Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Tranströmer's Politics

John Wilson


October 14, 2011
by John Wilson

Every year in October, certain rituals follow the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The trained Whiners come out and whine. A contingent devoted to the supreme genius of Philip Roth expresses outrage that, once again, he has been denied. And whoever can score a political point, whether by praising or sneering at the new laureate, hastens to do so.

But making political hay from poems or stories or plays can be a tricky business. Great literature usually doesn’t fall neatly into a political category. Consider the work of 2011 Nobel Prize-winner Tomas Tranströmer. In 1966, when Tranströmer was in his mid-thirties, he published a poem titled “Out in the Open.” Here, in Robert Bly’s early translation, is how the poem begins:

Late autumn labyrinth.
On the porch of the woods a thrown-away bottle.
Go in. Woods are silent abandoned houses this time of year.
Just a few sounds now: as if someone were moving twigs around carefully with pincers
or as if an iron hinge were whining feebly inside a thick trunk.

This “labyrinth” is a forbidding place, where shriveled mushrooms “look like objects and clothing left behind by people who have disappeared.” And so, the speaker says, the “thing to do is to get out / and find the landmarks again: the rusty machine out in the field / and the house on the other side of the lake, a reddish square intense as a bullion cube.”

The first part of this poem resembles a lot of contemporary poems (and novels and plays and movies) in evoking a sense that something is deeply awry. But what is it? Early in the second part, we appear to get an answer. Once again the speaker is on foot:

A letter from America drove me out again, started me walking
through the luminous June night in the empty suburban streets
among newborn districts without memories, cool as blueprints.

In his pocket, he carries that letter from a friend in America. “Over there,” the poet thinks—over there in America—“good and evil actually have faces.” And it seems for a moment that this poem is “political” in a very familiar way. But then comes this admission: “For the most part with us it’s a fight between roots, numbers, shades of light.” In Sweden, the fight between good and evil is every bit as real as it is in America. Among “us” in Sweden, the “people who do death’s errands for him don’t shy from daylight. / They rule from glass offices. They mill about in the bright sun. / They lean forward over a table, and throw a look to the side.”

The third part, concluding the poem, is much shorter than the first two. It begins out in the open:

Sun burning. The plane comes in low
throwing a shadow shaped like a giant cross that rushes over the ground.
A man is sitting in the field poking at something.
The shadow arrives.
For a fraction of a second he is right in the center of the cross.

Then comes another shift in perspective, even more surprising, bringing the poem to an end:

I have seen the cross hanging in the cool church vaults.
At times it resembles a split-second shot of something
Moving at tremendous speed.

In “Out in the Open,” Tranströmer leads us to the place where all honest politics must begin. Evil isn’t simply out there somewhere, in someone else, in “them.” We are all complicit, as we were all complicit in the crucifixion.

This uncomfortable truth is not an invitation to abandon moral judgment. It’s not an excuse for apathy or self-centered detachment. Rather it must frame our judgments. “We all line up to ask each other for help,” Tranströmer wrote in another poem in the same collection: “Millions. / One.”

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.





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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”