Mind the Gap: Tranströmer’s Borderlands

A month ago, the world lost Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel Laureate who also had a career as a psychologist working with youth and drug addicts. A number of his poems seem to arise from this work, from his concern for those living on the outskirts of society. By and large, these are not poems explicitly about people on the fringes, but rather poems that trouble the very idea of a civilization possessing outskirts. Why are some people forced to the edge and some comfortable in the center? Who draws the lines, and where? And, centrally for Tranströmer: what is possible in the middle spaces?

In poems written throughout his career, Tranströmer is interested in the “outskirts” of time, space, thought, and schedule. Time expands and collapses. In “Alone,” a poem about an automobile accident, “the seconds grew–there was space in them– / they grew as big as hospital buildings.” Elsewhere, “twenty-six years can pass in a moment.” In the poem “Outskirts,” muddled borders [“Men in jumpsuits the same color as the earth rise from a ditch”] serve as a portal to hinting at the liminal space between being named and being nameless.

Gathered together, Tranströmer’s explorations of these unframed spaces and times constitute an argument against busyness, in favor of boredom. “I must be alone / ten minutes in the morning / ten minutes in the evening / without a programme,” Tranströmer writes at the end of “Alone.”


On the day of his death, though I hadn’t yet learned of it, I sat on the train reading his poem “On the Outskirts of Work” from Bells and Tracks (1966), over and over:


In the middle of work

we start longing fiercely for wild greenery,

for the Wilderness itself, penetrated only

by the thin civilization of telephone wires.


The moon of leisure circles the planet Work

with its mass and weight. — That’s how they want it.

When we are on our way home the ground pricks up its ears.

The underground listens to us via the grassblades.


The people in this poem’s world must live by a set of accepted metaphors, as we do in our world: that work opposes wildness; that work and leisure exert a gravitational force on one another. Work’s force is the stronger one, so much so that even after leaving for the day the “planet Work” exerts its pull. Work might be a kind of police state–spying on its practitioners through the very matter they believe to be its opposite. One is dragged from work to leisure and back again–they act as medications for one another. There is no life or thought outside of this binary existence.


Agreeing to create a life in work’s orbit, to live by these black and white metaphors, can make short conversations unbearably boring. One morning last week I stepped into the elevator at work. A colleague who works on a different floor was already inside. He asked me how my day was.

Fine, I said. And yours?

Well, it’s Wednesday, so just two more days ‘til Friday, he said.

I relished the feeling of my weight dropping out from under me as the elevator rose, counting the seconds until the doors opened and I would not have to talk to this man anymore. Just before he stepped out of the car, he said:

Tell me one good thing about your day so far.

It really just started, I said.

Well, that’s one good thing! he said. The elevator doors opened and he stepped out.


The week is a journey to Friday. Wednesday is the top of a hill. We are “crazy busy.” Mondays suck. “The moon of leisure circles the planet Work,” Tranströmer writes, though he doesn’t believe it: “that’s how they want it.” Shared, banal beliefs about work’s relationship to the rest of our lives keep us from talking too much about it, how fragile we feel it is, how oppressive we feel it is, the meaning it gives our lives, the meaning it keeps our lives from having. Tranströmer acknowledges these beliefs in order to begin to explode them in the next stanzas:


Even in this working day there is a private calm.

As in a smoky inland area where a canal flows:

THE BOAT appears unexpectedly in the traffic

or glides out behind the factory, a white vagabond.


One Sunday I walk past an unpainted new building

that stands in front of a grey wet surface.

It is half finished. The wood has the same light color

as the skin on someone bathing.


Outside the lamps the September night is totally dark.

When the eyes adjust, there is faint light

over the ground where large snails glide out

and the mushrooms are as numerous as the stars.


I can hear Lucille Clifton talking to Tranströmer here, in one of my favorite poems of hers, “I take my glasses off”:


it is the hard

edge of things

i am avoiding

so that i take my glasses off

and then I cannot tell

which are the leaves

and which the angels

like blake

like that man

who lived with lepers

not noticing what was sin

and what was grace

visioning visions vision

i take my glasses off

so i can see


For Clifton, seeing without the benefit of the “hard edge” helps to erase the human impulse to categorize and judge, and encourages beautiful accidents of sight like the one in William Carlos Williams’s “The Term,” where a plastic bag carried down the street by a gust of wind takes on some of the qualities of a man. In the last three stanzas of “On the Outskirts of Work,” Tranströmer goes one step further, and looks squarely at the dividing line between work and leisure, unfinished and finished, light and darkness. What’s located there, “when the eyes adjust,” is a truer representation of the mind’s attention: not volleying between tameness and wildness, work and sloth, but recognizing one thing in another (the bather’s skin in the unpainted house, both open and vulnerable) and slowly discovering how the world is put together.

In a New York Times Magazine essay on “mindfulness” this week, the author argues that the word has shifted from meaning “attentiveness” to being a prod toward greater workplace efficiency. (Originally, “mindfulness” was an attempt at translating the Buddhist concept of sati, which more accurately translates as “memory of the present,” a concept Tranströmer would have approved of.) We’re called mindful when we “pay attention,” and in the working world this means subdividing our tasks into manageable bites, being able to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else.

Tranströmer calls us out on this nonsense: to really be full of mind, to remember the present, you have to reign in your impulse to categorize and tune out. The containers we have at our disposal–the workday, the clock, the calendar–may not always fit our encounters. The vagabond BOAT rejects the clock’s arbitrary division of the mind into work-mind and leisure-mind; on a dark September night, eyes reject the notion that vision only occurs with the help of light, and are rewarded with mushrooms that “are as numerous as the stars.”


How to enact this blurring of boundaries, of hard edges, in an actual work environment, in a life where it’s often easiest to look straight ahead?

The same elevator in which I have inane work conversations is the space for me to invite the presence of Tranströmer’s all-caps BOAT. Sometimes I go inside alone, and without pressing any buttons I look at the mirrored ceiling and whisper profanities and secrets to myself. After some months of doing this, I discovered a security camera in the corner. Embarrassed, I reassured myself that the camera didn’t pick up sound.

But nevertheless, on the camera’s other end was someone seeing my own blurry edges, a moment that belonged to no hour of the day. In a city, if you look closely, you can see dozens of these middle kingdoms in a day: a woman penciling an eyebrow on the train, a homeless man arranging his bags and boxes in the subway station, a shop clerk lost in her phone when there are no customers.

A week ago, a woman passed me on a busy sidewalk, singing at the top of her lungs without headphones. She was crazy; or she was in that enviable, fleeting borderland where it’s hard to tell your body from the ground it walks on, where there are whole ecosystems in different grades of light, where the beginning of a workday doesn’t always end dreams: on the outskirts.


Photo courtesy of tomastranstromer.net.

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