Most critics would agree that Tomas Tranströmer is Sweden’s most important poet since World War II. He has been associated with a variety of literary movements, lived through periods of enormous change in the world of poetry, and published poems with great diversity in form and content. Throughout his life, however, Tranströmer has published elegant and thoughtful poetry that explores the unconscious and challenges the reader’s conception of the world, such as “Svar på brev” (“Answers to Letters”), from the collection Det Vilda Torget (The Wild Market-Square). Beginning with the discovery of a letter that was delivered twenty-six years earlier, the poem is a journey through the labyrinth of time, memory, and the past. It uses striking, often dream-like, comparisons and a sophisticated prose style to dramatize a journey of self-discovery.
The “self,” or the identity of the poem’s speaker and the object of this journey, is an elusive element in “Answers to Letters,” partly because it is tied to both unconscious and conscious worlds. Tranströmer, an eminent psychologist in Sweden, is as interested in the workings of the unconscious self as he is in the function and purpose of poetry. The mature and profound meditation on these ideas leaves the reader with a poem that is characteristic of the eminent international poet highly regarded in the United States since the American poet Robert Bly began translating his material in the 1960s. He is now commonly accepted as a master in his native Sweden. “Answers to Letters,” which was originally published in Stockholm in 1983, is available in Robin Fulton’s English translation, New Collected Poems, published by Bloodaxe Books in 1997.
Beginning directly on the left margin, without the indentations of the other five stanzas, stanza one is set apart from the rest of the poem. Tranströmer may be implying that the first lines are an introductory statement, or the subsequent indentations may be meant to underscore the fact that the letter the speaker finds at the bottom of his desk drawer is “breathing.” In any case, the two sentences of the first stanza reveal a speaker, or a character that narrates the poem, who has “come across” a letter that arrived twenty-six years previously. The phrase “come across” does not imply any urgency or action; it is the letter itself that “arrives,” “in panic” and still breathing after twenty-six years, like a ghost to haunt the speaker. The speaker’s passivity, and his inability to respond to his past or to major questions that are breathing and panicking, will be an important theme in the following stanzas.
The second stanza’s description of a house with five windows, all of them looking out to a clear and still day except the one revealing a “black sky, thunder and storm,” is a somewhat mysterious image, since this would never be the case in an actual house. In fact, Tranströmer seems to be implying that this house is an abstract metaphor as opposed to a real place; “a house” instead of “my house” or “the house” signifies that the speaker is speaking in a general or unspecific way. Also, a reader might at first picture a house with four windows, or at least four views, one on each side. A fifth window with a view that is entirely different from the others may signify something outside the normal area of perception.
The two-word sentence “The letter,” which stands alone as if to emphasize its striking presence, connects the fifth window and the black storm to whatever it is that the letter represents. The fact that it is related to an obscure, stormy past may suggest that the letter contains questions that have haunted the speaker for a long time. And since the letter seems to represent some kind of living, breathing past, it may be that the letter has suddenly opened up a window to the past for the speaker and allowed him, or forced him, to confront something that he is unable to answer.
Stanza three begins by discussing time, observing that an “abyss” can occur between two days, but many years can pass in a very short time. This “abyss” refers, in part, to sleep, which can be a dreamland of an undefined amount of time and occur on an entirely different plane of existence. The poem “Dream Seminar,” which comes shortly after “Answers to Letters” in The Wild Marketplace, expands on the idea that dreams can inhabit a separate and timeless world related to the subconscious. This is one reason that time is like a “labyrinth”; the past, subconscious memories, and major unanswered questions about life continue to haunt and confuse people until it seems that they are struggling through a previous passage of the maze of life.
It is also significant that the speaker compares time to a labyrinth because it suggests that he desperately wants to find a way out of time and to escape. Death is the obvious way to fully escape from time, and Tranströmer will continue to be interested in the idea of death later in this poem, but there is also the possibility of escape from normality that was represented by the “fifth window” of stanza two. There is a sense in which the speaker might need to confront “the hurrying steps and the voices” of the past, which appear to...