Listen carefully, what do you see?
Clouds expose their unyielding breasts,
And bedecked by leaves and berries
You see grinning in the dark pines
A skeleton play violin.
When Book One of Our Trakl emerged two years ago, attentive readers and lovers of beautiful books sensed the beginning of a very special project dedicated to the work of the Austrian poet who continues to intrigue and enthrall us more than one hundred years after his untimely death in 1914, at the age of twenty-seven. Translator James Reidel was introduced to Georg Trakl in the late 1970s, when he was himself beginning to write poetry. Early on he was made aware of the difficulty and importance of translating Trakl’s work. As the years went on, he would make his way back to Trakl through reading, and translating, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachman and Franz Werfel. In the meantime, new Trakl translations had emerged and so, with this series published by Seagull Books, he has added his own contribution—his own approach to this ever elusive and enigmatic writer.
The first two volumes of Our Trakl represent complete collections of poems, as selected and prepared by the poet: Poems (Gedichte, 1913) and Sebastian Dreaming (Sebastian im Traum, published posthumously in 1915). The third and final part, A Skeleton Plays Violin, gathers Trakl’s early and late published works, unpublished pieces, and significant variants and derivations, in yet another beautifully designed edition. Through the poems and prose collected here, presented chronologically and woven together with a sensitive biographical essay, we can trace his development as a poet, and see potential indications of where he might have gone had he survived the war and his own demons. With Poems and Sebastian Dreaming close at hand, reading can become a truly immersive experience.
Immediately one notices a strong youthful, romantic quality to Trakl’s earliest creative efforts which include prose, plays, and poetry. Religious and classical Greek themes recur, as do sombre images of suffering and neglect. Born in 1887, he began writing and publishing in his late teens when he was working as an apprentice pharmacist in Salzburg—a job that afforded him access to the drugs he had been sampling seriously from the age of fourteen and that would continue to play a significant role in his life. The intensity that is said to have marked his personal demeanour comes through in his early work, granting it an eerie maturity.
A move to Vienna to continue his pharmaceutical studies in 1908, led to periods of depression and anxiety. While his reputation as a poet grew, he was unsatisfied and critical of his work. His unhappiness in the capital, worsened in part by the complications of having his beloved sister present for a time, is reflected in his published poetry from this period. It is possible to feeling the aching in his words, as in the first two stanza of “Twilight”:
You are dishevelled, wracked by every pain
And shake from every jarring melody,
You a broken harp—a wretched heart,
From which blossom misery’s sick flowers.
Who bid your adversary, your killer,
The one who stole the last spark of your soul,
The way he degodded this barren world
Into a whore foul, sick, pale with decay!
In 1910, Trakl’s sister to whom he had always been close—perhaps too close—left Vienna to return to Salzburg. Two months later, in June, his father died, an event which had a major impact on the entire family, economically and functionally. However, his corpse and ghost would provide inspiration for his son’s poetry which, at this time, began to shake loose a nostalgia for the past, and the influence of the Symbolists and German Romantics, to find its own distinct voice. Sexual tension is increasingly sublimated and Trakl’s lines become “ever more discrete, simple and painterly.” His imagery also shifts:
Liminal beings begin to populate the poems—angels, demons, dead gods, nymphs, fawns and statues of dead nobles, hunted animals, skeletons, corpses and the ever-shape-shifting presence of the poet and the figure of the sister. And this figure may be more of a composite than we know, for Trakl adored his older sisters too.
A persistent presence in Trakl’s life and poetry is his younger sister Grete. The rumoured incestuous nature—or at least longings— that bound the two is a subject of measured discussion in the biographical segments, Reidel preferring, ultimately, to leave the poetry to speak for itself, as it will.
Toward the end of 1910, with a need to support himself, Trakl joined the army. He was assigned to the Garrison Hospital in Vienna where his commanding officer would later describe him as hardworking and friendly. Mid-1911 saw him return to Salzburg where he worked as a civilian pharmacist until the spring of 1912 when he was promoted to Garrison Hospital 10 in Innsbruck. Initially unimpressed with his new location in spite of its glorious forested and mountainous setting, he soon became involved with a new literary circle, and made connections that would prove critical to his career and lead to the publication of his first book. Thus he made peace with the surrounding landscape which also begins to make its way into his poetry. However, as his poetic soul flourishes, his work life suffers. Ultimately, unable to hold a job, he surrenders himself to writing, and the increasingly reckless life of a poet.
The extensive central sections of A Skeleton Plays Violin, which feature unpublished poems and versions of published pieces, offer a window into the refining of Trakl’s imagination and craft. We see him spinning, again and again, the phrases, imagery, and themes he wishes to perfect—the crimson mouth, the screaming faun, the turn of the season, the quality of light—and watch the tightening of his language as the final version is formed. Reidel’s selection covers a wide terrain, yet is careful to bring together those variants and completed works that highlight Trakl’s growth and maturity over time. It is impossible though, not to notice that his work only seems to grow darker.
For Trakl, periods of depression and panic attacks marked the second half of 1913. He continued to consume alcohol and drugs, cocaine and morphine, at a remarkable rate. He saw himself as a doomed soul, even as his star was steadily rising in German poetry. He held to his writing to see him through that winter. He continued to attract impressive admirers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, and plans were made for a second volume of poetry. However, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June of 1914, Trakl’s world was upended. With the advent of what would become the First World War, he was assigned as a medic to a frontline infantry unit heading east. The conditions soon took a toll on his mental and emotional health. He was hospitalized in Krakow following a suicide threat, and was found, in his room, on November 3, dead from an apparent cocaine overdose.
His later published poems show that a deep melancholy had long settled into his work. “Evening Reel,” for instance, published in October of 1913 opens with playful natural imagery, albeit a little grim:
Fields of asters brown and blue,
Children play there by the grave vaults,
In the open skies of evening,
Blown into the clear skies,
Seagulls hover silver-grey.
Horns call in the flood meadow.
To end, even gloomier, three stanzas later:
The candles’ glow weaves dreamlike,
Paints this youthful flesh decaying,
Cling-clang! Hear in the fog,
Ring in time with the violins,
And bones dance along naked,
Long does the moon peer inside.
Trakl’s final published poems are stormy and dramatic. The wistful beauty is gone; the imagery is now steeped with darkness—war is at hand. “The Despair” captures the scene:
Then the black horses leap
On a pasture in fog.
From the hill where the sun wheels dying
The laughing blood rushes
Speechless! O the grumbling despair
Of the army, a steel helmet
Dropped clattering from a crimson brow.
Until the end, Trakl held fast to poetry. It has been suggested that the news that the publication of Sebastian Dreaming would have to be put off until the war ended played a pivotal role in his final desperation. We will never know exactly what finally tipped the scales for a man whose scales tipped so heavily to dark side so often in his short life. Nonetheless, his last creative efforts form a rousing crescendo to the third and closing volume of this ambitious poetic project.
Wisely and appropriately, the final words are perhaps best left to Trakl himself, from “Revelation and Perdition,” the grim, haunting prose piece which closes out this powerful testament to a troubled poet, lost too soon:
When I walked into the garden in twilight, and the black figure of evil had yielded to me, the hyacinthine stillness of the night surrounded me; and I sailed in a crescent-shaped boat across the stagnant pond and a sweet peace touched me on the brow turned to stone; and when I died in witness, fear and that pain deepest inside me died; and the blue shadow of the boy rose lightning the darkness, a soft singing; on lunar wings, above the greening treetops, crystal cliffs, rose the white face of the sister.
A Skeleton Plays Violin: The Early, Unpublished and Last Works of Georg Trakl is translated by James Reidel and published by Seagull Books.