I am not certain what has become of the person who first alerted me to the poetry of Georg Trakl, but it wasn’t very long ago and came backward through an interest in Celan. Then, over the last few years, Seagull Books released three volumes containing all of Trakl’s poems including significant variants and early versions, in new translations by James Reidel. I read and wrote about them all even though I had no particular confidence in myself as a reviewer of poetry. I’ve also explored other translations and biographical accounts of the troubled Austrian poet’s short life. So when I became aware of At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem by Franz Fühmann, my interest was piqued. Finally, to be fully prepared, I recently read Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, The Jew Car.
I thought I was ready.
But no, nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of experiencing At the Burning Abyss.
Fühmann was an important literary figure in postwar East Germany; a gifted, versatile writer who was no stranger to either reading poetry or fledgling efforts to write it when he first encountered Trakl. It was early May, 1945, just prior to the surrender of the Wehrmacht. As a young soldier in the German army, Fühmann had been granted a few days sick-leave following a stay in the hospital, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to visit his family. As bleak as things looked for Germany at the time, a reckless hope was still smoldering. Sitting with his father after dinner on the evening before he was due to leave for Dresden, he opened the volume he’d chanced to pick up in a used bookstore on his way home. One poem in particular, ominously titled “Downfall,” resonated:
Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight.
In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars.
Over our graves
The night bends its broken brow.
Under oak trees we sway on a silver barge.
The city’s white walls ring for ever.
Under vaults of thorns
O my brother we blind clock-hands climb towards midnight.
He knew nothing of Trakl but a conversation with his father that night revealed that the latter had served alongside “daft old Georgie” in the early days of the First World War. But beyond recollections of an eccentric character, Fühmann learned no more about the poet for many years. He would never see his father again, and his poetry book would soon be abandoned along with his coat and backpack a few days later. But the verse had worked its way into his consciousness and would keep him company and inspire his own desperate scribblings during his years in a Soviet POW camp in the Caucasus.
The Franz Fühmann who emerged from captivity in 1949 was a born again Socialist. He had seen the error of his ways, faced the reality of the horrors of Aushwitz, and rejected the false tenants of Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and indoctrinated. The final story in The Jew Car depicts the arrival of his fictional alter-ego in East Germany, his train journey into a new homeland marked with the composition of a suitably ambitious piece of Socialist-inspired realist poetry. However, his reunion with the decidedly anti-realist imagery of Trakl would occur before long.
Slowly, and steadily, the poems will challenge everything that he thinks he knows about reading and writing poetry, ultimately challenging his Socialist idealism and his own self-awareness.
At several points in At the Burning Abyss, Fühmann reminds his reader that the he is not writing an autobiography, insisting that he is engaged in a meditation on the experience of reading Trakl. However, this experience acts as a fundamental force within his own biography and cannot be read apart from it. His account of his personal response to Trakl is presented in first person singular against a broader examination of how a poem, and a couple of select pieces in particular, can and should be understood. This second thread is conducted as an extended first person plural conversation with the reader. His questions and concerns become our questions and concerns, we are invited to seek answers together.
He wants to know how the poem works on the unconscious, what gives it meaning, and what allows it to work across time and place. At the core of his examination is a conviction that the experience of a poem is necessarily subjective; that:
… a poem does not become a poem because it fulfils certain formal rules, but because a reader constitutes it. Until then it merely appears to belong to the genre of poetry, a dead form, interesting only once the interest in the poem as an artwork awakens.
The reader may take decades or even a century to appear, but if he does not, the poem does not come into being as poetry: there is no objective poetic form that legitimizes something a priori as a poem in the sense of an artwork.
This is then, a highly idiosyncratic engagement with the Trakl poem, but one that assures the reader that his own personal engagement with a poem, any poem, has its own validity. One should not be afraid of understanding wrong, or relating to something others eschew as unworthy. For, as he quotes Rilke in the opening sentence of the book: “poems are not feelings…they are experiences.”
For Fühmann, “Downfall” is the first Trakl poem that strikes him, across two decades from the time of composition, to capture the very moment in which he came to it. The blind clock-hands toward midnight climbing recur and echo throughout the text, joined in time, by other lines from other poems that become refrains, driving and troubling the attempt to resolve the dissonance that grows the further he explores Trakl’s poetry and life.
In his reading, an indication that the Trakl poem might reflect Decadence triggers his initial crisis of faith, if you will. Anxiously, Fühmann opens his text and lands, randomly on a poem filled with shocking imagery—“Night Romance.” He finds a “dreaming boy” with a “face decaying in the moon,” a murderer, a dead man, and a “nun with lacerated flesh” praying “naked before Christ’s travails.” All the features of decadence assembled and yet, somehow, the verses hold an undeniable appeal. Thinking of other poems, Fühmann’s anxiety increases:
What was this morass on which I’d lost my way?
And so it goes. The discussion turns to meaning. How literally can images be understood? Much of the focus turns on the poem “Decay,” but Fühmann insists that Trakl’s entire oeuvre can be seen as one great poem, so the discussion has broad application. Images of decay in all its aspects frequent his poetry, as do “autumn, “evening,” and “garden.” What weight can be applied to the startling images that appear, and to what extent is an exact explanation—a resolution of poetic riddles—possible or even desirable? If a mystery can be answered, is it answerable universally or for the reader alone? And, what role does the poet have in relation to the misery he or she records?
Of course, the questions, Fühmann raises are directly related to the threat Trakl poses to his schooling in the Socialist poetic form encouraged within the GDR. There is no place for mystery—a poem should be understood “at first go.” To rid himself of this contrary influence, Fühmann tries to destroy his Trakl books, but find himself unable to do so. He looks for comfort elsewhere, translating Vitězslav Nezval into German, for example, and finds himself sliding headlong in Surrealism! He seeks refuge in alcohol. For a long while, he struggles to mediate the conflict between the literature (and the grounding ideology) to which he is committed and this Austrian poet about whom, apart from his father’s cryptic recollections, he knows little. Having long professed to having little interest in the writer’s life, he suddenly desires to know all he can.
Shocked by his first encounter with Trakl’s awkward visage inside the covers of the slender biography he finds, Fühmann makes his way through the book in a single, fevered night. He is drawn into the account of “an unliveable life: an existence that fell to poetry.—An existence that fell to drugs and incest; a fall into decay, a plunge into suicide; a life at the zenith of European poetry.” What follows then, is a biography within this memoir, which includes the complete text of the sole eyewitness account of Trakl’s final days in a Krakow hospital.
Continuing to alternate between the analysis of what poetry can tell us about its author and, more critically, what it reveals about ourselves, Fühmann’s personal journey of self-discovery moves forward with an intensity that is powerful, irresistible and fundamentally human. The experience of the Trakl poem changes him and allows him to heal in a way doctrine never could. The reader can feel his pain and his passion, appreciate his conflicts and share his exhilaration when everything finally falls into place. “I believe in poetry,” he says, “because it works like fate—provided you stand within its magic circle.”
Well said, indeed.
At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann, is translated with great dedication and affection by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.