The Right Word

To Friends behind a Border Lit Literature Sometimes a word is all it takes to build a poem. Such is the case in Tomas Tranströmer’s “To Friends behind a Border,” translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly. For me, the poem is constructed around the uncommon word “trilobite,” which refers to a fossil group of extinct marine animals possessing an exoskeleton. An example is shown in the attached picture.

Here is the text of the poem, as published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review:

To Friends behind a Border


I wrote sparsely to you. But everything I could say

swelled up like some old-fashioned hot air balloon

and disappeared finally into the sky.


Now the censor has my letter. He turns on his light.

My words, alarmed fly up like monkeys in a cage,

rattle the bars, hold still, and show their teeth.


Read between the lines. We’ll meet two hundred years from now

when the microphones in the hotel walls are useless

and we can finally fall asleep and be trilobites.

Since trilobites have exoskeletons, they quite literally wear their heart on their sleeve. In an environment of repression and censorship, being able to express yourself is a rare, extinct quality. Thus, when Nobel Laureate Tranströmer closes his poem by writing “we can finally fall asleep and be trilobites,” I believe he is dreaming of the day when he will be free to speak at will.

Fortunately, as in the case of most poetry, the meaning here is absolutely open to interpretation. And, with a world like “trilobite” coming into action, the interpretations are boundless.

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