The first time ever I saw your face


poem in grass, off path
poem in grass, off path


Face to Face

by Tomas Tranströmer

translated by Patty Crane


In February existence stood still.

The birds didn’t fly willingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the dock it lies moored to.


The trees stood with their backs to us.

Snow-depth was measured by dead straw.

Footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarp, language withered.


One day something appeared at the window.

Work came to a halt, I looked up.

The colors burned. Everything turned around.

The land and I sprang toward each other.

Image 2


May is a little late to be posting a poem celebrating spring, but this is Michigan. Spring is ever tardy. And gloomy, especially this past week. Then yesterday the sun came out, the air warmed up, and all the sudden it seemed like every tree and bush was in bloom. Even dandelions were a welcome sight.


So you can see why I was drawn to this poem. “Face to Face” poet Tomas Tranströmer lived in Sweden but his description of winter could easily have been of a Michigan one. Winters here are long and dreary, and round about March they feel just like this:


the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the dock it lies moored to.


The poem tells a little story, familiar to all living things, a story of death and renewal as old as the hills, but there’s something fresh here. The speaker’s relationship with nature is almost romantic. The title of the poem announces an intimacy to be explored. The intimacy unfolds in human terms: the poem begins with a chill between two beings, a fight, silent treatment—and then—what I see as make-up sex:


The land and I sprang toward each other.


I just love that line.


This version of the poem is a translation, so I’m reluctant to pick at the words and phrasing much. What we read is an approximation of the original. Here’s a different version, so you can see what I mean.


This one by Robin Robertson:


In February life stood still.

The birds refused to fly and the soul

grated against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the jetty where it’s moored.


The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth

measured by the stubble poking through.

The footprints grew old out on the ice-crust.

Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.


Suddenly, something approaches the window.

I stop working and look up.

The colours blaze. Everything turns around.

The earth and I spring at each other.


I like the use of present tense in the last stanza better than the past tense in the Crane version, but overall, I like Crane’s better.


Here’s another one, this by Robin Fulton (do you have to have a bird’s name to translate Transtromer?):


In February living stood still.

The birds flew unwillingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the pier it lies moored to.


The trees stood with their backs turned to me.

The deep snow was measured with dead straws.

The footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarpaulin language pined.


One day something came to the window.

Work was dropped, I looked up.

The colors flared. Everything turned around.

The earth and I sprang toward each other.


For me, the best part of this version is the use of “flared” over “burned” in the penultimate line. But let me know your thoughts and preferences.


I had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer until I came upon a newly released collection of his at the library, but he’s hugely popular in Sweden. He’s been called Sweden’s Robert Frost.


Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 2.35.12 PMTranströmer (1931-2015) was born in Stockholm, the only child of a journalist and teacher. His parents divorced when he was young. At Stockholm University he studied poetry, psychology, religion, and history, eventually earning his PhD in psychology. Throughout his life he worked with juvenile offenders, the disabled, and drug addicts.


He published poetry all the while and became close friends with poet Robert Bly who translated his poems to English and help popularize him in the States. When Tranströmer was 59, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Six years after his stroke he was able to publish another collection of poems. He also re-learned how to play the piano, a lifelong hobby, using only his left hand. Link here for a beautiful video of him playing the piano weeks before his death.


Tranströmer’s poems are read the world over, from China to the Middle East. His work has been translated into sixty languages. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011.


He won many other awards in his lifetime, but the tributes that interest me most are personal ones, tributes that show just how revered he was/is in his native country. A scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it after Tranströmer, who was an amateur entomologist and whose childhood collection of bugs was once shown at a museum. And after his stroke, several composers wrote pieces for just the left hand so he could play them.


One of his two daughters is a concert singer, and many of his poems have been set to music. Link here for one example.




  1. akleneth

    I think of spring as kind of a tease… It shows itself for awhile, runs away, comes back. I’m from Indiana so our weather is stereotypically changeable..

  2. Jim Ellis

    I love it that you chose that poem! T.T. is an absolutely sublime poet, one you can never tap out or tire of.

    However I do believe May Swenson’s version is by far the strongest and clearest:


    In February life stood still.
    Birds unwilling to fly, and I
    chafed at the landscape like a boat
    that rubs the jetty it’s tied to.

    Trees stood with backs turned all one way.
    Snow depth was measured by dead straws.
    Footprints aged out there on the crust.
    Under the pall even language faded.

    One day something came up to the window.
    Work stopped. I looked up.
    Colors burned. Everything turned around.
    The ground and I sprang at each other.


    Thanks for doing what you!
    Jim Ellis/Auburn NY

  3. Sherry

    So many translations, like the same painting done in a variety of colors, the bones are there but the flesh that clothes them looks so different. Each translation has something to offer and I am glad you included so many, and thank the Jim Ellis for May Swenson’s. Hers I believe is the most . . .personal, where everything relates in some way to her experience. The line about language seems to me to be the most interesting in each translation.

    Under a tarp, language withered.
    Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.
    Under a tarpaulin language pined.
    Under the pall even language faded.

    My favorite is the second one, language being broken down, like compost under its cover, slowly becoming richer.

    May Swenson’s line is the most tied to human feeling of winter just before spring, under the pall of all that gray and drear, even words do not seem like they can entice us, but fade like the landscape and the light.

    Language pined is the most active, language personified, longing to be set free of the trap of winter.

    The short sharp tarp brings to mind all those blue tarps that spring up after a storm to keep water out and seem to create mold from thin air, the only thing that doesn’t seem to wither covered over by plastic.

    Thank you so much for all your work. I love getting the chance to read a new poem, and this was especially nice that it was one poem in so many different dresses. It was fascinating to read all the versions and know there is at least one I will not get to experience, the one in the original language. Thank you too for including something about the poet, it’s always nice when you know something about where the work comes from.

    Being from Gulf Coast Texas, our winters here are usually short and mild, this one milder than most as it did not ever even get to freezing here once this winter. I do not know if I would survive a northern winter, so much cold, and snow, and many gray days. I admire your . . . fortitude!

    1. poemelf

      Thank you for that thoughtful examination of the different versions. Another reader recommends Robert Bly’s versions as the most interesting of all. I couldn’t find a Bly translation of this poem, but on Transtromer’s official website, Bly’s translations are used. Here are a few:

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