Out on the streets of Kolkata: A little exploration

While my first twenty-four hours or so in the City of Joy were intense—a mixture of everything and nothing I’d imagined—I now, just over halfway through my stay, greet each day with a blend of ease and exhilaration. How quickly one slips into the rhythms, growing accustomed to the roar of traffic and bleating horns. With each venture out, I have found myself fitting into the flow, making my way through the congestion to explore the city. Every time I emerge from my residence out onto Sarat Bose Road, I am filled with a sense of enthusiasm about where my wandering will take me. I have kicked around by myself in strange towns and cities, from Alice Springs to Cape Town, but none as intensely engaging as Kolkata.

Of course, this is a city that refuses to stand by idly. It commands a degree of attention whenever you step out on to the streets, and I do mean on to the streets; one navigates the roadways on and off the sidewalks as need be, and crosses any significant intersection with caution. In some places, smartly dressed traffic controllers aid the safe passage across busy thoroughfares, but only to some effect. I’ve learned to line myself up with other pedestrians and rely on their instincts. But even those only go so far. I’ve seen one man so busy on his cellphone that a van backed up into him. Only slightly startled, he quickly regained his balance and continued both his journey up the side of the road and his conversation without skipping a beat.

Some seem to engage with the roadways with uncanny confidence. Naveen Kishore, the esteemed publisher of Seagull Books, for example, appears to command the unceasing stream of traffic on S.P Mukerghee like Moses parting the Red Sea. Making the same crossing on route between the Seagull School of Publishing and the offices with their newest editor, a recent arrival from Goa, is a more tenuous exercise. We get half way across and crouch in the middle until an opening appears. On my own, I’ve been known to go out of my way to effect an easier passage, perhaps with lights, which is, even then, not a guaranteed free pass.

On my first weekend in Kolkata I began to explore. On Saturday, after a day spent mostly indoors working, I took the advice of one of the three men who tend to affairs at the residence where I’m staying that I should go to Minto Park. A little oasis in the middle of a noisy city, with a hectic corridor and a high level overpass running along one end, this space, maintained by the adjacent Belle Vue Hospital, is dominated by a large rectangular pond, lined with palm trees, a pathway and shallow green space. Once inside, all thoughts and memory of the boisterous mayhem of the roadways is, I want to say, not simply forgotten, but almost erased. One remembers the solitude and serenity, not the noise. Returning again almost a week later I noticed that, although the city sounds are acute when you first enter the park, they are all quickly reduced to a distant background murmur once you begin to walk around the pond. Or so it seems. In memory, only stillness remains.

The following day’s random explorations led me to the Victoria Memorial Hall, the grand marble edifice and surrounding gardens constructed in the early 1900s to honour the memory of the Queen. On a Sunday, the building and grounds were overflowing with visitors—local families out for the day, others bussed in from afar—squeezing through the passageways of the hall and spilling out onto the grounds. The colourful splash of bright saris added to the spectacle played out amid such formal colonial sensibilities. Hardly a day for actually absorbing any of the contents of the museum itself, I found it the perfect space for people watching. The relaxed mood of the milling crowds caused me to reflect on how much more fractious such a mass of human beings might be at home. (Mind you, this observation preceded my rush our ride on the Metro.) I have since returned to the Victoria Memorial for a very different evening event on the premises, one with entirely different intention and tone.

But that’s for another post.

Monday was the day for a couple of classic Calcutta experiences. I met up with a fellow book blogger, Chelsea McGill who has lived in the city for five years now and is a passionate defender of its charms, at the famous Flury’s—the tea shop and bakery dating from the 1920s that endeavours to maintain all the elements of Imperial elegance. The location, Park Street, is for the reluctant tourist, the most comforting of spaces I’ve encountered so far, where colonial meets modern architecture and business establishments are opened by courteous doormen. But it does blunt a measure of the in-your-face experience that, for me, makes this city so unique. Until, that is, one slips into the South Park Street Cemetery.

No more than a mark on a map for me before I entered the lush, high-walled enclosure, the place caught me completely off guard. Beneath a tall canopy of greenery, rows of aged-darkened, weather-beaten graves, crypts, mausoleums and obelisks mark the final destination of the British officials, traders, and civil servants drawn to the city in the early years of the East India Company. The inscriptions speak to the men, women and children whose sojourns were cut short by illness and other inclemencies of the tropical environment, as well as those who survived to make the mark in the expanding empire. The grandiosity of the structures is almost overpowering. The weight of the souls resting so far from their home shores is tangible in the hot spring air. The history contained in these stones is palpable. And lingering behind it all, the ghosts of more recent years: the criminals who once used the cemetery as a hideout and the homeless who sought refuge from the elements in the columned structures before the area became a protected heritage site. On the day we were there, I’d say that romance was in the air, evidenced by the many couples making out behind the sepulchres.

Finally, after enjoying my first experience of tea served by a street vendor in a tiny clay cup, I made my way back to my residence. Feeling the heat and the grime settling into my pores, and facing an endless steam of rush hour traffic—cars, buses, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, the occasional rickshaw driver, and even a horse—I discovered that the streets are elastic. They shrink and stretch with one’s energy and fatigue accordingly.The street I’ve walked the most and know the best, serviceable more than spectacular for the experience, can seem absolutely endless at the end of a good, but tiring day.

So, that was Monday. The flavour of my time in Kolkata  again shifted greatly over the next few days. I had the most remarkable and inspiring opportunity to meet and listen to one of the preeminent literary greats of our time, an experience made even more powerful by its placement here, and now, in the City of Joy.

But more about that later. My notebooks are filling up faster than my ability to transform my observations into posts (and fight with the vagaries of composing on an iPad). More soon.

First days in India: This is the real thing

In the lead up to my trip to India, I imagined that I would have the time to compose a reflective post about writing, and all the anxiety and excitement I feel about having almost two weeks away from home to read, explore a new city, take photographs and, of course, write. As fate would have it, I didn’t have any time for such careful reflection. Coming into the final stretch, in the days preceding my flight, I was beset with the sudden demise of two MacBooks, the second less than twenty-four hours after I brought it home, in the middle of all the work that had to be completed before I could leave.

Just as well, because I had no real idea how the arrival in such a strange, vibrant, and somewhat overwhelming environment would impact me.

I arrived in Kolkata on Wednesday evening after two eight or nine hour flights, separated by a nine hour layover in London during which I met with up Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless force behind Istros Books, and a further two hour flight from Delhi. I’d been travelling for nearly two full days. I emerged from the airport to noise and sweltering heat and a line up of waiting drivers, none of whom carried the sign I was looking for. An cab driver insisted, repeatedly, that he could take me to any hotel I wanted. I’m sure he saw me as his mark. I tried to make a phone call but could hear nothing, yet when I tried to go back into the building to find a quiet corner, the soldier with the AK-47 across his lap had other ideas.

Finally united with my driver who had been waiting at another gate, I made my way into the city. A ride on a river of noise—horns blaring, vehicles squeezing into any space available, lane or not, candy striped light standards wrapped in strings of lavender and royal blue trimmed lights, and clusters of weary men lining the route. Here and there one of the city’s ubiquitous dogs eased its diseased frame to the ground. Every time the traffic flow slowed to a stop, people appeared from behind posts or over low cement barricades to pick their way across the sea of cars, buses and motorcycles. Enterprising street merchants arose to snake between the lanes. To conserve gas the driver would cut the engine until everything began to inch forward again.

It occurred to me, as if I hadn’t quite registered the fact, that I am well and truly in India. This is not a picture postcard. This is real life.

And now, on my third full day in the city, I have barely read a word, no less finished any one of the books I so ambitiously packed, but every morning I have written for several hours. No, I’m not deeply engrossed in the project I planned to devote my energies to, but there is still time. More than a week yet. Rather I am simply absorbing and transcribing the sounds, smells, tastes and sights I’ve encountered so far. The incessant stream of traffic, punctuated by car horns, that roars up and down the busy street outside the heritage home where I am staying has become a comforting backdrop—an urbanized antidote to those recordings of babbling brooks.

No empty shelves at the Seagull office—if not books than beasts and birds..

On the first morning, in a somewhat quieter locale, I gathered my earliest impressions, mostly aural, of my initial encounter with Kolkata. Later that day I made my first trip to Seagull Books—my first opportunity to meet the staff and tour the nearby school and headquarters of their Peaceworks project. It was all a little overpowering to finally be present in a place I’d long seen captured in photographs. But the real shock if you like, the disconnect I failed to anticipate, was the street level reality of the area in which they are based. In my western naivety I had imagined something, well, less “heart of Calcutta.” But no, this is the real thing. The road on which they are located is a busy thoroughfare lined with sidewalk vendors, beggars, and homeless men, women and children. As I quickly discovered, one rarely actually walks on the sidewalks in this city—they are either crowded with people and structures, or in a continual state of disrepair. I have, in very short order, become accustomed to walking along the edge of the roads, having vehicles pass within an inch of my life, and being, to date, the only obvious foreigner—non ethnically South Asian person if you like—that I have seen.

Many of the people I interact with have no more English than I have Bengali. Uncertain tourists would likely feel ill at ease in these surroundings, but I am loving it! The house manager at this B&B fills me with multi-course Bengali meals at every opportunity. I used a fork for a day but now eat with my hands like everyone else and, knock on wood, I have had none of the usual traveller’s discontents I was fearing. And the bed, a firm 12cm mattress on a wooden platform suits me fine—I’m sleeping soundly. And now that I’ve finally worked out the vagaries of the limited water service, hey, it’s all good.

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One of the coulorful side streets.

The opportunity to spend time at Seagull is a particular honour. Yesterday I managed the five minute walk there and back on my own without getting lost, and had time to sit by myself in the office and gather my preliminary impressions of the place, the groundwork for what I hope will be several articles and interviews to come out of this experience. Next week there are some really exciting things going on…

But for now, I think I ought to walk off a little of the special Bengali breakfast that was prepared here this morning (there is some kind of photo shoot taking place in the house today). So, back out into the noise, colour and congestion that is Kolkata.

A poetic Pentecost: At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann

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.

The seduction of ideological extremes: The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann

For months The Jew Car, Franz Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, sat on my shelf unread. I had bought it in anticipation of the recent release, in translation, of his last major work, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem. However, for some reason, I could not bring myself to read it. I have never been especially attracted to World War II literature, and with the current resurgence of neo-Nazi sentiments and far-right movements in North America and Europe, I was uncertain if I wanted to venture into a series of stories in which an East German writer traces a path from his enthusiastic adoption of fascist rhetoric as a youth, on through his experiences as a German soldier during the war, to his eventual rejection of Nazi ideology and acceptance of socialism in a Soviet POW camp. I wondered if I had the heart for it, and yet the translator of both volumes, Isabel Fargo Cole, advised me that Fühmann’s personal reflections in At the Burning Abyss would have greater impact and resonance with the background afforded by The Jew Car.

Born in 1922, Fühmann grew up in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the son of an apothecary who encouraged the development of a strong German nationalism. From the age of ten to fourteen, he attended a Jesuit boarding school in Kalksburg but found the atmosphere stifling. In 1936, he transferred to a school in Reichenberg, where he lived on his own for the first time and became involved in the Sudeten Fascist movement. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he joined the SA. 1941, he was assigned to the signal corps serving in various locations in the Ukraine before being moved to Greece as Germany’s fortunes declined. He was captured by Soviet forces in 1945. During his years spent as a POW, he would embrace socialism and upon his release in 1949, he finally found himself on German soil for the first time, settling in the GDR where he would spend the rest of his life.

Originally published in 1962, the stories in The Jew Car, which is subtitled Fourteen Days from Two Decades, follow the trajectory of Fühmann’s life between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. Presented with dramatic colour, they offer an attempt to explore the progression of his ideological development during this period. Through an engaging, often ironic voice and well-framed narratives, we watch Fühmann’s fictional alter-ego confront the psychological seduction of the persistent propaganda machine and engage in the mental gymnastics required to continually readjust to accommodate or explain away any evidence that failed to fit with what he has been led to believe.

The title story opens the collection. Set in 1929, the seven year-old narrator is caught up in a wave of rumours sweeping through his grade school. The children listen with a mixture of rapture and fear, to breathless tales of a four Jews in a yellow car who are said to have been travelling through the surrounding countryside, snatching and murdering innocent young girls. When our hero happens to spy a brown car carrying three people one afternoon, it becomes, in his imagination, vividly transformed into the feared mysterious vehicle exactly as described. At school the next day, he is the centre of attention, holding his classmates in thrall until the one person he dearly wishes to impress the most, the girl “with the short, fair hair” neatly puts him in his place. Yet rather than causing him to question his hasty assumptions about the car he actually saw, his humiliation is turned into an increased, abstracted hatred of Jews.

And so the process begins.

Fühmann manages to capture the mixture of naïve enthusiasm, patriotic fervour, and boredom that he and his friends regularly encounter as the tides of history are building around them. He is young, the air is charged with excitement mingled with fear of the dreaded Commune and the anticipation of liberation. At times his young narrator is surprised to catch the worried looks on the faces of his parents and other adults. His faith in the Führer is unshakable and he believes that the German Reich will not abandon the Sudeten German population to murderous cutthroats. This conviction is well captured in the story “The Defense of the Reichenberg Gymnasium.” (September, 1938) Although no violence has yet occurred in his corner of the region at this point, when an alarm summons him and his comrades from the Gymnastic Society to defend the Reichenberg gymnasium from imminent attack, he is ready and eager:

I was excited: I’d never been in a battle like this; the occasional school scuffles didn’t count, the scouting games and the stupid provocations of the police in which I and all the others indulged; now it would turn serious, a real battle with real weapons, and I felt my heart beating, and wondered suddenly how it feels when a knife slips between the ribs. My steps faltered; I didn’t think about the knife, I saw it, and as I passed Ferdl, a sausage vendor who stood not far from the gymnasium, I even thought of stealing off down an alley, but then I scolded myself and walked quickly into the building.

But, as uneventful hours begin to stretch well past lunch time, boredom and hunger start to set in. Ultimately it is decided to send forth a series of provisioning parties to remedy the situation. Young Fühmann is assigned to the third group:

It was a puerile game we were playing, childish antics, and yet murderous, and the awful thing was that we felt neither the puerility no the murderousness. We were in action, under orders, advancing through enemy territory, and so, the five-man shopping commando in the middle and the three-man protective flanks to the left and right, we casually strolled up the street, turned off without incident, made our way back down the parallel street through the tide of workers, Germans and Czechs coming from the morning shift, cut through the arcade, side by side, and at discreet intervals each bought twenty pairs of sausages with rolls and beer.

Fühmann is a gifted storyteller whose poetic prose and ironic tone are pitch perfect, especially in the earlier stories. He creates a portrait of his younger self that is not sentimental or idealized. His moments of empathy for individuals otherwise thought to be inferior are quickly reframed with racist convictions. He does not speak too much about his involvement in direct anti-Semitic actions (though he will in later works). What comes through most strikingly in The Jew Car is the sense of rational isolation that surrounds the individual. Information is strictly mediated, so that otherwise intelligent individuals lose any frame of reference or develop extreme responses to the continual routine of work and deprivation. His steadfast devotion to the military structure will start to weaken as he discovers poetry, although his first published efforts during the war are very much on message. Fühmann will not become a dissident poet until much later, long after the war is over.

The tone of the later stories is soberer, more contained. The narrator describes his conversion to Socialism in terms that border on the religious. He talks about having “scales fall from his eyes” during his training, describes reading Marx, encountered before but now understood in a new light. But he never provides detailed justification—he believes with conviction and is not ready to be swayed. The final tale which describes his arrival in East Germany after his release from imprisonment to join his mother and sister who have been relocated there, is forced and marked by Soviet style melodrama.

In his afterword to the 1979 reissue of The Jew Car, which aimed to address some of the editorial changes made to the original publication, Fühmann noted a shift in tone that impacted the overall flow of the collection:

Probably even while writing I began to sense the inconsistency in this work, expression of a fractured mindset, a switch from self-irony to affirmative pathos that had to lead to a decline in literary quality such as that between the first and last story…

However, although they are autobiographical in nature, these stories are essentially fictionalized—this is not an essay or memoir. That lends the collection a particular power and energy. Yet, there is a clear sense that the ending is idealized and incomplete, as indeed it is. As Isabel Cole’s Afterword goes on to explain, Fühmann’s infatuation with the socialist vision of the GDR will fade as he chafes against the rigid restrictions imposed on individual and creative expression. He will, nonetheless, remain in East Germany for the rest of his life. In 1982, two years before his death, he will publish an in-depth exploration of his personal evolution through his discovery of and affection for the poetry of Georg Trakl. To that work, At the Burning Abyss, my attention can now turn…

The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books.

This review, together with my review of Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann represents my contribution to this year’s German Literature Month. Also related: See my recent interview with translator Isabel Cole, primarily regarding Wolfgang Hilbig, but also touching on Fühmann, which was published at 3:AM Magazine this past month.

The cost of words: My submission to the 2017-2018 Seagull Books catalogue

Earlier this month I wrote about the fact that I had not been writing much, despite my pledge to focus on my own work for a year.  Well since that time I haven’t been reading much either, but I have been busy with writing related activity and, fortunately, I have more work written earlier in the year that I am now able to share.

Today my contributor’s copy of the latest edition of the elegant and engaging Seagull Books Catalogue arrived.  I have only just begun to glance through it—this 428-page masterpiece begs to be savoured slowly and carefully—and, for the second year, I am honoured to have a piece of writing included.

My brief prose poem/essay, “The Cost of Words,” was written upon my return from the trip I made to central Australia in May of this year, to participate in a charity walk on the Larapinta Trail west of Alice Springs.  Thank you, as ever, to Naveen Kishore and the entire team at Seagull Books for this beautiful creation and for once again inviting me to take part.

THE COST OF WORDS

It starts, not with a shout, but with a whisper, a tightening at the back of the throat.

 Sadness was an opened door, an invitation, across the globe, to an ancient place where, for a time, the world might stop swaying, where I could focus on the moment, freightless after years of pushing against this cage of flesh and bone. Traverse a vast terrain of sound and sand and stone. I arrived empty, expectant. In my head, I had fashioned a journey of healing, imagined an ordeal to open a conduit to choked and buried grief. I longed to release the words that had ceased to flow. Unleash emotions untold.

Nature defies a narrative directive; life sets its own course. Streams flood, rivers run dry. We are not what we think we are. We are whole, we are broken. Fragile and durable in turns.

 On my first day out, my head closed in, my voice grew strained and raw. Over rockbound passages, rising ridges, jagged ground, I began to fear that a different script was being dreamed for me. My challenge would be to submit. I fought it, pressing against weakness and illness and fatigue until one day I dropped from the trail into a circle of needles and stone.

The wisdom of the desert holds you humble. Reminds you when failure, not triumph, will unleash the tears you cannot cry. Water is precious. A gift not easily spared.

In the end, I will never know, how long I could have walked in perfect health. Whether heat or blisters or skeletal complaints would have slowed me all the same. But I do know that the outback is not just rock and rust-red dust and sand. It is explosive greens, the pallid beauty of the ghost gum, the sacred promise of the waterhole, and the wisdom of the women whose ancestors walked this land for millennia.

And the possibility of redemption from ruin. Again and again.

The cost of writing is not simply the loneliness and isolation a writer’s life affords; it is the cost of the life lived, the pain, wreckage, and devastation endured to be able write at all. Words are not free.

 What might a perfect life dream forth? Nothing worth the ink that blood can bear. I am not what I think I am. I am broken, I am whole. I seek the words, the notes that bind this song I write. In my heart, after two weeks in the desert, I have carried it home. How long can this self-sufficient refrain echo before it fades to hollow silence?

Long enough if one remembers the cost of words and is prepared to pay the price.

Some thoughts on Michel Leiris’ Phantom Africa and a link to my review at 3:AM

It’s no secret to my literary friends that I have been somewhat obsessed with French writer Michel Leiris this year. I will address this fact further at a later date, but essentially, it is his autobiographical writing that fascinates me—it’s a very internalized, yet sharply observant form of writing about language, memory, and experience. In his epic journal project, Phantom Africa, a detailed, personal record of his experience as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition in the early 1930s, one see him develop as a writer as the weeks and months past. With a background as a Surrealist poet and an essayist, he was a strong writer at the outset; what evolves over the course of the journey is an uncanny ability to lay himself open on the page with a distinct, idiosyncratic honesty. A discussion of this development forms the primary thread of my review of this critical work, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine.

However, the publication of this valuable document  in English, at this point in the ongoing post-colonial narrative, holds an importance that I only allude to in my critique. Leiris’ primary role on the expedition was as secretary-archivist. Ethnographic study was, for all intents and purposes, a mechanism of colonial control and exploitation. Thousands of artifacts, many with profound cultural and spiritual meaning, were collected for display in museums back in France. Some items were purchased, others taken by force or deceit, but in the end, it was all facilitated by an exercise of the power of the colonizer over the colonized. Leiris is not unaware of this fundamental inequity and he does express considerable concern and discontent with the ethics of the entire colonial enterprise, but he also admits to enjoying the thrill of the raid. Of course, it is not appropriate to measure a man outside the context of his times. Leiris’ true gift here lies in is his candid, unedited, record of the events he knows of or takes part in. It forms a vital contribution to the argument in favour of the repatriation of lost art and artifacts to Africa.

Phantom Africa, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards, is published by Seagull Books. My 3:AM review can be found here.

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.