This, with some slight edits and my own poem added to the end, is the text I submitted for end of semester presentations (in the class on Punctuation with Wayne Koestenbaum).
If Trakl’s work is all one poem as critics have said, it’s a circular rumination on life and death – not as two separate things, but as life which includes death, death as it always is an essential part of life, not the stage that follows life but a state of being that accompanies life in all its stages, unable to be extricated to leave life pure and unsullied. But what Trakl’s poetry does is not take for granted that because of its inability to be extricated from life, it leaves life sullied. Death, decay, destruction – none of that necessarily diminishes the “lifeness” in Trakl’s poems.
One way this shows up in Trakl’s poetry is the ambiguity of his language, like the use of a word like “dämmert,” referring to either dawn or evening. (The translation of twilight is actually more accurate than I’d thought in effective translation – according to the OED it means the time both before sunrise and after sunset – although vernacular use does obscure the ambiguity.) The poem could be detailing movement from night to dawn to night, or from night to night to night – within night? Is there forward movement? Is there a static back-and-forth? Or is it all one even when there is some semblance of movement?
In ein altes Stammbuch
Immer wieder kehrst du Melancholie,
O Sanftmut der Einsamen Seele.
Zu Ende glüht ein goldener Tag.
Demutsvoll beugt sich dem Schmerz der Geduldige
Tönend von Wohllaut und weichem Wahnsinn.
Siehe! es dämmert schon.
Wieder kehrt die Nacht und klagt ein Sterbliches
Und es leidet ein anderes mit.
Schaudernd unter herbstlichen Sternen
Neigt sich jährlich tiefer das Haupt.
In an Old Family Album
Ever again you return, Melancholy,
O meekness of the solitary soul.
A golden day glows and expires.
Humbly the patient man surrenders to pain
Ringing with melodious sound and soft madness.
Look! There’s the twilight.
Night returns once more and a mortal thing laments
And another suffers in sympathy.
Shuddering under autumn stars
Yearly the head is bowed deeper.
-Georg Trakl, translated Alexander Stillmark
As I tried to convince myself I’m not morbid or fatalistic just because I love this poetry, I tried to find a description for the tone of the work. My first thought was “tragic beauty,” but I rejected that – this is not really beautiful for all its images of nature. And it is not tragic, for all its images of horror. In class, someone used the term “scary-beautiful,” and at the time, I liked it. But it was never actually scary to me – maybe the thing that scared me was that I have it in me to find this beautiful.
At one point I wrote: “Some of his poems are raging angry. But this is – I don’t like resignation, but it’s close. It’s an acceptance surely, but not lying down and taking it. It’s not really ‘rage, rage, against the dying of the light’ but it’s a bit of resistance to the inevitability of sadness and death and an ultimate end.” I played around with some terms: “mournful – quiet desperation – tranquility – huge openness – wonder – overwhelming – trying to make sense – WHO CARES?” and finally – “I’m projecting. so what.”
At the time, I had good reason to be searching for something in Trakl’s poems. On the day we discussed them in class, I had attended the funeral of my great-uncle, and the next day was the one-month anniversary of my uncle’s passing. While one was young and the other old, one a tragedy and one just “part of life,” neither one was (is) easy to deal with. End and finality is never easy to deal with. And besides, I could not force myself to feel that this was an end.
Trakl seems to be playing with this idea of the end not being an end, or more precisely, of everything actually being an end, so that end ceases to be an end because there is nothing that is not end, and to quote Professor McGonagall, Vanished objects go “Into nonbeing, which is to say, everything.” Does the dawn interrupt two separate nights? Does the night signal the end of the day? Trakl doesn’t seem to find an answer, but instead finds a state of mind in which to contemplate and live with this question: “sanftem Wahnsinn” or “weichem Wahnsinn” – gentle madness, soft madness. And that’s the term I’d use to describe the tone of Trakl’s poetry.
The circularity of Trakl’s poems means in some ways it’s difficult to find the punctum – Barthes’ idea of the point in the text which punctures you, the point through which you enter and understand the text. My list of possibilities includes death, glimmers, blue, soul, silence, madness… But I wonder if the quest for the punctum is futile, because what I see in these poems is an argument for a lack of “punctuation” as such. How can you put a period – a full stop – between one sentence and the next, one idea and the next, one state of being and the next, when you can barely begin to extricate one from the other?
The leaves fall down, autumnal days
Their colors flare and slowly fade
Bare trees above, their branches sway
As on the ground the leaves lie still
No motion from the leaves now still
Their days of dancing gone away
But when the wind blows through their ranks
They flutter though they have no life
And as they crumble into bits
Begin to disappear from sight
We watch their outlines smudge and fade
They dissipate into the air
It seems they’re gone and none remain
The shreds now tumble far and wide
They’ve spread across the atmosphere
Become as one with all that’s there
And yet the ground retains their stains
The outlines of the leaves still clear
Their colors all have gone but one
That one combining all the rest
The leaves are gone, they are no more
And yet we feel their presence there
Their essence left upon the ground
Where we can see the truth of leaves
We cannot hold these stains of leaves
Our hands can never feel their veins
What good are stains when crumbled bits
Are tumbling unseen through the air?