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Ventrakl Paperback – October 1, 2010
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About the Author
Christian Hawkey is the author of VENTRAKL (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), CITIZEN OF (Wave Books, 2007), Hour, Hour, a chapbook which includes drawings by the artist Ryan Mrowzowski (Delirium Press, 2006), and THE BOOK OF FUNNELS (Verse Press, 2004), winner of the 2006 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. In 2006 he was given a Creative Capital Innovative Literature Award and he has also received awards from the Poetry Fund and the Academy of American Poets. He teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and his work has recently been translated into German, Slovene, French, and Portuguese.
Top customer reviews
Given the varied strategies for deriving poems from Trakl in this marvelously inventive book, plain sense is sometimes left behind, but interesting language never is. Playfully experimental poems are interleaved with more straightforward poetry and intensely imagined, intimate and witty conversations between Hawkey and Trakl, whom he imagines sitting across a narrow table from him, despite his having died in 1914 of a narcotics overdose after harrowing experiences on a battlefront during World War I.
Among Hawkey’s poems are centos made up of lines from Trakl that obsessively return to a small number of colors. “Yellowtrakl” includes the lines “Yellowed with incense the lovers’ slight limbs loosen / Shadows on yellow wallpaper; in dark mirrors / / The silence of gray clouds, of yellow rocky hills,” and “Bluetrakl” combines lines from Trakl using the color blue: “The blue spring at your feet, the mysterious red stillness of your mouth / like blue water falling over the rocks.”
The experience of this book is intense partly because Hawkey looks so closely at photographs of Trakl, requiring the reader to do likewise, noting the “elfish” ear, the “erased” forehead, and the “beaded, feral” gaze. In fact, the gaze is one of Hawkey’s recurring motifs (along with holes, orphans, the sternum, “red foliage filled with guitars,” and war, among others). He’s interested in the gaze that “empties itself of speech,” the “cow’s eyeball.” You could “bypass the visual by walking up to an eye and simply licking it, or a text, yes,” he suggests.
Another theme is the possibly incestuous relationship between Trakl and his sister, who is mentioned more than sixty times in Trakl’s poems. Hawkey examines this relationship both directly and indirectly: “He was rumored to have intimate relations with his already you bore me, although it’s more likely that I saw myself walking through deserted rooms. Dogs howl in the fields. A sister’s shadow sways through the silent grove . . . .” The voice that interrupts here (italicized in the book) seems to be that of Trakl. Sexuality and appetite are also themes of “Rosencrantz: A Western”: “Lie down under another verb. / “Counterfeit night puts its dawn-soaked lips / to my sternum. One can only eat, and keep eating.”
The haunting author’s photograph at the end of the book proves to be someone in a T shirt (presumably Hawkey) with the face of Trakl superimposed over his face. Hawkey doesn’t translate Trakl (with one exception, the poem, “Grodek,” a war poem) but responds to and transforms Trakl’s poems, taking them to the outer limits of language and creating a deeply felt collaboration with a dead man.
The most moving aspect of the entire work was the honesty I perceived to be on display from the constructor of this text, Christian Hawkey. I say `constructor' because I'm not sure what role one might say Hawkey had in this book, moving through modes of being a translator both in actual translating and in engaging with the struggles of translation itself, but also an investigator, a curator of impressions about Trakl. Hawkey ponders photographs and biographical moments from Trakl's life in what to my mind was at all times a deeply personal, occasionally chilling pursuit, seemingly looking for a particular something or an overarching takeaway from these searches and ruminations that doesn't ever quite come.
It'd be easy to rattle on about how this book `raises so many questions' about the nature of translation and appropriation, but really I don't think Hawkey was overly concerned with such questions; his preface to the book nods to all these questions and does seem interested in them to a point, but my deeper feeling was that this a book more at work with a more abstract obsession, an obsession along the lines of the `conversation' that takes place between poet and reader in any book of poetry, translated or not. Hawkey clearly and repeatedly emphasizes this kind of connection--we know that it is something powerful in this connection that has subsequently produced this very book.
Hawkey wasn't merely interested in the above-mentioned questions or in some strictly intellectual play as this book began and grew; churning at the core of this book like a reactor is something I took to be more emotional to Hawkey as the curation and production continued. This is why I find the numerous modes of translation and erasure spelled out by Hawkey to be intriguing and even amusing at times, but really their nature, at least occasionally arbitrary, is the means and not the end here.
What I was left with was a feeling that I had caught at least a touch of Hawkey's haunted pursuit, felt the bits of quiet anxiety and melancholy that permeate the entire text. I didn't ever think I quite knew what was being looked for or what was needing to be resolved, but I felt myself hoping it would come, and it's there I think the resolution is in the swelling of that sad tension outside of oneself, returning to the same feeling at least of connection that also seems vital to the work here. If the book isn't concerned at its deepest levels with translation and appropriation I think it's because those seem moot pressures--fidelity isn't important here, and there's no appropriation if everything is felt to be shared.
The only weakness I felt was the explicit nature of that sharing, of the `conversation' between Hawkey and Trakl becoming a semi-literal reality in several snippets of talking, `interviewing' as the two sat in a room together. These exchanges were occasionally amusing or unsettling, but more often than not they just seemed a bit too easy, made the rich nuances of the entire project too simplistic and direct; they never did anything the rest of the book wasn't already doing in a more powerful way. I also thought they occasionally seemed to rob Hawkey of his stature in the book, seemingly putting him in the role of the dense student who is always baffled by the genius of the teacher; while I don't question that this is perhaps a genuine sentiment at times, it just struck me as an unsatisfying role for Hawkey who I always thought was on much more equal, insightful footing than he was perhaps comfortable giving himself credit for.
I will also add quickly that per usual, Ugly Duckling Presse did a wonderful job on the aesthetics of the book-object, the covers nicely mirroring the reflective nature of the book's duality not only between two persons but two very different times.