Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010. Reviewed by Ezekiel Black.
On the title page, the byline reads “Christian Hawkey | Georg Trakl,” and the subsequent page reads “[a collaboration].” Although this is a fair description of Hawkey's project, it does not capture its full nature or extent; indeed, Georg Trakl, an Austrian Expressionist poet, died of a deliberate cocaine overdose in 1914, so a standard collaboration is impossible. In an interview, Hawkey explained his choice of Trakl as collaborator: “It occurred to me that maybe the sense of foreboding that can be found in his work prefigures--tracks--the build-up to WWI, and that if you folded the past 100 years in half, roughly speaking, Trakl's time and our time would overlap.” To compare, Ventrakl, like Juliana Spahr's this connection of everyone with lungs, arose from the worldwide antiwar protests before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Trakl wrote his best poetry in the last two years of his life--from the political tension before The Great War to the aftermath of its first battles. Furthermore, Hawkey and Trakl respond to the absurdity and despair that their respective periods entail, which, especially in the case of World War I poets, such as Trakl, lead to experimental, avant-garde verse, a movement evident in Dadaism, Surrealism, Modernism, and other -isms. Although one collaborator worked at the beginning of the twentieth century and the other works at the beginning of the twenty-first century, they both draw water from the same well: they both answer a new millennium with a new poetry. With its variety of forms, with its homophonic translations, direct translations, centos, essays, interviews, definitions, photographs, ekphrases, apostrophes, dialogues, lists, biographies, and chronologies, Hawkey's book is difficult to categorize, but if one remembers the products of High Modernism, namely William Carlos Williams' Paterson and Jean Toomer's Cane, those books famous for their pastiche or collage, then Ventrakl is no longer foreign, but a homage to Trakl and other modern writers.
In Ventrakl, there are several recurrent words and ideas, but the one that governs the book is the hole. Early in the book, Hawkey includes a definition of hole, pronunciation, etymology, and all. Here is the first definition: “1 a : an opening through something: perforation b: an area where something is missing: gap as (1) : a serious discrepancy : FLAW, WEAKNESS.” If hole is taken as an example of a void, then the book can be read as a creation myth because many religions, alive and dead, begin with creation ex nihilo. For example, the Earth was “without form” and “void” in the Bible, but from that vacuum, God divided light from dark, water from air, and earth from water. Likewise, Ventrakl begins with a photograph of Trakl beside the ocean, so like Aphrodite, who was born of spume, Trakl steps full grown from the ocean's void. This is Hawkey's commentary on the photograph: “You claim that until the age of 20 you noticed nothing in your environment save for water. Perhaps, then, you were falling through it or through the word for it, bottomless--” Baruch Spinoza said that “nature abhors a vacuum,” argued that something is superior to nothing, so the primary concern of Ventrakl is to address its holes, and Hawkey understands that this concern demands a creation myth: “I too know these are stories, handed down by others, half-truths, myths, and I know you courted and encouraged these myths. That I am--here, now--just as complicit in the construction of your self as your friends were, you were. That I am repeating, reinscribing the myths.” There is a gulf between Hawkey and Trakl, and to connect with his long-dead collaborator, Hawkey must bridge the expanse with myth, a picture of Trakl. “A photograph,” be it literal or figurative, Hawkey claims, “gathers every past tense into its present.”
Similar to his holes, Hawkey's use of photographs is ingenious. While he often responds to these photographs or details of these photographs, he, late in the book, employs one for dramatic effect. First, Hawkey offers a chronology of Trakl's dear sister Greta, who was as troubled as Trakl:
1914 March. Trakl visits her in Berlin after she barely recovers from an abortion. Continued drug addition. Unhappy marriage.
1914 November 3rd. Georg Trakl's death. A week before, in a letter to von Ficker, Trakl donates all of his belongings to her, including Wittgenstein's gift of 20,000 crowns.
1914-16 Husband leaves her. Unable to continue her career in music.
1917 September 23. Berlin. At a large party she steps into a side room and shoots herself.
After this matter-of-fact description of her death, the next two pages are blank, perhaps a visual representation of the shock over her suicide, perhaps a moment of silence, another void. Next comes a series of single lines, each found in the middle of its own page, a quiet reemergence of poetry, a dawning:
A side room.
A private act in a public space.
A gesture--a grand gesture, tragic.
There is the question of music, her music.
A figure in a poem, a shadow.
Several pages later, Greta's visage suddenly shatters the white space. This full-page photograph is ominous, given her austere lips and askance gaze, and artifacts on the film and the grainy enlargement only amplify the haunting effect. In Hawkey's preface, he mentions the necromantic power of literature: “And to read the deceased is to reanimate their words; the between-voice is a ghost, a host. Books--of the living or the dead--are the truest ghosts among us, the immaterial made material. And this book is a ghost containing a ghost.” In Ventrakl, Greta is able to live once again through literature; moreover, when Greta commits suicide in the book, she is able to live once again, as a phantom, through photography. There are strata of existence in Ventrakl, and this allows Hawkey to collaborate with Trakl, the book's variety of forms housing a different ghost of the Austrian.
Christian Hawkey, a poet and translator of German poetry, was born in Hackensack, New Jersey in 1969. He has two full-length collections and two chapbooks of poems. His first collection, The Book of Funnels, received the 2006 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He has also been given awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Fund, and in 2006 was honored with a Creative Capital Innovative Literature Award. In 2008 he was a DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Fellow. His translations from the German have appeared in jubilat, Dichten #10, the Anthology of New European Poetry, and the Chicago Review. he lives in Berlin and Brooklyn and is currently an Associate Professor at Pratt Institute.
Ezekiel Black is a lecturer of English at Gainesville State College. Before this appointment, he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he received an MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Verse, Sonora Review, GlitterPony, Skein, Invisible Ear, Tomfoolery Review, Tarpaulin Sky, InDigest, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakwood, Georgia, where he edits the audio poetry journal Pismire (www.pismirepoetry.org).