An early 20th century Austrian known for his Expressionist writing style, a sexual romance with his sister, and a presumed coke overdose leaving him dead at age 27, Georg Trakl is a name carried with an appreciation for immensity. He as poet created a small but potent body of work in his short life, which continues to get translated and refined year over year. The latest iteration of translation by James Reidel via the first of three volumes published by Seagull Books (2015), accurately presents the life and death reverberations of the exquisite and grotesque poet.
Nymphish hands stir the utter desolation
Of the dead, lips that are rotting apart
Suckle on red breasts and in black soap water
The locks of the slender youth float in the sun.
– From “Melancholy” (pg. 31)
I hold in my hands the first volume of Our Trakl, the three-part series of the most up-to-date and crucially-examined translations of Trakl. This volume, which is the entirety of Trakl’s first published book, Poems, is composed of a mere 85 pages and 49 poems. A brief selection could strike the general reader as too short for its own good, but the brevity of verse within the pages deserves caution: facing the maddening swirls of Trakl’s writing begs reservation, begs rationing.
In the gloom of the old asylum human ruins decay.
The dead orphans lie against the garden wall.
From grey rooms angels appear with shit-spattered wings.
Worms drop from their yellowed eyelids.
The plaza outside the church is sinister and silent as in the days of childhood.
– From “Psalm” (pg. 57)
The work, as wartime as it is pastoral grimace, disturbs and plunders and rattles. Reidel, like those translators before him, have commented on Trakl’s direct influence by the 19th century French and German writers—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Poe, Hölderlin—and rightly so. Of those authors we have immense patchworks of light and dark, of that which is good and evil, that which distorts, that which faces a humanity confronted with new machinery, revolutions of macrocosmic conceptions of humanity, that of nihilism, and an abrupt rupture of spirituality. Paired with an almost objectivist sense of the uttered beauty, image, and object, Trakl is affixed with shrouds of polarization, layers upon layers of expressionism.
Like a dream in the brown hamlet
Hangs a ring of dance and violins,
As her face floats through the hamlet,
As her hair blows in bare branches.
– From “The Young Maid” (pg. 9)
It is best to take Trakl in doses, and no better is this advice heeded than through Reidel’s translations, which provide a crisp and honorable rendition of a poet who was writing for audiences, readers, of the future. Trakl’s verse is formed of concoctions, intoxicants, representing the heights and depths of a reality at war, ripped apart, bloodied, on the verge of existential explosivity, of existential collapse. These symbols cause us to shudder: the uplifting music of the church and the damning echo beyond; the light in the cabin of the forest and its unnerving, deterministic reality of presence and the resulting absence; the beauty of the body of the Other as it is dead in a rushing river or a lively field. Images of contrast. Symbols representing the dawn of life and the dawn of death. It is ghostly. Trakl’s words are ghastly with meaning and mystery.
The asters fall from the hands blue and red,
The young man’s jaw sags open strangely and wise;
And eyelids flutter soft and apprehensive;
A small of bread drifts through a fever’s black.
– From “Human Misery” (pg. 64)
Reidel does well to keep academic notations to a minimum, which expands the original poems greatly by leaving them open to the reader, while providing certain evidence of Trakl’s poetic intentions and direct references and contexts. In other words, Reidel’s research supports but does not overwhelm the poems themselves. These translations are full of devout study and inference, and our translator has stepped into the shoes of a tormented, beautiful poet with challenging, often chaotic scenes and sequences, and has channeled the original spirit and merit of Trakl’s era. The lines flutter and echo faithfully the original German, which I have had the bleak pleasure of reading in the past. The work is bountiful and wholesome; these translations feel refreshing and chiseled, a consistent, contemporary arousal of Trakl’s first book.
The autumn moon shines white in the yard.
Fantastic shadows are falling from the eaves.
A silence dwells in empty windows;
Then the rats softly surface from below
– From “The Rats” (pg. 53)
What we have with Georg Trakl is a mountainous barrage of poetry that remains relevant and alive in the 21st century. The following two volumes, which could not arrive soon enough, will continue to resurrect once again the image and identity of a brutal landscape of verse. There is no reason to wait for the completion of Our Trakl. The first volume invites you with its incredible juxtapositions, enduring ironies, and woeful raptures. Sink your eyes in.
Check out the book further and/or order a copy here.
Greg Bem is the Gaming Editor and a contributing writer for Queen Mob's. He has written numerous reviews for the Queen as well as other entities, including Rain Taxi, Seattle Poetry Lab, and a previous iteration of his personal blog. To hear about his upcoming reviews, follow him on Twitter.