Out in the Open Themes
by Tomas Tranströmer

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Any poem that has thirty-three lines divided into three sections and that begins with a man journeying through woods, nearly lost, and ends with the image of a cross must be, at least for an instant, compared with Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1320). Dante’s epic, divided into three parts, with two of those parts divided into thirty-three cantos, begins with Dante lost in a dark forest and ends with a vision of God. Despite the similarities, the comparison is interesting mostly because of the differences between the two works. Tranströmer’s poem is a modern journey through the hell of human violence and evil, but no hope is offered at the end. The cross of the plane’s shadow or the cross in the “cool church vaults” might perhaps serve as a symbol of suffering, but there is certainly no hope of that suffering having any purpose. For Christians, the cross represents both suffering and hope, but Tranströmer’s use of the image seems stripped of nearly all transcendent meaning. In the center of the cross made by the airplane’s shadow lies no savior, but some nameless man “sitting in the field poking at something”; and the cross in the church not only appears to be empty, but also turns into something else, something stripped of value, “a split-second snapshot of something/ moving at tremendous speed.” The camera eye and the speed of technology replace the formerly stable icon of Christianity.

What seems to be offered in the poem to replace the redemptive quality of the cross is the power of the poet’s own imagination. Tranströmer is admired widely and has been translated by a number of poets because of the power in his lyrical voice. He banishes the normal hinges of a poem and creates a fresh vision that benefits from surprising metaphors and innovative...

(The entire section is 468 words.)