Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: zukofsky

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:

______________

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.

________________

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”

Zukofsky on Joyce

But not those two. The recent hubbub about Paul Zukofsky’s rather stringent views of copyright and distaste for studying his people’s work must be awfully inconvenient for those unlucky enough to be studying him, because Zukofsky’s “almost purely economic” interest looks like a case of getting blood from a stone. (Though it’s peculiar that Paul clearly has a more than superficial acquaintance with and affection for his father’s work. Except “Washstand”. He hates “Washstand.”)

That said, Paul Z. has managed to get all his own old albums of him playing and conducting Cage, Babbitt, Schnabel, etc., up on Amazon for purchase and download (all better than “Einstein on the Beach,” where he played the titular role), while leaving much of his dad’s stuff out of print, so he’s not quite milking his father’s cow for all its worth. And as many have already pointed out, while the recent foofaraw was hardly surprising to some, Paul Z.’s notice immediately caused the upload and distribution of an “A” torrent by anti-copyright activists who I’m sure couldn’t possibly be bothered to read the thing, making Louis Zukofsky’s work suddenly far more accessible (and cheap) than that of countless better-known poets.

But what amused me was stumbling on “The Injustice Collector”, about Joyce heir Stephen James Joyce and his own notoriously strict control of his ancestor’s estate:

Once, the death of a major literary figure marked the moment when scholars could interpret his work with genuine freedom. After Proust died, for example, academics began excavating the connections between his homosexuality and his art. Yet when Stephen Joyce succeeded in muffling a whole field of study with a combination of litigation and bravado, others took notice. Paul Zukofsky, the son of the poet Louis Zukofsky, said of Stephen’s efforts, “What I’ve heard sounds very, very good. He is a staunch defender of rights.”

Rights or money, which is it?

An Interview with Lisa Samuels on Laura Riding and Poetry (Part 1)

Lisa Samuels edited and wrote an extensive introduction for the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Laura Riding’s 1928 collection of essays and stories, Anarchism Is Not Enough. Lisa has also published three books of poetry, most recently The Invention of Culture (Shearsman Books, 2008), as well as several chapbooks. She teaches at The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

How did you first encounter Laura Riding?

LS: I found Riding in graduate school at the University of Virginia, after I had finished all my coursework and exams. In retrospect, it’s odd that I didn’t learn about her at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I earned my B.A., since William Harmon was one of my teachers and knew and championed her work, as I found out later.

I first read Riding in 1994, the same year I finally found out about not only the Language poetry movement but also about what I think of as some of the core texts and ideas of the real revolution of ‘modernism’ (thinking of 1905-1930, roughly, and mostly trans-Atlantic): Stein, WC Williams, George Oppen, Georges Bataille, Mina Loy. The ‘broken’ writers, the Blakean modernists.

I differentiate these still from the smoother, more Wordsworthian modernists, the ones I did learn about in school and knew very well: Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Marianne Moore. The division between these kinds of groups is perpetuated to this day, of course: the raw and the cooked, the smooth and the striated, the broken and the whole. It is difficult to set aside these binaries, mostly because people operate, understandably, by making distinctions and, unfortunately, by waging war on the ‘Other’ distinction.

Riding is such a singular figure that she is difficult to associate with any particular school of poetry. But would you compare her to the Objectivists like Zukofsky and Oppen?

LS: Laura Riding I wouldn’t necessarily put with Zukofsky because her poetry is systematically more abstract and allegorizing than his, less explicit in its processing of particular urban identity, in spite of her being raised in NYC and situated principally in urban contexts until the move to Majorca in 1930. She does share some of Zukofsky’s sense of verbal energy, especially as we see in his early “A” segments.

But I would put her next to George Oppen – not least because they both ceased writing poetry, or at least participating in poetic production, for a very long period in the middle of their lives and of the 20th-century, but also because of a commonality in their investigations of imaginative experiencing, he more from a phenomenological and minimalist perspective, she more from a dramatic/role-playing and exuberant one.

What effect did Riding have on how you read and interpreted poetry?

LS: Riding was part of my dissertating education, and her effect on how I read other poetry was that I looked for the kind of rigor, absolutism, hunger, presentness-of-voice-as-not-a-social-self, anger, adamance, energetic eschatology (rather than broken-hearted cultural despair) that Riding evinces.

Riding’s “rigor and adamance” is one of the major aspects that drew me to her work in the first place, a similar sort of spirit to that which I find in Robert Musil. Yet what I like about them at their best is that they deploy that critical acumen in the service of doubt and uncertainty without ever embracing willful obscurity or definite answers. And like with Musil, Riding’s rigorous and aggressive skepticism led to a problematic constructive project. Is it possible to have the negative project without the positive project?

LS: Tricky, isn’t it, given the personal energy that must be generated in order to overcome the will-to-repudiation once one is ‘in touch with’ radical contingency. That personal energy can immediately or swiftly or gradually overtake one’s ‘good self-abnegation.’ (One has to work very hard to ‘never be famous,’ as Bernadette Mayer exhorts.) Your question is unanswerable in absolute terms – I mean that even the term ‘negative project’ is a contradiction in terms, since absolute negation would never be traceable in the productive materials open to our view and to this consideration.

But one can comment on it from different perspectives – Nagarjuna, for example – and adduce a few examples of artists I think of as hovering pretty resolutely in projects of ‘positive negation.’ Oppen is one, and some others come to mind: William Blake (there he is again, all imaginative project and no apparently possible social ground), Larry Eigner (20th-century American poet, with lifelong cerebral palsy), Tom Phillips (contemporary English artist and writer, splendid stuff – I may not be right about the negative project, given his polishing excellence, but…), Veronica Forrest-Thomson (20th-century English poet), Oskar Pastior (German contemporary – from what I know of his poetry, which is not a great deal), Kathy Acker (20th-century American novelist), Emily Dickinson (surely), Lautréamont (The Songs of Maldoror). There are others.

To be continued. The next installment will discuss Riding’s abandoning of poetry and her prose works.

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑