Like a knife through water

Posted on September 28, 2009 by

Here, translator Rika Lesser describes her first experience hearing Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi perform his work. Lesser's translation of Mozart's Third Brain by Sonnevi has just been published by Yale University Press. Sonnevi's work is also available in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, from the Center for the Art of Translation.)
It is now twenty-seven years since I first heard Göran Sonnevi read from his work at an event called Scandinavia Today, a program organized by the Academy of American Poets and the American-Scandinavian Foundation at the Guggenheim Museum, in which a panel of Nordic poets and American poet/translators spoke, and then the foreign poets read. I had been wedged between Finnish and Norwegian guests on the panel. Sonnevi, coming alphabetically last (by country), read last, from Robert Bly's just published The Economy Spinning Faster and Faster (1982), perhaps the final bilingual chapbook in Bill Zavatsky's SUN series, containing just ten poems. Back then, there was a glass booth above the Guggenheim auditorium, in which I was pacing, with the little book in hand, prepped for vetting.

Like many actors and opera singers, Sonnevi stammers when he speaks but not when he performs his poems before an audience. I did not know this. When I had spent a year in Sweden in 1974-75, I could not understand why his poems were all the rage. I have written that I considered them texts that trickled down page after page, hugging the left margin. . . . texts I regarded chiefly as tracts on linguistics, mathematics, politics—subjects about which I preferred to read in other forms.

What can I say? Hearing him read was a turning point in my life as a poet and translator. Sonnevi was born in 1939, I in 1953; we both still call these performances readings. He requires a freestanding microphone but no DJ. But somehow read is not the right word for what he does; neither is incant or intone. His voice is fluent and singing; there is intensity without drama or melodrama in it. For me the sensation of hearing him read that first time was sensual, nearly erotic. Like a knife . . . through water?

Göran Sonnevi and I spent the two days following the event taking long walks all around New York City, discussing Swedish and American poetry, poetics, talking chiefly about rhythm, its overriding importance in translation. We also talked quite a bit about our earlier training in the natural sciences, and our interest in music, especially piano (my training was classical, he played jazz). I did not really start translating his work until some time near the spring equinox of 1984; it would be nine years before A Child Is Not a Knife (1993), the first book-length edition of his poems in English came out in my translation from Princeton University Press. Part of the Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, it is still available.