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.

Listening to the voices of Afghan women: I am the Beggar of the World

“In my dream, I am the president,
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

With a long history, passed down through generations, landays are traditional two line poems recited or sung by the mostly illiterate Pashtun people who live along the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are composed of twenty-two syllables – nine in the first line and thirteen in the second. For the women in this area who face social and cultural restraints that define and restrict their lives, these anonymous couplets have become an important medium for self expression. Sometimes they gather to share or perform the landays they have learned, updated or re-invented; but radio and the ubiquitous social media and cell phones have also been worked into a new modern network for sharing.

beggarI Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, a collaboration between translator and poet Eliza Griswold and photographer Seamus Murphy, is a sensitive and moving collection of landays, brief essays, and photographs. Upon hearing of the death of a teenaged poet who had been forbidden by her family to write poems and burned herself in protest, Griswold was inspired to journey to Afghanistan to explore the role of landays in the lives of Pashtun women. She returned to collect some of these poems, assisted by native speakers and a Pashta translator, Asma Safi, who sadly died of a heart condition before the project was complete. Arranging meetings as an American was not always easy – being under occupation is a difficult, deadly environment – but along the way she collected the words and stories of some very strong, fascinating women.

Divided into three sections, the first is dedicated to Love. Many of the couplets are brazenly racy, teasing and modern. Yet because landays are by their nature anonymous, no woman can be held responsible for sharing them or for the contemporary imagery has been worked into the more traditional versions:

“Embrace me in your suicide vest
but don’t say I won’t give you a kiss.”

“Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.”

“”How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged. Text me.”

The second section is dedictated to the themes of Grief and Separation. Suffering and servitude are enduring features of the lives of Pashtun women. Marriage implies both. Curiously love also features throughout the poems in this section because romantic love is forbidden. If a young woman is discovered to be in love with a man she can be killed or driven to take her own life to preserve her family’s honour.

“Our secret love has been discovered.
You run one way and I’ll flee the other.”

Once married, having one’s husband take another wife is emotionally painful, but being passed over altogether or married off to an old man can be worse.

“Listen, friends, and share my despair
My cruel father is selling me to an old goat.”

The final section explores War and Homeland. Complex, mixed emotions, anger and sorrow rise up here in poems that are moving and, again, shockingly modern. A long legacy of occupation under British, Russian, and American forces has placed the women of Afghanistan in a difficult position, torn between the brutality of American protection and the combined threat and promise of the Taliban. The landays and the images in this section are especially powerful and represent sentiments that women would not be able to express so readily in any other forum:

“Be black with gunpowder or bloodred
but don’t come home whole and disgrace my bed.”

“Beneath her scarf, her honor was pure.
Now she flees Kabul bareheaded and poor.”

“May God destroy your tank and your drone,
you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.”

This slim volume is a testament to the resilience of the Pashtun women in the face of the violence, threats and restraints they live with every day. These traditional two-line poems provide a framework for illiterate women to express themselves and share their sorrows, joys and wisdom with their sisters. In Afghanistan they still face risks in committing their own poetry to paper when they are able, so this oral tradition remains important, even if modern devices like cell phones have expanded their network. This beautiful book which pairs the simple landays with muted black and white photographs documenting the people of Afghanistan, the sparse landscape and the violence of war, provides a rare opportunity to hear the intimate voices of women that might otherwise be silenced.

Releasing words from the page

In the opening pages of Teju Cole’s Open City, his narrator, the young medical resident Julius, introduces the reader to his own reading habits, setting perhaps the tone and frame of mind for the recollections and encounters that will unfold over the following pages. He explains his fondness for internet classical music stations, commercial free broadcasts from countries where the foreign languages of the announcers blend into, rather than distract from the musical tapestry. Settled with a book on the sofa he confesses that:

“Sometimes, I even spoke the words in the book out loud to myself, and doing so I noticed the odd way my voice mingled with the murmur of the French, German, or Dutch radio announcers, or with the thin texture of the violin strings of the orchestras, all of this intensified by the fact that whatever I was reading had likely been translated out of one of the European languages.”

Assuming I am not in a public space where others would likely look on in askance I am likewise inclined to read aloud to myself at times. Meditative, less conventional, writing forms itself especially to this practice, not only obvious writers like Cole or WG Sebald, but wonderfully spare and introspective works like Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room or the experimental The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves. And Thomas Bernhard, even though I cannot read him in the original German, flows with energy and intensity against JS Bach. I often stop and read a few pages out loud when I feel that I may be losing my moorings in the book long paragraph structure of his novels. Similarly José Saramago and Javier Marías are authors that more people might be able to connect with by inhabiting the language through reading portions out loud.

I have also had the experience of coming to appreciate a piece of literature in an entirely new way through hearing an author’s reading. Last year I read All My Puny Sorrows by Canadian author Miriam Toews, the story of two sisters, one deeply depressed and suicidal, and the other faced with the dilemma of if and how to assist her beloved sister in achieving her goal. Being much closer to my own recent breakdown and knowing that Toews had drawn on the tragic history of suicidal depression in her own family, I read it seeking insight into the suicidal sister’s perspective. I was disappointed. But hearing Miriam read from her work and having the opportunity to meet her last fall, I suddenly realized that I was expecting something the story could not deliver and had, consequently, missed the self-deprecating black humour in this challenging, compassionate tale of unconditional sibling love.

Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening"
Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

So if the experience of prose can, at times, be enriched by being read out loud, poetry would seem to be an obvious aural experience. Poetry readings have a long standing literary history, joined now with the likes of slam poetry and rap. What a surprise then to have someone on another readerly space I frequent declare that he is against reading poetry aloud. Assuming he was not typing with tongue in cheek, for who can tell, my immediate response was one of disbelief. Excuse me? I cannot imagine not reading poetry out loud. I even make an effort to commit the poems that I find especially powerful to memory, to recite them, to myself and, on occasion, to others. Hearing authors read their own work has a special value and impact. Listening to a poem shared aloud by a passionate reader can allow the words to be transformed and re-interpreted in a new and personal context.

Have you ever encountered a piece of prose or a poetry so breath taking that you had to stop and re-read it, mark or circle it in the text if you are so inclined, copy it into a journal or print it out to keep close at hand? Do you feel compelled to repeat the words out loud to yourself, inspired to share them with others? For me that is the beauty of being in love with language. Sometimes words just have to spill out beyond the confines of the printed page and be granted a full existence in the world.

A love-hate relationship with a city

The City
         C. P. Cavafy (1910)

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
 
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.
                   (Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

My city was new when Alexandria which inspired these words was old but the sentiment  rings across the century, speaking to me.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

I live in a glass and rock cast stucco bungalow, the kind of finish that will slice your palm if you lose your balance and put a hand out to stop your fall. It sits on a 6500 square foot lot overgrown with 60 foot spruce and spiky hawthorns. The garage stands, roof sagging, without a foundation and no more than a scratch coat for stucco that was never applied, at best a large shed. It is only a matter of time before the sewer line to the street which is already oval shaped, collapses in on itself. After a few years of eager redecorating, projects remain incomplete, even though all the paint and supplies were purchased long ago.

This year my house will be 62 years old, I have lived here for 20 of those years. Due to the location, the lot size and the high property values in this city, it is assessed at a value that shocks me. I have ample equity in this house I own, but no secure income. And you can’t eat equity.

More and more the house is closing in on me. It is filled with the artifacts of 20 years of raising children. And a 25 year-old alcoholic son who seems to have taken root in the basement. After being a single parent for so long, I am done. My career prospects hanging on a thread frayed by mental illness; I feel haunted by the house, the responsibilities that weigh on me, and the fatigue of facing it alone.

And this city is no more a home than it has ever been. Without my job it holds nothing and never has. I love the pathways and wild areas, I love the wide open skies and the mountains on the horizon, the rolling foothills stretching to the west. But the city has no soul, or at least not for me. My relationship with this city, one to which I chose to return at one time, is fraught with complicated anxieties.

It may be my fault. Perhaps I am the one who failed to open up and build connections. But that has never been easy and the more I go out to meet people or attend events, the deeper the loneliness settles in on me the next day. Like it or not, there is a fundamental disconnect between me and this city of glass towers and oil executives.

As I walk these streets I am haunted by the sense that I have wasted so many years here, not certain what I have to show for it, feeling all is lost, fearing that I am, as the intended recipient of Cavafy’s advice, destined grow old in the same neighbourhood, turn grey(er) in the same house.

When even a sibling’s love is not enough – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

The title and binding imagery that fuses the latest novel from Canadian author Miriam Toews comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to his friend, the poet Charles Lamb. Both men had their own struggles with mental illness but Lamb’s beloved sister Mary had an especially prolonged and devastating battle. Coleridge commiserates with his friend’s tireless care for his sister, reflecting that he, Coleridge had had a dear sister upon whom he “pour’d forth all his puny sorrows”. Elfreida (Elf) the suicidally depressed character at the centre of this novel drew her signature theme from this line , but it is her sister Yolandi (Yoli) who brings her to life and devotes herself to trying to keep her alive as she narrates this funny, heartbreaking tale. As such, All My Puny Sorrows is well named.

all my puny sorrowsColeridge was the first poet who caught my adolescent attention, much to the shock of my high school English teacher. However I confess it was the rugged adventure of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” that sparked my enthusiasm. The Romantic poets, so many of whom seem to have suffered from mental illnesses seemed kindred spirits ( although this would have been long before my own diagnosis). They loved passionately, often tragically, and became addicted to opiates. For the teenager falling well short of cool, the appeal is not hard to imagine.

SamuelTaylorColeridgeFor Elf and her sister growing up in the confines of a small Mennonite town, the arts were an acceptable outlet. Elfreida channels her energy into the piano eventually taking to concert stages around the world and winning the love of a man so patient he’s surely destined for sainthood. Yolandi opts for a less glamorous route, including a couple of failed marriages, children, meaningless affairs and a career pumping out rodeo themed YA novels.

I was attracted to this book when I heard Toews on the radio explaining that this novel began from a deeply personal space. Her father, a respected teacher despite a lifelong battle with depression, took his own life in 1998. Almost 12 years to the day later, her only sister followed suit in the same very way and location. Having already memorialized her father in non-fiction, Toews felt that fiction would free her up to address this very real and difficult subject more openly. But that is also where it falls apart for this reader.

She is able to make some very astute observations about the failings of the mental health system and sadly demonstrates that, in the end, there is no way that anyone or any system can ever do more than delay the efforts of someone truly committed to stepping off this mortal coil. However I never felt that Elf was more than a tragic figure in a hospital bed. Yoli’s childhood memories and the accounts of her sister’s glorious career rang hollow. The real strength of this book for me lies in the the indomitable spirit of the characters who survive against all the odds and resist the despair that mounts around them.

And maybe that is the point. It is not for us – friends, family, observers or readers to judge. In a few weeks I will be able to see Miriam Toews take part in a panel exploring the ability – or limitations – in being able to make sense of the darkness in life through literature. I will be interested to hear what she has to say.

Some ghosts have rougher journeys than others

- Copyright JM Schreiber 2012
– Copyright JM Schreiber 2012

O! WHY was I born with a different face?
Why was I not born like the rest of my race?
When I look, each one starts; when I speak, I offend;
Then I’m silent and passive, and lose every friend.

Then my verse I dishonour, my pictures despised,
My person degrade, and my temper chastise;
And the pen is my terror, the pencil my shame;
All my talents I bury, and dead is my fame.

I am either too low, or too highly priz’d;
When elate I’m envied; when meek I’m despis’d.
-William Blake, from a letter to his patron Thomas Butts, 1803

I first encountered these words in the months following my first manic breakdown in the late 1990s. With a diagnosis at hand I needed to understand its meaning so I read  the standard popular memoirs of the time. But I found myself drawn into the work of William Blake. Although many readers reject the notion that madness may have fueled his tireless creative energies, his hours conversing with angels and his periods of darkness – I found comfort in his artistic conviction even if he was destined to die without ever receiving the recognition of understanding he deserved.

For every person who successfully rises above the challenges of mental illness and negotiates the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, there are those who spend their lives living rough. And others who lose the battle altogether. But Blake drew inspiration from his angels and demons with his loving wife by his side until the end.

Today is my birthday, and having found myself back trying to figure out what I am supposed to learn from this second mania and unexpected fall from grace, Blake’s lament has a special resonance once again.

But this time I am reflecting on a very different face than that which I confronted 17 years ago. From the time I was very young I could not make sense of the face with which I was born. The eyes that looked out from within that visage threatened to give me away. The body I struggled to feel at home in never felt like mine. The girls I befriended seemed like aliens and, with no other explanation for my discomfort I assumed that I had never learned the tricks, never tried hard enough.

The idea that gender or identity could be misaligned never occurred to me when I was growing up. At least not in the context I needed to hear. And when It did start to seep into my awareness I was already well into marriage and motherhood. It was a complicated comfort to realize that there was an explanation for my feelings. It was even more terrifying to know what to do with this information.

I know well that my mood disorder runs back through my family, that it has a genetic basis somewhere. I have no idea what course it might have followed without this added sense of being out of step with rest of humanity. But my hospital psychiatrists were certain that my apparent gender dysphoria was simply a psychotic symptom that would resolve itself with the right dose of lithium.

They were wrong of course. Now, 17 years later, the average looking middle aged man who confronts me from the mirror is not special, but he is one I feel at home with. For many years I thought that was enough, as if I had found the magic bullet, the key to moving forward on all fronts. My family have been supportive, I recreated my identity and built a new career.

But I still found that the manic-depressive monster has followed me all along. Making sense of recovery this time around, I find myself doubly invisible. Behind a face that accurately reflects my sense of self identity, is a whole life I cannot fully share. Talking about being bipolar has been the easy part.

But moving forward from this birthday, I want to find a way to be whole.

Shame, guilt and absolution

Shame: A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright  JM Schreiber 2014

A severe manic episode leaves a residue of shame that no magic formula can resolve or wash away. Your behaviour, actions, words and deeds – no matter how out of character – are remembered by others while you, yourself, have only the foggiest sense of a hellish few days or weeks.

As the weeks pass I find myself unable to shake thoughts of my workplace, the environment in which my manic drama played out. I don’t think about returning to work and I know that at this point I could not even mentally or emotionally entertain that notion even if they would accept me. I realized today that it is the unbearable shame I feel for actions and words I could not control and can never properly apologize for that is eating me up inside.

A post on a blog I follow inadvertently put me in mind of a poem I discovered in the wreckage of my first manic psychosis many years ago. The poem, “Deceptions”, by Philip Larkin was inspired by an account from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of a young girl who was drugged and raped by her master.

The poem is exacting in its depiction of her grief and the poet admits, unapologetically, that there is no consolation he can give her; recognizing that both victim and perpetrator were deceived in the violent act. I think it is this very measured recognition that there is nothing that he can offer to absolve grief and shame in the sufferer whether the event is recent or buried by the sands of time that gives the poem its power. The following lines struck me when I first encountered them and this time around, perhaps because my manic episode was a much more public event, they clearly articulate the feelings with which I am currently trying to come to terms.

… light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding.  All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

This too shall pass, I know, and I will ease the drawer closed and the emotional scars will fade with time.

Absolution is not the issue. Mental illness is not a sin.