Poet in the forest: Tomas Tranströmer

snow on base of oakI’m still reading the new translation of the collected works of Tomas Tranströmer, the great contemporary Swedish poet — a good companion on cold winter mornings. Tranströmer isn’t a very prolific poet, so it’s possible to fit his complete poetic output, as well as a prose memoir, into one volume of a little over 250 pages. But these poems really bear re-reading, so one doesn’t feel in the least bit cheated. In fact, as the back-cover blurb points out, Tranströmer has been translated into fifty languages, and “perhaps no other poet since Pablo Neruda has had such an international presence in his own lifetime.” The comparison is an interesting one, though, since Neruda sometimes wrote as much in one year as Tranströmer has written in a lifetime!

The worldviews of the two poets also differ tremendously: contrast Neruda’s hatred of religion with Tranströmer’s great (albeit reticent) respect for spiritual experience. But one thing their poetry does have in common is a rich vocabulary of images from the natural world. Both are or were competent amateur naturalists; in the work of both, non-human beings are presences worthy of poetic treatment in their own right; and both men spent part of their lives on islands, which they seemed to regard as their truest homes — Isla Negra for Neruda, and Runmarö for Tranströmer. But whereas I tend to think of Neruda as a poet of the ocean and the shore who sometimes also wrote about forests, I’m beginning to think of Tranströmer as a forest poet, whether or not that forest is surrounded, as in a few of his poems, by the Baltic Sea.

I don’t feel I’ve spent enough time with this new translation to be able to engage in serious literary criticism — and in any case, one ought to know the source language if one wants to make any sort of authoritative pronouncements about a work of literature. This is just one reader’s appreciation, an excuse to share some of my favorite finds from the book so far. My copy of The Great Enigma bristles with bookmarks — a veritable forest of little white slips.

Both the first and the last poems in the book, spanning fifty years, pivot on tree or forest imagery. Here’s how Tranströmer began “Prelude,” from 17 Poems, originally published in 1954:

Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.
Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveler
sinks toward the green zone of morning.
Things flare up. From the viewpoint of the quivering lark
he is aware of the huge root systems of the trees,
their swaying underground lamps. But aboveground
there’s greenery — a tropical flood of it — with
lifted arms, listening
to the beat of an invisible pump.

The last poem in the book, from 2004, is a haiku:

Birds in human shape.
The apple trees in blossom.
The great enigma.

Between those two poems, arboreal imagery takes many different forms. In “Solitary Swedish Houses,” the forest is both context and content of human dwellings: “Farther off, the new building/ stands steaming … in the middle of a dying wood,” while in “The house on an island in the river … they’re burning/ the forest’s secret papers.”

A number of the poems from The Half-Finished Heaven (1962) include tree or forest imagery. “In February living stood still,” begins the poem “Face to Face,” adding a few lines later: “The trees stood with their backs turned to me./ The deep snow was measured with dead straws.” A four-stanza poem called “Through the Wood” describes (ostensibly, at least) a forested marsh. Here are the middle two stanzas:

The feeble giants stand entangled
closely — so nothing can fall.
The cracked birch molders there
in an upright position like a dogma.

From the bottom of the wood I rise.
It grows light between the trunks.
It is raining over my roofs.
I am a waterspout for impressions.

Immediately preceding that poem is one that begins with the song of a thrush, which may refer to something more like an American robin than a wood thrush or hermit thrush (perhaps my British readers can tell me?), but I prefer to imagine something like the latter birds’ ethereal melancholia. Here’s the poem in its entirety.


And the thrush blew its song on the bones of the dead.
We stood under a tree and felt time sinking and sinking.
The churchyard and the schoolyard met and widened into each other like two streams into the sea.

The ringing of the church bells rose to the four winds borne by the gentle leverage of gliders.
It left behind a mightier silence on earth
and a tree’s calm steps, a tree’s calm steps.

Tranströmer’s next collection, Bells and Tracks (1966) includes a marvelous poem called “Winter’s Formulae,” which is in five numbered parts. Here’s Part 4:

Three dark oaks sticking out of the snow.
So gross, but nimble-fingered.
Out of their giant bottles
the greenery will bubble in spring.

(I wish the translator had picked another word than “gross.” The slang meaning, “disgusting,” drowns out for me the older, and I think intended, meaning: “large and bulky.”) Part 5 begins with another great image, one that really evokes Scandinavia for me:

The bus crawls through the winter evening.
It glimmers like a ship in the spruce forest
where the road is a narrow deep dead canal.

Seeing in the Dark, first published in 1970, begins with a similar theme: the disorientation the narrator feels when he wakes up in his car, parked alongside the road “in under the trees.” “Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that awakens in a back seat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack.” To me, this echoes an ancient European belief about forests as places native to the god of panic.

In the two succeeding poems, however, arboreal imagery has a more benign, even salvific thrust. “A Few Minutes” reminds us that the crown of a “squat pine in the swamp” is “nothing/ compared to the roots, the widespread, secretly creeping, immortal or half-mortal/ root system.” It is an insurgent force such as we must also become if we are to survive:

I you she he also branch out.
Outside what one wills.
Outside the metropolis.

In “Breathing Space July,”

The man lying on his back under the high trees
is up there too. He rills out in thousands of twigs,
sways to and fro,
sits in an ejector seat that releases in slow motion.

“Further In,” from Tranströmer’s 1973 collection Paths, makes the most explicit contrast between city and forest so far. Stuck in rush-hour traffic, the narrator says,

I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far into the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.

And accordingly, in the very next poem, “The Outpost,” the narrator is out tent-camping with some unnamed companions. Here’s a sample, beginning — as with the previous quote — a few lines past the mid-point:

Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role — I am the place
where creation is working itself out.

Daybreak, the sparse tree trunks
are colored now, the frostbitten
spring flowers form a silent search party
for someone who has vanished in the dark.

The Truthbarrier, first published in 1978, includes two prose poems set in forests. I know I said I wasn’t going to indulge in any literary criticism here, but I can’t help pointing out that in all these poems, being in the forest seems to connote a sort of existential lostness — a perhaps necessary precondition to authentic discovery or salvation. “The Clearing” begins:

Deep in the forest there’s an unexpected clearing that can be reached only by someone who has lost his way.

The clearing is enclosed in a forest that is choking itself. Black trunks with the ashy beard stubble of lichen. The trees are tangled tightly together and are dead right up to the tops, where a few solitary green twigs touch the light. Beneath them: shadow brooding on shadow, and the swamp growing.

The poem goes on to describe the clearing, which appears to be a long-ago house site, but I’m struck by how well Tranströmer and his translator, Robin Fulton, evoke an old-growth spruce forest — something one can experience in a few places in the northeastern United States, too. They are indeed very dark and damp, with little growing beneath the canopy aside from a profusion of arboreal lichens.

The other prose poem, “A Place in the Forest,” is more enigmatic. Where other poems might use arboreal metaphors to describe humans or human landscapes, here something opposite appears to be taking place. I find the result extraordinarily effective both as ecological description and as emotional/spiritual evocation. It’s short enough to quote in full.

On the way there a pair of startled wings clattered up — that was all. You go alone. A tall building that consists entirely of cracks, a building that is perpetually toppling but can never collapse. The thousandfold sun floats in through the cracks. In this play of light an inverted law of gravity prevails: the house is anchored in the sky and whatever falls, falls upward. There you can turn around. There you are allowed to grieve. You can dare to face certain old truths kept packed, in storage. The roles I have, deep down, float up, hang like dried skulls in the ancestral cabin on some out-of-the-way Melanesian islet. A childlike aura circles the gruesome trophies. So mild it is, in the forest.

In a prose poem from Tranströmer’s next collection, The Wild Market Square, by contrast, house and forest are at opposite poles of an axis.

It is a night of radiant sun. I stand in the dense forest and look away toward my house with its haze-blue walls. As if I had just died and was seeing the house from a new angle.
(“The Blue House”)

The last poem in that collection, “Molokai,” describes looking down at the roofs of a leper colony from the edge of a montane forest, with no time to make the descent and return before nightfall.

So we turn back through the forest, walk among trees with long blue needles.
It’s silent here, like the silence when the hawk nears.
These are woods that forgive everything but forget nothing.

All along I’ve been talking about the forest, in the classic lit-crit manner, but poets like Tranströmer insist on the particular: this forest, that is choking itself. In this play of light. These woods. Let’s end with one more prose poem that distinguishes between two different kinds of forest. This is from the 1989 collection, The Living and the Dead.


I inherited a dark wood where I seldom go. But a day will come when the dead and the living trade places. The wood will be set in motion. We are not without hope. The most serious crimes will remain unsolved in spite of the efforts of many policemen. In the same way there is somewhere in our lives a great unsolved love. I inherited a dark wood, but today I’m walking in the other wood, the light one. All the living creatures that sing, wriggle, wag, and crawl! It’s spring and the air is very strong. I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the clothesline.

Ah, the university of oblivion! I think I might’ve taken a few classes there myself.

pine snag with doorway

Don’t forget to email tree-related links to kelly [at] ginkgodreams [dot] com for the upcoming Festival of the Trees. The deadline is January 29.

21 Replies to “Poet in the forest: Tomas Tranströmer”

  1. What a nice introduction to a poet I’ve never even heard of! I made one pass through your post but I’ll have to make a couple more to fully absorb it.

    I have peasant Swedish ancestors so hearing about Tranströmer has a bit more significance for me than it might for others without that background.

  2. If you’re interested in Swedish poets, I can recommend two other translations I think you might like. I reviewed Artur Lundkvist’s Agadir here. Evidently Lundkvist specialized in travel poetry. And one I haven’t reviewed is Aniara, the science fiction epic by Harry Martinson (a Nobel laureate, FWIW). I have the complete translation by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg. It tells the story of 8,000 survivors of a destroyed earth in a spaceship bound for nowhere. One of the most depressing books I think I’ve ever read. It was also made into an opera by composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl.

  3. Dave, this is a wonderful reading of a wonderful poet.

    The poem about waking up in a panic–I don’t see how it could have influenced my own experience of the same. I couldn’t remember who I was, how could I remember a goddamn poem? But, undoubtedly, a memory of Tranströmer’s account must have crept into the way I wrote mine. Wouldn’t be the first time he’s gotten so completely under my skin.

    I love Tranströmer, and I am so glad that you–and now, your readers–are reading him.

    p.s. “Gross” doesn’t bother me at all. I think the context rules out the slang meaning entirely.

  4. Teju – I’m glad you liked the post.

    I think we’ve all had that experience – I know I have. That’s why the poem resonated with me. But I’ve also discovered it’s impossible to avoid unconscious influences in my writing. Just recently, for example, I was reading some of Francis Ponge’s prose poems from The Nature of Things (Le parti pris des choses) for the first time in probably twenty years. I was shocked to discover how closely my prose poem about a slug, first drafted some ten years ago, resembles Ponge’s pieces on Mullusks and The Snail.

    “Grossâ€? doesn’t bother me at all. I think the context rules out the slang meaning entirely.
    I will venture to guess that that’s because you are fluent in many more varieties of English than I am, and are thus more used to taking context, speakers and occasion into account.

  5. I woke a little late yesterday and began reading still muddle-headed form sleep -“Sinks toward the green zone of morning” was just perfect.
    Came back to it this morning with more time to do it justice. A cold dark sleety January. and I wake up to a walk in the forest. Wonderful.

  6. Thanks for the report! I was wondering how many people would read this all the way through. I should offer prizes, maybe.

    We’re getting some serious winter weather here, too, though fortunately it’s cold enough to give us a nice, dry powder – no sleet or freezing rain, knock on wood.

  7. Hullo there – I was interested in your question
    about the thrush (“trast”): almost certainly a
    songthrush, Turdus philomelos. What do
    Americans call this? The American Robin is
    Turdus migratorius and is not known over here.
    There is no problem or ambiguity with “gross”
    in the context,
    All best Robin

  8. Hi, Robin. Thanks for all your work in bringing Tranströmer to an English-speaking audience. These minor quibbles about connotation are insignificant compared with the magnitude of your achievement.

    That said, I do still find “gross” jarring to my American slang-influenced ear. (But whether you should be writing with a younger, and American, audience in mind is another question, of course. )

    Thanks for the info. about the identity of the thrush. Again, this reflects a difference in usage between the continents, I think. To me, and probably most other American bird-lovers, “thrush” tends to mean one of the birds of that family with a more ethereal song and deep-woods habit, such as the wood thrush, hermit thrush, or Swainson’s thrush. The European songthrush fits the dooryard niche occupied here by the American robin, or in Central America by the clay-colored robin. But clearly you couldn’t use “robin,” since the European robin isn’t even a thrush. If “thrush” is the most common way of referring to a songthrush in Europe, then I’d say you made the right choice.

    Thanks for the comment. I hope my simple-minded appreciation has brought you and Tranströmer a few new readers!

  9. Kia Ora (Greetings) Dave

    I liked your site very much. Greatly enjoy Tomas Transtromer’s poetry and, when able to read different translations, find the various translators interpretations most interesting.
    I too, as one person commenting in your feedback, found the word gross (obviously intended meaning being large) unpleasant because of present day connotations.

    I’ve read three translations of ‘Breathing space (or room) July, one by May Swenson, another by Robert Fulton and the last one, by Robert Bly. They’re all rather good as one might expect at this level of work, but some lines appeal more than say others and this is across each of the 3 translations of this poem…

    e.g. I liked Bly’s inclusion of ‘the shade’ in the line “will fall asleep at last inside the shade of his blue lamp,” and Swenson’s translation generally, and various words and lines of Fulton’s work as well.
    How do you view the various translations of Transtromer’s work?
    I live in Australia (coming from New Zealand) and have not found it easy to come by the poets work. I’m presently awaiting a copy of ‘The great enigma.’
    Are there any good translations in English by Swedish writers that you can recommend? Well, thanks re your interesting site.

    Narda M

  10. Hi Narda – Thanks for stopping by (and for reminding me why I never close comments on old posts). I’m glad you found my appreciation of Transtromer worthwhile. Unfortunately, I have only passing familiarity with Bly’s translation, and haven’t read any others, so I can’t answer that question. I do remember finding those other translations of “Breathing Space/Room, July” on the web back when I wrote this piece, though.

    As for other Swedish poetry in English, I can recommend Artur Lundkvist’s Agadir, which I wrote about briefly here, and Harry Martinson’s epic science fiction poem Aniara, possibly one of the bleakest things I have ever read, which has only been translateed in its entirety once, by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjorberg for Story Line Press.

    There’s one other major 20th-century Swedish poet whom I haven’t yet read: Gunnar Ekelof. Leif Sjoberg co-translated him with Muriel Rukeyser for Twayne back in ’67, according to the Wikipedia. My poetry-reading habits are really haphazard and not really shaped by national boundaries, but I’m sure I’ll get around to looking up that Ekelof translation sooner or later.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  11. Thank you for the presentation of Tranströmer: one of my favourite poets. I would like to know: who is the translator, specially of “Madrigal”: Is it Fulton?
    Arne Melberg, Oslo

  12. Thanks for the wonderful post! I loved the poems and your reading of them. I’ll be looking for the translation of Transtromer’s poems, though here, in India, translations of poetry are difficult to find (I have been on the lookout for Ponge as well!). The great exception is, of course, Neruda!

  13. Thanks for the comment; I’m glad you found this worthwhile. Not all Neruda translations are created equal, of course. Ben Belitt’s translations for Grove Press, for example, are terrible and among the few books I’d advocate burning.

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