Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer’s Divided Self


Photograph by Ulla Montan/Albert Bonniers Förlag

by Daniel Bosch

In light of Tomas Tranströmer’s recent passing, Berfrois republishes my review (published in early 2012) of a brief memoir by Tranströmer in conjunction with an excellent new volume of translations from the Swedish by Robin Robertson. (The review also nods toward a much earlier volume translated by Robert Bly.) Here I try to establish how Tranströmer’s deliberate use of counterfactual statements a) functions differently than his metaphors and b) works in concert with them. His production and exploitation of such world-doubling counterfactuals might be called, inverting Keats, his “positive capability,” if it did not so often require his readers’ negative capability.


Books Mentioned in this Article:

Memories Look at Me by Tomas Tranströmer. Translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton. First published as Minnena ser mig, 1993. First published in English in The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. New Directions, 2006. Republished 2011.

The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer. Versions by Robin Robertson. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006. Introduction, 2011. First American Edition, 2011

Truth Barriers by Tomas Tranströmer. Translated and Introduced by Robert Bly. Sierra Club Books, 1980.

In the first sentences of his brief, elliptical memoir Memories Look at Me, 2011 Nobel laureate in Literature Tomas Tranströmer offers a picture of his life—a “streak of light” in the shape of a comet. The brightest, hottest, intensest moments of his childhood reside in the head of the comet; all along, it has led the way. Now, writing in his 60s, from the perspective of the long, thin, broad part of the comet, distant from the heat of the experiences that formed him, he can hardly “penetrate that density” where things are “dangerous.” Tranströmer feels, when he tries to get back to those still-burning and elemental, if sometimes unglamorous moments, “. . . as if I am coming closer to death itself.”

This feeling that the self is divided—that the world has been divided, yet from our place in the world we may peer into another—rules Memories Look at Me. Tranströmer recalls many instances in which he felt or projected into the world a radical split. First was his absolute awareness that some Swedes were Pro-Nazis and that others were Anti-Nazis. (Tranströmer was among the latter. He claims never again to have felt so strong a political drive, implying that political partisanship is somewhat infantile.)

For young Tranströmer, a pair of pachyderm’s skeletons, one at each side of the entrance to the Natural History Museum in Stockholm, stood for his physical and psychical division from a past that fascinated him. The elephant’s bones, he writes, guarded “the gateway to the miraculous,” and his own sketch of the bones terrified him. During his childhood, he established what he calls an “immense museum” in his skull, in which he curated and controlled “a kind of interplay” between the real and the imaginary. At school he was extremely conscious of his difference from other children because his parents had divorced. At the mercy of a bully, Tranströmer tells how he could go limp as his adversary approached, his “Real Self” having “flown away leaving only a corpse behind.”

An avid reader of non-fiction, he is barred from the adult section of the library but works out a ruse involving the use of his uncle’s library card so that he can cross over to the desired other side. Later in grammar school, when a teacher had beaten him for having forgotten or lost his German notebook, Tranströmer’s mother almost took it upon herself to write to the headmaster to complain about the abuse. Tomas talks her back from the brink of this disaster. Such a note would only make things worse, he argued; word would get out; he would be called a “momma’s boy.” He had made a point, he told her, “of keeping the two worlds—school and home—apart.” A communication between these worlds by any one other than Tomas would breach a carefully constructed, psychic system. Tranströmer claims that his early insistence on a division between home and school was the precursor to what in adulthood would become “a more deliberately maintained distinction between private life and society,” though he admits he does not really know what exactly he means by the word “society.”

Tranströmer’s uncertainty and ambivalence with regard to society is prefigured in an anecdote from the first section of Memories Look at Me. As a very young boy, on the way out of a school concert, he loses his grip on his mother’s hand and

. . . was carried away helplessly by the human current, and since I was so small I could not be discovered. Darkness was falling over Hötorget. I stood at the exit, robbed of all sense of security. There were people around me but they were intent on their own business. There was nothing to hold on to. It was my first experience of death.

Tranströmer waits, panicked. (His hyperbolic sense that this is somehow like death suggests how scared little Tomas was.) Slowly the plaza empties, and his fears recede, replaced by a resolve to walk home along the path of the bus line. He sets out. When Tranströmer comes to a busy intersection he knows he must cross, he tells an adult on the sidewalk, “There’s a lot of traffic here.” The man takes Tomas by the hand and walks him across. “But then,” Tranströmer writes,

he let go of me. I don’t know why this man and all the other unknown adults thought it was quite alright for a little boy to wander by himself through Stockholm on a dark evening. But that’s how it was.

The Tranströmer of Memories Look at Me lives in two worlds. In one, objects and people are cared for and the present is continuous with the past; and in the other, we may be suddenly cut off from what we know to wander dark and unfriendly avenues alone, in search of safety.

* * * * * *

Of course there is only one world. But when we slip from love’s grasp, or let go our hold on truth, the world is for the moment unrecognizable. When Plato’s fictional Socrates banned poets from his ideal Republic, that most poetical of philosophers was using the figure as a mask, behind which he expressed a concern that (among other things) poets’ production of counterfactuals would clutter the epistemological terrain. His Socrates insists that poets’ false statements, like “Tranströmer lives in two worlds,” will, if they persist, confuse auditors and readers, who might mistake them for truth or mistake their relationship to truth.

Yet poets’ counterfactual statements place us in a fresh, vivid relation to experience; poems need them and readers relish them. A counterfactual like “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream,” situates us in our senses and calls forth our desire and our capacity to make images. Immediately the imagination is activated and checks Wallace Stevens’s diction against what critic R. P. Blackmur called “the stock of available reality.” Poets’ (and other artists’) counterfactual statements jar us, wake us. Routine exposure to factual statements—“The next train bound for Alewife is now arriving”—have us desensitized, disembodied, all up in our heads. Literally no one speaks the facts broadcast on train platforms, and in the literal light and sound of the subway train’s arrival, they are extraneous, deader than Latin. When ordinary, non-deliberate counterfactuals obtrude into routine language, however, they annoy: 15 minutes after “I’ll meet you at 5:30” turns out to be a counterfactual; somebody is going to get chewed out.

But when we want a short-lived fiction (as opposed to a longer-lived one like a religion, a family history, or a science), we prefer poets’ counterfactuals over the flatline of fact. When Wallace jives us, when Muhammad prevaricates (“I float like a butterfly. . .”), when Browning’s Duke of Ferrara tosses down a whopper (“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, // looking as if she were alive.”), we take it as a cue to suspend both belief and disbelief. And if we are willing readers and auditors, belief and disbelief will remain suspended for as long as the poet keeps recasting the spell—for the duration of a well-made poem, short story, speech, scene, chapter, act, play, or novel.

In Tranströmer’s work, as in all of the strongest poetry, his deliberate counterfactual statements a) function differently than his metaphors and b) work in concert with them. Consider this vivid and accurate metaphor by Tranströmer, which is not a counterfactual:

. . . the ocean rolls thundering into the light; blindly chewing
its straps of seaweed, it snorts up foam on the beach.

This metaphor does not invoke another world, different from our reality, wherein it holds. When it makes sense to us, it alters our way of seeing reality, and reality is more real because of it. We have the same relation to this statement that we have to Richard of Gloucester’s opening volley in Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent // Made glorious summer by this sun of York . . .” Shakespeare’s metaphor dazzles but does not cut the world in two: our active imagining of Richard’s brother, the king, as a blazing sun, brings the real world (one reader’s embodied experience of her imagination at a time) into Richard’s fictive, discursive field, to which it is instantly and tightly bound. Richard’s statement is plainly true, and its particular true relation to the world could not be expressed in any other way. Likewise to see the surf coming in as an eyeless wave that as it opens and closes its curling maw shoots frothy brine is accurate and lively description. The world is not divided by this figure of speech into an imaginary and a real; rather readers’ real world experiences become entangled with the fictions of Tranströmer’s poem.

* * * * * *

In Tranströmer’s best work, particularly evident in The Deleted World, his metaphors bind the reader’s reality to the poem’s fictions at the same time as counterfactual statements cleave the reader’s world in two. Of the 10 counterfactuals that follow, nine occur within the first five lines of a poem or section of a poem, for when Tranströmer gestures toward a divided consciousness he is also invoking his muse. For Tranströmer is ever conscious of the split between the fact of routine and a truth of the imagination:

The buzzard stops and becomes a star.

The storm has the hands and wings of a child.
“A Winter Night”

I fell asleep in my bed
and woke up under the keel.

“Winter Code” part I

A hidden tuning-fork
in the great cold
throws out its shivering tone.

“Winter Code” part III

The seconds grew and grew—making room for me—
stretching huge as hospitals.

“Solitude (1)”

. . . What I couldn’t say
filled and grew like a hot-air balloon
and finally floated away through the night sky

“To Friends Behind a Border” part I

. . .the censor. . . lights his lamp.
in its glare my words leap like monkeys at a wire mesh,
clattering it, stopping to bare their teeth.

“To Friends Behind a Border” part II

We will meet in two hundred years. . .
“To Friends Behind a Border” part III

On the way back, I see mushrooms pushing up through the grass.
Stretching for help these white fingers
belong to someone who sobs down there in the darkness.

“Sketch in October”

Our phonecall spilled out in the dark
and glittered between the countryside and the town
like the mess of a knife-fight.

“Calling Home”

A blue light
streams out of my clothes


Would Plato admit Tranströmer to his society? It is no insult to think so. Not one of these clauses could plausibly be mistaken for a true statement, for epistemological clutter. No avian decomposer is joining the celestial sphere. That nor’easter won’t play your hovel like a harmonica—nor has it dressed up to be an angel in a Christmas play. The Coast Guard cutter “Kafka” smashing its way toward your ice-bound heart was just a dream. Littoral tundra doesn’t have perfect pitch. Time is way more like a cemetery than a hospital. What I couldn’t say didn’t expel any breath at all. My words don’t monkey around, especially when they are pissed off. If we meet for the bicentennial of Blue Ivy Carter’s birth, you’re buying the Dom Perignon. Mushroom fingers? You know, like chicken fingers. The only place our phone calls spill is into the permanent, electronic storage files of the C.I.A. That blue light is my aura.

Tranströmer writes short lyric poems. He hasn’t time to reach border spaces; counterfactuals help him to conjure in between states quickly and to exploit them as directly as possible. In a letter to Hungarian poets written in 1971, Tranströmer claims that “poems are active meditations, they want to wake us up, not put us to sleep,” adding that “truth appears only at the borders.” His insistent use of world-doubling counterfactuals in tension with world-binding metaphors establishes an active, jagged consciousness for the reader.

Perhaps this heightened state of consciousness is appropriate to the late-capitalist era in which Tranströmer has lived and written. Certainly part of the power of his poetry resides in how, having established a jagged consciousness, Tranströmer leaves us in between—in a world full of questions that are not easily resolved. Our situation is not unlike that of a young boy who has been left outside a theater; he has just left the world of artificial, deliberate fictions, and he is cut off from familiar truths.

Not all of Tranströmer’s poems are strong. When they fail, in my view, it is because the counterfactuals, if present, do not conjure interesting tension in the reader: the relationship between the divisions produced in the reader’s consciousness is predetermined. Other weaker poems present startling images but put them to too-obvious political use. An example is the prose poem “For Mats and Laila,” published by the Sierra Club in Robert Bly’s translation in the volume Truth Barriers (1980). This poem generates little of the tension that is felt in the poems in The Deleted World. (It is not surprising that Sierra Club published this book and not some other one by Tranströmer.) The poem is set in Värmland, Sweden. As is frequently the case in a poem that has a political message, the speaker’s fictional reaction to his fictional discovery of the image points to the “truth” of how the reader ought to react:

All at once I notice the hills on the other side of the lake: their pine has been clear-cut. They resemble the shaved skull-sections of a patient about to have an operation. The shaved hills have been there all the time; I never noticed them until now.

The first clause of the third sentence is something akin to a counterfactual but doesn’t have Tranströmer’s characteristic sureness of handling. Note how the speaker both cues us for the shock of the new and reminds us how significant the image is: “All at once . . .” and then “never . . . until now.” The simile, expressed unconventionally through the words “They resemble,” is simple, clear, and apt. Tranströmer, a clinical psychologist, is likely to have seen many patients prepared for neurosurgery, and “For Mats and Laila” suggests a connection between the psycho-emotional condition of such a patient and the “clear-cut” procedure he or she is about to undergo, whether it be cancer surgery or a lobotomy. The history of surgical treatments for psychological disorders grounds his simile further: little was known with precision about why lobotomies affected patients the ways they did; nonetheless, the procedure was widely used before the development of advanced pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness. Likewise to cut down all the pines on a hillside may seem simple and rational enough, in a given market, from a particular profit-driven perspective. I happen to agree with the critique of clear-cut logging implied by “For Mats and Laila.” But I do not find in it the jagged space of the imagination.

* * * * * *

At the end of the five-part poem “Winter’s Code,” poet and translator Robin Robertson, who hails from the northeast of Scotland, found a phrase out of which to forge a title for his perfectly curated set of 15 “free versions” of poems by Tranströmer, The Deleted World. The last part of the poem describes a bus as moving brightly through the deepest darkness of the Scandinavian night, the only source of a lively consciousness in the “dead canal” of the forest, to which Tranströmer attributes a frightening power. If the vehicle should pull over and cut its engine, says the poem, “the world would be deleted.”

Looking at the Swedish original of the opening section of “Winter’s Code,” one can see that in spite of how “free” Robertson has been in creating his versions, he has at times shown a high degree of respect for Tranströmer’s careful shaping of line and stanza.


I fell asleep in my bed
and woke up under the keel.

At four in the morning
life’s clean-picked bones
engage in brittle repartee.

I fell asleep among the swallows
and woke among the eagles.


Jag somnade I min säng
och vaknade under kölen.

På morgonen klockan fyra
då tillvarons renskrapade ben
umgås med varann kallt.

Jag somnade bland svalorna
och vaknade bland örnarna.

Tranströmer has told an interviewer for Poetry East, “Often there is a skeleton somewhere in the poem with a regular number of beats and so on in each line. You don’t have to know that, but for me it’s important.” Reading this it is hard for me not to think of the skeletons that guarded the entrance to the Natural History Museum in Stockholm. One doesn’t have to speak Swedish to see that the pair of couplets that bookend the three middle lines of the section are tightly measured, and that the similarity of lines one and two and lines three and four participates in the effectiveness of the nautical and ornithological metaphors Tranströmer deploys in the lines. As I read the section, this pair of contrary counterfactual couplets contains a metaphorizing middle passage that lives its brief life as a negotiation of our passage from one to the next, at which point we halt for a moment and consider what we feel and know.

Robertson has made a wonderful “free version” of this poem—so faithful that I must read his use of “free version” as a kind of modesty. It’s my guess that the loss of such sonic density as that in the repetitions of “somnade” and “vaknade” cannot be avoided. We are lucky that in English (also a Germanic language) we have the feminine slant rhymes “swallows” and “eagles,” different from the Swedish as they are, to stand in for the nearly full rhyme of “svalorna” and “örnarna.” Thus we get a sense of the closure Tranströmer achieved in this section of the poem. The brittle sounds of the “clean-picked bones” surely do not emanate from the skeleton of the traditional line of verse to which Tranströmer referred in his interview, but at four in the morning, one could do worse than to write to such a non-verbal beat.

In the final sentences of Memories Look at Me, Tranströmer explains how Alcaic and Sapphic measures borrowed from Horace “simply turned up” in his work, “For I regarded Horace as a contemporary.” And Robertson has found a remarkable sonic partner for the Swedish “renskrapade” in the otherwise out-of-register “repartee.”

The metaphorization of nature in “Winter’s Code” is more characteristic of Tranströmer’s work than that in the prose poem “For Mats and Laila,” for it is more complex and ambivalent. To go to sleep among the swallows—who prey upon insects—is neither better nor worse than to wake among the eagles—predators that poetry has praised often enough for their rapacity and skill. The final section of the poem leaves us with that powerful counterfactual, which Robertson has given a tech-savvy sound:


The bus negotiates the winter night:
a flickering ship in the pine forest
on a road as narrow and deep as a dead canal.

Few passengers: some old, some very young.
If it stopped and switched off its lights
the world would be deleted.

Here the darkness of the forest, metaphorized as deeply damaged, is enlivened only by the bus that penetrates it to pass through it. Yes, the dead canal is the product of human intervention. And yes, the passage through it, by humans young and old alike, must be made, else the darkness be complete and endless.

About the Author:


Daniel Bosch‘s poems and translations have been published in journals such as Poetry, Slate, The Times Literary Supplement, Agni, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Republic and The Paris Review. He was Poetry Editor at Harvard Review for issues 19 and 20. In 1998 he was awarded the Boston Review Poetry Prize for a set of poems riffing on films starring Tom Hanks, and his first collection of poems, Crucible, was published by Other Press in 2002.  Recent essay-reviews by Daniel can be read at ArtsfuseContemporary Poetry ReviewThe Critical Flame, The Rumpus and The Fortnightly Review. He teaches at Emory University, Atlanta.