Apr/May 2013  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Shattered Mouth

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Song of the Departed: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl.
Georg Trakl. Translated by Robert Firmage.
Copper Canyon Press. 2012. 184 pp.
ISBN 978-1929355792.

Early in World War I, on September 7, 1914, the Russian armies at Galicia, in Poland, on the eastern front, routed their Austro-Hungarian counterparts. One of the towns at which the Austro-Hungarians regrouped was the town of Grodek. There, history tells us, barely behind lines of fierce combat, they left some 90 gravely wounded soldiers in the care of a single young medical officer whose sole formal training was in pharmacology.

The officer was left with no supplies. The soldiers were in intense pain, begging for relief, but he had no pain relievers. The officer would write about that night, in the few months he, himself, had left to live:

At evening autumn forests drone
With deadly weapons, the golden plains
And the blue lakes, above which somberly
The sun rolls down. The night
Embraces dying warriors, the wild laments
Of their shattered mouths.

One soldier is said to have shot himself in the head in order to bring an end to his agony.

The medic was named Georg Trakl. The reserve unit to which he had been assigned, after his original obligatory year of military service, had been activated. He was a high school dropout, a loner and a drug addict, who had begun a mere five years before obsessively to write poetry.

Trakl had had a brief success, some years earlier, in Salzburg, having a one-act play performed and writing prose. Robert Firmage informs us, in the introduction to Song of the Departed, that "at this time Trakl began to wear dandified clothes and long hair and to spend hours at a time drinking wine in brothels and country taverns." But, upon the failure of a second play, he destroyed all he had written and concentrated entirely on his pharmacy studies at the University of Vienna, and his personal exploration of drugs. He probably would have drifted away from his pharmacology studies, as well, if it hadn't been the source of supply for a growing drug habit.

Trakl's earliest attempts at poetry were in traditional meter, and rhymed, and were influenced primarily by the German Romantic poets Holderlin and Lenau. Their tone is mixed but strict form is counterpointed with a progressively bleaker imagery. He seems to have shown few people his work, other than a childhood friend, Erhard Buschbeck, who passed it along to literary acquaintances, to which the reclusive poet would not otherwise have had access, in Vienna.

It is from the less bleak of these poems that Firmage chooses a small selection for translation, in the first section of Song of the Departed, in which "Out of the shop there flows a scent of bread, / And across the fence the sunflowers spill," and

Out of the branches fall the rotten fruit.
Unspeakable the flight of birds, a meeting
With the dying; dark year follows year.

While it is clear that Trakl was troubled, in ways a more or less normal young man may be troubled, the darkness of these poems is blatantly derivative of his Romantic heroes. A few much darker poems, some perhaps better written, have not been chosen. Still, on balance, the selection is properly representative and Firmage has managed generally to keep the rhythms and rhyme schemes at the cost of few concessions.

These poems were being written just as the Expressionist movement was beginning in Germany and Austria. The artists and writers that the young poet was beginning to hover around were turning his attention toward Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. The Expressionists were at the point of fiercely rejecting rhyme, form. He was won over and set to work relearning the craft. He revised, time and again, reducing away all remnants of traditional form. In late 1911, he sent Buschbeck a reworked poem which he declared "much better than the original as it is impersonal now, and bursting with movement and visions."

In the few years left to him, Trakl would write "Helian," "Kaspar Hauser Song," "To Those Grown Mute," "Sebastian Dreaming" and many other poems now considered among Germany's strangest and finest.

Groping above the green steps of summer. Oh, how softly
The garden decayed into the brown silence of autumn.
Fragrance and melancholy of the ancient elder,
When in Sebastian's shadow the angel's silver voice died out.

The blue of his early poems remains a symbol of the soul but will more often be the faint blue aura that clings to the world as twilight turns to darkness. In the words of Firmage's closing essay:

In the illumined darkness of the moon these pathways radiate into the distance. The departed has set out upon them, his destination known to no one.

The green that symbolized the burgeoning of life, for all it remains, is now seen from the distance of autumn. Red is simultaneously passion and wound. Christian imagery remains, scattered throughout, now fragmented, wistful as a ruin. The repetition of a few dozen obsessive images within changing contexts will be his métier.

The new poems kept only the duality of beauty and darkness, and a lingering lyricism. In fact, they developed each of these traits beyond what the earlier poems could have begun to suggest. These are the poems that would make up the posthumously published volume Sebastian im Traum (Sebastian Dreaming) that would fascinate even the great German poet Rilke and philosopher Heidegger — the poems that make up the bulk of Firmage's Song of the Departed.

During the years of intense composition, when in Vienna, the taciturn poet occasionally appeared in the cafés frequented by the writers and artists of the city. In this way, he managed to become familiar with the likes of Oscar Kokoschka and Karl Kraus: artists and intellectuals who were creating the Expressionist movement which would mine the work of the French Decadents and Van Gogh and extend and Germanize their styles. In one such café he met Ludwig von Ficker, a journal editor who had already published several of his poems and who would provide him money and a place to lay his head as he wandered between his family home, in Salzburg, and Vienna between stints in the military.

Buschbeck and Ficker found him jobs from which he simply walked away after a few hours, or, at most, a few months, to return to nights writing, drinking heavily and doing a wide range of drugs. Trakl's health began to suffer and bouts of depression deepened. When away from Ficker's home, in Vienna, the editor would receive letters with such tortured cries as: "There is nothing left but a feeling of wild despair and horror over this chaotic existence,…". To Buschbeck he wrote: "The last weeks were again a chain of disease and despair. " Letters to various persons portray wild mood swings from joy to desolation. In the midst of this, he was called back to the military with the advent of the war.

Some six months before the poet returned to the military, in August 0f 1914, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provided Ficker with 20,000 crowns (a very substantial sum) to support Trakl's work. It is not clear why Trakl did not draw from the account in which the money was placed.

After Grodek, Trakl threatened to take his own life and had to be restrained. He was sent to a psychiatric unit and diagnosed as schizophrenic. It was likely there that he wrote the poem "Grodek". Ficker may have taken it back to Vienna, after a brief final visit to his young protégé, to be added to the manuscript of Sebastian Dreaming. A little more than a week after that visit the poet was dead of heart failure due to an overdose of cocaine.

While a mythology of Trakl's tortured existence, back-dated to his early childhood years, may have begun to circulate before his death (in more than one instance, the source being the poet himself), after his death it became biography. Certainly the early poems seem to share, to a more or less normal degree, in human happiness.

Foremost among the rumors is that Georg and his sister, Grete, had an incestuous relationship. Incest is a smashing resume item for a tortured poet. Recently, a popular movie has even been made about their relationship, presenting their sexual intimacy as fact. They were certainly very close but Georg had enough to feel guilty about having introduced Grete to the opium which would presumably play a large role in her psychological disintegration. That alone could account for the character of the cryptic references, assumed to refer to her, in his poems and conversation.

The blue spring at your feet, mysterious the red stillness of your mouth,
Obscured by the slumber of the foliage, by the dark gold of withered sunflowers.
Your lids are heavy with the poppy and dream softly on my brow.

It seems that Wittgenstein's 20,000 crowns were handed along to her, upon her brother's death, in accordance with his will. She would shoot herself to death, with a pistol she would smuggle into at a formal ball, three years later.

As all of this should make clear, Georg Trakl lived an interior life and wrote a poetry that could almost rival Rimbaud's in apathetic intensity. Among the growing number of English translations of Trakl's poems, Robert Firmage's Song of the Departed seems as good as any and better than most. The original German text appears on each facing page. The introduction and afterword are more informative than is generally the case. The afterword, in particular, is well conceived and an addition to the literature on the poet.


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