The Sorrow Gondola by Tomas Tranströmer
by M. Zobel on Sep 11, 2011 • 1:32 pm
“What Tranströmer expresses so eloquently in these lines is the idea that our lives are fleeting in relation to our history—the “cold sphinx, / empty arenas”—and even more so in relation to “Light and silent constellations. / The cold sea.” We are ultimately condemned to silence and have to make do with “the small script of the grass / and the laughter from cellars.”
Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola (Green Integer, 2010), translated by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl, depicts the poet’s own speechlessness caused by a stroke in 1990, while depicting the lives and works of important figures in art, such as the composers Franz Liszt and his son-in-law Richard Wagner. Along with the themes of silence and music, the collection takes its name from Liszt’s work La lugubre gondola, which was inspired by Wagner’s sickness and death in Venice. Due to the magnificent work of translators McGriff and Grassl, Tranströmer’s voice itself becomes the “sorrow gondola” that is rowing down the millennia-old canals of history and art.
The potential for music and utterance represents the gift and the burden of the artist faced with speechlessness, as the opening poem “April and Silence” exemplifies: “I’m carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case.” Allusions to Greek mythology, the Bible, and more recent historical events, such as WWII and the fall of the Soviet Union (which coincides with Tranströmer’s stroke), expand the burden of unique talents to the burden of being in power. The lines, “Earrings [that] dangle like the sword above Damocles,” a “King Midas / … who turns everything he touches into Wagner,” and a “Jesus [who holds] up a coin / with Tiberius in profile / a profile without love / power in circulation” aptly express this weight, shared by the poet, for “what happens is always more than we can carry.”