Tomas Tranströmer

The Baltic Seas


It was before the time of radio masts.

Mother's father had just become a ship's pilot, noting in an almanac the vessels he
name, destination, draught.
Example from 1884:
Steamship Tiger     Capt Rowan    16 foot     Hull Gefle Furusund
Brigg Ocean     Capt Andersen     8 foot     Sandöfjord Hernösand Furusund
Steamship St Petersburg     Capt Libenberg     11 foot     Stettin Libau

He took them out to the Baltic Sea, through the amazing labyrinth
    of islands and water.
And those who met on-board and were borne by a common hull for days or hours.
    How much did they get to know one another?
Conversations in misspelled English, understandings and misunderstandings, but
    very little of the intended lie.
How much did they get to know one another?

When the fog was thick: half speed, low visibility. Out of the unseen, the Point
    emerging before you in a single stride, right beside you.
Blaring signal horns every other minute. Eyes that read straight into the unseen.
(Did he have the labyrinth in his head?)
Minutes passed.
Bottom depth and skerries, memorized like psalms.
And the feeling of “we are right here,” you have to maintain,
    as though you were bearing a brimming vessel from which no drop is to be spilled.

A glance down into the machine room.
The compound machine with the longevity of a human heart, laboring
with great cushioned, bouncing movements, acrobats of steel, and fragrances
ascending, as from a kitchen.


The wind goes through the forest pines. It soughs, heavy and light.
The Baltic soughs here too in the heart of the island. Deep
in the forest, you are out on the open sea.
The old woman hated the soughing in the trees.
Her face grew taut with gloom when it began to blow.
“You have to think about the ones out on the boats.”
But she heard something else in the soughing, just as I did.
We are family. (We walk together. She has been dead for thirty years.)
It soughs yes and no, misunderstandings, understandings.
It soughs three children into good health, one in a sanatorium and two who are dead.
Big gusts blowing life into some places, blowing it out in the next.
It soughs: Save me Lord, for water presses my very life.
You walk for a long time, listening, and you reach a point where the frontier opens
or rather
where everything becomes frontier. An open spot, sunken in darkness.
People pouring from the dimly lighted buildings surrounding it. There is a murmuring.

A fresh gust of wind and once more the place is
    desolate, without sound.
A fresh gust of wind and there is froth on other shores.
This is about the war.
It is about places where citizens are being watched.
Where thoughts are furnished with emergency exits,
where a conversation among friends becomes a true test of the meaning
    of friendship.
And when you are in the company of people you don't really know.
    Watched. A certain probity is a good thing,
as long as you don't let your gaze waver from what stirs
    on the fringes of conversation: something dark, a dark stain.
Something that can drift in
and destroy everything. Don't lose sight of it!
What can you compare it to? A sea mine?
No, that would be too substantial for that. Almost peaceful - for on our coasts,
    most tales of mines have happy endings.
    Horror gets circumscribed in time.
As in the tale from the lightship: “In the fall of 1915, one didn't sleep
much...” etc. A floating mine had been spotted.
When it drifted calmly towards the lightship, lifting and plunging,
cloaked at times by the seas, uncloaked at times like a spy in a crowd.
The crew lay within its own dreading, shooting at it. To no avail.
    At last, they set out in a dinghy,
tethering the sea mine to a long rope, coaxing it in, with vigilance and time,
    towards the experts.
Afterwards, they placed the dark shell of the mine in a sandy place of trees
    as an ornament
next to shells of Queen Conchs from the West Indies.

And the sea wind blows in dry pines faraway, hastens across the sands of
    the graveyard,
past the tipping stones, the names of pilots.
The dry soughing
of great portals opening, of great portals closing.


In a dusky corner of the church on Gotland, in gentle mildew's first light,
there is a baptismal font of sandstone from the twelfth century. The name of the stone cutter
remains, luminous
as a row of teeth in a mass grave:
                                                                       is the name that remains. And his pictures
both here and on the sides of other basins: swarms of people, figures on their way
    out of the stone.
The eyes' kernels of evil and good burst forth.
Herod at the board:
the roasted cock flies up to crow
“Christus Natus Est” - the waiter was put to death -
while alongside, the child is born, amid a throng of faces, upright
    young apes.
And the fleeing gait of the pious
echoes above the yawning dragon-scaled sewers.
(The pictures are more intense when you remember them
than when you see them face to face. Yet they are most intense
when you remember the whirring of the baptismal font
in a slowly rumbling carousel.)
There is no lee anywhere. Risk is all about
This is as it was. This is as it is.
Peace can only be found on the inside. In the unseen water of the basin.
Yet it is on the outermost walls the battle rages.
And peace can come drop by drop, possibly at night
when we are unaware,
or like when you are lying in a hospital room, on a drip.
People, beasts, ornaments.
There is no natural setting. Ornaments.

Mr. B. my traveling companion, charming, fleeing his own country,
freed from Robin Island, says:
“I am envious. I have no feeling for nature.
But people in a natural setting, now that is something.”
Here are people in a natural setting.
A photograph from 1865.
The steamer lies moored at the wharf by the sound.
Five figures. A lady in bright crinoline, like a small bell, like a flower.
The fellows resemble extras in a country play.
They are all handsome, hesitant, on the verge of erasure.
They step to the shore for a brief time. They are being erased.
The steamer is a model from another time.
There is a tall stack, a sun-roof, the narrow hull.
It is totally out of place. The landing of a UFO.
Everything else in the photograph is astonishingly real:
the ripples on the water,
the other shore.
I can stroke my hand across the rough surface of the rocks,
I can hear the soughing in the firs.
It is so close. It is
The waves are up-to-date.

Now, a hundred years later. The waves come in from “no man's water,”
striking the stones.
I walk along the shore. It is not as it was, walking along the shore.
You have to bite off more than you can chew. Too many conversations at one time.
    We have thin walls.
Every object has taken on a new shadow behind the usual one.
And you hear it shuffling when the darkness is full.

It is night.

The strategic planetarium is turning. Lenses stare within the darkness.
The night heavens are full of digits. And they are fed into
a flashing cabinet,
a piece of furniture
where the energy of a swarm of grasshoppers lives- devouring, in
half and hour, acres of Somalian land.

I don't know whether we are at the beginning or in the final phase.
A summary can not be brought about. A summary isn't possible.
A summary is mandrake -
(see reference book for superstitions:
                                                                                        miraculous plant
emitting such a hideous shriek when ripped out of the earth that a man would fall
dead of it. A dog had to do it....)


From the leeward side

Forests of kelp, luminous in the limpid waters. They are young. You want to emigrate there, lie upon a mirror image of yourself, sink to a certain depth. The kelp that holds itself up with bladders of air, in the same way we hold ourselves up with ideas.

The Four-Horn Sculpin
The fish who is a toad that would be a butterfly but who succeeds only by a third. He hides himself in the sea grass but is hauled out with nets, his pitiful spikes and warts hooked fast – when you disentangle him from the mesh, your hands will gleam with slime.

Rock Slabs
Out on the stretches of lichen warmed by the sun, tiny insects scurry about, busy as second-hands – the pine casts a shadow, moving deliberately as an hour-hand does – within me, time has come to a standstill. endless within time; the time it takes to forget all languages and to invent perpetuum mobile.

To leeward, you can hear the grass growing. a faint drumming from
         below. The slightest reverberation of millions of tiny gas flames. that is the sound of the grass
         as it grows.

And now: a sweeping expanse of water, with no doors, open frontiers
broadening out
the further you stretch.

There are days when the Baltic is a roof of serenity that never ends.
It is then you have a perfectly innocent dream of something creeping on that roof
         and you try to break out the halyard
try to hoist
the cloth -

the flag so abraded by wind, charred by smokestacks, blanched by the sun, that it may belong to

Yet the way to Liepeja is long.


July 30. The inlet has grown eccentric – today, for the first time in years, it is teeming with jellyfish. they pump themselves cautiously forward. They belong to the same shipping line: AURELIA. they drift like flowers after a burial-at-sea. Scoop them out of the water and they lose their shape, as though an ineffable truth were lifted out of the silence to assume the shape of dead jelly. They are indeed untranslatable. It is essential they remain in their own element.

August 2. Something wants to be said, but the words do not comply.
Some things cannot be said.
there is no word for it
though there may be a script...

You happen to be awake at night
hastily jotting down a few words
on the nearest scrap of paper, the margin of a newspaper
(the words radiate significance!)
but the next morning, the same words no longer say anything, mere scribblings
    slips of the tongue.
Or a fragment of the great nocturnal script that passes by?

Music comes to someone. He is a composer, is performed, has
    made something of himself, has become the head of the conservatory.
The market changes, he gets censured by the powers that be.
His principle accuser is his pupil K***, who is now brought forth.
He is threatened, degraded and given the boot.
After some years, his fall from grace seems less blatant.
He is rehabilitated.
A brain hemorrhage makes its appearance:
the right side is paralyzed with aphasia.
    He comprehends only the briefest of phrases. He says the wrong words.
He is thus untouched by opprobrium or adulation.
But there is still the music. He continues to compose
    in his own style.
    In the time that is left to him,
    he becomes a medical sensation.

He wrote music to texts he no longer understood
in the same way
we express something with our lives
in a choir humming slips-of-the-tongue.

The thanatos lectures persisted over several semesters.
I was in attendance with classmates
I scarcely knew.
(who are you?)
- afterwards we dispersed,
each to his image.

I looked to the heavens, to the earth and straight ahead
writing, after that, a long letter to the dead
on a machine with no ribbon, only the horizon's line.
So the words get banged out for nought and nothing sticks.

I stand there with my hand on the doorknob, taking the house's pulse.
The walls are so full of life.
(the children don't dare sleep alone up there in their room.
   that which gives me comfort, makes them uneasy.)

august 3. Out there in the wet grass
a greeting from the Middle Ages glides along: the vineyard snail,
the faintly gleaming yellow-gray snail, his home of a shell askew,
brought in by monks enamored of escargots – yes, the
    franciscans were actually here
breaking up rock and firing the limestone, the island
became theirs in 1288, a grant from King Magnus
(“These charities and others of like kind/ will meet Him now in the kingdom
    of heaven”)
the forests tumbled, the kilns burned, and limestone was
sailed in for the monastery's construction...
                                                               Sister snail
nearly reposing in the grass, her feelers sucked in
or rolled out, disconcerted and hesitant.
How she resembles me in my explorations!

The wind that has blown fastidiously the whole day long.
- on the outermost skerries, each stalk has been counted -
has lain down quietly in the centre of the island.
The flame of the match stands erect.
The painting of the sea and the painting of the woods
    darken together.
The verdure of five-storey trees grow black as well.
“Every summer is the last one.” Empty words
for the midnight beings of late summer
when locusts sew, as though possessed, on their machines
and the Baltic Sea so very near,
the lone faucet lifting from the thicket
    of thorn bushes
like a statue of a knight. The water tastes of iron.


The story of my mother's mother before it is forgotten:
her parents die young, first the father.
When the widow has a feeling the disease will also take her
she goes from home to home, sails with her daughter from
island to island.
”Who can take care of my Maria!”.
The house of strangers on the far side of the inlet takes her in.
Over there, they have the means.
But those who had the means were not good. The mask of piety
is a cracking thing.
Maria's childhood comes to a premature end. She works as a servant girl without pay,
in a constant chill. For many years. A constant sea-sickness in a long
voyage of rowing, the ceremonial terror of the dining room table, facial expressions, the skin
of a pike crackling in her mouth: be grateful, be grateful.
                                                                                          She never looked back.
Yet precisely because of that, she could see What Was New
and she grabbed it.
Out of these enclosures!

I remember her. I snuggled up to her
and in the moment of her death (the moment of transition?) she sent me a thought
so that I – a five year old child – understood what had happened
half an hour before they called.

I remember her. But the unknown man figures in the next
brown photograph -
dated by the garb of the middle of the previous century.
A man about thirty years old: heavy eyebrows,
his face looks me straight in the eyes,
whispers: “Here I am.”
Who is “I”?
No one is left to remember.

TB. Isolation?

Once he paused
amid the rocks and steaming grasses that sloped from the sea
feeling then the black blindfold on his eyes.

Here, behind the dense thicket; is this the island's oldest house?
The 200 year old shed, low by the sea, logged with rough, gray wood.
And the modern brass padlock has clicked everything in,
bright as the ring on the nose of an old bull who
baulks at getting up.
So much buckled wood. On the roof, ancient tiles
tumble onto one another, this way and that
(the original pattern displaced through the years by the earth's rotation).
It reminds me of something...I was there...wait: it 's the old Jewish
    Cemetery in Prague
where the dead live in closer proximity than they do in life
the stones close by close by
so much enclosed love. The tiles with ciphers
of lichen in an unknown language.
These are the stones in the people of the Skärgard's ghetto cemetery,
    stones that are upright or tumbling down.
And the shack grows bright
with those who were led here to their fates
by a certain wave, a certain wind.

Trans. Gordon Walmsley
©Tomas Tranströmer and Gordon Walmsley.
Thanks to Tomas Tranströmer and Bonnier Group Agency for permission.