The great subject of the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer—sometimes it seems as though it is his only subject—is liminality. He is a poet almost helplessly drawn to enter and inhabit those in-between states that form the borderlines between waking and sleeping, the conscious and the unconscious, ecstasy and terror, the public self and the interior self. Again and again his poems allude to border checkpoints, boundaries, crossroads: they teeter upon thresholds of every sort—be they the brink of sleep or the brink of death, a door about to open or a door about to close. These thresholds are often ensorcelated places, where a stone can miraculously pass through a window and leave it undamaged, where the dreams of a sleeping couple (in Robin Robertson’s translation of the lines) “will meet as colours meet / and bleed into each other / in the dampened pages of a child’s painting-book.” Indeed, in his finest individual collection, called Sanningsbarriaren in its original Swedish and The Truth-Barrier in most English translations, he concocts a neologism which perfectly encapsulates his lifelong fixation with the liminal. Yet this inhabitant of borderlands and denizen of thresholds is also deeply suspicious of binaries and dichotomies, of Manichaeism in any form.
In Tranströmer’s universe, conditions are too much in flux, too subject to sudden and radical change, to ever permit dualistic thinking: every emotion can without warning turn into its opposite, every perception of what Whitehead called “the withness of the body” can turn into an out-of-the body experience. In one of his best-known poems, “The Open Window,” composed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we first glimpse the speaker shaving to the lulling purr of his electric razor, but suddenly the razor becomes a helicopter, and the speaker is looking down from its cockpit to the distant earth below. “‘Keep your eyes open!’” says the helicopter pilot in Robert Bly’s translation of the poem, “‘You’re seeing all this for the last time.’” How does ones one return to reality and sanity after experiencing a vision as apocalyptic as this?