Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2010)
George Trakl is a late 19th/early 20th century German Expressionist poet. Christian Hawkey is a contemporary American poet. Hawkey’s recent book Ventrakl, subtitled “[a collaboration],” is an imaginative literary experiment bringing their two disparate voices together. While the book is framed as a series of translations for, permutations of, and responses to the German poet’s work, readers do not need to be well-versed in Trakl in order to enjoy Hawkey’s text—we are provided, though poems, lists, and untitled prose interludes, with background information on Trakl’s life and work. Hawkey shares that the prominent author was “born in Salzburg, Austria, on February 3, 1887, the fourth of six children” (29), fought for his country in WWI (74), was a cocaine and opium addict (60), was rumored to have incestuous relations with his sister (36), and that he died tragically young (122). Besides textual references, Ventrakl is scattered with low-resolution (and sometimes pixilated) photographs, images depicting Trakl, his family, and his surroundings (for example, a scene inside a German military hospital on page 53).
In addition to disclosing background information about Trakl, Hawkey directly addresses and questions the deceased poet, as well as describes his own compositional practices. These modes give readers the sense that they, too, are participating in a process of literary and personal discovery. One crucial part of Hawkey’s text is the series of untitled “interviews” that runs throughout the book. Here, the poet “converses” with Trakl, identifying the German poet’s often cryptic dialogue with italics. Hawkey writes:
Do you see this phonetic experience as the unconscious aspect of language?
I see a red foliage filled with guitars.
Can you be more specific?
Hawkey converses with Trakl, letting the poet speak for himself, and also refers to Trakl in third person throughout the book. These poems often seem wistful and reflective, reminding readers of diary or journal entries. Hawkey writes, “each time I slip quietly into the seat across from him, watching his eyes and they way they seem to gaze always at some point behind me, beyond me, I think the same thing: this is his dream, not mine” (64), and “Today I tell him what I saw during the morning, what I did” (104). The inclusion of photographic images allows Hawkey to explore ekphrastic modes of response as well. One prose poem is printed opposite a photograph of Trakl seated, hands clasped, leaning slightly forward. In the poem, Hawkey writes, “I am looking at his face. I am looking at his eyes. I am looking at someone I do not know, could never have known, since he died long before.…I am trying to look at his eyes, and I am trying to write about looking at his eyes….I am seeing words in his image” (83). These prose sections—intimate, casual, thoughtful—relay that even when Hawkey is not addressing Trakl directly, Trakl—the poet, the person, the enigma—remains the object (and the subject) of the language.
While all the writing in the book becomes a type of correspondence between these two poets., not all the poetry in the book is prose. There are lineated lyrics as well. As Hawkey explains in his preface, the poems included are centos, homophonic translations, computer assisted translations, and the results of decompositions (For instance, Hawkey describes “shooting, with a 12 gauge, an open Trakl book from a distance of ten feet, then translating…a remaining page of the perforated text” (8).). As a result, Hawkey’s poems often read as surreal or disjointed visions. However, even as the poems mention popular culture figures and references—“The unlimited access of a visa card” (31), “Ashcroft with his round, condom-colored eyes” (47), “Johnnie Cochran” (80), “Nuns wearing Diesel jeans” (84), and “Starbucks, / For example. A half caff tall” (107)—they work to evoke an uncomfortable present that remains anchored in Trakl’s past. As the poems are tinged with absurdities—“Hungarians touch your private Nissan, whispering / O my dwarf, Von Brot, under an herbed wurst” (63)—and we can start to see the bones of Hawkey’s sound-oriented composition techniques, the texts benefit from their proximity to the prose passages. The more emotional prose sections inform the poems—as much as the poetry could push readers away by its sometimes nonsensical design, every “you” or “he” in the mysterious verses becomes Trakl, every “I” reads as Hawkey, each “she” becomes Trakl’s sister Margarethe.
And the situations Hawkey has noted in prose—war, family, struggle, writing—clarify and echo within the poems. For example, in “Totenberg,” the lines
Otherwise, night’s leaflessness trembles beside you,
Cruel as a starless branch.
Unbeknownst to cisterns and mittens I am tone-deaf,
An orphan’s guided missile in my lips.
become about the writing process as Hawkey admits he is “tone-deaf” and Trakl becomes the lost but dangerous “orphan” who is guiding him. Or, when Hawkey describes “Ovaries dipped in gold,” “small glass jars affixed to her lips,” and “a black hearse, shimmering” (89) in “In an Alternate Stomach,” the poem—without mentioning these instances—evokes Margarethe’s perilous abortion and struggles with drug addiction (122).
The danger in a book like this is that it will be too academic, too alienating, too insular. After all, just because Hawkey is obsessed with Trakl, does that mean we need to be as well? But Hawkey toes this line with ease and grace—his “preface”, an academic construct, is written casually; his “relationship” with Trakl is an invented one that readers are invited to participate in as well; the book works as a container for its information, exploring and questioning the ghostly figure at its center. Hawkey explains, “Ultimately these are not my poems. Nor are they Trakl’s. They occur at some site between our languages, our texts, our names” (8). Ventrakl succeeds precisely because of this slipperiness—by admitting the mysteriousness of the game he’s playing, Hawkey calls us to join in.
Genevieve Kaplan edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, which publishes literary translations. Her book of poems, In the ice house, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.