A German Literature Month post at roughghosts reminded me that I had wanted to revisit the poems of Georg Trakl. James Reidel has been translating Trakl’s books as books, meaning that the recent Poems (2015, Seagull) is a version of Poems (1913), Trakl’s only book during his short life. A translation of Trakl’s posthumous poems will be published next year.
The Robert Firmage translation, Songs of the Departed (2012, Copper Canyon) included more poems, more variety of poems, a long essay on Trakl, and best of all the German texts. Firmage selects and mixes up the poems, for understandable reasons, which makes it a pleasure to be able to squint hard and read Trakl in an approximation of the way his contemporaries read him.
One of those pleasures, paradoxically, is to watch Trakl at work. He repeats himself more than I had known. Black, yellow, brown, blue; angels, silence, shadows; the autumn woods and empty fields; the same elements arranged and rearranged until they do whatever it is Trakl thinks they should. Sometimes, in English, they do not look like much more than the usual Trakl-stuff. Other times, even in English, they show why a poet with one short book is still read:
from Outskirts in the Föhn
The place lies dead and brown with evening,
The air permeated with a ghastly stench…
Sometimes a howl rises out of some vague urge,
In a crowd of children a frock flies red
A rat choir squeaks love-struck in the garbage,
Women carry bushel baskets of offal…
A canal suddenly spews congealed blood
From the slaughterhouse in the still river.
The föhn gives the few sparse wildflowers more colour
And slowly the redness creeps through the flood.
And then the poet spends the last two stanzas looking at the clouds!
One sees too a ship foundered upon the cliffs
And every now and then rose-coloured mosques.
Another of Trakl’s favorite words in Poems is “föhn,” the warm Mediterranean wind that blows across the alps and drives Austrians mad. I think of Trakl as a visionary poet – anyone who includes so many angels in his poems risks the label – but this poem is nothing if not specific, just what a boy sees on a walk at the edge of Salzburg, you know, near the slaughterhouse, enjoying the sky and wind even if it gives him a bit of a headache.
Poems has several short sequences of poems, all of which Firmage omits, all of which seem vaguely related to each other, full of pregnant farm girls and death, full of great, horrifying lines:
One bright green fluorishes, another rots
And toads are sleeping throughout the young leeks. (“Bright Spring,” 1)
Föhn-blown leafless limbs beat the windowpanes,
A wild labour swells a farmwife’s belly.
Black snow is trickling down into her arms;
Golden-eyed owls flutter about her head…
Red evening wind rattles through the windows;
Out of this a black angel emerges. (“In the Village,” 3)
Whatever I lose in rhythm and rhyme – I have looked at the German; a lot – I can say that Reidel gives a strong sense of Trakl.
The degrees of madness in black rooms,
The shadows of the old ones under open doors,
There Helian’s soul reveals itself in the pink mirror
And snow and leprosy drop from his forehead. (from “Helian”)