You are on page 1of 19

Ghosts, Icons and Palimpsests

Houses in the Poetry of Henrik Nordbrandt and Tomas Transtrmer


Louise Mnster, Assistant Professor, PhD, Aalborg University, louise@hum.aau.dk
Abstract
The house is a very special place whose function is often to form the basis of what we with a more loaded concept call
our home and to confirm our identity and afford security. As underlined by phenomenologists the house is our first
cosmos, our first universe. Therefore, the house is also much more than a physical frame; on a very fundamental level it
bears lived life and meaning. To consider the house as a place is to emphasize this fact, and many houses appear in
literature precisely as places, where the stories of humans interact and become visible. With reference to a psychological
clich, the house is frequently a metaphor of the self: The house appears as a self-house. Similarly there are a lot of
houses in the poetry of Tomas Transtrmer and
Henrik Nordbrandt, and again they are connected with existential meaning. But what kinds of existential relationships
do the houses of Transtrmer and Nordbrandt more precisely illuminate, what sorts of stories do they expose, and in
what way are ghosts, icons and palimpsests related to them? These are some of the questions I will focus on in my
paper, where I will seek to illuminate the significance of the house in the poetry of Nordbrandt and Transtrmer on the
basis of a phenomenological description of the house and by including theoreticians as Gaston Bachelard, Christian
Norberg-Schulz and Pierre Bourdieu.

There is no getting away from houses. Not only because we constantly enter them, stay in them,
leave and return to them. They are also impossible to ignore if one is engaged with the meaning of
place and, therefore, is interested in the relationship between the I and its surroundings. Houses are
undoubtedly some of the most fundamental places in human existence; they form our first setting, a
basis for recuperation and a point of mooring. Or more precisely: this is normally the case since,
naturally, there are also humans with a different cultural and spatial foundation. Humans whose
existence is rooted in another way, or has no roots at all. Nevertheless, houses play a very important
part in most humans lives. Therefore, a close examination of the meaning of the house only seems
natural if not somewhat urgent. Such examinations can be approached from many different
angels, and the house has already been subject to analysis by architects, sociologists and
philosophers to name but a few. In this case, however, the approach will be literary. More precisely
I will discuss the meaning of the house in Henrik Nordbrandts and Tomas Transtrmers poetry.
What characterises these two authorships in particular is that the relationship between the I
and its surroundings constitutes an important field for reflection. In both Nordbrandt and
Transtrmer the place plays a central role, and we are shown that humans and their surroundings

cannot be viewed separately. It therefore seems relevant to adopt a place-founded approach, and
since both poets are extremely talented, this not only leads to a greater understanding of their poetic
universes. As we dive into the poems, we also transcend them and the approach promotes a
realisation of a more general, existential kind. Since the place constitutes a basic category within the
authorships and the house constitutes one of the most fundamental places in human existence, it is
hardly surprising that many of Nordbrandts and Transtrmers poems contain houses. In their
poetic universes there is no getting away from houses either. So, how are the houses of Nordbrandt
and Transtrmer presented, what is their significance, and what do they tell us about the relationship
between humans and their surroundings? These are some of the questions I will deal with in this
paper. However, before we look at the specific character of houses in the works of Nordbrandt and
Transtrmer, we shall see how the house can be understood on a more general level. For this
purpose, Gaston Bachelard, Christian Norberg-Schulz, and Pierre Bourdieu will be introduced.
Houses in theory
French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has examined the house most profoundly. He describes that
the house functions as a first cosmos and as a safe and sheltering basis for our lives. This is pointed
out in La potique de lespace (1958), where Bachelard makes a so called topo-analysis; an analysis
of the psychological deep structures of the places of our intimate lives (Bachelard 1994: 8). The
book focuses specifically on the house we were born in, and since the house constitutes our initial
universe, Bachelard also sees it as the origin of the poetic imagination. Bachelard finds a very close
connection between the house, the poetic imagination and human psychology. Another
characteristic feature of his book is the prevailing notion of the house as something positive.
Bachelard focuses his attention on places we love and associate with pleasure, and in accordance
with this he entitles his study topophilia, which means love for the place (ibid. xxxv). In contrast to
the assumption that we are thrown into this world, Bachelard emphasises our safe basis in the cradle
of the house. Instead of seeing the world as a house, he stresses the way in which the house
constitutes a world of concrete places. Therefore Bachelard investigates the different meanings
that are connected to the different places of the house, for instance the roof, the cellar, the bedroom,
and the stairs.
These concrete places in the house are also subject to the analysis of Norwegian architect
Christian Norberg-Schulz, who in a similar manner underlines that the house constitutes a very
important place in human existence. This is the case in Mellom jord og himmel. En bok om steder
og hus (1978), which like many of Norberg-Schultz works draws its inspiration from Heidegger
and the phenomenological tradition. Here, Norberg-Schulz describes the basic human need to settle
down and identify oneself with ones surroundings. The house must meet this need for

identification, and the house itself is seen as an interpretation of a certain place; a visualisation of
realisation and meaning. In other words, the point of the house is to make visible, like a picture,
the way in which humans understand the world (Norberg-Schulz 1978: 81). 1 Similarly, it is
important that humans learn to read the houses to be able to pass on this realisation. This applies to
both private dwellings and public buildings, whose character must be of a more general kind and
able to represent the community. While the central significance of the house is described as
timeless, Norberg-Schulz emphasises that the house reflects specific spatial and historical
conditions, and generally he distinguishes between cosmic, romantic and classical buildings.
However, the most important point in his book is that houses not only function as frames on a
very basic level, they also carry meaning. This applies to the actual shape of the house and the
different components that make up its interior; reflecting our world like a micro cosmos and
providing us with a sense of belonging and security, which the word house also implies because it
belongs to a group of words referring to something that covers, wraps and protects something else,
such as hylster, hose, hud and hytte (ibid. 73).
In the article The Berber House (1973) by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, we also
find an account of the different meanings connected with the places of the house. While Bachelards
study of the house is rooted in depth psychology and is a historically founded, Norberg-Schulz
combines the timeless and the time-specific. However, the structuralist study of Bourdieu is even
more concrete in terms of history and geography. His analysis deals with a very specific house,
namely the Algerian Berber house and its representations of femininity and masculinity. The
analysis focuses on the activities that take place in the house, and Bourdieus idea is that the
different places and rooms achieve their meaning precisely through this praxis. Using one of his
famous concepts, we may say that it is our habitus2 our customs and ingrained ways of perceiving
things that is decisive for the attribution of meaning. In the article, he shows that the house is not
only generally connected to the feminine while the public sphere belongs to men. The same division
is repeated within the frames of the house, where the house is divided into a feminine and a
masculine part, respectively. The activities of the woman connects her to the lower, darker and more
hidden parts of the house, while the man is related to upper, lighter and social rooms. Hence the
house symbolises the larger social sphere. As a micro cosmos the interior of the house reflects the
external social organisation where the role of the man is more predominant and extroverted than the
role of the woman.
In his study, Bourdieu anticipates the tendency in present research to move away from a
more fixed, symbolic interpretation of space and place, and instead embrace a more complex
approach, which takes into account different historical, cultural, economical and political
considerations.3 This tendency can also be seen in the movement from Bachelard to Norberg-Schulz

and finally Bourdieu. But although there are significant differences in the three theoreticians
approaches, all of them understand the house as fundamentally connected with meaning. Whether
the professional approach be that of the philosopher, the architect or the sociologist, and whether the
angle be psychological, existential or focused on gender, the house remains an extremely important
reference point in human lives. That is, the house is closely connected to our imagination as well as
our identity and culture, and thus becomes a mirror of a greater realisation. And although it may
seem more relevant to include the ideas of Bachelard rather than those of Norberg-Schulz and
Bourdieu when dealing with the houses of Nordbrandt and Transtrmer, all of them support the idea
that the house holds a central position in human lives, which the authorships expose.
This also means that houses are not dead or silent rooms. On the contrary, they are living
and speaking places. Often one hears the expression if these walls could speak in the hope of a
revelation of what took place in ones own absence. But although houses do not have voices in the
same way that humans do, they actually do speak: they articulate the way in which humans are
placed in the world. However, in Nordbrandt and Transtrmer this articulation seems to be of a
more extensive character. A significant similarity between the authorships depictions of houses is
that they appear as extremely loaded places, which bear witness of the lives that have been lived in
them. In many of Nordbrandts and Transtrmers poems about houses, the focus is not only and
not even primarily directed at the presence of the subject and the concrete surroundings but also at
the lives that once were. The houses of Nordbrandt and Transtrmer contain hidden stories, and
inhabiting the houses becomes an attempt to read these stories, thus enabling one to understand the
greater scale of things and the notion of time in which the individual life exists. In addition to their
actual physical shape concrete rooms and places for resting the houses come across as rooms of
consciousness and reflection. And as such houses of the self they often transgress the common
way of understanding reality and instead they point to that which lies beyond the ordinary world.
But how is this close connection between the houses and human existence described more precisely
in the poems? This question we will proceed to now.
The houses of Nordbrandt
We begin with the houses of Henrik Nordbrandt whose authorship is almost overflowed by poems
in which houses occupy prominent positions. There is not a single collection of poems by
Nordbrandt without a house or more precisely several houses. In Nordbrandt, one finds an
overwhelming interest in houses since the question about the relationship between the I and the
surroundings, as mentioned above, is one of the very central focus points in his poetry.
Nevertheless, the collections that are most interesting with regard to their focus on the house span
from his debut Poems (Digte) from 1966 to Ghost-Games (Spgelseslege) from 1979.4 Out of the

ten collections published during this period and in addition to the two aforementioned titles
Miniatures (Miniaturer, 1967), The Sluggards (Syvsoverne, 1969), Departures and Arrivals
(Opbrud og ankomster, 1974), Glass (Glas, 1976) and Gods House (Guds hus, 1977) are the most
important. Reading these books the many parallels between the house-poems of the different
collections are striking. The house functions as a topos both in an etymological manner by referring
to the fact that the house is a place, and also in a figurative manner as the concept of topos is used in
connection with the fixed terms and expressions of language. In other words, the house is
simultaneously both a place and a rather stable imaginative pattern in the works. Throughout the
collections one notices that the houses of Nordbrandt are normally old, if not decayed, and that they
house old inhabitants often elderly people, widows or ghosts and thus represent or preserve the
past. This corresponds with the fact that the icon and the palimpsest are recurrent images and that
the atmosphere is marked by melancholy. The predominant season is autumn, and themes about
absence and death are prominent. Finally, the house in Nordbrandt is often seen and reflected from a
dreamlike position and is initially alien to the subject. It is a place that the nomadic self approaches
from an outside position. A place that this self relates to during his restless journey, marked by
constant departures and arrivals.
In the debut collection these aspects are evident in the poems villa decadence, the sisters
in the villa and the summer cottage. In the first two poems, the house is depicted from the
viewpoint of a detached spectator, who notices the houses keeping of characters of the past. In
villa decadence a completely failed and faded universe is described. The world of the house is
related to older times (another century, Victorian fables and 1901), and it is connected to
elderly women and aunts. As the persons and the house are closely knit, the porous and rickety are
emphasised by words such as supported by and descriptions of shell of dreams and balance /
the thin legs: lime shells / covered by climbing varicose veins. We find fossilised windfall
apples, dirt from flies, pupated bicycles and leaky archives. We are in a fringe area which
belongs more to the mythic time of fairytales than to the present. This sense of a preserved past is
also perceptible in the poem the sisters in the villa, which begins precisely with a description of
how the villa is in an everlasting autumn. We are outside of normal time: the garden is solidified,
the weathercock is rooted, and that which was once living, organic material is now birds kept in
naphthalene and preserved apples in the oversaturated light of noon. Even the sisters, to which
the title refers, do not belong to the world of ordinary humans. They move as if steered by their
dresses, and thereby they strengthen the notions of ghosts that become central later on especially
in Gods House and Ghost-Games. The poem the summer cottage contains many of the same
decadent elements. Similarly, we find ourselves in a preserved world with women, birds, apples and
flies and, although, the title calls attention to another and more positive anchoring in time, this

notion is undermined during the course of the poem. At the same time, the self, which was absent in
the earlier poems, becomes explicit, and as the I enters the house, we hear that summer is changing
into autumn. The content of the house crumbles away and perishes, even the man sitting in one of
the chairs disappears and so, the house becomes a symbol of absence. It signifies that which no
longer is.
In the house-poems of the next collection, Miniatures, we find the same melancholic
thematics of decline: houses are connected with past times, deceased people and autumn (see
April-evening, while we wait, in a Greek hotel, in a Greek hotel II, here you heard the
song for the first time, and the hypnotic). Subject matters such as birds, trees, golden colours,
preservings, wind, watches, old texts, and if not apples then rotten cabbage stalks recur while other
pregnant features are also introduced, namely the houses connection to the iconographic and the
palimpsest. Henceforward these aspects will turn out to be essential components in the descriptions
of the houses and in the pointing out of the multidimensionality of life, and so we shall investigate
them in more detail. It is a matter of common knowledge that an icon is a figurative picture with a
Christian subject in the shape of one or more holy persons. The picture is painted on wood and it
may even be coated with different kinds of metal. Thus the icon is a representation; it is a way of
making present that which is absent. As described by Annette Fryd in her discussion of the role of
the icon in the works of one of Nordbrandts favourite poets, namely Gunnar Ekelf, the icon is
often worshipped in a very concrete and physical manner. The icon is included in ritual acts where
one prays to, kneels to or kisses the icon. However, it is important that the worshipping of the icon
is not directed at the icon itself, but at its prototype (Fryd 2006: 61). As such the icon shares many
interesting features with the palimpsest. By definition, a palimpsest refers to an old parchment on
top of which a new text has been written, thus somewhat erasing the original text which, however,
still remains readable (Egebak 1969:17). That is, both the icon and the palimpsest refer to past
times, old and layered forms of representation, repainting and the re-emergence of something that
has disappeared.
A suitable example of a poem from Miniatures that exposes both the icon and the palimpsest
is in a Greek hotel. It goes like this:
in a Greek hotel
rooms facing forgotten squares
and places as in the works of Chirico.
machines of marble, silent fountains
whose water never falls back into the basin.

forgotten rooms painted on top of one another


in layers, strangely decorated or totally bare.
only rarely a late sunbeam hits the unknown
saints eyes. every where they follow you
from inside the dark, the forgotten faces
painted on top of one another and painted on top of one another again
dark with few golden touches. Eyelids
closing on top of eyelids.
bells being lowered into bells, voices
choral singing imprisoned in rusty metal.
later only the ticking of the brass clock, the lift
has stopped somewhere in the building
captured in someones sleep,
someone
who watches you from beneath countless layers of dark paint.
As in the earlier poems about houses, the focus is on what which is old, forgotten and absent. Once
more we are in a strange world, which closes around itself and exists outside of normal time.
Elements such as bells, imprisoned choral singing, a stopped lift and sleep point to this. However,
the important thing is that absence itself becomes present. In the universe of Nordbrandt it is not
only the beloved who is felt most strongly in her abpresence (bortnrvrelse). The houses stand as
containers of former lives that have not completely disappeared but force their way from a recessed
level. There is a greater sense of time and another dimension present. In the very room that is
forgotten and in the hypnagogic state, in the transition between being asleep and being awake, the
former lives can be sensed. The room contains more rooms. In the same way that the palimpsest is
an overwriting, where one can glimpse an earlier text, the room has been repainted and under the
new coats of painting, the I fells he is being observed by the eyes of the unknown / saint (notice
the enjambment!) and the forgotten faces. The palimpsest and the icon occur together, and they
do so in a manner where not only the subject watches the past but where the people from the past
look back at him.5 In other words, the spatiality of the poem is multidimensional, and the room is
not only real but also imaginary.

Likewise here you heard the song for the first time presents a house capable of functioning
as a passage to another world where normal time and space are dissolved. Here a secret door
suddenly opens / and you are sucked into the picture of the same house / seen from the outside
when you are inside. Also in this poem ghost-like persons appear. The poem ends with the
description: and someone has placed himself by your side / half transparent, smiling. The song to
which the title refers is described more precisely in the following poem as the song about the
enchanted wood. In addition to working as a guiding principle in the entangled universe of the two
final passages of Minatures, the enchanted wood occurs in The Sluggards. Namely in a lattice
gate. In this poem we are in a hotel room where a dream emerges and opens an unusual and
labyrinthine world whose surroundings correspond with the I; where every detail is part of a bigger
whole, and every stone you step on in the pavement resonates with a certain / stone in the houses
that surround the streets / until at last you / cannot separate yourself from your own centuple echo /
which hits you from the buildings. The dream is a parallel world where persons and surroundings
become one; where spatiality and with it the houses are internalised.
The houses of Nordbrandt do not associate to Bachelard with regard to Bachelards focus on
the house we were born in and the feeling of being safe and at home, but the poems of Nordbrandt
underpin his assumption of houses and (day)dreams as having a lot of common points. The depicted
houses facilitate a productive imagination, and especially during the dream-state they bring about
impressions, which transgress a narrow reality and call attention to connections across time and
space. For instance, one notices this in the gloomy poem Byzantium from Departures and
Arrivals. The title underlines the spatial background, which is the very area where the iconographic
tradition has its roots. To be more precise, we find ourselves near sunken graves, and with regard
to time, it is late in the evening an evening with a fading light that only the faces of the
condemned are strong enough to muster sufficient resistance. Once again, and in more than one
way, we are in a troubled state of transition, and yet another image of threshold occurs in The
women calling out from the open doors of the decayed houses while trying to tell the I something
which he does not understand. In the ghostly world of the poem, communication is blurred, normal
logic and rationality are disregarded and, in accordance with this, the horses that are known to be
connected with the dream and the deeper levels of consciousness are set free in the streets of the
night.
These connections between decayed houses, dream-states and the different levels of
existence and history are passed on in the collection Glass. This, for instance, is the case in the
poem Molyvos, which begins with the lines: Day by day the houses slide down the hillside / as
their inhabitants / turn their back on them, forget who they are / or no longer hold back stones and
woodwork. In this way, a world has been created both beneath and above the surface of the sea,

which yet again nourishes the figure of the palimpsest and the thematics about the different layers
of history. In the poem, there is a combination of the present and the past, of the visible and the
invisible, and correspondingly one can be affected by that which no longer belongs to the upper
world such as entering the sunken houses and being dazzled by the glow from the sunset in
windows of houses that disappeared a long time ago. Similarly, the I in Sleeplessness on Amorgos
feels haunted by the past and empty houses with their vanished inhabitants, who want me to dream
their homeless dreams / and wake up among them on the bottom of the Aegean Sea. Furthermore,
the icon and the palimpsest are central in the description of the place: Because Amorgos is nothing
but a picture / which emerges when sleep is getting nearer: / An icon with a darkened background
on which fusty monks paint dead people, layer upon layer. More than being a real and concrete
place in the Cyclades, Amorgos in Nordbrandts poem takes the form of an icon or a palimpsest in
which people from the past emerge and demand to find room among the living and since this
takes place in the state between being awake and being asleep, the continuity in the imaginary
world of Nordbrandt is emphasised.
In the collection Gods House, the house is part of the title itself and, at the same time, the
theme about ghosts which lay in wait in the previous collections is in focus, and subsequently, it
constitutes the central element in the last of Nordbrandts collections that we will look at here,
namely Ghost-Games. Gods house then is a house that contains ghosts. In the prologue of the book,
the hostess of the house points out that her late family has returned to the house, and as the I
rebuilds and lives in the house, he is also visited by his own dead friends. Thus, it is indicated that
Gods house is of a very special character, which is shaped by its inhabitants. Rather than being
founded on a realistic basis, it is constituted on an imaginary level by the words and memories of
the I, which also explains why one cannot get to the house by following the ordinary streets.
Eminently, Gods house is a house of the self, and the parallel between the house and the I is
obvious in, for instance, the description And when I laugh, the house laughs / ten times louder /
and long after I myself have stopped.6 To build and live in Gods house is fundamentally about
getting to know oneself and ones own history; is it about making the absent come to life. The
collection ends with the passage The Ascent and the lines:
Then whistling and drumming we went up into the mountains
and only the great souls, called cliffs
had senses fine enough to perceive us
and let our music turn them into ears
on an extinct world which then became living.

In continuation of these poems and as a transition to Ghost-Games one can ask why there are so
many ghosts in Nordbrandt, and what exactly constitutes a ghost. In his introduction to Derridas
ghost- book, Spectres de Marx (1993), Alte Kittang deals with the latter question and states that
ghosts are figures that transgress normal categories of time and space. Thus they belong to a
spiritual dimension and yet they are perceivable. Essentially or precisely in absence of such
essence the ghost is paradoxical and marked by duplicity. It is a figure, which makes visible that
which is not. Death, non-life, absence become visible as the presence of the absent, writes Kittang
(Kittang 1996: 14). This very manifestation and the making present of the absent constitute the
essence of many poems by Nordbrandt, who is known for his use of the previously quoted
neologism of Ekelf, abpresence. In the poems of Nordbrandt, one finds a constant vibration or
shimmering between appearance and disappearance, arrival and departure, absence and presence.
Or, using yet another paradoxical sentence, one may say that the restlessness of his poems often
concretised as sleeplessness is the most permanent notion. Restlessness is characteristic of ghosts,
who have not taken the final step from the world of the living to the world of the dead and therefore
haunt us. Or, as we say in Danish: they home-seek (hjemsger) us, and this expression is worth
noticing since a ghost indeed is home-seeking. A ghost is someone or something that no longer has
or does not yet have a sense of belonging. Someone who does not have a home but moves between
the worlds of the living and the dead. Furthermore, this characteristic of ghosts is stressed by
Derrida in another neologism, hantologi, which combines into one word the French verb hante that
has its roots in the Norse haim, and ontologi, which is the theory about the nature of being.
Hantologi is the theory on the existence of the haunting. 7
With the home in mind, it seems natural to include Freuds concept of the uncanny as the
un-heimliche or the re-emergence of the repressed. The uncanny is something which was once
known, then repressed and finally turns up again and as such, it shares many features with the figure
of ghost. In other words, one can also by way of etymology form essential connections between
ghost, home and I, and precisely these connections can be sensed in Nordbrandts poems where
ghosts enter the depicted houses that are often internalised as houses of the self. Furthermore, it is
evident that ghosts, icons and palimpsests have a lot in common. Not least because they all make
the absent present and make it possible for something from the past or something repressed to be
seen. Or with reference to Lilian Munk Rsings writing on the late Derrida and ghosts, one can say
that they disturb the boundaries between being and non-being; they undermine the assumption of
pure presence and ordinary time and space (Rsing 2009: 80).
In Ghost-Games, the poems House, Fear of brooms, Building, My grandfathers
house and Travelling in iron are particularly interesting when dealing with the meaning of the
house in Nordbrandts authorship, and here, I will comment on the first two mentioned above. In

House we once more enter a plastic universe, or a subjectively conceived universe where the
constitution of the house is very much affected by the I. The I in this poem is not only in a
hypnagogic state while alternating between sleep and sleeplessness; The I is also under the
influence of a huge amount of wine and, therefore, the grounding in realty is blurred significantly.
The poem states that: The number of rooms seems to increase with the amount of wine / which
disappears from the bottle. It is obvious that the house cannot be grasped within a normal
understanding of reality and so, the corridors are longer than the house, and the stairs / higher than
the tiled roof. Add to this the fact that it is not only the I itself who is at stake. The poem begins by
describing the original inhabitants as entities who have not left the house but have entered the wall
and entrenched themselves in different rooms. The ghost is also rummaging here, and as the poem
continues, the status of the I changes. From referring to himself as the stranger at the beginning of
the poem, he feels more and more like someone who is participating in the building of the house,
and after being included in a we, his appearance takes on ghostly features towards the end of the
poem. Here, he waves at and salutes passers-by without their noticing it. However, it is difficult to
grasp precisely what is happening in the text. The drunken state of mind, the looping, arabesque
quality of the poem and its many paradoxes evade unambiguity and fixation.
Nonetheless we are dealing with a house of the self. This is also the case in Fear of
brooms where the first and final stanzas have a characteristic tone that is both jocular (or in Danish
spge-fuld) and tragic. It goes like this:
I am afraid that I am a house
inhabited by many who will never finish
walking around at night and sweep
and that dust fills my veins instead of blood
and autumn my gaze where the road turns
[]
I am afraid that I am a house
and afraid of the house and of meeting the others
when they sweep or repair the house.
And I am afraid that the dust is my only witness
that I am myself, and the rotten gatekeepers hut
and the autumn, the rails, the train and the turn of the road
Here, as we get a complex, entangled and at once distinct and dim picture of the house in

Nordbrandt as being internalised, we leave his poems and move on to Transtrmer. However, as I
have pointed out, there are so many similarities between Nordbrandts and Transtrmers depictions
of houses that the following readings very much seem to amplify the meaning and function of the
house already outlined.
The houses of Transtrmer
Transtrmers authorship is quite small in comparison with Nordbrandts we are talking less than
200 poems and even though the house functions as an important place in the authorship, the
amount of poems in which houses play a central part is limited. Therefore, as far as Transtrmer is
concerned one does not have to limit the study to concern only a part of his authorship.
Furthermore, this would seem unnatural since the house does not dominate a certain period or
certain collections, as is the case with Nordbrandt. Still, there are a number of things in Transtrmer
that are characteristic of his depictions of houses, making it relevant to also speak of the house as an
imaginative pattern with certain recurrent aspects. As in Nordbrandt, the depictions of the houses
often point towards a bigger historical space in which the absent both past and future becomes
present. Even if the icon does not play an important role in Transtrmer, the palimpsest remains a
very central figure, which points to the coincidence of different existential and historical levels. 8
Once more the descriptions of the houses are related to hypnagogic states and also, it is obvious that
the houses of Transtrmer are internalised and often possess human features.
This animation, for instance, can be seen in The Journeys Formulae whose fourth part
depicts a house that has shot itself in the forehead, From the Mountain where we have a
sleeping house, and in Nocturne where the houses become alive at night and want to have a
drink.9 Similarly, there are evident coincidences between the houses and the inner human in the
poem with the somewhat Nordbrandt-esque title, When We Saw the Islands Again, where the sea
on a figurative level has entered the houses and forms a parallel to the I who is initially filled with
melancholy. However, when one has to narrow down the meaning of the house in Transtrmers
authorship it is not the poems just mentioned that attract our attention. Rather, it is poems like A
Winter Night, which has a connection that goes back to the houses of Nocturne in The Halffinished Heaven (Den halvfrdiga himlen, 1962), The Clearing in The Truth-Barrier
(Sanningsbarriren, 1978) and, finally, The Blue House in The Wild Market-Square (Det vilda
torget, 1983). Therefore, these poems will form the nucleus in the following discussion where I will
also comment on other Transtrmer poems.
As revealed by the title, A Winter Night takes its point of departure in a nightly scene and,
once again, the house is connected to a somnambulistic state in which a liberation from the concrete
notion of time takes place: I sleep uneasily, turn, with shut eyes / read the storms text. The poem

is based on several displaced contradictions: an I and a child; an outside and an inside, where a wild
storm and the quiet night rule, respectively; a concrete storm near the house and a more serious,
figurative storm over the world. The preceding poem Nocturne ends with the stanza:
I lie down to sleep, I see strange pictures
and signs scribbling themselves behind my eyelids
on the wall of the dark. Into the slit between wakefulness and dream
a large letter tries to push itself in vain.
Similarly in A Winter Night one gets the feeling that the storm is trying to communicate a
message, which, however, is not explicitly formulated. In the first stanza, we hear that The storm
puts its mouth to the house / and blows to produce a note. In the last stanza, we are informed that
with regard to the more grave storm, It sets its mouth to our soul / And blows to produce a note.
Thus a parallel world is created between the house and the soul; between the concrete storm and the
more abstract one, which threatens to destroy the humans. In other words, the poem can be seen as
an opening to a global consciousness and this widening of horizons corresponds with the fact that
the house contains more levels than one immediately notices. In the fourth stanza, we are told that
all expired footsteps / rest like sunk leaves in a pond. As in Nordbrandt, the historicity of the past
has been impressed on the house and yet again, we have a palimpsest-like figure where something
is deposited behind the surface of the visible.
This multi-levelness is also evident in the prose poem The Clearing in which the lyrical
subject unexpectedly arrives at a clearing in an otherwise dark and self-destructive forest. Here, lies
the ruins of a house and as the I experiences the place, he momentarily gains access to a past
existence.10 As was the case in Nordbrandts Gods House, which could not be reached via ordinary
roads, this clearing cannot be found intentionally only by someone who has lost his way.
Evidently, the clearing is both imaginative and topological; the depiction facilitates associations of
the I having entered a secret time warp. Yet, while the I senses the past existence and his connection
with it, he is prevented from obtaining a more precise idea of those who live there. Using a concept,
which Nordbrandt also employed in his description of the old houses, the past is described in the
poem as a closed archive that cannot be opened. The oral tradition, which in accordance with the
poem could have transgressed time and space, has died and we are left with an unreadable text or a
riddle: And the homestead becomes a sphinx. Even though the house and with it, the story
has become unreadable, the house in this poem plays an important role in the manifestation of a
larger historical space and comes across as a testimony of lives that have been lived. In the clearing,
which illuminates and discloses the foundation stone of the house we find a passage back to the

past. However, because the I belongs to another present world, he cannot stay there. On the
contrary, he has to get back into the communications network an expression with an affinity to
the many traffic metaphors of Transtrmers poems. 11
These descriptions in which houses occur together with short-lived moments during which
we sense a connection to a greater history and an extended notion of time, one finds in numerous
places in the authorship of Transtrmer. This is also the case in, for instance, The Indoors is
Endless and Answers to Letters. The Indoors is Endless describes the history of an old relative
called Erik. The year is 1827 and contrary to the former poems where we moved from present to
past, we now move from past to present. The poem is basically historical and therefore it looks at
the past, but within its frames we look at the future. More precisely, from his deathbed in the past,
Erik looks at the future: sees indistinct fluttering faces / family faces not yet born and in doing so,
spots the I walking around in Washington in the 1980s. This event explains the titles description of
the endlessness of the indoors as a concept of the limitlessness of the psyche; our inner possibility
of opening new doors across time and space. Or, as expressed in the poem The Half-Finished
Heaven: Each man is a half-open door / leading to a room for everyone. 12 While the inner space
is positively valorised, the concrete houses in this poem, however, are under attack. The magnificent
white houses of Washington are subject to bitter social criticism, not least as they are described as
buildings in crematorium style / where the dream of the poor turns to ash. And although on a
general level the houses of Transtrmer as well as those of Nordbrandt are much more in
connection to the phenomenological and existential approach presented by Bachelard and NorbergSchulz, in this poem we come across an understanding of the house that can be seen in relation to a
social interpretation as Bourdieus.
In Answers to Letters the lyrical subject is confronted with a 26-year old letter and as he
finds it, the experience of another time is connected to a house again although this time, it is not a
door but a window that is opened: A house has five windows: through four of them the day shines
clear and still. The fifth faces a black sky, thunder and storm. I stand at the fifth window. The
Letter. Here, it also seems relevant to draw a parallel between the house and the self, and as the I
finds the letter, actual time and space is yet again transgressed: Time is not a straight line, its more
of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps
and the voices, you can hear yourself walking past there on the other side. As we have seen earlier,
the experience is one of presence of something that has disappeared but presence at a recessed
level. In the universe of Transtrmer, we do not find ghosts in the same concrete manner as in
Nordbrandt. However, in the poem we find a very jocular or ghost-like (spge-fuld) notion that the I
is going to answer the letter when he is dead.13
An essential feature in Transtrmers poems is the expansion of time and space; that there is

a qualitative approach, which resists normal delineations and opposes the notion of absolute
linearity. This notion is also found in the most important poem about houses in Transtrmer, namely
The Blue House, which is the last poem I will discuss here. The status of the poem not only
applies to the authorship; it is relevant biographically since the poem refers to a summer cottage at
Runmar in Stockholms skerries that Transtrmer has inherited. This cottage forms a central point
of reference in his life and therefore comes close to Bachelards focus on the house as a safe and
sheltering basis for our lives. However, already in the beginning of this poem, we notice that there
is no usual, or realistic, depiction of a house. We find ourselves in a special time: It is a night of
radiant sun, and the point of view from which the I observes the house is extraordinary, As if I
had just died. Once more, we are in a dreamlike universe that forms its own enclosure, which is
also visible on the compositional level. Here, the introductory description of the house corresponds
to the final picture in which the sun blazes behind the islands. Furthermore, the dreamlike or surreal
state of mind is sustained by the composition of the poem, which is very much characterised by
associations and slidings. For instance, these slidings take place between pictures and ships; from
the description of a child to the depiction of the house as a childs drawing and continue to a picture
of a ship and the mentioning of sketches, and finally towards the end of the poem, there is an engine
in the sea and a sister ship.
As we saw in the earlier poems, the dream blurs the distinct boundaries between the
concrete and the abstract, the subjective and the objective, and these are also central features here.
However, it is not only in the general spatiality of the poem that these bounds are removed and
more levels are sensed at the same time. This is significant in the depiction of the house as well.
While we hear that the walls of the house are haze-blue and have existed for more than 80 summers,
we are told that the wood is impregnated with four times joy and three times sorrow and that
theres unrest in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Add to this the fact that the house is apparently
repainted every time someone who has lived in it dies and that the repainting is done by the
deceased person himself without a brush, from inside. Thus the house speaks of the lives and the
feelings that have unfolded inside it. Likewise, earlier inhabitants have not disappeared; on the
contrary their existence has just shifted to a more restrained level which one can sense by accepting
the invitation of the poem: Open the door, step in! Again the important thing seems not only to
open the house but also open oneself to realisations out of the ordinary. It is about being brave
enough to steep inside some of the rooms that remain closed to us in our ordinary, bright as day
consciousness or using another reference to Lilian Munk Rsings reading of Derrida: to be able
to comprehend the other, which destabilises normal categories of time, place, being and nonbeing.14 Finally, I will comment on the way in which the palimpsest obtains one of its most complex
expressions in this poem.

The palimpsest already lies in wait in the introductory pictures of impregnation and painting
in the poem, and subsequently the poem is filled with metaphors concerning texts, drawings and
paintings. This is evident in the rendition of the garden as pagodas of weed, welling text, in the
childs desire to makedraw, as the house is described as a childs drawing, in the amateur
painting and finally the expression: The sketches, all of them, want to become real. This very
statement makes clear how beginnings and drafts of something not realised can exist. This is
continued at the end of the poem where it is stated that our life has a sister ship, following quite
another route. In other words, there is an assumption that existence is multi-levelled; that reality
consists not only of the concrete presence, but includes that which has been, that which is still to
become, or that which was never fully realised. The palimpsest deals with this double exposure of
different levels of time, and it can also be seen in the movements of the boomerang across the
overgrown garden. The boomerang is known not only as something that is thrown away but as
something that returns too. Its movement is not linear and irreversible. Rather, it displays the same
alternation between appearance and disappearance as the palimpsest or between evocation and
erasure, the simultaneity of the living and the death. Furthermore, as in Nordbrandt, these double
exposures take place without any form of underlining uncanniness in the ordinary sense of the
concept. The return is not felt with fear, but rather confidence. There is a positive experience of the
coincidence and openness of history an appreciation of more dimensions than we normally live in.
With this emphasis on the house as a place that opens to the many levels of existence and history,
we end this investigation of the houses of Nordbrandt and Transtrmer. The investigation has shown
that in both authorships, the house has a very central function and it appears as a place, which does
not only stimulate reflexions about the relationship between the different levels of time but also, and
in a very concrete manner, opens to hidden rooms and places, which then become visible. Using a
passage from Transtrmer already quoted, the indoors seems to be endless. As such and in
accordance with the three theoreticians introduced in the beginning of this paper the house is far
from a mere exterior frame for the human existence. Rather, the house is internalised and
psychologised, which could also motivate a more extensive involvement of Bachelards thoughts
than I have presented here. Furthermore, we have seen that reflections about icons, palimpsests and
ghosts are relevant when trying to understand the experiences connected to the house. These are all
figures pointing towards history, multi-levelness, instability and simultaneity. Even though entering
the houses of Nordbrandt and Transtrmer might seem as an act of shielding oneself from the
exterior world, on another level, it is to open oneself for instance to the reappearance of the
repressed. When you enter the houses of the authorships you do not feel the door slam behind you;
on the contrary, a bigger and often dreamlike and surreal space appears.

References
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston 1994 (1958).
Bergsten, Staffan. Den trstrika gtan, FIB:s Lyrikklubb, Falkbing 1989.
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Berber House in Low, Setha M. and Lawrence-Ziga, Denice (ed.):
Anthropology of Space and Place, Blackwell, Cornwall 2003.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Habitus in Jean Hiller and Emma Rooksby (ed.): Habitus: A Sense of Place,
Cornwall 2005.
Bredsdorff, Thomas. Med andre ord. Om Henrik Nordbrandts poetiske sprog, Gyldendal, Kbh.
1996.
Egebak, Niels. Beckett Palimpsest. Et bidrag til skriftens fnomenologi en semiologisk analyse,
Arena, Kbh. 1969.
Fryd, Annette. Billedtale. Om mdet mellem billedkunst og litteratur hos Gunnar Ekelf, Ole
Sarvig og Per Hjholt, Spring, Hellerup 2006.
Kittang, Atle. Innledning in Jacques Derrida: Marx spkelser, Pax Forlag, Oslo 1966.
Low, Setha M. and Lawrence-Ziga, Denice (ed.). Anthropology of Space and Place, Blackwell,
Cornwall 2003.
Mnster, Louise. Vggens (h)vide verden. Stedet i Tomas Transtrmers forfatterskab in Bogens
verden 2, 2006.
Mnster, Louise. Trafik i og omkring Tomas Transtrmers forfatterskab in Ljung, Per Erik (ed.):
Nordisk lyriktrafik. Modernisme i nordisk lyrikk 3, Nordica Helsingiensia, Helsinki 2009 (in
press).
Birgitte Steffen. Den gr stemme. Stemmen i Tomas Transtrmers poesi, Arena, Viborg 2002.
Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Mellom jord og himmel. En bok om steder og hus,
Universitetsforlaget, Trondhjem 1978.
Nordbrandt, Henrik. Digte, Gyldendal, Kbh. 1966.
Nordbrandt, Henrik. Miniaturer, Gyldendal, Kbh. 1967.
Nordbrandt, Henrik. Syvsoverne, Gyldendal, Kbh. 1969.
Nordbrandt, Henrik. Opbrud og ankomster, Gyldendal, Kbh. 1974.
Nordbrandt, Henrik. Glas, Gyldendal, Kbh. 1976.
Nordbrandt, Henrik. Guds hus, Augustinus Forlag, Kbh. 1977.
Nordbrandt, Henrik. Spgelseslege, Gyldendal, Kbh.1979.
Nordbrandt, Henrik. Gods House, Augustinus/Curbstone, Willimantic 1979. Translated by Henrik
Nordbrandt and Alexander Taylor.
Rsing, Lilian Munk. Den sene Derrida, eller: Er Claus Beck Nielsen et spgelse? in Passage nr.

61, 2009.
Transtrmer, Tomas. New Collected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle 1997. Translated by
Robin Fulton.

2
3

7
8

1
1

Here and henceforth it is my own translation unless otherwise stated. I wish to thank Lisbeth Rieshj Amos for her
help finding the proper English words.
See Bourdieu 2005.
As Setha M. Low and Denice Lawrence-Ziga write about Gendered Spaces, they notice this tendency: The
study of gendered space has moved away from earlier conceptions of fixed symbolic and territorial associations to
consider more complex understandings. Historical studies of gender constructions over space and time reveal
variability
within cultures and the complex interlinkages of gender with social, economic, and political influences (Low and
Lawrence-Ziga 2003: 13).
In the chapter Huset og fyrsten i digtet in his book Med andre ord (1996) Thomas Bredsdorff also pays special
attention to the meaning of the house in Nordbrandts authorship. He correctly points out that the house holds a
central
position from the beginning of Nordbrandts work, but whereas he states that the significance of the house is
decreasing
from Gods House and onwards in Nordbrandts authorship, I believe that the house still holds a very prominent
position
in Ghost-Games.
As I have written in the article Vggens (h)vide verden. Stedet i Tomas Transtrmers forfatterskab, Transtrmer
also has several poems where the point of view is reversed, and something from the past or the future looks at the
present (Mnster 2006: 8).
With regard to the poems in Gods House, I use Henrik Nordbrandts and Alexander Taylors translations from
Henrik Nordbrandt: Gods House (1979).
Also see Kittang 1966.
In her book, Den gr stemme. Stemmen i Tomas Transtrmers poesi, Birgitte Steffen Nielsen stresses the importance
of the palimpsest in Transtrmers authorship.
With regard to Transtrmers poems, I use Robin Fultons translation from Transtrmers New Collected Poems
(1997).
0
An interesting perspective, which I, however, have not developed, would be to include Heideggers notion of
Lichtung from Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (1950), and investigate whether the understanding of
Transtrmers
poem may be enriched by employing this concept.
1
I have written about the significance of traffic in Transtrmers work in the article Trafik i og omkring Tomas
Transtrmers forfatterskab, which will be published in Ljung, Per Erik (ed.): Nordisk lyriktrafik. Modernisme i
nordisk
lyrikk 3, Nordica Helsingiensia, Helsinki 2009.
2
See Staffan Bergstens more profound reading of The Indoors is Endless in Bergsten 1989: 141-149.
3
Nordbrandts poem The Returning-Address from Vandspejlet (1989) similarly deals with a house, a storm
and a
letter.
4
See Munk Rsing 2009: 78. Also see Bergsten 1989: 146.