Friday, October 08, 2010

Mozart's Third Brain

Göran Sonnevi's Mozart's Third Brain (translated by Rika Lesser) is a long poem of a restless, dissatisfied mind pondering problems ranging from the global to the most intensely personal. Here is all of an unusually short section that struck me (LXXVII):

Not in vain do you give me your rose The transparent forms
are reborn; from them everything arises All leaves, birds
All the images Growing quickly, quickly destroyed

I will not let you down A flower opened your heart
Now you open mine, again, with your rose, shining dark red
The yellow pollen from eternity's sunflower falls on the table

This recalls the T. S. Eliot of Four Quartets, while also being utterly independent of Eliot as it shifts rapidly between image and abstraction. (Eliot hovers in the background at other moments throughout the book, as does Wallace Stevens; I kept hearing echoes of "The Man with the Blue Guitar.")

A passage from the previous page (section LXXV) seems to me to represent how this poem works. This does not contain any of the specific references to events of the time of the poem's writing (early to mid 1990s) that pepper the poem (especially the genocides in the Balkans and in Central Africa), but it is otherwise exemplary of how Sonnevi thinks and writes:

... I pledge allegiance to the contaminated
world, such as it is, in its luminous right . . .

What sort of imaginary community do I seek? Which one
is active, est agens, within me? I project the collective Sade!
The collective Mozart! As if there were no difference!
Summed up in the Gödel-face, dark Beneath the real Gödel's
shy gray shadow In which group do I seek protection? Whom am I
excluding? Which flame of self-forgiveness consumes me?
Societies float gently, like ashes An architecture of smoke

I love the first sentence quoted here, which reminds me of Greg Brown's wonderful song "Two Little Feet": "It's a messed-up world but I love it anyway."

Sonnevi addresses this "allegiance to the contaminated / world" in more specifically political terms later in the poem: "The right to say no is the basis of democracy But only within the matrix of / a deeper yes" (section CIX). There's a philosophical point here resembling Nietzsche's insistence that one must affirm all of existence in order to affirm even one moment of one's life. But the political point is even more startling: democracy provides a space for dispute, for negation, for expressing a choice between options—but it does not (and cannot?) provide for the rejection of that space itself. You have to affirm the system of democracy in order to "say no" to some issue within that system. More specifically, you have to say yes to the result the system produces even when you do not like the result.

That's why I get very angry about claims that one's taxes should not be used to pay for things one doesn't agree with—whether the claim that school vouchers should be provided for private school or that pacifists have a right to refuse to pay taxes because of military spending. (An example from both sides, but it is usually "conservatives" who ask for the right to be exceptions to the system, in my experience.) — That's not a point about Sonnevi's poetry, but it shows how far his work takes you when you follow its leads.

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