A Skeleton Plays Violin by Georg Trakl, Translated by James Reidel (Seagull Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
“Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was born in Salzburg, Austria. As a teenager, he gravitated towards poetry, incest and drug addiction and published his first work by 1908, the year he went to Vienna to attend pharmacy school and became part of that city’s fin de siècle cultural life. He enjoyed early success and published his first book in 1913. A year later, he died of a cocaine overdose owing to battle fatigue and depression from the war-time delay of his second book.”
“Shadows roll on the water with copper beeches and pines, and from the depths of the pond comes a dead, sad murmur.
“Swans meander through the glimmering waters, slowly, unmoving, their slender necks rigidly held upwards. They snake on! Around the dying castle! Day in! Day out!”
(from “Neglect” contained in the section “Published Prose and Poetry, 1906-1909”)
The mountains of all of us, glass and otherwise, start and end with our creations, with our lasting imprints upon the known and unknown realities we find, or which find us. Through time that precedes and proceeds us, our act of creation, generally and minutely, becomes siphoned. There is the desire to find an underlying schism between what we have done and what we are. That many dissect the biographical only to discard it remains a triumph for life, and the life of the artist. And yet the contexts, the characterization, becomes an art in itself: that we might indelibly understand history of the artist and the artist’s world enmeshed is one of the pleasures and supreme functions of that same, contentious biography. I think often the biography is termed stale, or burdensome; a cruel act is to load upon our lives as the interpreter of the art itself the additional gate—both barricade and portal—of the life, and its subsequent, complementary death, of the owner of that creativity.
The “Our Trakl” sequence from Seagull Books (which I’ve covered previously with the publication of parts one and two, Poems and Sebastian Dreaming) is not only a testament to the heavenly spiral of the biographic, and all that it can provide in weight and relief, but a re-envisioning of how that glass mountain may be perceived, in all its archetypal, quest-filled, damnation-evoked glory. The combination of the biographical research and the embodiment/imbuement of it within the text is incredible. I glanced and expressed the functionality of this twirl through the exploration of the first two volumes, though I did not realize the sheer romance and fatigue—the transcendence—as I do now, having read and taken to the fullest-extent-of-the-heart possible this third volume, A Skeleton Plays Violin. It is here, in this collection of beginnings, middles, and ends that we find Trakl’s work in its fullest flux. Trakl’s poetic shimmer, glazed with the harsh, cruel, complex, and fundamentally exposed life that we deserve to see is readily available now, and James Reidel, translator of all of the volumes, is responsible for providing this keystone moment, eclipse peak, edge of the forest. In this weepingly-full volume, we have Trakl in near totality.
A rotting of dream-created paradises
Blows around this mournful, lethargic heart,
Which only drinks disgust from all which is sweet,
And then bleeds itself out in vulgar pain.
(from “To Slacken” in the section “Collation of 1909”)
Pages turn and with them grow worlds, vastly colorful and vastly dissipating in a multitude of directions. The birth of the Trakl image and the death of the Trakl image are rooted in the organic actuality of a world beneath a God that has created, and in this creation, has the capacity for reflection, and refraction. So too is it with the poet. Trakl’s own light, his own writ upon the page, is as much a creation as it is a bound relationship. And then: an addressed biography, and its implications. From the earliest days dealing with familial scattering, disconnection, reinforcement, and reliance, Trakl’s work is crisp and brilliant, resolute and adolescent if only because of a certain waking quality to the poet’s ambiguous naivety. That is, the earlier work is confusingly mature, stark; it is filled with a strong language not fully punished by major loss and turmoil, and yet finds a degree of anchor and solace within quintessentially provocative images.
The preservation-like effects of his earliest writing lead to early adulthood. It is here that is brought the rise of blood and formal education, exploration of vice, and the oft-related moments of incestuous, paradisiacal (and philosophically-explored) coexistence with a synchronous sister (Grete Trakl). This essence of relationship is paired well with a honed craft and an exacerbated sense of self. Selflessness arises through poem upon poem, through all seasons, by way of mimicking the vast literature at the young author’s disposal, and going beyond it into life and death at the doorstep. Greco-Romance mythology meets Judeo-Christian parables meets the foreground and background of the life lived in a pastoral-cum-urbanized Austria impended upon and upended by a hurried global industrialization. It is without doubt that Trakl’s emerging transformations serving as a crescendo lasting his entire, though short, adult life had a potent effect on the subsequent German Expressionism and other, more regional movements. There is a style, and a sensibility, which results from spiritually-confounded senses of juxtaposition and uproarious senses of reality’s cruel extremes.
A branch sways me in the deep blue.
In the mad autumn chaos of leaves
Butterflies flicker, drunk and mad
Axe strokes echo in the meadow.
(from “Sunny Afternoon” in the section “Poems, 1909-1912”)
A Skeleton Plays Violin continues on past the earliest moments into Trakl’s most intense sequences through a personal war of behavior, dissatisfaction, and addiction, and into a global war—the First World War, which leads to the poet’s final moments. And yet, as much as this trajectory is true, I write these words feeling guilty that I must leave out so many of the grimmer and brighter details. The romance. The political entwining with family members and confidantes. The close, filial bonds. The fraternity across distance and border. The madness of location and the security of reservation. There are themes upon themes within the epic A Skeleton Plays Violin that represent that most kaleidoscopic of spines we all face in the bodies of our lives, and to shy from them, as I must for the sake of brevity, does feel disingenuous to the nature of this fantastic volume.
Still. I think about what is included. I think about what was written and how it has made its way forward through time. Near the end of the book, Reidel recounts a public, documented conversation from January 1914 Trakl held with another writer, Carl Dallago. The conversation begins with a point on Whitman, and leads to points on Christ and the Buddha, and later an editorial footnote raises the value of Dostoevsky in the poet’s life and beneath the poet's ideas. The initial conversation holds many meanings and is mostly is raised and concerned with sexuality and the belief systems commonly debated in an Austria very much grounded in Christianity; however, that earliest mentioning of Whitman, and the unfolding conversation’s exploratory nature evokes the indefatigable essence of Trakl as a writer.
As compiled by Reidel, there is a way of knowing Trakl that has not been substantially provided to the contemporary English-language audience before this time—the versioning and relentless experimentation of our German-language poet is here in its textured, amorphous cherished state. Trakl, through a haunting perhaps only understood by himself, was masterfully engaged with language, including the language of the written, documented word that he created. As intimately seen throughout this book’s collection of many versions and iterations of the image, Trakl repeated, pulled, picked, and repurposed lines and poems in their entirety, and throughout various points in his life. A serialization of the self is the resulting image of this book as a whole, where Trak’s form is a form of exquisite, provocative, evolution that moves in multiple directions at once. It is phantasmagoria. It is thanks to the discipline and commitment of Reidel and the many others who have archived and connected the dots of Trakl's writing and life.
Silent evening in wine. From the low rafters
Fell a night moth, a nymph buried in blue sleep.
In the yard the servant slaughters a lamb, the sweet smell of the blood
Clouds our foreheads, the dark coolness of the well.
The despair mourns dying asters, a golden voice in the wind.
When night falls you will look at me with mouldering eyes,
In blue stillness your cheeks fell into dust.
(from “Psalm” in the section “Poems, 1912-1914”)
To regress, let's take a moment to think of emotion. It is hard not to refer to the darkness that sits within Trakl’s core, a dimension that logically enters and exits the liveliness and deathly extremes of his behaviors. From early experimentation with chloroform to the mysterious death a la cocaine, Trakl’s pharmacological profundity is one that revolves, orbits even, the paradigm of the dim and the damned at the heart of his writing. There is the sense of loss and there is the sense of birth, and each one commits to the other. At times nihilistic, there is always the continued emergence and sustainment of morality and beauty, Trakl’s truest essence within his images, that bind the work together and also fail to bring the poet into a sense of complete abandonment, complete loss. There is hope. There is spiritual stability. And things remain complex from beginning, to middle, to end.
This incredibly reality makes A Skeleton Plays Violin one book that is difficult and agonizingly affective in its embrace of the negative as much as the positive. For many, this poetry will bleed and bruise and blunder and capsize. It is murderous. It is tragic. But it is pure, to the point of Christ, in its reasoning with the spectrum of longing, suffering, and enduring we all must face in our existence. It is before, during, and after the essence of war.
Perhaps the immediate environment leading to the global catastrophic war, paired with a familial history capable of incubating an extreme relationship with a precious sister was the perfect recipe for the resulting truths discovered and explored by George Trakl. Perhaps it was that and all the other grains of detail found within Reidel’s efforts. Regardless, the biography speaks these truths, reveals them, in tandem with the momentous quantities of writing that have been translated. And as such, we experience the extraordinary, the paralyzing. A writer of such capacity in such a short burst of existence is a writer of blinding awe. This text of the miscellaneous writings that filled the cracks of the glowing and striking void of Trakl’s existence, and “Our Trakl” as a whole, bears the capacity to convince us of this awe, and transform our own lives, our own biographies, in the process of creation.
“Strange are the night paths of man. As I went forth sleepwalking in stone rooms and a small, still light burnt in each, a copper candlestick, and as I sank down freezing on the bed, once more her black shadow stood overhead, the stranger, and I silently hid my face in unhurried hands. The hyacinth bloomed blue at the window too and the old prayer pressed on the crimson lips of the breathing, from the eyelids fell crystal tears wept for this bitter world. In this hour during the death of my father, I was the white son. The night wind came from the hill in blue shivers, the dark lament of the mother, dying away again, and I saw the black hell in my heart; a minute of shimmering stillness. Quietly an unspeakable face emerged from a chalk wall—a dying youth—the beauty of some homecoming offspring. Moon-white the coolness of the stone surrounded the vigilant temple, the footsteps of the shadow faded on the ruined steps, a pink ring dance in the little garden.”
(from “Revelation and Perdition” in the section “Published Prose and Poetry, 1913-1915”)
All the Spectral Fractures by Mary A. Hood (Shade Mountain Press, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
What are the cross-sections of life? What are the spaces we find ourselves returning to, again and again, despite new paths, new interests, new obligations? In All the Spectral Fractures, the new poetry collection by Mary A. Hood, we find potential answers to these questions. We find the poet, whose life siphons the lives of the vast world, human and non, into the represented form. The image is glistening in this form, an ever-evolving, ever-adapting portal into the swirling channels that carry us through multiplicity in our evocative world of systems, taxonomies, and scientific inquiry.
When the air is that
certain apocalyptic clear,
I think I hear your voice
like the cry the wild boar makes
when trapped in a wire cage.
from “Ellen Youngblood / Lament” (in Opatoula)
All the Spectral Fractures collects eight collections worth of poetry between its vast breadth. At 238 pages, this is truly a tomb of the poetic life that has been explored thoroughly, into countless crevasses and corners, by Hood and her complex interests. Hood, a microbiologist, educator, traveler, and artist, shows her identities and their consistency throughout these books.
White Science, for example, is a book of verse posing the story of the female scientist, Sarah Goodbones, who visits the “renowned Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, Physiology and Biochemistry at the prestigious USA Medical School in quest for the truth.” The book is as ravishing as it is stark in its criticisms of not only the ivory tower, but the dominance of masculine thought. Through moments of absurdity to a cold spiriting through the vacuous environs faced by contemporary scientists, Goodbones arrives to a space of empathy but one that still feels distanced, chilled. Originally published in 1999, this iteration of that critical poetry remains relevant, fresh, and truthful still.
Where pink flamingos drink, cement blocks inked to look like
rocks and vinyl emerald lily pads line plastic wading pools.
from “Yard Art” (in In the Shadow of Pelicans)
The opening sequence, a book called Opatoula, is perhaps the most remarkable of all Hood’s poetry, both in concept and in elegance. The work describes through individual poems the lives and stories of the women of a place called Opatoula, which exists “on the Southern coast.” While the place and its women carry spotlight that may be fictional, the stories read like exquisite preservations of lost voices. Lost amongst the town’s din of bars and churches, which Hood recognizes right from the beginning, but also lost (like many voices) through the noise of the everyday. Hood’s work here is undeniably feminist in its counteracting toward the patriarchal norm of the image, of the American grain, of the world that has been constructed over hundreds of years. Hood’s work here is also captivating merely in its essence of narrative telling: the lives of these women are incredibly intricate, textural, and offer a reality of small town life that often escapes from the common, anticipated experience of the average reader. This book was originally published in 1993, but appears to offer a degree of significance in the era of the ghostly virtual world that uplifts, arouses, connects. That it does so through the bond of extraordinary women is fantastic.
Those who have learned
the language of stars
of bees of genes of atoms
are unable to speak the language
of the heart.
from “Songs of the Laboratory” (in White Science)
These cross-sections of feminism and anthropology are carried along into spaces of the marvelous. Hood’s background as a biologist reinforces that variety of image presented in the book, and there is an entwining with ecological principles that extend from the early works well into the later books So as Not to Go Unremembered (2015) and Love of Land and Lake (2014). With clarity of place and identification of the ideal, natural community, Hood arrives to additional critiques of industry, pollution, and a terrorized landscape. It helps that Hood can write of that ideal image, from the birds to the beaches to the universe of insects, as the portal returns to allow for a tweak and corruption of that image. This polarity exists, of course, on a spectrum, and morphs throughout Hood’s various poetic periods and publications. But through the course of All the Spectral Fractures, as the title of this collection implies, the book offers huge prevalence of and assertion for juxtapositions of the natural across time and space. To see the reoccurring elements of Hood’s vision, of her world, as patterns that emerge like tides rising shorelines leave additional context and meaning. Here again we have the cross-sections of life as a construction through and of time. Here again we see the bounty and the beauty of the return, of the reassessed, and with Hood, it is palpable through those value systems alluded to above. There is feminism. There is ecological activism. There are offerings of hope, of struggle, of work.
How can I think of death when my thoughts
are filled with the texture of hickory bark,
the rasp of dried milkweed, the crackle of Queen Anne’s lace
when turkey tracks write Sanskrit in the snow
and deer tracks quote the poetry of Zen?
from “The Juxtaposition of Being” (in Because Time Diminishes)
This writ would be truly lacking if a comment on Hood’s language was withheld. The language bobs up like buoys in the ocean. The language erupts like steam from boiling water. It comes and goes like sunlight. And yet, when it is present, when it is noticeable, it provides constant enticement. Reading “In the waters below undulating parasols / drift wit the current, the medusa with tentacles / that clutch or float free like umbilical cords cut.” is the type of sequence that evokes incredible visions of incredibly familiar though exotic spaces and situations. These moments, these snips of the vine of Hood’s poetry, are mesmerizing. They channel so much energy into the reader, yet are poignant while being concise. They are injections but they feel calm. They are scrapes but through scratching feel soothing. To read Hood’s verse is to become surprised through its elegance, yet churned by its force. The vocabulary of science meets the heights of a trained poetic ear. This collaboration of two areas of the artist’s mind is calm and will be taken for granted, but offers so much bite and grip that I imagine each reader being jerked into the poems at extraordinary moments of fixation and relief.
The black bird’s stringy twang
The spoon playing of spring peepers
The high percussion of creek running
The snare drum of rain
The brassy whine of robins
The oboing of wood frogs
The piccoloing of wood thrush
To this spring music
from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Mailbox” (in So as Not to Go Unremembered)
Much of this collection is about a demonstrated breadth. All the Spectral Fractures indeed offers a significant and awe-filled space to not only read great poetry, but read through the visions, that image, of Mary A. Hood. It is a book to return to, to covet, to pull ideas and language from over time. As its older works demonstrate already, the poetry ages quite well, and yet there is new poetry within that could offer additional arousals in decades to come. That Shade Mountain Press has offered this collection to the world is gracious, and will alter the lives of many readers of American poetry.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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