09 May 2015

The Deleted World

The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer, tr. Robin Robertson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

I close my eyes.
There is a silent world,
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled over the border.


The last lines of Tomas Tranströmer's poem "Midwinter" closed the collection The Deleted World. It ended with an eerie image of the silent world and the dead being trafficked through a crack. The poems themselves offered a silent procession of images and left the reader with an atmosphere of foreboding. The world was not the only thing deleted, but words were seemingly redacted to produce extremely short poems. What's left were bare traces of ideas and a profound sense of incompleteness. Even crowding faces—of houses or the couple, it was not exactly clear—was cancelled. The landscape was as if annulled.

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,
extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.
They crowd in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.

—"The Couple"

Whole poems themselves were seemingly deleted. The reader was treated to only 15 short pieces, in a book that ran for mere 37 pages, half of which were devoted to the original poems in Swedish facing the English versions of Robin Robertson. The criminally sparse selection of poems terminated a lot of potential richness from Tranströmer's oeuvre. It was a rather short introduction to the poet, though it in some ways gave an impression that the selection was representative of the poet's 11 books of poetry. Because the poems were short, the lines were short, the book was short, image subtraction and language condensation were the order of the day.

Tranströmer was a poet of compression. He could write poems using language, yet without using words. The poet confessed that he was "sick of those who come with words."

From March 1979

Sick of those who come with words, words but no language,
I make my way to the snow-covered island.

Wilderness has no words. The unwritten pages
stretch out in all directions.

I come across this line of deer-slots in the snow: a language,
language without words.

The wordless natural world described everything for him. Language was derived from the essential meaning of silence. The utterance of words—mere superfluous words—would disturb the balance of nature. The Nobel laureate had the luxury to repudiate the wordiness of modern society as he was a deleter of the inessential. He was a tranströmer of words.


  1. "Language without words" - what a marvelous goal for poetry. There's something that seems quite Chinese in that, the effort to convey a world with the flick of a brushstroke.

  2. A goal for poetry and perhaps for humanity as well. If only we could read well the many languages without words. Then we can be poets of this world.

  3. From March 1979, is a favourite of mine & I also have liked other poems I've read by this writer. It's a shame that the collection left you feeling shortchanged, as this is a writer well worth exploring in depth & considering that he recently died is definitely worth a collection to match the one I recently reviewed from Wislawa Szymborska.

  4. The substantial collection in English seems to be The Great Enigma, translated by Robin Fulton. "From March 1979" in that book reads:

    Weary of all who come with words, words but no language
    I make my way to the snow-covered island.
    The untamed has no words.
    The unwritten pages spread out on every side!
    I come upon the tracks of deer in the snow.
    Language but no words.

  5. The version in your post I believe I read in The Rattle Bag, a great anthology of poetry edited by Ted Hughes & Seamus Heaney

  6. It must be great. Seeing as Hughes and Heaney assembled it.