Looking Back for a Long Time

Ventrakl, Christian Hawkey (152pp, $17.00, Ugly Duckling Presse)

The Austro-German poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914) once described his inner life as 'an infernal chaos of rhythms and images'. His poetry transforms this chaos into something that is at once Expressionist and visionary. What his visions revealed was an overwhelming sense of Europe in crisis. In one sense, Trakl's poetry might be termed the unconscious of the entropic, early twentieth-century Europe portrayed in Robert Musil's monumental trilogy The Man Without Qualities. But, as two of Trakl's best commentators and translators Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton pointed out nearly fifty years ago, there is a paradox at the heart of the poetry:

     ...Trakl's work is affirmative. But what it affirms is a
     spiritual order of being which may not be at once
     perceptible in his poems, because he infects the
     imagery of this spiritual order so often with an imagery
     of disintegration. [...] Trakl does not exempt himself
     from this vision of disintegration [...] [and] had
     perhaps the most intimate intelligence of the moral
     and intellectual crisis through which his generation was
     passing. Thus he is concerned to evaluate freely the
     crisis of modern man in his relation to death and to evil...

Trakl's poetry is, then, pitched very high, about as high as the lyric voice can go before disintegrating or turning camp. Here is the beginning of 'Trumpets' in Robert Grenier's translation:

      Under trimmed willows, where tanned children play
      And leaves blow, tone trumpets. A churchyard shudder.
      Banners of scarlet crash through the maples' grief,
      Riders along ryefields, empty mills.

Christian Hawkey's Ventrakl
is not a book of translations per se but, as he says in an interview given to promote the book, works 'within this idea of translation as being a conversation or dialogue -- and this means one is already entering a constructed, communal space'. Conversation, dialogue and communal space are crucial because the book grew out of the build-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to articulate the despair at the failure of anti-war protests. Trakl's pervasive melancholy not only provided a language but also gave permission for that particular structure of feeling. But if the book is in dialogue with Trakl and his poetry, it is also in dialogue with ideas of reading and writing and with the idea of translation itself. At the start of the project, Hawkey didn't know German and so used homophonic translation or let Microsoft Word's spell check 'correct' a German original to produce an initial draft. What results, he says, are works that 'are not my poems. Nor are they Trakl's. They occur at some site between our languages, our texts, our names.'

I find this book absolutely gripping and totally fascinating because the reading experience and I the reader also occur 'at some site between'. Translations of poems, short essays, responses to photographs of the poet, fictional interviews with Trakl, meditations on his relationship with his sister Grete -- all these accumulate into a multi-faceted double portrait. One portrait is of Trakl, the other is of the contemporary poet trying to find out how to write at the beginning of a new century in time of war. It would be simplistic to say that, for Hawkey, Trakl's time equals our own because of a similar sense of crisis. But Ventrakl
does raise the double question of what experimental writing can do in the face of world events; and whether expressionism might be the best way to do it right now. If poetry is to have any place in the world, Ventrakl seems to be saying, then its role can't be the production of slightly surreal, temporary estrangements from everyday life. But what of the writing? Here are some samples:

     Melancholic Decibels

      --Dear Walt, the verse-orb is breaking.

      If a scattered cinder beckons, if a white comet
      zithers over our green necks

     indecent as a lease
     on the glands of Bach, we hum,


      awkward above our shining sternums.
      * * * * * * *

     Someone left you at the crossroads, and for a long time you
     continue looking back.

     One sentence, from one of the few prose poems -- among
     the first in the genre -- Trakl wrote. Why 'looking back'? Is
     the 'you' looking back along the road he or she came from,
     accompanied by the 'someone' who abandoned the 'you'?
     Is the you looking back at the one who abandons, the
     trail of departure? And why does the you continue to look
     back 'for a long time'? Heartbreak. Abandonment. Yearning.
     Shades of Orpheus and Eurydice. And yet to look back for
     a long time, to look back continuously
indicates trauma,
     the inability to move on, move forward, make a choice,
     step -- the non-abled body and its own memory, unwilling or
     unable to move -- step toward healing, forgetfulness. And
     yet the words are there, were placed there. At the
     crossroads of the body and language: a placing, a
     movement that ends in a gesture, a living gesture, even
     the darkest poems texture us with their own black joy.

The poets of World War 1 wrote against the jingoistic propaganda and popular support for the war at home. But we are in a very different age now when governments insist on making wars that significant numbers of their citizens are against. Ventrakl
is an invaluable attempt to say what this feels like.

Further information about Ventrakl
can be found at:

      David Kennedy 2010