Dec/Jan 2011

Ventrakl

Laird Hunt


Christian Hawkey's hard-to-classify Ventrakl puts prose, poetry, and photographs to fascinating work as he attempts to draw closer to the early-twentieth-century German writer Georg Trakl. Trakl was more than slightly enigmatic in his own day—Great War medic, pharmacist, drug addict, blisteringly gifted Expressionist poet, and suicide at twenty-seven—and Hawkey (whose previous work includes the 2007 poetry collection Citizen Of) manages with great resourcefulness to both mitigate and highlight the cultural and linguistic gap between himself and his long-dead predecessor.

He does so in part by deploying numerous, often radical translation methods. These include, as he states in a preface, firing a shotgun at the pages of a Trakl book and working from the remains, or soaking a copy in rainwater "until its pages, over time, dissolved into words, pieces of words, word-stems, floating up and rearranging themselves on the surface of the jar." The result, to borrow Hawkey's term, is an "umdichtung: not a poem translated from another but a poem woven around another, from another, an image from another image, a weaving or an oscillation around or from." In this way, Trakl's haunting work becomes itself haunted, jostled, jarred awake.

Click to enlarge

Christian Hawkey as Georg Trakl, photo by Katja
Zimmermann.

Ventrakl is reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, in which Ondaatje creates a kind of collage of text and image around the legendary nineteenth-century outlaw. Hawkey is up to something more fiercely intimate, however, and Ventrakl will speak resonantly to anyone who has fallen for the work of someone long dead and wants desperately to reach out both to it and to its creator. Consider the following meditation on a photograph of Trakl taken in profile:

I end up staring at [his] ear for a long time until my gaze travels through it, all the way to the ossicles, the three smallest bones in the human body, the incus, the malleus, then the stapes, which is shaped like a stirrup, or a small bird perch dangling in the middle of a cage. I see myself in miniature, sitting on this swing. I grab hold of the tiny bones. I push off, throw my legs out while leaning back. I try to swing within inches of your brain.

In an epigraph, Hawkey quotes from Robert Walser's "To Georg Trakl": "In any strange land I would read you, / even at home." It seems apt that this moving account should tip its hat to the peripatetic Walser's vision of the familiar as strange. This is because the deeper we move into Ventrakl, and the deeper Hawkey moves into his collaboration with Trakl, the more destabilized and destabilizing the territory becomes. To Hawkey's great credit, Trakl is both everywhere and nowhere in these pages, both very near and very far.

Ventrakl is available at uglyducklingpresse.org.

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