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:
work is affirmative. But what it affirms is a
order of being which may not be at once
in his poems, because he infects the
this spiritual order so often with an imagery
disintegration. [...] Trakl does not exempt himself
vision of disintegration [...] [and] had
most intimate intelligence of the moral
intellectual crisis through which his generation was
he is concerned to evaluate freely the
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:
trimmed willows, where tanned children play
leaves blow, tone trumpets. A churchyard shudder.
of scarlet crash through the maples' grief,
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:
Walt, the verse-orb is breaking.
scattered cinder beckons, if a white comet
over our green necks
indecent as a
on the glands
of Bach, we hum,
above our shining sternums.
* * * *
* * *
you at the crossroads, and for a long time you
from one of the few prose poems -- among
the first in
the genre -- Trakl wrote. Why 'looking back'? Is
looking back along the road he or she came from,
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.
Orpheus and Eurydice. And yet to look back for
a long time,
to look back continuously indicates trauma,
to move on, move forward, make a choice,
step -- the
non-abled body and its own memory, unwilling or
move -- step toward healing, forgetfulness. And
yet the words
are there, were placed there. At the
the body and language: a placing, a
ends in a gesture, a living gesture, even
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
Further information about Ventrakl can be found at: