Silence, silence! A Skeleton Plays Violin: Book Three of Our Trakl — Georg Trakl

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 The third and final part, A Skeleton Plays Violin, gathers Trakl’s early and late published works, unpublished pieces, and significant variants and derivations, in yet another beautifully designed edition.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.
You soldiers!
From the hill where the sun wheels dying
The laughing blood rushes
Amid oaks
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.

For World Poetry Day, excerpts from a few books on my bedside table

In honour of World Poetry Day (which at the moment, in my time zone, is still happening), I thought I would take a moment to look at some of the poetry currently on my bedside table. I sometimes write about the poetry I read, but do not feel equipped to formally review it. That doesn’t keep me from enjoying it, of course.

I read a lot of poetry in translation. It can, perhaps, be a challenge to capture the spirit of a poem in another language, but that’s not a reason to deny its worth. Poetry opens up worlds of experience in a way prose typically cannot. And when competing (or rather, complementary) translations emerge, I like to think of that as an opportunity to re-experience a piece of literature reflected through a somewhat different prism.

I have a fondness for collections, complete or selected, that allow me to sample a poet’s work across their career, and delight in the magic of opening a book randomly, finding words that strike home. The following pieces are taken from the works I have been spending time with lately:

Water binds me to your name.
Nothings is left of me except you.
Nothing is left of you except me—
a stranger caressing the thighs of a stranger.
O stranger, what will we do with what is left
of the stillness and the brief sleep between two myths?
Nothing carries us: neither path nor home.
Was this the same path from the beginning?
Or did our dreams find a Mongolian horse on a hill
and exchange us for him?
What shall we do?
What shall we do without exile?

—Mahmoud Darwish, from “Who Am I, without Exile?”, translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon, collected in Unfortunately, it was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press)

* * *

I’m a Child of this Century

I’m a child of this dreary century
a child who never grew up
Doubts that set my tongue on fire
burned my wings
I learned to walk
then I unlearned it
I grew weary of oases
and camels eager for ruins
My head turned to the East
I lie in the middle of the road
And wait for the caravan of the mad

—Abdellatif Laâbi, from Beyond the Barbed Wire: Selected Poems, translated from French by André Naffi-Sahely (Caranet Press)

* * *

Every day wakes up to some abuse
in my monologue is
embedded the legend of my sorrow,
with thousand year-old grief
I prevailed over my dirty life,
but not over the rationality of the winter cold . . .

In taprooms you rip off
the tattered shreds of your tragedy,
no forest, no merit, no archangel . . .

Above your poetry a swarm of birds mows
mows and mows a life imploring . . .
nothing for anyone
in the proximity of this dream,
nothing for worldly lovers . . .

Fruit of rottenness,
a wicked sun . . .
Temple ruins, broken pieces gathering
on the rediscovered shore . . .
in gloomy courtyards books opening . . .
Verses on abandoned walls . . .

. . . not the perfect one,
not the dead man, who drove you into the cities . . .
Trust in your song.
You plough the earth with your fragments,
cold begot you . . .
You, left behind by your creators . . .

—Thomas Bernhard, from Collected Poems, translated from German by James Reidel (forthcoming from Seagull Books)

Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard – My Numéro Cinq review

I have written about Thomas Bernhard’s novels before, but faced with prospect of writing a longer critical review of a book containing four short stories I was faced with a dilemma: What does one say about Bernhard?

The question really is: How much familiarity with Bernhard should one assume? He is, most definitely, a singular writer. Those of us who count ourselves among the converted tend to have bulging bookshelves filled with a healthy supply of Bernhard’s novels, memoirs and poetry. Others are uncertain or fail to be immediately captivated. A bit of Bernhard primer is thus in order for those potential new readers, especially in this instance, because Goethe Dies, the collection at hand, offers a perfect opportunity to experience the magic of the master in miniature. A treat I argue for readers no matter their degree of prior acquaintance.

So in the following review published at Numéro Cinq earlier this week I tried to balance my general discussion of Bernhard’s prose style to provide a context for the appreciation of my analysis of the stories that would not be too redundant for the experienced or too vague for the novice.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. And while you’re there have a look around. There is another great issue shaping up at NC.

A Master Set Loose in a Small Space: Review of Thomas Bernhard’s Goethe Dies — Joseph Schreiber

Goethe Dies

Once acquainted with the work of the late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, it is difficult to remain indifferent. One is either put off by his endlessly convoluted sentences, his bitter, misanthropic vision, and his fondness for digressive, contradictory and self-obsessed narratives; or one is swept up in the singular energetic flow of his darkly comic genius and never looks back. For those who find themselves in the latter camp, the announcement of a newly translated collection of four short stories originally published in periodicals in the early 1980’s is good news indeed.

Bernhard in short form may lack the unleashed full force intensity afforded when a single paragraph is allowed to unspool over one or two hundred pages or more; but these minor works, if you like, offer a valuable and entertaining opportunity to observe a master at play in a small, contained space. As with the early stories of Prose and the micro-fiction of The Voice Imitator, the short pieces collected in Goethe Dies, recently released by Seagull Books, highlight many of the essential elements that lend Bernhard’s work such a distinctive, infectious voice. Consequently, they may be best appreciated against a certain familiarity with the author and the idiosyncratic features that characterize his novels.

Continue reading here:

Peace for the soul: Sebastian Dreaming by Georg Trakl

Mother bore the babe in the white moon,
In the shadow of the walnuts, ancient elderberry,
Drunk on poppy juice, the lament of the thrush;
And silently
A bearded face bows with compassion over her

Quietly in the dark of the window; and the old chattel
Of ancestors
Lay broken up; love and autumn reverie.

Layout 1So begins “Sebastian Dreaming”, the centre piece of the second and final collection of poems prepared for publication by Georg Trakl during his lifetime. His first collection, Poems (Gedichte) had been published to warm reception in 1913, but, one year later as he was awaiting the release of this volume, he received word that the war would indefinitely delay all further publications. It is thought that this news, in conjunction with the mental and emotional stress he suffered working in the dire conditions of a wartime military hospital, contributed to his early demise. On November 3, 1914, he was found dead of a cocaine overdose. He was twenty-seven years old.

Sebastian Dreaming (Sebastian im Traum), represents the second book of Our Trakl, a three part series of new translations of Trakl’s complete works by American poet and translator James Reidel. Recently released by Seagull Books, this volume joins Poems, which was published in 2015. True to form it is finely crafted and beautifully presented. Although the poems here have appeared in other compilations, and editions of selected works, Reidel contends that this book deserves to be read, as Trakl intended, as a single volume. As with Poems, the reader is invited to spend time with the work as a whole, to engage with Trakl’s fractured, dream-like vision.

In an earlier review of the first volume of this series, I traced an overview of Trakl’s life and included links to Reidel’s essay about this project in the journal Mudlark. The elements of Trakl’s poetry, and the challenges facing the translator, are perhaps even more strikingly evident in this book. The motifs that dominate his first collection – rural landscape, nature, colour, signs of life, images of death and the abiding presence of his beloved sister Grete – are all here, but there is a more restrained and disjointed feel to many of the pieces. This reflects, according to Reidel, Trakl’s continuous efforts to try to pluck poems out of his experience, efforts that fall apart and lead him to return to the same images and motifs repeatedly:

“Indeed, translating him is like finding ones footing on the blue glass mountain of fairy tales—with Grete the princess within. The great irony, for me, is that the constant improvements, revisions, and corrections are in keeping with Trakl’s method, with all his obsessive autumns, black birds, neologisms—and in that same spirit—his Schwesterei, his sistering his poems, his madness, decay, and constant sense of downfall and sunset and the like. There is in Trakl a constant reworking, a constant revisit to the same forest, to see the same blue deer, and so on, to the same working poems to see them in the right light, or, more often, the right gloom.”

As a reader coming to this work, I am neither inclined nor qualified to enter into a critical assessment of Sebastian Dreaming or the translation at hand. Other translations of Trakl’s poetry are available and I do not believe that any one translation is superior to another, especially with poetry, although readers, with or without an ability to approach the work in the original, are bound to have preferences. The first version of a piece encountered? The one that sounds most pleasing in English? The translation that is most exacting in content and form to the German?

As noted in my earlier review of Poems, Reidel indicated in his introduction to that volume that his intention is to try to capture Trakl in a sense that would be as close as possible to the experience of the original reading, keeping in mind the time and the influences that would have shaped his work. As he explains, “I want to actually channel Trakl, his craft (with its implicit painterliness) and work ethic, to have him, so to speak, absorbed in the right dosages he – as a poet, pharmacist and addict – intended.” The care and sensitivity Reidel has brought to his work comes through, touching the reader across the century that has passed since the poet’s death.

Sebastian Dreaming is divided into five sections. The final part, consisting of one longer, magnificent prose poem, “Dream and Benightment” (previously translated as “Dream and Derangement”) stands as my personal favourite, given my current fondness and attraction to the form. It is an intense and powerful piece:

Hate scorched his heart, lust. Then he stepped into the green of the summer garden in the guise of a silent child, in whom he recognized his benighted face shining. Woe the evening at the window, when a grey skeleton emerged from crimson flowers, death. O, you towers and bells; and the shadows of the night fell upon him as a stone.

The poems in this book are charged, if possible, with a more sombre atmosphere than his earlier collection. The sadness comes through clearly and lingers. The recurring themes are visited from varying angles and directions. One can sense the poet trying to focus his vision while over it all hangs the eerie premonition of death that will soon be freed from the pages and realized by the increasingly discouraged and depressed writer.

I will leave you with a complete taste from this collection, in the form of this striking, spare poem:

Peace and Silence

Shepherds buried the sun in the leafless forest.
A fisherman pulled
The moon from the freezing pond in a net of hair.

In the blue crystal
Lives the pale man whose cheek rests against his stars;
Or he nods his head in crimson sleep.

Yet the black flight of the birds always stirs
The beholder, the saint of blue flowers,
The stillness near recalls forgotten things, extinguished angels.

Once more the brow nights over the lunar stone;
A shining boy
The sister appears in autumn and black corruption.

Georg Trakl’s Sebastian Dreaming: Book Two of Our Trakl, translated by James Reidel, is now available from Seagull Books.

The dying gold of ruined stars – Poems: Book One of Our Trakl by Georg Trakl

“Sun, autumnal, thin and shy,
And the fruit falls from the trees.
Stillness dwells within its blue rooms
During a long afternoon.”

– from “Whispered during the Afternoon”, Georg Trakl, translation by James Reidel

Many years ago when I was in school, poetry, in so far as we were introduced to it, was almost exclusively the works of English language poets. In high school I fell under the spell of the English Romantic writers and that was the beginning. Over the years though, I would be inclined to think that most of the poets I have become obsessed with wrote in English, that is, until I began to read more translated fiction. With that my attention shifted, or to be more precise, my horizons became broader.

TraklThis year, a German book enthusiast I have come to know through the “internet of book discussions”, the corner of the web I inhabit, introduced me to Austrian poet Georg Trakl. Somehow he had escaped my attention before. Of course, when you come to read poetry in translation, the question of the translation itself becomes critical. Typically, when more than one translation of a poet’s work exists I try to access and compare a few. But when Seagull Books released the first installment of a three part series of Trakl’s poetry, I did not hesitate to order a copy, sight unseen.

Poems: Book One of Our Trakl is a new translation, by American poet and translator James Reidel, of the poet’s first collection, simply titled Poems (Gedichte), which was originally published in 1913. In his note at the opening of this volume, Reidel recounts that he has endeavoured to preserve the same concentrated mania that marks the works of the 19th century poets Trakl would have read: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Hölderlin and Poe. He says:

“I want to actually channel Trakl, his craft (with its implicit painterliness) and work ethic, to have him, so to speak, absorbed in the right dosages he – as a poet, pharmacist and addict – intended.”

Reidel does go on to add that to emulate Trakl’s delivery in English, the rhyme scheme of the original poems is often necessarily sacrificed, but the contortions required to retain  rhyme can trivialize a poet’s spirit and tone.

In an essay in the online poetry journal Mudlark, Reidel expands on his Trakl translation project. He provides an overview of Trakl’s short and tragic life, as well a discussion of his approach to the translation, and a selection of his translations presented with the original German. A poet himself, Reidel brings a sensitivity and insight to his reading and approach that I, as reader, value:

“I have found that when you read Trakl in the original German, you get a snapshot of what is there. When you go back, you get another view. It may be sharper or less so, and with the feeling that it is intentionally less so. This can be frustrating for those who speak and think in English, that lawyer of languages. There is no fixed point to reading him or rendering him. This makes any book of translations simply a collection of snapshots of a particular reading at any point in time. Another way of rendering/reading a Trakl poem is through the barrel of a kaleidoscope, where one can only fix on a view when one stops or when the glass bits sometimes jam. I do this.”

Born in 1887, into a prosperous Salzburg family, Trakl was a precocious child, creative and intelligent – by his early teens he was experimenting with lyric verse that showed great promise. He could, however, be withdrawn and prone to depression. He was exceptionally close to his sister Margarete (Grete), a musical prodigy with whom he is thought to have engaged in an incestuous relationship. He began publishing poems in 1908, in Vienna where he had gone to study pharmacology, a tempting profession for one who already had a tendency towards addiction. As a budding poet, he enjoyed early success and mentorship during the following years, ultimately attracting the discreet patronage of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the outbreak of war forced him into military service. Relying on his training as a pharmacist he hoped to avoid direct combat, but the trauma of trying to attend to desperately wounded troops without adequate supplies would drive him to attempt suicide. He was sent to a military hospital in Kraków for observation, but suffered a relapse and was found dead of a cocaine overdose on November 3, 1914. He was 27 years old.

                Patterns of Decay  (c) JM Schreiber, 2011
Patterns of Decay , Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011

This first volume of Trackl’s poetry, beautifully bound and presented by Seagull books, readily lends itself to an immersive reading from beginning to end. The autumnal themes that feature so strongly make it an even more evocative read for someone like myself at this time – that is, in November in the northern hemisphere – but autumn is rendered almost metaphorical in his verses. Nature figures in his work, rendered through rural and religious imagery; however nature, for Trakl, is one which couches death and decay as an intrinsic element of its stark beauty and haunting appeal:

In the evening, when the bells toll of peace,
I follow the birds in their glorious flights,
Long multitudes, like pious trains of pilgrims,
Disappearing into autumn’s clear breadths.

Wandering through the twilight-filled garden
I dream following their brighter destinies
And feel the sundials barely move any more.
So I follow their journeys above the clouds.

There a blast of decay makes me start to tremble.
The blackbird laments in the leafless branches.
The red vine totters on rusting trellises.

While like a dance of death of pale children
Around the dark weathered rim of the fountain
The blue asters toss shivering in the wind.

– “Decay”

These are quiet, brooding poems that show a clear obsession with decline. They speak to a young poet struggling to capture the gloom in his own soul, consequently the poems have a very immediate and personal feel. Are they depressing? As someone who has had his own lifelong challenges with mood dysregulation, I find his words oddly comforting. I am not equipped to offer a critique of poetry, I am afraid I can, in this case, only speak to what I feel. And I don’t believe I am alone in registering a profound personal response to Trackl’s poetry. In his short life he produced a small, but vital, body of work that would have an important influence on other German language poets including Paul Celan, Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke; and draw the ongoing interest of poets, translators and readers outside of German speaking countries that continues to this day, just over one hundred years after his death.

For my part, I can only eagerly look forward to the upcoming additions to Our Trakl.