Tomas Tranströmer’s Great Leap Forward: “Utkantsområde”

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on

The Great Leap Forward — 大躍進 in Chinese — refers to the second Five Year Plan for the years 1958 to 1962. It was an attempt to rapidly transform the People’s Republic into an ideal communist society. In effect, it led to massive starvation due to food shortages, with millions of people dying from the simple lack of something to eat.

This kind of blind, accelerated rejection of the land in the name of “improvement” seems to lie at the heart of this poem by Tomas Tranströmer, first published in the collection Mörkerseende (1970). What he calls in the third line det stora språnget must be, I think, a Swedish translation for the Maoist term. And — without trying to limit the possibilities of the poem too neatly — the reference at the end of the text to begravningsplats = “burial place” hints at the destruction and famine associated with the ill-fated Chinese campaign.

But is Sweden (or anywhere else, for that matter) really so different? There is, for me, an echo of this insane leap-mentality in a passage from the book Författarmiljöer i Stockholm by Ulla Montan and Ludvig Rassmusson:

När Stockholm under förra seklet blev storstad, offrades naturen. Det hade inte behövt gå så, det var inte nödvändigt — i Paris, som var den stora förebilden, anlade man parker och planterade träd längs boulevarderna. Men i Stockholm var man nyförälskad i stadsaktigheten. Alla dessa inflyttade som lämnat landsbygden bakom sig, skämdes för de knotiga björkarna, de magra rönnarna, vedbodarna, utedassen, Kronblom ock leran. De ville ha modernitet och stadsaktighet. (p.52).

When Stockholm became a big city over the course of the previous century, nature was sacrificed. It did not have to be that way; it was not at all necessary. In Paris — which served as the major prototype — parks were laid out and trees planted along the boulevards. But in Stockholm people had become infatuated with the big city lifestyle. All those who moved to the city left the countryside behind, ashamed of scraggy birch trees, skinny rowans, woodsheds, earth-closets, low-brow comic-strips and all that mud. They wanted modernity and a life in the metropolis.

Two kinds of vocabulary dominate this short poem: a construction lexicon intertwined with agricultural terms. The organic growth of the soil is mimicked by a constructive pseudo-flourishing: earth-coloured men pop up out of the ground like seedlings. Farm-animals seem to haunt the poem. We are reminded of them by the cranes that wish to spring like gambolling lambs; by the sound of bells; by the concrete pipes, thirsty in their own way, “lapping” at the light; and by the repurposed lagårdar or “cow-sheds”. But ultimately, the landscape is a space-age, lunar one, devoid of organic growth, a deathly site populated everywhere by föremål [objects] rather than subjects. The search for profit at the expense of the magical fertility of the soil has betrayed us.


Män i överdragskläder med samma färg som marken kommer upp ur ett dike.
Det är ett övergångsområde, dödläge, varken stad eller land.
Byggnadskranarna vid horisonten vill ta det stora språnget men klockorna vill inte.
Kringkastade cementrör lapar ljuset med torra tungor.
Bilplåtverkstäder inrymda i före detta lagårdar.
Stenarna kastar skuggorna skarpt som föremål på månytan.
Och de platserna bara växer.
Som det man köpte för Judas’ pengar: ”Krukmakaråkern till begravninsplats för främlingar.”


Men in overalls the same colour as the ground sprout up out of a trench.

This is an in-between zone, dead-heat, neither city nor country.

Construction cranes along the horizon want to make the Great Leap Forward, but bells hang back.

Dotted across the landscape, concrete pipes lick light with parched tongues.

Crash-repair garages housed in what used to be cow-sheds.

The stones cast their shadows sharply like objects on the surface of the moon.

And such places are growing.

Reminiscent of “the Potter’s Field” they bought with Judas’ silver “as a burial place for strangers”.

Driving with Tomas Tranströmer: “Nocturne”

Photo by Yunus Tuu011f on

For the past six weeks, I’ve been driving around the Swedish landscape with Tomas Tranströmer in search of a mystery. Human beings are like fällda bommar = “lowered boom-gates”, he decides. Whenever mystery show itself, the human response is to drop into sleep, completely oblivious of any enigma. There are glimpses of something uncanny at night, and in the shared arboreal silence of the forest and, of course, in dream, or more specifically in that intermediary state between waking and dream. But the final word of the poem is both its key-note and its conclusion: förgäves “in vain”.

We cannot understand, but we must try to deepen our questions. This at least is one of the uses of poetry, our open-ended unanswer to everything . . .


Jag kör genom en by om natten, husen stiger fram
i strålkastarskenet – de är vakna, de vill dricka.
Hus, lador, skyltar, herrelösa fordon – det är nu
de ikläder sig livet. Människorna sover:

I drive through a village at night. Houses loom out
at me in the glare of headlights, awake and thirsty.
Buildings, barns, road-signs, vehicles without drivers — now it’s their turn
to dress themselves in Life. The human beings sleep.

en del kan sova fridfullt, andra har spända anletsdrag
som om de låg i hård träning för evigheten.
De vågar inte släppa allt fast deras sömn är tung.
De vilar som fällda bommar när mysteriet drar förbi.

Some manage to rest in peace; others grimace
as they lie there, tense, as if training hard for eternity.
They don’t dare let go of anything, although slumber is so heavy for them.
They are like boom-gates, lowered when the mystery sweeps on past.

Utanför byn går vägen länge mellan skogens träd.
Och träden träden tigande i endräkt med varann.
De har en teatralisk färg som finns i eldsken.
Vad deras löv är tydliga! De följer mig ända hem.

Beyond the village, the road continues on a long way
through forest trees, all standing there in silent mutual accord.
Their colours are theatrical, the kind you see in open firelight.
How clearly the leaves stand out, following me all the way home.

Jag ligger och ska somna, jag ser okända bilder
och tecken klottrande sig själva bakom ögonlocken
på mörkrets vägg. I springan mellan vakenhet och dröm
försöker ett stort brev tränga sig in förgäves.

I lie down and will sleep. Unfamiliar pictures
and designs graffiti themselves behind my eyelids
on darkness’s wall. In vain, an enormous letter
tries to force its way through the slot between waking and dream.

Tomas Tranströmer: “Allegro”

Tung PIng Chau Cliff Face TWO 2016

It sometimes seems to me that the world is made up of two kinds of people: a majority in love with the “rule of law” and the exercise of absolute power (it’s nice to have someone strong do all the thinking, and most of your feeling, for you), and those who prefer to see the flawed human spirit shine, especially unexpectedly and when it appears that all else is lost.

“Allegro” is a poem for the shiners. It was included in Tranströmer’s 1962 collection Den halvfärdiga himlen, a title that translates as “the half-ready Heaven”. I take it that what Tranströmer means here is that it is up to us — the human beings — to finish it off. Clearly, too many of us have understood “to finish it off” in completely the wrong way.

(Incidentally, the image of “half-ness” reappears in the wonderful title poem which ends with the lines:

Var människa en halvöpen dörr
som leder till ett rum för alla.
Each and every human being: a half-open door leading to a room for all.)

Defiance is generally coupled with anger. A joyous musical defiance is a rare thing, but the poet manages to make it make sense. He sits down to play at the piano after a “black day”. This may refer to his work at the Roxtuna center for juvenile offenders, or it may have to do with the state of the world. As he writes in “Lamento”:

För mycket som varken kan skrivas eller förtigas!
Too much that can neither be written down nor kept quiet!

The music at once changes the temperature of his mood: using the wonderful compounding property of Swedish, he writes of “driving his hands deeper into his Haydnpockets” before hoisting the “Haydnflag”, an image that suggests that he has reached the most triumph section in the composer’s allegro movement. The only hint of violence in the poem — on the part of those resisting — is in the strokes of “the mild hammers”, musical hammers incapable of inflicting the lightest wound.

The tremendous final image of the intact glass panes echoes the closing words of “Lamento”:

Malarna sätter sig på rutan:
små blek telegram från världen.
Moths settle on his window-pane: / bleak little telegrams from the world.




Jag spelar Haydn efter en svart dag
och känner en enkel värme i händerna.

I play Haydn after a black day and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

Tangenterna vill. Milda hammare slår.
Klangen är grön, livlig och stilla.

The keys are willing. Mild hammers strike. The sound is green, lively, reposed.

Klangen säger att friheten finns
och att någon inte ger kejsaren skatt.

The sound insists that there is such a thing as freedom, and that there is someone who pays Caesar no tax.

Jag kör ner händerna i mina haydnfickor
och härmar en som ser lugnt på världen.

I drive my hands deeper into my Haydnpockets and play the part of a man who can look the world calmly in the face.

Jag hissar haydnflaggan — det betyder:
“Vi ger oss inte. Men vill fred.”

I hoist the Haydnflag — what this means is: “We won’t give in. But want peace.”

Musiken är ett glashus på sluttningen
där stenarna flyger, stenarna rullar.

The music is a glasshouse on that slope where the stones come rolling, come crashing down.

Och stenarna rullar tvärs igenom
men varje rutan förblir hel.

And the stones roll right through it, but leave every pane intact.


Perhaps for a second or two, by the end of this poem, we are lifted along with Tranströmer’s music to a point where we sense, briefly, what invincibility might feel like for a human being. The question is: What could we learn to live from there?

For Robin Fulton’s expert translation of “Allegro”, please visit the official Tomas Tranströmer website.

Photograph: 香港東平洲 Tung Ping Chau, Hong Kong

Tomas Tranströmer: En vinternatt/One Winter Night

2019-02-18 Pumpkin Four

Stormen sätter sin mun till huset
och blåser för att få ton.
Jag sover oroligt, vänder mig, läser
blundande stormens text.

The storm puts its lips to the house and blows to make a note. I sleep, fitful, tossing and turning, reading the storm’s text with my eyes closed.

Men barnets ögon är stora i mörkret
och stormen den gnyr för barnet.
Båda tycker om lampor som svänger,
Båda är halvvägs mot språket.

But the child’s eyes grow wide in the darkness and the storm, it roars for her. Both are fond of lamps when they sway and both are half-way to language.

Stormen har barnsliga händer och vingar.
Karavanen skenar mot Lappland.
Och huset känner sin stjärnbild av spikar
som håller väggarna samman.

The storm has the hands and wings of a child. The caravan takes off in the direction of Lappland. And the house feels its constellations of nails, which hold the walls fastened together.

Natten är stilla över vårt golv
(där alla förklingade steg
vilar som sjunkna löv i en damm)
men därute är natten vild!

The night is calm over our floor (where all footsteps rest like leaves sunk to the bottom of a pond when they fade away), but out there, the night runs wild!

Över världen går en mer allvarlig storm,
Den sätter sin mun till vår själ
och blåser för att få ton. Vi räds
att stormen blåser oss tomma.

A more critical storm passes over the world. It puts its lips to our soul and blows to make a note. We fear that blast will leave us completely hollowed out.