Poems as Gondolas
The Sorrow Gondola is a poetry collection written by Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer. This was his first poetry collection written after recovering from a stroke suffered in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Tranströmer named the collection after Franz Liszt’s composition La lugubre gondola. The Sorrow Gondola was first published in 1996, six years after Tranströmer’s stroke, and I could not help making the biographical fallacy while analyzing this work because through this collection I feel Tranströmer trying to deal with the consequences of the stroke. For this reason, the word “Sorrow” in the title helps establish the mood and tone of the collection. Moreover, the poems become gondolas slowly moving through the sad canals of history: “To row up through the silence. / The eternally streaming moment and its stain. / The eternally bleeding point of the moment (‘From the Island, 1860’).”
In the collection, not only does Tranströmer take its title from Franz Liszt’s composition, he also references Liszt and Richard Wagner in “The Sorrow Gondola (no. 2).” Richard Wagner was Liszt’s son-in-law, and Liszt wrote La lugubre gondola while visiting Wagner and his daughter in Venice shortly before Wagner’s death (Tranströmer’s notes). Consequently, both La lugubre gondola and The Sorrow Gondola are born from suffering and loss.
Speechlessness and the Speaker
The first poem “April and Silence,” represents the speaker’s inability to speak: “The only thing I want to say / gleams out of reach / like the silver / in a pawnshop (10-13).” Additionally, Tranströmer references mythological figures like Damocles and King Midas who demonstrate that with great power comes great responsibly. In the collection, history stands as a reminder of the speaker’s need to confront his close encounter with death and the silence that encapsulates him: “I’m carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case.” In the poem “The Sorrow Gondola (no. 2),” Tranströmer uses the refrain: “the gondola is overloaded with their lives, two round-trips and a one-way,” “The gondola is overloaded with the crouching stones of the future,” and “The gondola is overloaded with life, it is simple and black,” to reveal the intensity of the speaker’s sorrow and demonstrate how there are times when we are asked to bear more that is it possible for a man to withstand.
In addition, the poem “From July ‘90” can be interpreted as Tranströmer trying to come to terms with having almost died: “I was a funeral / and I recognized that the dead man / read my thoughts / better that I could (1-4).” The speaker is confused in a period of self-recognition where even his thoughts are foreign. His misperceptions reflect his internal turmoil and his failure to comprehend this new world.
Tranströmer also uses a sequence of haikus “Haikudikter” to convey the fast pace of life, a sense of speechlessness, and of making do with what we are given. Most stanzas in the collection are composed of one sentence and commas are rarely used. Additionally, the bilingual edition I used allowed me to see when the translator had included some commas when there were none in the Swedish original. The formal decision to use limited punctuation makes the poems feel like a stream of consciousness, they are like thoughts in the mind of the speaker that have not been voiced.
Tranströmer, Tomas. The Sorrow Gondola. Trans. Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2010. Print.
© Yaneirys Cruz, 2013 – Poetry Blog