Ventrakl, poetry and translation by Christian Hawkey
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010
Emulation has been called the daughter of admiration. It is a generous disposition because it reveals a high esteem for the work or author it seeks to inhabit, and embody. “Emulation,” observed Samuel Johnson, “includes in it a laudable curiosity, as one of the characteristics of a vigorous intellect and a keen appetite for knowledge, which should always be encouraged, especially in youth. A mind that is emulous has a vigilance which permits nothing to pass without notice, and a habit of reflection that suffers nothing to be lost.”
The subject of Christian Hawkey’s immersion is the German expressionist poet Georg Trakl. Trakl, whose life demonstrated a prodigious appetite for strong stimulants and fulfillment without restriction, and was in all respects a fascinating and mysterious being. He has been described by at least one author as a difficult subject for biography, the antithesis of a man of letters, existing solely in his poetry where a strange blend of sensuality, rapture, and despair simmer and bubble in an unlikely and uncanny compound of decayed sunflowers, fairytales, and evil dreams. Trakl’s very name is synonymous with the phrase “Poète Maudit.” The drugs that he used to “keep himself in life,” as he put it, included opium, morphine, Veronal, and cocaine. He would often speak of spiritual degeneracy and his poetry gapes with abyssal stupefaction, cold and evil, white birds and black rain, moments of resplendent stillness, cold metal walking on his forehead while drinking the silence of God.
For a poet who burns this brightly and yearns for a fulfillment that transcends life on our sad planet of war and mud and blood and the whine of shrapnel, the First World War was especially cruel. After becoming (appropriately) a chemist, but unable to keep a job, Trakl volunteered in the Austrian army and was made a medic, caring for 90 men with scant medical supplies on the eastern front in the Austrian campaign. He was witness not only to men in incurable pain, but those who, no longer able to endure their suffering, hung themselves from trees. Trakl cracked. He was diagnosed with dementia praecox and hospitalized. He died, at age 27, from a cocaine overdose while under psychiatric observation in a military hospital in Krakow, Poland.
Ventrakl, as stated on the back of the book, is best described as a collaboration. Hawkey employs a number of strategies to rev the engine of Trakl’s poetry, including translation, photographs, poetry and prose poetry. Its primary method of composition is compared to Spicer’s experimental procedures in the production of After Lorca. Spicer, who seemed completely at home communicating with spirits in the afterlife, observed wisely, and enigmatically, and echoing Wittgenstein not a little, that when all was said and done, “it,” the writing, the letters to Lorca, the poetry, the collaboration, “was a game.” “It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for a poetry that would be more than the expression of my hatreds and desires. It was a game like Yeat’s spooks or Blake’s sexless seraphim.” “Yet it was there,” Spicer continues. “The poems are there, the memory not of a vision but a kind of casual friendship with an undramatic ghost who occasionally looked through my eyes and whispered to me, not really more important then than my other friends, but now achieving a different level of reality by being missing.”
I would not, however, characterize Trakl as an “undramatic ghost,” and I seriously doubt Hawkey would either. Trakl is a very dramatic ghost, a phantom burning a hole through the other dimension and smoldering on the page in a surge of scintillating ink. His agitations and spiritual convulsions still seem very much alive. Palpable. Breathing. Corporeal. And this attests to the high level of invention and commitment that Hawkey has brought to this enterprise.
Hawkey, who did not speak or read any German at the outset of his project, seems to have found that more of an asset than a liability in his initial attempts to cross the boundary of subjective and historical limits and enter into a true collaborative spirit, one that would otherwise have been marred by a too literal or faithful translation. His methods of translation are inventive in the extreme. Here is how Hawkey describes his processes in his introduction:
For the poems here, the modes of composition deployed are numerous and varied. Some were composed by combing through all of Trakl’s available poems in English for lines in which a given color appears; I then rearranged, cut, and altered (slightly) the lines to build poems -- centos. No poet before or after Trakl deployed such a limited set of colors so frequently and suggestively and without any apparent fixed cosmology of meaning. Nearly every stanza of every one of his poems contains color as valence, and at some point I realized my procedure was exploring the poetics of inventory as yet another translation mode. Other procedures involved the generation of what might be called homographonic drafts (building on the growing tradition of homophonic translation), where a word (or words) from one’s native language is identified within a foreign word or text by either sound or sight (i.e. one sees and/or hears ends or bends or sonnet cradled within abandonee), in part because the textual surface of an unknown language becomes so intensely visual. Sometimes, inspired by a procedure invented by the poet David Cameron, I typed into Microsoft Word a Trakl poem in German and used the spell check program to produce an initial draft. Other strategies involved typing the poem into an online translation engine and then translating the poem back and forth, line by line, between English and German; or shooting, with a 12 gauge, an open Trakl book from a distance of ten feet, then translating, with a dictionary, a remaining page of perforated text. Still other poems were generated by working from a book of Trakl’s poems which I had left outside to decompose over a full year in a glass jar filled with rainwater and leaves and mosquito larvae until its pages, over time, dissolved into words, pieces of words, word-stems, floating up and rearranging themselves on the surface of the jar.
Nabokov, who argued in favor of a word-for-word translation, a method of scrupulous equivalencies, would have hated this. “The ‘arty translation,’” he sneered, protects poets “by concealing and camouflaging ignorance or incomplete information or the fuzzy edge of limited knowledge.”
Point taken. But I think what Hawkey did is pretty cool. I especially like the 12 gauge approach, though it would distress me to destroy a book I loved. I would prefer shooting a book by Ayn Rand or Alan Greenspan, but more for the sake of catharsis than translation.
Walter Benjamin addresses the creative collaboration versus faithful, literal translation with stirring clarity: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.”
I like what is suggested here, that there is a language behind the language, a pure language, a sonorous stream of essences, a beating heart, a blood circulating through vowel and consonant in arteries of otherworldly crimson, and that to reach that intensity requires a trance equal to that of its original composition. It takes translation out of the library and into the rarefied air of revelation.
There is, admittedly, in a case of extreme invention such as Hawkey’s use of Trakl, or Spicer’s use of Lorca, a point where the literary work ceases to bear the imprint of either author and becomes a strange, mutant creature of raw, unbridled existence. A mass of unstable particles roiling with deviant impulses. A peak into the fourth dimension. A hyper-ontological mailbox or science of imaginary solutions.
“In An Alternate Stomach,” is a poem of nine lines, four couplets ending with a single line.
Ovaries dipped in gold. Steel-tipped semen.
Wallets crafted from the wings of swans.
In the heat a black hearse, shimmering.
Later, blue sand spills between the stars.
Her lichen-covered eyelids.
The small glass jars affixed to her lips.
Let the elegantly dressed boatman carry us across.
Let money like a swan on fire
light the way out of this harmony.
This is a remarkably intense poem. The imagery flourishes in bizarre aberrations, objects opposite in quality and provenance are soldered together like fragments from a shattered world.
“Steel-tipped semen” provokes a number of associations: bullets, aggression, sexual perversity. It is not an erotic image, that is for certain.
The language is structured in a hectic, telegraphic manner, spitting images in a rapid staccato. There is no apparent voice or identity uttering these words. They burst on the page like a string of firecrackers thrown into the street. The black hearse, elegantly dressed boatman, and eyelids covered with lichen all suggest death and its underworld.
The last line is ironic: Harmony is the one quality least apparent in this cataloguing of death and hallucination. Swans, which are normally associated with serene, graceful movement, are transformed into wallets, or incendiary guides.
Hawkey also includes some prose passages, eccentric constructions devoted to some aspect of Trakl’s life, or sober inquiries modeled on literary exegesis mixed with biographical information. Some, such as the block of prose on page 45, are meditations on translation, epistemology, and snippets of Trackl’s life. It consists of one, long sentence, beginning with a German word, Umdicthtung.
Umdichtung: not a poem translated from another but a poem woven around another, from another, an image from another image, a weaving or an oscillation around or from, a form of understanding, of knowing that whatever is under descends, step by step, even if there are not steps, no staircase, nothing to stand on but the soft forehead of a stranger, O you signs and stars, your eyes appear to be on the verge of weeping, if a child can weep, a face that already sees its future face, sees the soldiers, their cheeks unfolded by shrapnel, sitting up, leaning toward the camera, toward life, a man left in charge of a tent of 30 soldiers, let the song remember the boy, July 28th, 1914, March 20th, 2005, I agree, wars have their own reunions, as if violence were its own end, seeking its own form, autonomous, seeking to repeat itself, a weaving or an oscillation around or from, form from form, hence this slow sinking into the forehead of a stranger, a stranger long departed.
This energetic sentence, which seems propelled by a fomentation of high emotion, a mixture of malaise and exhilaration, bangs along its imagined terrain like a tenacious jeep, bursts and lurches from phrase to phrase, empowered by its own momentum.
The juxtaposition of the two dates, July 28th, 1914, the day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and its army bombarded Belgrade, and March 20th, 2005, a date that could refer to events in Afghanistan or Iraq, underscores the uniting principle between Hawkey and Trakl, which is that of war.
Though there is another, perhaps greater, unifying principle, which Hawkey states in “The Licker Of Texts:” “that one feels, reading your poems, touched by words.”