Ventrakl. Christian Hawkey. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010. 152 pp. $17.
Christian Hawkey’s fourth collection—the brilliant “scrapbook” Ventrakl—genre-mashes like mad, combining photographs, poems (as translations, imitations, adaptations), faux interviews, and essays. This polyvalent dossier creates an imaginative space from which Hawkey reaches back to the great Austrian Expressionist poet Georg Trakl.
Why Trakl? Partly because of his biography. During WWI, at the Polish village of Grodek, Trakl cared for wounded soldiers while suffering from depression. There he wrote his most famous poem, “Grodek” (the only conventional translation Hawkey offers in this book), which was also his last: he killed himself soon thereafter. Trakl is a tragic figure, and the endless historical speculation about his life, his suicide, his perhaps incestuous relationship with his sister, render him an evolving mystery that Hawkey can write into. This engagement with Trakl as a construct is central to the book. In one of their imagined interviews, Hawkey says to Trakl, “I am—here, now—just as complicit in the construction of your self as your friends were, you were. . . . I am repeating, reinscribing the myths.”
Trakl’s distraught poetics appeal to Hawkey because he believes they can survive our “current condition of permanent, technology-driven global warfare.” Hawkey turned to him, ultimately, out of despair: “I knew, in my gut, that the largest world-wide anti-war protests in the history of civilization would have absolutely no effect, and I had nowhere to put this feeling. Which is why, afterwards, I immediately came here.” Here, to the space where he can imagine himself toward Trakl. Born of a spectacularly ineffectual political gesture, then, this project attempts to learn from history, but not from the epic sweep of it. Rather, in Ventrakl, Hawkey pursues Walter Benjamin’s idea of historical understanding as “an afterlife of that which has been understood and whose pulse can be felt in the present.”
This book offers a pulsing afterlife precisely because it doesn’t pretend to give us the “real” Trakl of the past. We get a Trakl rendered for our times. As Hawkey reaches back toward the historical Trakl in pursuit of his “courageous despair,” he finds it not in the past, but in a present made surprising and new by his submersion in all things Trakl. Hawkey asks him, “Submersion, then: becomes a kind of companionship?” Trakl responds: “Listen, can you point me to the nearest whorehouse?” Such comic moments are scattered throughout, but even when Hawkey is laughing, he is laughing in the face of tragedy. The humor is always, as Hawkey says, “not an easy, slap-stick jokiness, but a weird and distorted and amplified strangeness, a version of a reality that is itself, in our particular moment, deeply strange and uncomfortable.”
In addition to the interviews and the short essays, Hawkey breathes life into his Trakl through unorthodox translation methods: He used spellchecker software to translate poems. He left a book of Trakl’s poems outside to decompose for a year. He blew away a book of Trakl’s poems with a shotgun. These violent methods lead to wild surprises: “Only geese with kindness shimmer / And, once blasted, fall in red blurts”; “Let money like a swan on fire / light the way out of this harmony.”
Other poems maintain this wildness through juxtaposition, like mash-ups. In “Blacktrakl,” Trakl’s uses of the color black collide in a “selective remix”:
O you shattered eyes in black mouths
through black boughs the bells peal, two black horses
prance in the meadows, a saint steps out of his black, painted wounds and
carrying a rosy child a black angel in a black overcoat
“One physician at the Krakow hospital reports that you have often seen, since childhood, a man with a drawn knife standing behind your back,” Hawkey says. And Trakl dryly retorts, “Yes. Everyone has their own relationship to the lyric tradition.” How telling that Hawkey, after feeling the inefficacy of political protest, turned to this project as a new kind of resistance. Although Ventrakl is a homonym of ventricle, I can’t help also hearing Venn diagram: Hawkey is mapping his relationship to the lyric tradition, using various modes of engagement with Trakl—the pieces he assembles—to form circles that zero in, not on Trakl himself, but on a Trakl redubbed into the twenty-first century to speak to our anxious moment, in our language.