The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641

“Out in the Open” has thirty-three lines divided into three sections of uneven length. The poem takes place out in the open air, away from town and the town’s evil; the poet attempts to bring things normally hidden out in the open. Each of these readings is problematic, partially because of the poem’s fragmented nature.

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The second and third sections are written in the first person, but the first section has only an implied first-person narrator. In all three sections, there is no distinction between the speaker and Tomas Tranströmer; one must assume that he, following the norms of the lyric poem, is the “I” in this poem.

The poem begins with a fragment, as if a stage direction were being given in a play: “Late autumn labyrinth.” The idea of a labyrinth is appropriate for this poem because of the mystery in it as a whole and because of the abrupt and sometimes baffling changes in direction that take place, especially between sections. This first section of the poem follows a thin narrative: Someone waits at the edge of the woods, then decides to enter the woods, and then leaves. While in the woods, he hears a few sounds, notices the mushrooms “have shriveled up,” and decides to get out and find his landmarks again before it gets dark. The scene is somewhat frightening, mainly because of the associations the reader might have with woods and darkness; the reader has no idea, however, why the person is in the woods or why exactly he needs to find his landmarks again. The section is evocative and startling in its metaphors, but it is certainly also opaque.

Section 2 begins with a statement that seems to connect logically the first two sections: “A letter from America drove me out again, started me walking.” Perhaps our questions from section 1 are being resolved here. Tranströmer, however, does not provide instant gratification; he continues in the labyrinth. The letter from America drives him out not during late autumn but on a June night, and he walks not in the woods but “in the empty suburban streets.” This section also shifts from the private, solitary thoughts that surfaced as he walked in nature to larger public themes as he walks among the new buildings with America on his mind.

This section addresses the presence of evil in the world. In America, according to Tranströmer, “evil and good actually have faces,” but in Sweden—“with us”—things are more complicated. Tranströmer does know that those “who runerrands for” death “rule from glass offices” and “mill about in the bright sun.” The section ends not with an evil bang but with a transforming and momentarily saving image. Tranströmer, the seer, sees a building’s window become a “mirrorlike lake with no waves” that reflects the night sky and the trees. Caught up in his vision, Tranströmer reflects, “Violence seemed unreal/ for a few moments.” That closing line shows how briefly the moment of epiphany lasted.

The third section begins with an image that seems to come out of Alfred Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest (1959). Readers turn from the dusk and night of sections 1 and 2 and face a burning sun. A plane comes out of nowhere in the poem and places its cruciform shadow on a man “poking at something” in a field. The poem then abandons the man and the plane and cuts, in a cinematic fashion, to the picture of a “cross hanging in the cool church vaults.” The cross, in Tranströmer’s eyes, resembles a “snapshot of something/ moving at tremendous speed.” The poem, which also jumps and moves “at tremendous speed,” does not end with any final statement that might wrap up the poem’s meaning. It ends where it began, in a labyrinth of images.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395

Metaphors are often used by poets to give unity to a poem, especially one that stays away from the other more conventional unifying forces such as rhyme scheme or narrative structure. Tranströmer is no exception. The woods that the speaker enters in section 1 are described as “silent abandoned houses this time of year.” When the speaker leaves the woods to find landmarks, he looks for a “house on the other side of the lake.” He enters the house of the woods and leaves the woods to find a house. The metaphorical description of the house is both intriguing and odd. It is a “reddish square intense as a bouillon cube.” The description helps the reader see the house, and serves as a link to section 2 when the “newborn” suburban blocks are “cool as blueprints.” Readers leave the woods for the suburbs, the red of the rusty machine and the “reddish square” of the house for the metaphorical blueprints, and they abandon that “intense” bouillon cube-shaped house for the “cool” blocks of suburbia. The inversions and playful reshaping help keep the poem centered.

Another pattern emerges when the images associated with the city and the woods are compared. In the woods the near silence becomes mechanized. The few sounds the poet hears are compared to a person moving twigs “with pincers” or an “iron hingewhining feebly inside a thick trunk.” The same type of reversal takes place in the city: The constructed world becomes naturalized when the building windows are transformed into a “mirrorlike lake with no waves.” These transformations do not seem to have thematic importance; they serve as structural aids only.

The most conventional figurative language in the poem comes in the second section when death is personified. As in so many other descriptions of death by both writers and painters, the abstraction becomes concrete: Death is a “he” who has people “runerrands for him.” The conventionality of the image matches the simplicity of the concept: Evil seems external to Tranströmer. The bad people, death’s right-hand men and women, “rule from glass offices” and “mill about in the bright sun.” The good person—Tranströmer—stands outside the offices or in nature and walks around at night. It does not seem as if the poet implicates himself in the world’s evil or its violence. He stands apart, the pure visionary.

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Themes