Crazy Connections in Mozart’s Third Brain

Rika Lesser; Photo Credit: Perry Cohen

Without meaning to, Rika Lesser has assumed the title of sole English translator of Göran Sonnevi’s poetry. She was not even interested in the work until she heard the poems from his own mouth, noting, “[H]earing Sonnevi read aloud utterly changed my view of his work. I would not have translated his poetry if I had not heard him read.” She says that the two have “[kept] up an unusual working relationship…[going] over just about every word in every line of ever poem of his” she translates. Most recently, she has translated his Swedish book-length poem, Mozart’s Third Brain.

In a word, Mozart’s Third Brain explores—everything. Everything includes, of course, the struggle between good and evil, but also science, mathematics, music, humanity, history, current events, and art. Then it goes further into every particular imaginable from every subject, from the genocides of the Holocaust and Rwanda, Dionysus, Gershwin, the Virgin Mary—even the Maastricht Treaty is in there somewhere. In effect, the poem contains any concept that your own brain could remember and understand. It is no wonder that, in 1999 when Sonnevi and Lesser began working together on the poem, the translator demanded that the poet buy a computer and create an e-mail address if they were to continue the project.

One of threads (or synapses) connecting the many concepts (or neurons) moving through the work is the “Mozart-brain.” Mozart is a flute concerto, a thrush; Mozart is loved by Stalin; “Mozart’s brain rests already exploded, in all its shards.” Out of all the associations that the poet’s voice makes, the composer’s mind holds one of the strongest fascinations for both poet and reader. Mozart’s brain, able to find incredible combinations of sounds and to create a genius work of music from them, is the standard to which the poem strives. As with all great art, understanding all the connections Sonnevi sees among his ideas may always be out of reach. Even Lesser, who says she may have read the poem “[o]ne hundred, several hundred, a thousand” times, still admits she does not entirely understand the poem.

Although Sonnevi wrote the original work in Swedish, you can listen and watch Lesser read from her English translation, as well as some of her own original poetry.

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