ReadySteadyBlog

I'm not sure I understand the concept of 'closeness' in Tomas Tranströmer's poems, but in attempting to get near I am confronted by the distance between what I gather in and what they offer up. The gap between the gift and my receptivity – how far I find myself from what is being said, so limpidly, and what I understand – is a paradoxical limitlessness. I'm being shown simplicity but it looks, to me, like illimitable complexity. In that way, a poem is like a smile or a shrug, a beckoning or a barrier: how you take the gesture makes of it the certainty it never had when it was proffered. Retroactive causation, perhaps: the moment you decide that you know something about ambiguity that it doesn't know about itself is the moment it becomes what it might never have been.

"The sick boy," in After the Attack (in Robert Bly's translated collection The Half-finished Heaven) sits "with his back toward the painting of a wheatfield... At the far end of the field a man." And what of him? "... his face in shadow... / He seems to look at the dark shape in the room here". Is the dark shape in the reader's room, the narrator's, or the boy's? Or is it the reader, narrator or boy themselves? Regardless, the man "has come nearer" ("as / though to help"). Tranströmer says "No one notices it." But everyone who reads notices. Indeed, every reader has been told. Perhaps just the boy doesn't notice, but he is not everyone. The man in the field, the stranger, is close, closer now than at the start of the poem (and the poem, we presume, commences after the titular attack) – he moves as the poem moves, he moves through it. Always closer, now the poem is over.

How does this proximity play out in The Couple? "They turn the light off... and they sleep... It is dark and silent." But in their beds, in a hotel, in a city, in the dark, the surrounding houses "come nearer... They stand packed and waiting very near, / a mob of people with blank faces." This is threatening – mobs always are. And we can't begin to know what this mob is thinking, what it wants. Its proximity is no aid to understanding, indeed its closeness is what is so threatening; the closeness makes thinking about what they are thinking about more troubling than if they were a less exigent threat. The mob presses close, but we don't know why; and always closer, as the poem closes.

I'm not sure I understand the concept of 'closeness' in Tranströmer's poems, but I'm threatened by it. Threatened that the man whose "broad hat leaves his face in shadow", or the houses that might steal closer to mine in the middle of the night, know more about my sickness than I do. Like "a man [who] goes so deep into his dream / he will never remember he was there / when he returns again to his room" (Track).

In Kyrie Tranströmer writes "At times my life suddenly opens its eyes in the dark." When this happens, what do you see? Darkness. A darkness, perhaps, not as jet as when your eyes are closed. If you are lucky. What, then, do you know? That you are not alone; that what you see is not all there is. That you are not alone and that the knowledge is no comfort. Knowledge, it would seem, is simply knowing that the threat has come just that little bit closer.

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