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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Mozart's Third Brain

Göran Sonnevi

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To purchase Mozart's Third Brain

Title: Mozart's Third Brain
Author: Göran Sonnevi
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 205 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Mozart's Third Brain - US
Mozart's Third Brain - UK
Mozart's Third Brain - Canada
  • Swedish title: Mozarts Tredje Hjärna
  • Translated and with a Preface and Notes by Rika Lesser
  • With a Foreword by Rosanna Warren

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Our Assessment:

B+ : powerful contemporary verse-sequence

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       As translator Rika Lesser notes in her preface, Mozart's Third Brain is: "not identical with the Swedish volume; it is merely (merely !) the title poem" (with "a hundred pages of discrete, primarily short, lyric poems" having been left by the wayside). This 144-section poem does stand as a unified whole, but as Lesser also notes, "Sonnevi's œuvre is, in some sense one long poem that continues from book to book", and it is regrettable that English-reading readers don't have an opportunity to get a better sense of that continuum, given how little of his work has been translated. [To add insult to injury, Lesser notes that all of Sonnevi's fifteen books of poems have: "also been issued as mass-market paperbacks" in Sweden .....] Nevertheless, Mozart's Third Brain is a solid starting point.
       Published in 1996, many of its preoccupations are of the time, in particular the brutal conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda as well as an irresponsible financial industry; despite these specific examples, it's surprising how current it reads: his complaints and concerns still apply, with only some small changes. His worries about: "The sea of finance capital [...] without / limits, without controls, and with the power / to crush nations" are strikingly appropriate again (or still), but just one element of the broader problem, as he sees it:

Society is undergoing disintegration, ideologically,
humanly, economically     The historic compromise
between the working class and bourgeoisie no longer exists,
destroyed by an arrogant right, and met by a startled
still sleeping working class that will be divided,
its less serviceable parts marginalized
       The language is Swedish-socialist, yet substitute a few terms and the description fits the American (and, across much of the world, other local) conditions, a capitalist super-class -- the wealthiest of individuals, and cash-rich and profitable corporations -- whose trickle-down effects have either dried up (cash-rich corporations unwilling to hire more workers (a capitalistically/bottom-line sensible policy, that at some point becomes socially disastrous)) or were always an illusion (the silly American idea that under-taxing the top-income mega-rich would eventually help spread the wealth (it has, of course, only served to further enrich them, while everyone else -- for decades now -- treads economic water)).
       The economic arguments Sonnevi makes are presumably familiar enough for his Swedish audience that he does not bother elaborating much. Instead, his concern here is more with the inadequate responses to, especially, what he terms genocidal conflicts. He focuses on guilt and shame:
              What is repulsive in the world increases
The abyss is also here, oil of genocide
on our hands, in our society, innocent only in its
sloth, old guilt repressed, new guilt unacknowledged
       More specifically:
The protracted, low-grade genocide just goes on
and on in Bosnia-Herzegovina     The totality of
suffering grows     Shame grows     Europe's shame     My per-
sonal shame     For no one does anything to prevent it
With this comes acceptance: a kind of gangrene in
the brain of Europe
       And so also:
              Our guilt grows and grows
Not collective guilt; but personal responsibility
       Sonnevi also contrasts these public-ethical concerns with the very private and purely personal. As he observes, "So many of my friends are dying now / Are dying or already dead"; many of the verses of this sequence specifically concern the life (and decline) of his friend Bengt (Anderson), in a coming to terms with mortality.
       Finally, music is also a major recurring motif, whether as: "Objective music     A concept I continually / return to" or the 'time of music' ("I know I exist inside it, liberated / As if this were the core"). Yet he also wonders: "And if the song becomes atrocious ?" (and reminds: "Stalin, too, loved Mozart").
       This collection of thoughts and their presentation -- straying, loose -- are indicative of the situation he sees himself (and humanity) in:
The degradation of human lives in big cities ...    At the same time
a new recombination occurs, in a new Ars magna
We are part of this great art     We have
                        no control over it

       Sonnevi wonders and wrestles with: "How am I to exist in this shattered / human language". His approach -- acknowledging its limits and fragility in his own shattered presentation, but also continually prodding with whatever tools he has at hand, and from as many sides as possible -- seems one way to keep going. It has certainly made for a very solid piece of poetry.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 November 2010

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Mozart's Third Brain: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi was born in 1939.

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