I recently finished reading The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, and it was refreshing to encounter a poet who is considered by some to be a religious writer, yet who hardly, if ever, uses the word God, a word that can be employed as a lazy shorthand for experiences that are the very stuff of poetry. Not only that, but at least in America, God is a loaded word too easily evoking the kind of religiosity grounded in a brittle thinking that strives to impose its values on non-believers.
Giving some insight into the absence of “God” in his poems, the introduction to The Great Enigma cites Tranströmer responding to the question of his being a mystic or religious poet: “I look on existence as a great mystery and that at times, at certain moments, this mystery carries a strong charge, so that it does have a religious character. […] So these poems are all the time pointing toward a greater context, one that is incomprehensible to our normal everyday reason. Although it begins in something very concrete.” So Tranströmer isn’t a religious poet because he goes on and on about the Bible or Jesus or God, but because, through everyday experiences, which are rooted in the concrete, he can point toward something greater than is dreamt of in our philosophies.
One can see such pointing throughout Tranströmer’s poems, yet I would say there’s another dimension to his poetry that touches upon something else that’s at the heart of all the world’s religions—how to live in this world so that we fully realize ourselves as expressions of this greater something. This dimension of Tranströmer’s poetry is most directly articulated in his poem “The Outpost,” in which Tranströmer indicates life’s absurdity by describing a time when, engaged in a “military exercise,” he found himself stationed on a remote outpost in the middle of winter. After daydreaming about returning to warmer times, Tranströmer realizes he needs to bring himself back to reality:
Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role—I am the place
where creation is working itself out.
In realizing that he is “the place where creation is working itself out,” Tranströmer is open to it, rather than falling prey to the common misunderstanding that one can resist being that place and shut out what is working itself out through us. It is a misunderstanding blind to the fact that even in our attempts to resist it, creation is still working itself out, only now that working out occurs in a place of confusion; dissatisfaction—suffering, even—will ensue.
However, when one acts out of the realization that no matter how ridiculous one’s lot in life, one is participating in something greater than oneself and that one is, at the same time, that something greater, the space for morality unfolds. Morality is not about acts of obeisance to a Supreme Being or adhering to a set of divine prescriptions. It is not about being “good,” whatever that means. Rather, it is acting out of this realization. When one does, one sees that the consequences of one’s actions cannot be controlled because those consequences, too, are creation working itself out. They don’t exactly come from what one is doing; they are what one is doing, right here, right now, along with everything else, which also is in what one does. As Tranströmer vividly relays at the end of his poem:
Coming events, they’re there already!
I know it. They’re outside:
a murmuring crowd outside the gate.
They can pass only one by one.
They want in. Why? They’re coming
one by one. I am the turnstile.
As a turnstile, things—in this case coming events—pass through you; you cannot stop them. That raises this question and nothing else: what will pass through you?