Waggish

Christian Hawkey: Ventrakl

I wrote a review of this book, a sort of postmodern engagement with Austrian poet Georg Trakl, for the Poetry Project Newsletter. The issue hasn’t been posted online, and since it can be a bit difficult to get ahold of outside of the city, I figured I would post it here in the meantime. But first, Trakl’s most famous poem, “Grodek,” about his terrible experiences on the front in World War I:

Grodek

Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons, and the golden plains
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the pastureland
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to the blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
O prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

(tr. Michael Hamburger)

It is apparently ambiguous whether Weidengrund is to mean “pastureland” or “willow-ground.” This poem was one of the last two that Trakl wrote before his suicide, and while there are signature stylistic tics (the colors, for one), it is far from representative.

On to the review:

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Georg Trakl was an Austrian poet who killed himself at 27. Born in 1887, he trained as a pharmacist and became a medical officer in the war. His ghastly experiences on the front lines while treating wounded soldiers caused a psychotic break in his already unstable personality, which led to his suicide not long after in 1914. Trakl’s experimentation with forms and his feverish imagery mark him as a modernist and expressionist, but the absence of psychology and his Dionysian mysticism mark him as a late Romantic, closer to Hölderlin than Rilke. His obsessive use of color, blue and purple especially, is a marker of a poetic language whose meanings can only be grasped obliquely. This aloofness, this immersion in 19th century poetics, challenges anyone to invade his mind.
Christian Hawkey intends to do just this. Ventrakl is a “scrapbook” of “collaborations” with Trakl. Its investigations into Trakl–Hawkey’s personal reflections, imagined interviews with Trakl, manipulated photographs, a biography of Trakl’s sister, and formal and aleatoric manipulations and translations of Trakl’s poems–confront Trakl’s work from multiple angles, usually indirectly rather than head-on. Such a potpourri is bound to be messy, something Hawkey advertises by terming Ventrakl a scrapbook. Yet the humility of that term is contradicted by the deliberate presumption of also calling the work “a collaboration,” underscoring Hawkey’s own ambivalence about engaging with such an elusive figure. Ambivalence and messiness, rather than an elegant falsity, is what is called for.

Hawkey rightly plays up the difficulties rather than obscuring them. The title page of each section in Ventrakl is marked with an obelus, the division symbol. Two individuals–two dots–separated by a literal line of division. There are many such figurative lines in Ventrakl: English/German, present/past, prose/poetry, reader/writer. The book stakes its success on the extent to which the identification of these lines reveals more than merely the failure to cross them. As Hawkey says of Trakl’s great war poem “Grodek”: “the words erasing the line between two worlds.”

Hawkey reveals some of his translation and transformation techniques in the introduction, but is cagey about how and where they have been applied. One of the clearest processes produces some of the most striking joins of past and present, a series of color poems (“Whitetrakl,” “Yellowtrakl,” etc.) that translate and assemble Trakl’s lines containing that color. The color is made to seem arbitrary, and yet the result is a bas-relief map of the color’s tenor in Trakl’s mind, presented in time-lapse.

black angel, who quietly slipped from a tree’s heart,

the black flight of birds always touches

the black dew, dripping from your temples, all roads flow into black decay . . .

Other poems are constructed via homophonic manipulation of the German texts, a technique memorably used by Louis and Celia Zukofsky in their translations of Catullus and David Melnick in his reappropriation of the Iliad. In Hawkey’s appropriation of “Nachtlied,” “Erstaart vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit” becomes “For the blue of error-stars, heaven’s klieg light,” loosely but effectively evoking the efflorescence of the original. Later in the same poem, “nächtlichen” becomes “night-lichen” and “Spiegel der Wahrheit [mirror of truth]” becomes “speech’s warfare.”  It is some work to track down the originals, as Hawkey does not always give clear pointers to his sources, but a good many of his treatments become more evocative when viewed with the originals at hand. As I participated by delving through Trakl, I came to identify further with Hawkey’s position.

Other words and phrases recur throughout the poems, again pointing to a hidden web of connections behind the veil of a different language. “Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens” picks up on that final word, already used in earlier poems in the book, and gives an ordered list of those reasons. It is strongly affecting, drawing on Hawkey’s ability to take these strange homophones and draw out their emotional juice. It is here he perhaps comes closest to achieving something of Trakl’s own foreboding presence, by way of creating distance from both Trakl and himself through the space between languages. The recurrent use of such words across poems reinforces the effect. A number of poems use the word “sternum,” linking the heart and chest to the stars (the German stern), a link that is a fitting metaphor for the book itself.

There is an inherent element of risk, however. In Hawkey’s idiolect, “Durch Wolken fährt ein goldner Karren” becomes “A duck fart woke the golden Karen,” in a coarse excursion into sub-Silliman space that even apologizes for itself: “how completely your mirror-language / Has failed.” It seems we must take the good with the bad, but it sits uneasily next to the talk of war and insanity elsewhere in the pages.

The prose excursions are more tentative, lacking the focused incandescence of the best poems in the book. The “interviews” with Trakl, in particular, strive for a self-consciously awkward engagement, but sometimes slide into a stilted preciousness. Yet there are still such gems as Hawkey’s thoughts on gazing at Trakl’s manically intense expression: “Your physician in the Krakow asylum reported that you often saw a man with a drawn knife standing behind your back. Even though your head faces forward, your gaze seems directed there, behind you.”

Taken as a whole, these problematic points still contribute to the book’s acutely Midrashian quality. Appropriation becomes a motif, with Hawkey noting his lifts from Spicer, David Cameron, the Zukofskys, and others. Nothing prevented him from adopting more novel techniques, as K. Silem Mohammad has done, for example, in his treatments of Shakespeare. But Hawkey chooses to emphasize Ventrakl’s lack of autonomy. The translations/deformations are littered with contemporary references both serious and trivial. The strangely po-faced introduction drops Bachelard, Heidegger, Agamben, Stein, and Benjamin in its first three pages, encasing the book in a theoretical carapace that stresses its dependency on contemporary poetic discourse. Trakl, in contrast, comes to seem increasingly universal in refusing to provide anything but the barest specifiers of time and place.

Weighed down by its declared lack of autonomy, the book appeals to Trakl as a source of unimpeachable authenticity, only to be overwhelmed by the concept of that authenticity and the inability to contain it across language, time, and place. It throws up beautiful but uncanny images, only to be unable to claim them as its own. (Here the word “collaboration” starts to seem more sinister.) When it now seems depressingly obligatory to cite Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” in any meditation on translation, as Hawkey indeed does, how can a writer and reader escape the theoretical baggage and speak of poetry and war? Ventrakl does not give an answer, but tenaciously refuses to admit success or surrender. It is an ouroboros looking to let go of its tail.

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One last note: I really would endorse an embargo on the use of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of a Translator” when discussing translation. It has become too ubiquitous and its Romantic notion of translation as a gnostic, transcendent impossibility doesn’t strike me as helpful. His idea of “pure language” simply seems wrong-headed. I had real problems with Adam Thirlwell’s book on translation, The Delighted States, but I think he had the right idea in going with Borges’ more elastic and pragmatic conceptions of translation.

The perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all. Changes in language erase shades of meaning, and the “perfect” page is precisely the one that consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away. On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version.

Borges, “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader”

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