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Transtromer's Baltics

by John Cobley

Monday May 29th, 2023




According to Tomas Tranströmer, the title of this major poem is a “non-existent plural for the Baltic,” implying the multiple approach he used to describe the Baltic Sea. Thus the persistent reader encounters the geographical Baltic, the political Baltic, the historical Baltic, the shipping Baltic, the family-history Baltic, the multi-language Baltic, the threatening Baltic—to name a few.


Baltics is unique among Tomas Tranströmer’s poems. It’s the only long poem that he wrote. He has described it as “a sort of long poem where I put everything.” The poem has 245 lines divided into six sections. As well he uses poetic form in a totally different way from his normal practice.


A cursory look at the Swedish text shows at once that there is no consistent verse form. The lineation varies hugely from lines of a single word to lines of up to 25 words that sometimes extend to a second line. Further, the stanza breaks are inconsistent, creating stanzas of one line to 14 lines. In one section lineation is replaced by three prose paragraphs. And in another deviation, punctuation is used loosely, often creating sentence fragments and run-on sentences. Indeed, some of the poem reads like shorthand diary notes. Tranströmer also uses dashes, parentheses, italics, ellipses and block capitals to enhance or clarify his dense poem. 


And this poem is extremely complex. Although the writing is easily understood, each reading brings out more connections. The more Baltics is explored, the denser it becomes. For example the relevance of Stettin in a pilot’s log develops from its original meaning as a Polish port to a Nazi city of forced labour camps and weapon manufacturing. This relevance changes as the reader realises, especially through an episode of a floating mine, that one of the themes in Baltics is war and violence.


My translation relies a lot on three previous translations: Fulton (1987), Crane (2015), and Charters (1974). Punctuation: I have followed Tranströmer’s unconventional practice.







It was before the time of radio masts.


Grandfather was a new pilot. In an almanac he wrote down the ships he piloted—

Names, destinations, drafts.

Examples from 1884:

Steamer   Tiger  Capt. Rowan   16ft.   Hull Gefle Furusund

Brig Ocean   Capt. Andersen   8ft.   Sandöfjord Hernösand Furusund

Steamer   St. Peterburg   Capt. Libenberg   11ft.   Stettin Libau Sandhamn


He took them out to the Baltic, through the wonderful labyrinth of islands and water.

And those who met on board and were carried by the same hull for a few hours or days,

how well did they get to know each other?

Conversations in imperfect English, understanding and misunderstanding, but very little                deliberate lying.

How well did they get to know each other?


When the fog was thick: half-speed, almost blind. Out of the invisible the cape appeared and was right on them in a trice.

Foghorn roaring every other minute. Eyes reading straight into the invisible. 

(Did he have the labyrinth in his head?)

Minutes passed.

Shallows and rocks memorized like psalm verses.

And the feeling “We’re exactly here” must be maintained, the way you carry a brim-full pail so nothing is spilled.


A glance down into the engine room.

The compound engine, long-lived like a human heart, running with large, soft bouncing movements, acrobats of steel, smells rising from it as from a kitchen.




The wind enters the pine forest. It sighs heavily and lightly.

The Baltic is also sighing in the  interior of the island, deep in the forest you are out  on the open sea.

The old woman hated the sighing in the trees. Her face hardened with melancholy whenever the wind picked up.

“You must think of those who are out in boats.” 

But she heard something else in the sighing, just like me, we are related.

(We were walking together. She’s been dead thirty years.)

It sighs yes and no, misunderstanding and understanding.

It sighs for three healthy children, one in the sanatorium and two dead.

The great breath that blows life into some flames and blows out others.


It sighs: Save me, Lord, for the waters have come in unto my soul.

You walk for a long time and listen and reach a point where borders open up

or rather                                  

where everything becomes a border. An open place plunged into darkness. 

People flow out from dimly lit buildings surrounding it. There’s murmuring.


A new breath of wind and the place is desolate and silent again.

A new breath of wind, which murmurs about other shores.

It’s about war.

It’s about places where citizens are under control,

where thoughts are built with emergency exits,

where a conversation among friends is really a test of what friendship means.

And when you are with those you don’t know very well. Control. A certain candour is in  order

As long as you don’t lose sight of what is going on at the edge of the conversation: something dark, a dark stain.

Something that can drift in

and destroy everything. Don’t take your eyes off it!

What can it be compared to? A mine?

No, that would be too tangible. And almost too peaceful—because on our coast most of the stories about mines have happy endings, the terror limited to the moment.

As in this account from a lightship: “Autumn 1915 we slept uneasily…“ etc. A drifting mine had been spotted 

floating slowly toward the lightship, bobbing up and down, sometimes hidden by the  waves, sometimes glimpsed like a spy in a crowd. 

The anxious crew shot at it with rifles. To no avail. Finally they launched a boat 

and fastened a longline to the mine and towed it all the way to the specialists.

Afterwards, they placed the mine’s dark shell in a sandy park as a monument, together with Strombus gigas shells from the West Indies.


And the sea wind blows through the dry pines farther away, it hurries over the churchyard sand, past the leaning stones, the pilots’ names.

The dry sighing 

of the great gateways opening and the great gateways closing.




In a half-dark corner of a Gotland Church, in softly mildewed light

there’s a sandstone baptismal font—12th century—the stonemason’s name

still there, shining out

like a row of teeth in a mass grave:


                                                                        his name preserved. And his images

here and on the sides of other vessels, crowds of people, figures on their way out of 

              the stone.

The eyes’ seeds of good and evil burst open there.

Herod at the table: the roasted capon flying up and crowing “Christus natus est”—the

servant put to death—

next to the child being born, under clusters of faces as dignified and helpless as young apes.

And the fleeing steps of the pious

echoing over the dragon-scaled mouths of sewers.

(Images stronger in the mind than when seen directly, strongest

when the font spins in the slow rumbling carousel of the mind.)

Nowhere the lee side. Everywhere risk.

As it was. As it is.

Peace is only inside there, in the vessel’s water that no one sees,

but on the outer walls the battle rages. 

And peace can come drop by drop, maybe at night

when we know nothing,

or when we are lying in hospital on an IV drip.


People, beasts, ornaments.

There is no landscape. Ornament.


Mr. B, my fellow traveler, affable, in exile,

released from Robben Island, says:

“I envy you. I have no feeling for nature. 

But people in a landscape, that speaks to me.”


Here are people in a landscape.

A photo from 1865. A steamship is lying at a wharf in a sound.

Five figures. A lady in bright crinoline, like a bell, like a flower.

The men are like extras in a folk play. 

They’re all handsome, unclear, beginning to fade.

They step ashore for a moment. They are fading.

The steamship is an outdated model,

tall funnel, awning, narrow hull—

it’s utterly strange, a UFO that’s landed.

Everything else in the photo is shockingly real:

the ripples on the water,

the opposite shore---

I can run my hand over the rough rockface, 

I can hear sighing in the spruce trees. 

It’s close. It’s


The waves are like today’s.


Now, a hundred years later. The waves come in from no-man’s-water

and smash against the rocks.

I walk along the shore. Walking along the shore is not what it used to be.

You have far too much to take in, too many conversations going on, you have thin walls.

Each thing has acquired a new shadow behind the usual shadow

and you hear it dragging along even when it’s completely dark. 


It’s night. 


The strategic planetarium rotates. Lenses stare into the darkness.

The night sky is full of numbers, and they are fed into 

a twinkling cabinet,

a piece of furniture

housing the energy of a locust swarm stripping acres of Somalia’s soil in half an hour.


I don’t know if we are at the beginning or at the final stage.

A summing-up can’t be done, a summing-up is impossible.

The summing-up is a mandrake—

(See the encyclopedia of superstitions: 


                                                                           miraculous plant

that gives such a gruesome cry when uprooted from the earth that those nearby drop dead. A dog had to do it…)




From the lee-side, 




In the clear water, forests of seaweed shine, they’re young, you want to emigrate there, lie full length on your reflection, and sink to a certain depth—seaweed holds itself up with air bubbles, as we hold ourselves up with ideas. 



            The fish that’s a toad wants to become a butterfly and has made it a third of the way hides in sea grass but is drawn               up in nets, caught by its pathetic spines and warts--when you disentangle it from the net-mesh your hands gleam with   slime.              


Rock Faces 

Tiny insects scuttle out on the sun-warmed lichen, they hurry like second hands—the pine casts a shadow, it saunters slowly like an hour hand—inside me time stands still, an infinity of time, the time needed to forget all languages and invent a perpetuum mobile.


On the leeside you can hear the grass growing: a faint drumming from below, a faint rumble of millions of small gas flames, that’s how it is to hear grass grow.


And now: the water’s expanse, without doors, an open border

that grows wider and wider

the farther you stretch out.


There are days when the Baltic is a calm endless roof.

Dream naively, then, of someone creeping on to the roof and trying to disentangle the flag lines,

trying to hoist

the rag—


the flag that’s so worn by the wind and blackened by the smokestack and bleached by the sun, it can be everyone’s.


But it’s a long way to Liepäja.




July 30.  The bay has become eccentric—today jellyfish are swarming for the first time in years, they pump themselves along calmly and gently, they belong to the same shipping company: AURELIA, they drift like flowers after a sea burial, if you take them out of the water, their shape completely disappears, as when an indescribable truth is lifted out of silence and formulated into a lifeless gel, yes they are untranslatable, they must stay in their own element.


August 2. Something wants to be said but the words don’t comply.

Something that can’t be spoken,


There are no words but maybe a style…


Sometimes you wake up at night

and quickly jot down a few words 

on the nearest paper, in the margin of a newspaper

(the words are radiant with meaning!)

but in the morning: the same words are meaningless, misspelled scribbles.

Or fragments of a great nocturnal style that passed by?


Music comes to a man, he’s a composer, performs, has a career, becomes a conservatory   director.

There’s an economic setback, he’s blamed by the authorities.

They set up his student K*** as chief prosecutor.

He’s threatened, disgraced, dismissed.

After a few years the disgrace fades, he’s reinstated.

Then comes the stroke: paralysis on the right side with aphasia, can only understand short  phrases, says wrong words.

He’s therefore beyond praise or prejudice. 

But the music is still there, he is still composing in his own style,

becomes a medical sensation in the time he has left to live.


He wrote music to texts he no longer understood--

in the same way

we express something about our own lives

in a humming chorus of slips of the tongue.


The death lectures went on for several terms. I was there 

with people I didn’t know

(who are you?)

--afterwards everyone went his own way, profiles.


I looked towards the sky towards the ground and straight ahead

and since then I have been writing a long letter to the dead

on a typewriter that has no ribbon only a horizon line

so the words beat out in vain and nothing sticks.


I stand with my hand on the door handle, take the pulse of the house.

The walls are so full of life

(the children dare not sleep alone in the room upstairs—what make me feel safe makes them anxious.)


August 3. Out there is the damp grass

A greeting from the Middle Ages slides in: a Burgundy snail

the subtly glistening yellow-grey snail with its house swaying,

introduced by monks who loved escargots—yes the Franciscans were here,

broke stone and burnt lime, the island became theirs in 1288, a gift from King Magnus

(“These almes and such otheres he hath given/they meeteth him now inne heavene”)

the forest fell, the furnaces burned, limestone was shipped in

to build the monastery…

                        Sister snail

stands almost still in the grass, antennae sucked in

and rolled out, disturbances and hesitation…

How like me in my searching!


The wind that’s been blowing so steadily all day

--on the outermost skerries all the blades of grass have been counted—

has settled at the centre of the island. The matchstick flame stands erect.

The sea painting and the forest painting darken together.

Also the greenery of the five-storey trees is turning black.

“Every summer is the last.” These are empty words

for the creatures of late-summer midnight

where crickets sew on their machines as if possessed

and the Baltic Sea is close by

and the lonely water tap rises up among the wild roses

like an equestrian statue. The water tastes of iron.




Grandmother’s story before it’s forgotten: her parents die young, 

father first. When the widow realises that the disease will take her too

she walks from house to house, sails from island to island

with her daughter. “Who can take care of Maria!” A strange house

on the other side of the bay takes her in. They can afford it.

But those who could afford it weren’t good people. The mask of piety cracks.

Maria’s childhood ends prematurely, she works as a maid without pay

in the continual cold. For many years. The continuous seasickness

during the long rowing trips, the solemn terror

at table, the looks, the pike skin crunching

in her mouth: be grateful, be grateful.

                                                She never looked back

and because of that she could see The New

and take hold of it.

Get out of the encirclement!


I remember her. I would snuggle up against her

and at the moment of death (the moment of transition?) she sent out a thought

so that I—a five-year-old—understood what had happened

half an hour before they phoned.


I remember her. But in the next brown photo

there’s an unknown man—

judging by his clothes, from the middle of the last century.

A man in his thirties: powerful eyebrows,

a face that looks me right in the eye

and whispers: “Here I am.”

But “I” is 

Someone no one remembers anymore. No one.


TB? Isolation?


Once he stopped

on the stony grass-steaming slope above the sea

and felt a black bandage in front of his eyes.


Here, behind dense thickets—is this the island’s oldest house?

A 200-year-old squat, knotty fisherman’s hut of rough, grey timbers.

The modern brass padlock has clicked it all shut again, shining like a ring on the nose of an old bull

that refuses to get up.

So much heaped wood. And on the roof ancient tiles that have collapsed across each other

(the original pattern disturbed by the Earth’s rotation over the years)

remind me of something...I was there…wait: it’s the old Jewish graveyard in Prague

where the dead live closer together than they did in life, the stones tight tight together.

So much love encircled! The roof tiles with lichen-script in an unknown language

are the stones in the ghetto graveyard of the archipelago folk, stones erected and toppled   over.--

The hovel shines

With the light of all those brought by a certain wave, by a certain wind

Out here to their destinies.


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