“After Someone’s Death” is a poem of three stanzas of four lines each. As in many of Tomas Tranströmer’s poems, this one begins with the appearance of a story, but by the end, the series of disconnected images do not seem to add up to a coherent narrative. It is the speaker’s visual (rather than organic) ordering of things that holds the poem’s various images together. The title suggests the discontinuity between life and death; it is the time after someone’s death that the poem considers. The speaker is not identified as the one who specifically experiences the death of another person, and this general detachment may allow the speaker to talk of a more universal condition. It is not uncommon for people to experience the death of another person. The reference to “us” in the first stanza may therefore refer to all people.
In the following two stanzas, the speaker addresses more directly a “you” in the poem. The other person is depicted in familiar situations such as shuffling on skis on a winter’s day and feeling his or her “heart throbbing.” In these depictions, the speaker seems to be consoling the other person by reminding him or her of activities in which the living and breathing human body can still engage.
The speaker assumes some responsibility for the emotional well-being of the person who has possibly experienced someone’s death. Tranströmer establishes the mood of this situation in the first stanza when he makes note of the “shock” that follows death. The “cold drops” here suggest the numbness induced by shock. The repetition of “cold” and the way it “consumes” the living warmth in the second stanza reinforce this idea.
The third stanza highlights the difference between being dead and feeling dead. When someone literally dies, the one who remains often feels deadened by this fact. The latter, suffering from the cold truth of death, must be reminded of the blood that still pulses in his or her own self. Nevertheless, the speaker is sympathetic toward this apparent lack of emotional feeling and understands that the other person is gripped by a sense of unreality. It is at this time that “the shadow feels more real than the body” or, in other words, when the gloominess is the actuality.
The last two lines shift away from the interpersonal concerns. The image of a samurai and his armor made of “black dragon-scales” ends the poem, and it seems peculiar to the more cosmic and humanist concerns of the earlier lines. As well as being disconnected from the rest of the poem, this last image may even be considered shocking. In this respect, the lines contribute to the mood or effect of the poem, rather than provide a satisfying closure to the never-ending pain that the death of another person causes.
At one time Tranströmer was a practicing psychologist, and his work enables him to employ many strategies to speak about the unspeakable. How else do humans come to understand what death means unless they first realize what psychological and emotional effects visit them after someone else dies?
The poem does not appear to be logically developed because the grief caused by death forces one to reconsider the outside world. After death, the world is transformed; it is irrational, since everything seems inexplicable. If the poem develops in discontinuous fashion, it is the poet’s attempt to correspond the reality of the experience to the unreality of death. The speaker of the poem acts as a kind of mediator between the fact of...
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death and the emotional impact of the one who remains after the dead. The world is seen through the eyes of the other who is suffering, and the pain is interpreted through the components of the physical world. If objects are transposed in this presentation, this may be caused by the way in which personal affliction has filtered the images.
The poem begins with the effect of the “shock”; it takes the form of “a long pallid glimmering comet’s tail.” Already, the poem establishes the sense of lifelessness in the cosmic metaphor. Unfortunately, this lack of vitality is all-encompassing (“It contains us”) and alters even inconsequential things such as television sets. The movement from the personal (grief) to the universal (comets) and then to the quotidian (televisions and aerials) suggests the rapidness with which the shock of death affects all aspects of existence. The reference to the passive act of watching blurred television pictures speaks of a psychological condition as well. One does not have heart for much else, and rather than be left with one’s own pain, it is easier to displace it by letting external images flicker across one’s consciousness.
In the second stanza, the cosmic and technological realms transpose into a natural one; it is as though the speaker requests that the one suffering get up and go outdoors to refresh the body and the mind. The speaker gently paints this picture: “You can still shuffle along on skis in the winter sun” indicates that once, perhaps as a past joyous activity, “you” used to be uplifted by skiing in the woods.
In the second half of the stanza, however, the speaker returns to the sympathetic tone and considers how the innocent act of skiing itself could have drastic consequences. The comparison of the remaining tree leaves to “old telephone directories” suggests that one might think again of dead things or of things that have since passed away.
By the third stanza, the speaker acknowledges the endlessness of pain itself and, again, gently reminds the other that it is “still beautiful” to be alive. Like the groves with bare trees, though, one feels the vast emptiness: Even the “samurai looks insignificant beside his armor.” What was once plenitude and substance becomes devoid of meaningful substance.