Return to the poem

Translator's Note: Mozart’s Third Brain



Göran Sonnevi's oeuvre is, in a sense, a long poem that continues from book to book. In Swedish, Mozart's Third Brain is about three hundred pages long with an almost two-hundred-page title poem consisting of 144 sections that are given Roman numerals. The title poem was written between July 3, 1992 and June 12, 1996. It may not be an easy read, but the attentive reader can find within the poem the pleasures of daily life, reflections on world events, and the many and varied dimensions of love and loss.

Sonnevi's language seeks out everything it can possibly grasp. Rosanna Warren perceives some disjunction between the "elliptical, even crystalline lyrics" of his earlier work and the longer-lined sections of Mozart's Third Brain. To one not accustomed to hearing the Swedish originals read in the poet's own voice, this chasm will seem large: hearing Sonnevi read aloud utterly changes one's perception of his work. He stutters when he speaks, though not when he reads before an audience. And "reads" isn't quite the right word: at each enjambment, particularly when lines are short, his voice rises; the stress on an end word is strong, the stress on the first word of a new line even stronger. As the underlying rhythmic patterns shift, his body subtly but perceptibly moves with them. Sonnevi reads at a freestanding microphone; a lectern gets in the way. There are pauses of different durations, beautiful silences.

I translate Sonnevi's work so that he can read it aloud comfortably in English, for we firmly agreed, the time we first met, on the overriding importance of retaining a poet's speech rhythm when translating poetry. Not-Orpheus opens "CV" with his rhythmic song ("He sings his nothing   He sings his night"). The poet and his wife are walking beside a river in southwestern Sweden in the early nineties, when the poet's mother is ill. The poem has a lot of walking in it, taking the reader to other places and times, and the rhythm comes from that walking. How deeply the reader chooses to engage with or meditate on the entire passage, perhaps Googling proper names or philosophical terms, is a matter of free will, libero arbitrio.—RL


This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.