Marjorie Perloff reviews Christian Hawkey's Ventrakl for Los Angeles Review of Books

By Harriet Staff

Marjorie Perloff reviews Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl (UDP 2010) for the Los Angeles Review of Books, rightly noting that poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was felt by many to be the Austrian answer to Rimbaud, and later considered within the Modernist trajectory as a kind of Deep Image poet (he is also regarded as the preeminent Austrian Expressionist, though some might say “…his Dionysian mysticism mark[s] him as a late Romantic, closer to Hölderlin than Rilke”). Perloff quotes one of Trakl’s original translators, James Wright, who remarked on Trakl’s early, direct lyricism: “A single red maple leaf in a poem by Trakl is an inexhaustibly rich and wonderful thing, simply because he has had the patience to look at it.”

Ventrakl, which Hawkey terms a “scrapbook,” contains multiple Trakl family photographs and other digital remembrances or historical extensions of the elder poet’s life. Perloff processes these images as “Trakliana,” calling to mind the use of such assorted techniques in both W.G. Sebald and Susan Howe. The critic, who writes early on that “Hawkey’s brilliant Ventrakl, which puts Trakl’s tragic life squarely into the poetic equation, testifies to the enormous change that has come over lyric poetry in the twenty-first century,” meditates on passages in the "five arresting centos made from the color words which are so prominent in Trakl’s work (red, yellow, blue, black, and white)." Hawkey's color work in these passages is vibrant and arresting. “Red laughter in the dark shade of the chestnuts. / Snow gently drifts from a red cloud. . . .” Perloff also seems to understand the problematizing act of Hawkey’s project, which manifoldly engages and investigates appropriation, dialogism, the creative act, and the anxiety of influence:

The poet’s voice, as Hawkey remarks in his erudite preface (itself a kind of prose poem) ‘”is less a vehicle for ‘self-presence’ than a void, a blank space at the site of intersection.” Indeed, Ventrakl, with its play on ventricle, is conceived as a “collaboration” with a tutelary spirit, not so much a new “translation” of Trakl’s poems (Hawkey himself knew no German when he began the project) as a “ghostly reanimation” of the poet’s textual presence. Accordingly, translation gives way to transposition, to citational graft and recycling. . . .

What saves Ventrakl from being a mere tour de force — an endlessly clever parodic version of specific Trakl source texts — is the book’s increasing sense of bewilderment: as the sequence moves toward its crescendo — an actual translation of Trakl’s great war poem “Grodek,” about the very battle that was to kill him — the reader comes to realize that Hawkey cannot, in the end, identify with Trakl, or even seriously understand him.

Originally Published: May 17th, 2011