“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.
This 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.
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.
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.