Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A review of: Surrender to Night (Georg Trakl)

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A review by David Chorlton of: Surrender to Night, Collected Poems of Georg Trakl, translated by Will Stone

256  pp., $20.00, Pushkin Press, London

As small a country as Austria is today, with its population of fewer than 9 million, it retains a cultural importance inherited from a rich past as the center of a significant empire, and no period was richer than the years approaching its eventual breakup. The end of the 1900s to the First World War was the time of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, among other visual artists, and in music there were Gustav Mahler and the young Arnold Schoenberg. All important figures, and all tapped into the disturbing and fateful aspects of existence. In poetry, Georg Trakl fit right in with them. In the way we might pick up on a passage in Mahler’s Third Symphony echoing the force and beauty of nature before the hammer blows of ill fortune in his Sixth, we find Trakl frequently shifting from a lyrical moment, as “Oh the red evening hours!” to “Spectres of anguish nestle within.” within the first stanza of Thunderstorm Evening. His observations are generally more florid than this, but the tension between beauty and the anguish that was inescapable for him remains tautly stretched throughout his writing.

Will Stone’s book begins with a Brief Biography and his study of the work, to which I can only add that if you ever visited Salzburg in good weather the beauty of the city and its surrounding landscape will be clear to you. With lakes and mountains and the times of day marked by the sun’s light effects on rock faces, water, and woodland it was an area I always found idyllic. Yet Austrian art and life were (and one could argue have once again become) anything but that. In our age of special effects in movies and violence as everyday as breakfast cereal, we might look to Trakl’s work as the product of a sophisticated culture addressing the dark side and doing it with an aesthetic; one that strains but never breaks. If anyone could imagine violence inside a flower, it was Trakl in his scented, tortured environment. That said, the introduction establishes the mood of his time and prepares the reader for a colorful if painful journey through cocaine, longing, and the outbreak of war. 

Turning to the translations, the undertaking of the whole oeuvre is an accomplishment, but these versions are spoiled by the mechanical approach and the resulting awkwardness in language that fails to deliver the natural qualities of the originals. German always presents word order problems when compared to English language versions. From any language, where lines end in rhymes, a translator has to decide how much to sacrifice natural flow in favor of keeping the rhymes. I think Will Stone made the correct decision in generally not forcing rhymes in English where they exist in the German, and Trakl’s poems often rhyme, though not always. Here is a stanza from Luminous Hour in which the English successfully mirrors the form of the original:

In the pond’s mirror-glass
Golden butterflies are in rapture,
Quietly a dual-backed creature
Stirs in the velvety grass.

The difficulties in Trakl extend beyond the rules, with his expressionist sense of color and the way he expressed feeling through describing landscape. A side-by-side set of originals and translations would have been be useful even to readers who don’t know German, but there may have been economic considerations as the book as it is runs to two hundred pages. The disappointment here lies primarily in the pedestrian tone that emerges in the English, often with archaic sounding phrases such as this one of many instances, from one of Trakl’s better known poems, the beginning of which is reproduced here with my italics:

To Bessie Loos
Truly he loved the sun, as crimson it sank behind the hill,
The woodland paths, the blackbird singing
The joy of the green.
Even arguing in favor of line-by-line precision doesn’t carry weight here as an “And” is missing from the third
line for no apparent reason. Referring to the final poem in the collection, The Sunflowers, we
find the language flowing uncomfortably from Trakl’s lyrical German into a stilted form of English:

Then with kisses grows pale
His dark brow
Amidst those golden
Flowers of melancholy
By silent darkness
The spirit determined.

This stanza isn’t even accurate, as “trunkne” (in the original) does not mean “dark.”

With Trakl it isn’t always easy to find the right bridge connecting mood with meaning. On the whole, that bridge remains elusive in this book, especially as a good deal of Trakl is available in English already and a new version should attempt more than these do. Yes, a translator might take liberties with certain lines but to make the point that it is the overall sense of a passage that counts, rather than the words simply delivered into the new language. When little is done to make poems that sound poetic in English, the suspicion arises that the idea of a Collected Trakl prompted the undertaking, which reads as though rushed through for a deadline.

One needn’t play fast and loose with the material to keep hold of the original qualities, but it does take the willingness to look at multiple, and sometimes provocative, options. Surrender to Night brings the substance of Trakl but little of the style. I shall end by considering this poem and an alternative:

On the Moor

(version 3)

Wayfarer in black wind; softly whispers the withered reed
In the stillness of the moor. Against grey skies
A flight of wild fowl passes;
Cross-wise over dark waters.
Pandemonium. In a derelict hut
On black wings, putrefaction flutters up;
Crippled birches sigh in the wind.
Evening in the deserted inn. The gentle melancholy
Of grazing herds enshrouds the way home,
Apparition of night: toads dive from silvery waters.
                (Will Stone)

I suggest:

Wayfarer in a black wind; the thin reed whispers soft
In the moor’s tranquility. A flock of wild birds
Flies across the grey sky;
Diagonally over gloomy waters.

   Uprising. Decay with black wings
drifts up from a ruined cottage;
Crippled birches groan in the wind.

Evening at the abandoned inn. The gentle sadness
Of grazing herds lines the homeward path,
Appearance of night: toads jump from silvery water.
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