Study Guide

Answers to Letters

by Thomas Transtromer

Answers to Letters Themes

Themes

Time, Memory, and the Past
Many of Tranströmer’s central thematic concerns in “Answers to Letters” are related to time. This is most explicit in the third stanza and its description of the speaker’s experience of the labyrinth of time, but each stanza refers to time in some manner, often in connection to the speaker’s memory and past represented by the rediscovered letter. Stanza one introduces the theme of an object representing something twenty-six years in the past that is still breathing and panicking; stanza two seems to refer to some obscure and cloudy version of time outside its “fifth window”; stanza four describes time in unique visual terms emphasizing that it does not run in a straight line; and stanza five envisions the speaker in a contradiction between a vague point in time in the future (“one day”), and the specific moment of walking in the wind of 125th street.

Like the speaker’s letter, which can be a source of meaning and promise but also a cause for fear and panic, time plays a somewhat contradictory role in the poem. There is a strong sense throughout the poem that time is haunting the speaker, and that time is an evil labyrinth or a black and cloudy storm from which he desperately wants to escape into the sunbeams and clear weather. Yet the speaker also seems to want to confront the strange phenomenon of time, to find the “self” walking past him on the other side of the wall in time’s labyrinth. He wants to answer the unanswered letters from the past and face the questions they pose, and he insists that he will confront the stormy past when, in the last stanza, he says, “One day I will answer.” Tranströmer seems to be commenting, therefore, on the nature of time itself; the speaker needs to escape from time in order to find himself, but he can only experience his “self” and find an identity within the structure of time.

Stanza five’s solution to this problem, which consists of the speaker’s proposal to answer the letters when he is dead “and can at last concentrate,” or at...

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