, the speaker imagines evil—"those that run messages for death"—governing shiftily from glass offices, offices that close the speaker out, who must look up at them from below, "many windows merging into one window." From this bureaucratic distance and sterility, "Violence seems unreal / for a while."
The third section begins with a scene full of violent possibilities. Here, Tranströmer writes, the sun "is scorching." A plane "comes in low," perhaps a fighter plane, perhaps another plane that excites the speaker's worried imagination. In its shadow, a man "crouches in a field" (or, in Bly's translation, "a man is sitting in the field poking at something"). This inspires in Tranströmer two competing images. In the first, the plane throws "a shadow of a giant cross" that eventually reaches the man, who, "for a split-second," is in its darkened center, perhaps suggesting those—the "disappeared" of the first section? —who are now sacrificed in our wars.
Tranströmer moves from here to an image that might be described as the reverse of the one he's just described: "I have seen the cross that hangs from cool church arches." Here, the sun-scorched sky is replaced by the "cool church arches," and the airplane-like-a-cross becomes a cross-like-an-airplane, "a snapshot of frenzy" hanging over not only the defenseless peasant, but all of us who could do good, but do not. Or, as the critic John Wilson has suggested, "Evil isn't simply out there somewhere, in someone else, in 'them.' We are all complicit, as we were all complicit in the crucifixion." In a recent essay in Antioch Review, critic Mark Gustafson quotes from a letter to Robert Bly in which Tranströmer explains that the second cross, unlike the first, is "something positive, helpful ... something nearer to us than everything else and also something we can only glimpse for an instant," both an embrace and a reminder of our moral, political obligations.
Of Tranströmer's work in general, his translator Robin Robertson has written:
Tranströmer's is a poetry of sharp contrasts and duality—a double world of dark and light, inside and outside, dreaming and waking, man and machine, stillness and turmoil—and he is fascinated by the pressure between the world we know and the hidden world we cannot deny.... The image of man as a diminished, vulnerable creature—distanced from nature, protected by his machine but open to sudden accident, is a recurring one, and this combination of a natural landscape and abrupt, violent meetings with the mechanical, the unnatural, is a hallmark of his work.
It is this meditation on contrasts, these shifting dualities that suggest to me the complex mind at work in so many of Tranströmer's poems, "Out in the Open" among them. Reading it, I have the strange sensation of listening in on the nuanced thoughts of another, of someone far smarter and more subtle than I am. He considers a problem—here, his complex response to the letter from his American friend and, more generally, the Vietnam War—and his mind becomes increasingly unsettled. He feels ambivalent, if ambivalence can be understood as feeling very strongly in conflicting directions. That ambivalence crescendos in the poem's last moments, catching us between two visions of the cross, two ways of thinking about political morality and complicity. Little in this poem is, finally, settled—though that is, perhaps, not the point. Rather, our understanding of war—of our roles within it, as elements of a nation, as warlike figures under the shadow of God—has been deepened. And, because he approaches the subject with complexity and intelligence, Tranströmer engages us in vigorous and enlivening meditation.
* * *FIELD
Editors: David Young, David Walker
Associate Editors: Pamela Alexander, Kazim Ali, DeSales Harrison
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