Ventrakl, Christian Hawkey’s latest book (out October 1st from UDP), centers around the late 19th /early 20th century German Experssionist poet Georg Trakl, and self-identifies, via subtitle, as a collaboration between the two poets. Here, Christian Hawkey works to authentically communicate with Georg Trakl. To read him, to hear him, to channel him, to understand him.
Concerned with translation, influence, and the intersubjective space opened by the act of reading, the book presents a paradoxical occasion of unique identity and supreme interdependence.* This book manages to be at the same time an overheard emotional utterance that comes from a particularly felt subjective location (that is to say, the lyric as conventionally described) and a discourse on language, identity, politics, and the making of life and of art. The book is a “ventricle,” having to do with the heart. It is ven (latin root: to come) + Trakl, having to do with the summoning of a ghost. It is a Ven diagram, wherein Trakl is Set A and Christian Hawkey is Set B and Ventrakl is the intersection of Hawkey and Trakl, the spaced occupied by the reader. By collaborative identity.
If this sounds like the book is taking on a lot, it is. Ventrakl takes on an authentic quest (by which I mean that the author actually discovers something in the act of writing) and, as such, the book must necessarily challenge the assumption that poetry can either inhabit private, circumscribed space, or it can inhabit a space of public discourse that is aware of its own construction. This book needs to do both. We might say that the project aims to have its proverbial Sachertorte and to eat it too.
In our well-and-often-soliloquized post-postmodern hybrid third-way moment, most readers will not be surprised by this orientation. In addition, readers of today’s poetry will find many of Hawkey’s tactics for creating this condition familiar. In fact, a list of Ventrakl’s tactics and concerns will read as a description for what it is to be a book of poetry du jour:
Drawing out these currencies is not in any way to suggest that Ventrakl is passé. To the contrary: in comparison with so much—with exhaustingly too much—contemporary work that bargains on it being “enough” to simply tactic-du-jour, Hawkey uses these tactics to specific, resonant ends. Ventrakl sets up the quest to commune with Trakl and to allow such communion to express and shape Hawkey himself. The tactics Hawkey employs to this end are necessary modes, part and parcel of his project and to the life-quests of its tasks. Here there is no separation between reading, writing, and living, which makes all of the difference in the world for, as Hawkey writes, “To read is to animate words, let them speak within you, alongside you, as you.”
This statement, pulled from the book’s preface, expresses what is at stake in the project. Hawkey asks himself not only to animate and hear Trakl’s words, but to become the words themselves. What difficulty! Not only does Trakl write in German, Hawkey in English, but Trakl has come to contemporary readers through our culture’s fascination with his tortured biography and cultural context.* How much of this biography colors the hearing of his poems? Should some of this biography be filtered out? Or left to remain? In addition, Trakl’s work, informed by his nature, place, and time, is fractured and intense. What sorts of psychic toll does reading such utterance “as” oneself—does becoming such utterance, risk? Such questions require Hawkey’s variety of compositional tactics and linguistic surfaces to create an authentic relation between author and author, reader and text. And, while a quick flip through the book will provide such a variety of form and linguistic texture as to seem chaotic, an actual reading of the book (and, yes, this book wants to be read, not only conceptually considered) will prove to be a remarkably coherent experience. Not only do certain emotions and ideas require different tactics for investigation and expression, but tactic gives on to, necessitates, and informs, subsequent tactics, creating a tightly-woven book.
Let’s take the first item on the list and look at the role translation plays in the book, as well as the way that translation-as-tactic leads, of necessity, to other modes on the list. The centrality of translation to the book is built into the book’s occasion. In his preface, Hawkey sets the book up as a conversation between two ghosts: the ghost of writing that is his book, and the ghost of Trakl, for “Books—of the living or the dead—are the truest ghosts among us, the immaterial made material.” This conversation immediately foregrounds the concept of translation. When Hawkey began the project he “did not yet speak or read German. This made it somewhat hard to talk! And this was a precisely why I wanted to talk: to cross a boundary, a border. Translation in the general sense occurs in any encounter with a text, and image, a face, a sound, an idea, a traffic light.”
The book takes on this widened sense of translation, incorporating pictures of Trakl, Trakl’s family, and, at the end of the book, of Hawkey himself. As the book progresses Hawkey reads each image, zooming in on details both visual and biographical, panning with narrative both supposed and actual, and pushing out with the areal view of consideration informed by Barthes’ Camera Lucida.
Hawkey also employs translation in the specific sense, as a rendering from one language to another. However, even in this sense the idea of “translation” is stretched and problematized, for the book includes poems that were translated by a variety of procedures. Hawkey translates some poems by “homographiconic drafts…where a word (or words) from one’s own native language is identified within a foreign word or text by either sound or sight.” Other poems are translated by using search engines. Radically material translation tactics are employed such as shooting a copy of Trakl’s poems with a 12 gauge and “translating, with a dictionary, the remaining text” as well as leaving a copy of Trakl’s poems outside in a glass jar to decompose for a year and rearranging the pieces that remain. Here we also find at least one traditional translation in the very last poem of the book.
Exploring a variety of translation procedures is catchy in a du jour sort of way (particularly procedures that take the notion of language-as-material to radical places such as shotguns and glass jars full of rain, leaves, and mosquito larvae) and leads to enormous linguistic variety across the text. Take, for example, the beginnings of two poems, both composed in tercets, that face each other on pages 94 and 95 of the book. The poem “Rosencrantz: A Western” begins:
Without a gesture or word of understanding
I am pulling, verbed and bent, a taut wire
Through the glazed, blue eyes of summer.
The poem “Totenberg” begins:
No one home. Summer inheres.
A monad shells out sonatas
And ewoks along some never-ending Walden.
Both stanzas employ the seasonal setting of summer and begin with negation: “without a gesture” and “no one home.” While the second poem doesn’t employ pronouns, both poems voice from a private-feeling “I.” However, “Rosencrantz” bears a much more fluid sense than “Totenberg”—the stanza provides a single through-gesture and describes a movement through time. We do not know what the “taut wire” pulled through summer is, but it is easy to imagine that it might be the project of Ventrakl itself. The taut wire of translation, the taut wire of communing. “Totenberg,” on the other hand, works more associatively and blocks a settling of sense with surprising verbs (the “monad” “shells out”) and nouns (ewoks? Walden?). Here we have relation—the monad shelling out such varieties as sonatas and ewoks, but we cannot as easily translate this relation into logical sense.
In the face of this variety, it is important to note that Hawkey doesn’t use variety for variety’s sake but rather as tool to contend with different aspects of discovering-relation. What mode of translation, for example, might allow one to come into authentic relationship with the fact that Trakl’s dearly beloved (incestuously beloved?) sister Greta “steps into a side room and shoots herself” three years after Trakl’s death? Shooting a book of Trakl’s poems, and translating the remains, is an intriguing attempt at such a task. It takes into account the fact that the suicide post-dates Trakl’s end (Hawkey shoots a published copy), but still informs our reading of Trakl’s work (Hawkey shoots a published copy). There is resonance, also, in the act of translating Trakl—so ravished by his temporal moment, by the First World War, through what remains.
In many respects, these linguistic and tactical varieties open the book to great vulnerability because they make it impossible for the book to carry across a singular texture. However, Hawkey does the work necessary to lead us through the book by dividing the book into digestible sections, by repeating modes across the whole of the book (particularly effective pacers are prose poems wherein Hawkey thinks through the large-scale questions of the book, often addressing his thoughts to Trakl), and by giving the project a distinctive arc. This arc moves us from the outside to the inside. The book begins by presenting a photograph of Trakl, taking us through a consideration of the photo’s basic occasion as Hawkey addresses the first non-prefatory thought of the book to Trakl, writing, “You are, clearly, on a beach, and judging by the diminutive waves and the soft, brushed surface of the water it is a lake, or a small sea, Lake Como perhaps, or the Black Sea.” The book moves through the interior of Trakl (even going so far as to imagine moving into his mind, via his ear) and out, into the world through Hawkey’s consideration of himself as reader, as writer, as individual. As such, the book organizes along the trajectory of relation and the way we apprehend the world, carving a path that is distinctive to Hawkey’s experience, but that is also wide enough for the reader to follow. Such a project, authentically performed, entails plurality laced with the “taut wire” we might call identity.
* This tension in relationship is also born out by the book’s implied relationship to Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. Ventrakl would not be possible without After Lorca, yet it seeks to forge its own, unique relationship to its subject. So, while Ventrakl would not exist without After Lorca, the mode of relation Ventrakl expresses is unique and quite independent of the relation that After Lorca expresses.
* Those unfamiliar with Trakl’s biography should specifically not be afraid to read Ventrakl.In fact, the contrary is true. Hawkey does an exemplary job of weaving in enough information, at the appropriate times, to initiate the uninitiated but does not bore, in any way, those familiar with Trakl’s biography and work.