“My poems are meeting places.”
— Tomas Tranströmer
“I’ve been there,” says a crooked, camphor-scented woman seated next to me on the bus from Manhattan to Philadelphia (“The bus negotiates the winter night”†); her voice has an odd pitch to it, part Cockney, part eastern seaboard. She nods her head toward the cover of the book I’m holding. “I see it sometimes in dreams,” she goes on, “but I would never, ever return to it willingly.”
It was Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World. The Nobel laureate has said that his poems are “meeting places”: I meet Alice, then, on a two-hour bus journey, during which she recounts her own deleted world.
They crowd in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.†
I listen eagerly while this octogenarian paints a twilit garden just after the blitz, awaiting the arrival of a solider whom she had met on leave two years prior, vowing marriage after the war’s end: “Hyde Park, near the Serpentine; we’d chosen the bench, the date, the time; I waited there with orchids in my hair, the bridge to my right, my skirt pressed stiffly against calves he always called ‘juicy.’” She was just shy of eighteen. The other passengers fade away—or else become part of the scene, their experiences joining ours (for, strangely, as she speaks, I feel I am Alice or that I will somehow become her) as if our journeys couldn’t be completed without the pasts each of us bring on board with us. When Alice and I speak in midwinter, Tranströmer is still alive, his words still resonant, screaming with urgency, potent with melancholy images that offer a kind of pessimistic promise; and yet, as I write this, he’s no longer with us.
Few passengers: some old, some very young.
If [the bus] stopped and switched off its lights
the world would be deleted.†
“He never appeared; I waited two hours past the meeting time, my hands clenched in a fist in my lap, frightened to rise from the bench lest I collapse. I relive this scene night after night, but it is no longer a part of my world: I haven’t erased it, but it has been erased—it’s been removed from me like a limb without my consent. The phantom pains are all I have left: I cling to them some nights, but the sun always comes, and I see reason. That world is no longer habitable apart from the realm of dreams.”
In turn, I feed Alice pieces of my own history; I read her snatches from Tranströmer’s The Deleted World as well as The Great Enigma to which she nods knowingly, as if she’s heard them before, as if she recognizes in detail the scenes and images over which Tranströmer ruminates almost obsessively; I tell her how I kicked an actual body out of bed beside me to offer the ghost who inhabits my own dreams more room to writhe; I tell her about my desire for seclusion, solitude, sanctuary; I show her the brochures I have in my bag, while admitting my fear of silence, of severing all ties to the outside world; I show her my scars and recount each little death; I ask if she’s ever read Elizabeth Bowen, whose harrowing short story “The Demon Lover” (1945) eerily resembles her own tale of waiting in vain, gathering dusk, deep in Hyde Park.
As we speak, the world around us—the highways; the faces; the frost on the panes; the halo of a crescent moon waxing over a sky looming heavy with the threat of yet another snowstorm—disappears: I wouldn’t say it’s deleted, but it’s somehow no longer the same, it’s morphed into something else entirely, uncharted and thus inexplicable. I am unburdened, just as she is: in speaking, in confessing, we have not only broken the silence, we’ve somehow carved out a site of common ground I would find myself returning back to for months after I bade Alice goodbye. In a way, we have unconsciously enacted what Dickens refers to in “Doctor Marigold” (1865): “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.”
I come across this line of deer-slots in the snow: a language.
a language without words.†
I now carry Alice’s story inside of me: it has managed to become a part of my own, sometimes confusingly so. As Tranströmer phrases it in “Black Postcards”: “The visit / is forgotten and life goes on.”†† But some visits, some interactions, impress us indelibly, a fact his images convey in a compressed fashion, in ironical gestures toward an unknown future—“The calendar is full but the future is blank”††— filled with our own sufferings as much as it is with those of the others we encounter. Even the dead can cross this fragile space between life and its termination, between colloquies and the farewells that invariably terminate them:
There is a silent world,
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled over the border.†
Tranströmer’s vision may be bleak, but it is fused with the desire that his snow-encrusted verse can be somehow illumined—however tenuously, enacting the balance between “eagle and mole”:
On the road in the long darkness . . .
But the writer is halfway into his images, there
he travels, at the same time eagle and mole.††
And Alice, for the duration of that two-hour bus trip, was a light of sorts for me. I have incorporated her confession, her narrative, into my own, so much so that I can almost feel the itchiness of the tweed skirt as it rides up against my hipbones; I can hear the clocktower chiming its disconsolate drones, time growing shorter or longer by turns with each ghostly stroke; I feel the absence, the bare space on the bench beside me where his body should be—a crossing of borders; a transference of our respective hauntings. Our faces canceled, but no one else’s.
Writing is an act riddled with hauntings. I see the clocktower, the greenish hint of the Serpentine as the sun slopes behind a treeline interrupted by a jut of bridge; I feel always as if I am wrestling with ghosts, striking a stupid stanza here, inserting a clumsy image there. Once, I used to have poems come to me fully formed, convenient like Athena leaping from Zeus’s head; now the process is slower, rooted in a rhythm I have to learn rather than one that comes naturally like riding a bike or getting fucked. I sometimes don’t realize until I’ve finished with a piece that I’ve written a poem, or that I’ve begun a novel, or that I’ve written in someone else’s voice entirely, like some inadvertent conjuration.
An absence of spirit makes the writing greedy.††
At the sangha, I speak with a woman who spent ten full months in silence; I admire her tenacity, her courage, her bank account—how could one feasibly leave family, friends, all electronic devices behind, and spend eight hours every day for close to a year just sitting? Yet, as I listen to her experience—especially how hard it was to begin to speak again after she reentered the world around her, like learning speech all over again—I begin to see the true allure, even though I fail to catch her name; I begin to collect brochures that promise wisdom, insight; I look at the inevitable mountain peaks with which these pamphlets illustrate their text, all lopsided and enviably heavy.
And in the evening I lie like a ship
with lights out, just at the right distance
from reality . . .††
For some reason, this woman who has spent ten months in silence merges with Alice: something she says shocks me back several months, and I am sitting on a Megabus beside another woman who waited half a century for her lover to appear. We all carry effigies around with us, itchy reminders—again I feel her skirt sway as if it were striking my own calf—that we never summon, but which materialize all the same; these are the gaps between the world in which we find ourselves now and the deleted worlds that have been sloughed away from us like faulty organs. And if we sit with them long enough, it becomes less like a reenactment of Faust and more like finally facing our idiotic acts of complicity: I may be faceless in worlds that only exist in my memories; my face may well be, as Tranströmer puts it, canceled, voided, obscured, yet I still face the images head-on: the perils and pleasures of being alive.
Images are ghosts; writing is sitting—while immersing myself deeper in Tranströmer’s world, a world that is lost before we have had the chance to fully absorb it, I can see no difference between these different types of haunting.
There’s a tree walking around in the rain,
it rushes past us in the pouring grey.
It has an errand. It gathers life
out of the rain like a blackbird in an orchard.
When the rain stops so does the tree.††
When I stop writing, when I rise from a session of impatiently counting my breaths, it is at this moment that the world arrests me for I understand that I have somehow traveled outside of myself. I have been Alice; I have been this nameless woman whose silence has forced her to reckon with her own past; I have been the lover who never appears at the designated meeting point; I am the tree and I am the rain. I am waiting for my lover in a bed whose sheets are pulled taut against the edges while outside a crash of water beats tarnished stone, so familiar it could be any time or any place.
It is easy to love fragments
that have been on the way a long time.††
We interfere with each other; we collide like planets, out of whose fragments we somehow manage to recover a few promising pieces of sulfur.
Every person is a half-opened door
leading to a room for everyone.††
Whether I speak to you or not, we irrevocably crash into each other: “a crowd of faces [who] have no expressions,”†† yet faces that are vestiges of the deleted world. My world can never be yours, but my world has somehow touched yours; there are no constellations without at least one star’s death; there are no present worlds without prior worlds’ extinctions.
“Tonight I am down among the ballast”†—or, in other words, I am trying to write again, grappling with wraiths that are my own but also a conglomeration of others’. Whose ghost am I trying to unearth through these lines? How can I decipher my experience from yours, from Alice’s, when I fondle the body on the bench—a body that is not there; a body that is given a form only insofar as we continue to haunt ourselves—as concretely as I can fondle another body beside me on a mattress, some night when the pills haven’t done their job and consciousness is too voracious to face?
What I carry within me is materialized—all terrors, all expectations.††
Does it matter if what haunts me is not something I can trace back to a specific event in my memory of things as they took place? I write to understand, but the world changes before clarity comes: I think I comprehend what Alice meant about the world being deleted, about the pain being akin to a phantom limb: it’s triggered by something external to us, without our choice. But when we find ourselves confronted with these very real reminders of a world that has been erased from us, we must wrestle with them—and whether I can name the ghost is irrelevant. It is the battle that matters, this iterative fight to the end. These ghosts do not hinder our progress, but rather they add to it:
Two truths draw nearer each other. One moves from inside, one moves from outside
and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.
. . .
He grows out of it, it out of him.
It’s his life, it’s his labyrinth.††
In the following haiku, Tranströmer evokes his compatriot Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957): the homebound knight fleeing the plague, playing a game of chess, with his life as the prize against an opponent who is none other than death himself:
Death stoops over me.
I’m a problem in chess. He
has the solution.††
We are all playing chess with death, dancing dumbly on the edge, never certain which moment will see our world deleted. But it is worth paying heed to Tranströmer’s vision: death is not menacing even though it is more powerful than life; we must somehow strike a balance between the two, not—as we are taught in the dharma—to pit life against death but to eradicate such a binary altogether. Alice knew this when she refused to allow her dreams of the deleted world to become a reality into which she entered willingly; instead, Alice welcomed the phantasmal traces of her absent lover knowing they would soon evaporate. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from sitting hour after hour, it’s this: nothing whatever remains.
The perpetual humming that follows us—now—up
Tranströmer’s work invites us to see the world around us; he insists on relishing those enigmatic moments, the puzzles or koans found in each surge of wind or sea, before they vanish. His poems are keys to seeing more clearly, to keeping one’s eyes open in the face of a deluge of sorrows on, in his phrase, a “sad gondola” ride—for we are not being dragged under; rather, we are crawling up from the depths in his vision of reality. Alice helped me to locate a foothold when I was ready to lean back and fall passively into the darkness; I can only hope that I have somehow returned the favor, if only in how her story continues to rattle me, rock me ruthlessly like a nightmare only some dawns can dispel. I have incorporated her ghosts into my own preexisting pantheon.
In the Four Quartets (1941-42), T. S Eliot writes:
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
This same humane sagacity is found in Tranströmer’s verse, verse that is as dark as it is joyous: if we probe the images deeply enough, not eschewing but instead welcoming the sadness with which they often inundate us, if we sit with them, share them with others, we will eventually reach a realization of some sort. I may not like what I see or what I am forced to confront, but I still carry on, dragging my worlds behind me—for although our worlds are deleted, the mere memory of them is enough to conjure them intact and inviolate—colliding with others as I travel onward, toward a destination whose endpoint is known (death always wins at chess), but whose evolving topography is the entire point.
Everything is singing. This you will remember. Travel on!††
And with this injunction, our cancelled visages are merged with others’; we become “People with a future / instead of a face,”†† but this future is not determined by ourselves in any way whatsoever. It is an external world; it is a meeting place; it is a flimsy sort of reckoning; and it is from those junctures where our lives and our experiences overlap with those of others that we become armed to face the images, to make sense of them as they cross our paths.
I inherited a dark wood where I seldom go. But a day will come when the dead and the living change places. The wood will be set in motion. We are not without hope.††
Finally, one must make peace with the mortal fact of a termination, a final act of deletion: while the world changes and is never the same for anyone who looks at it with unflinching eyes, the stories of worlds thus deleted—Alice’s, his, yours, mine, when the time comes—are passed down to those still playing chess while life carries on (puzzlingly, pityingly) just beyond the shoreline, at those border zones where the dead can cross over and startle the living, on a lone bench in mid-1940s London, or in Manhattan at these end of days, with a future in infinitesimal pieces, somehow still offering everything.
K. Thomas Kahn’s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Open Letters Monthly, Music & Literature, Numéro Cinq, Bookslut, Berfrois, and other venues. He is Reviews Editor for Words without Borders and 3:AM Magazine.
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