A Skeleton Plays Violin
By Georg Trakl
Translated by James Reidel
Seagull Books, 2017
Though sometimes described as a war poet, Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was only coincidentally so: that was where and when he died.
This book, the third and final volume of James Reidel’s rendering of Trakl’s poetry into English, is by far the most revealing of the three. For while volumes one and two gave us Trakl’s completed and published books – Gedichte (1913) and the posthumous Sebastian im Traum (1915) – this wide ranging, astutely chosen selection shows us where Trakl had been, what he was about, how he might have gone forward – or why an early death was not such an unlikely outcome. You get a rounded picture of the man and his work.
There are five sections to A Skeleton Plays Violin and, a big plus for a newcomer to the poet, a critical biographical essay by Reidel that spans the entire volume. The first section, ‘Published Prose and Poetry, 1906-1909’, contains Trakl’s earliest poetry, all of which appeared in various Salzburg newspapers, Salzburg being the city where he grew up and indulged his passion for drugs (notably opium and cocaine) and rambling and moseying about: he was an enthusiastic Spazierganger, we are told.
In 1908 Trakl left Salzburg to study pharmacy in Vienna, a fateful career choice. He took in the literary and artistic scene, getting to know such luminaries as Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos, and was soon joined by his sister Grete. This period of his life finds unified, thematic expression in the poems in ‘Collation of 1909’, which in Reidel’s view ‘can be read as an unpublished early book’. You find passion, eroticism and despair in these poems, many directed towards his sister: in one poem, ‘Blood Guilt’, the language is stark and confessional. His admissions are the red-raw bruises of a desperate tussle. However, it is unclear whether Georg and Grete had an actual, physical relationship. It may be that he, like the Symbolist and Decadent poets he’d been reading, was toying with transgression and sin. Parking his taboo desires in the poems, as it were, out of harm’s way.
As for ‘Poems, 1909-1912’, these were the bedrock out of which Trakl’s first book came. They were written, the last of them, when he was living in Innsbruck, where he worked at a military hospital. He apparently suffered from severe depression and panic attacks during this period. Indeed, ‘Poems, 1912-1914’, the seedbed of his second book burns with a curious intensity as well. The reader is exposed to a profusion of toxic, traumatic images that seem as intimate as memories. There is a compulsion to dwell on what is broken, abandoned and ephemeral. Riedel speaks somewhere of Trakl as a liminal being, a ghost perhaps, and it is in these poems in particular (take the poem beginning ‘O the leaf-stripped beeches, and the blackish snow’ as one instance) that you think of the peopleless landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, which Trakl may have seen in Vienna (a fair few are housed in the Belvedere now). Every scene is haunted, a source of nagging pain. There is no peace, no letting go.
When the Great War broke out, Trakl’s training as a pharmacist meant that he was assigned as a medical officer to an infantry unit. During fierce fighting in Galicia, many of his comrades were wounded and he could do little to alleviate their suffering. He was out of his depth. To function at all, he began to self-medicate. Reidel’s final section, ‘Published Prose and Poetry, 1913-1915’, includes two very fine war poems – ‘In the East’ and ‘Grodek’ – but they transcend the desperate circumstances of the war (or perhaps: they do full justice to it?). Certain of Isaac Rosenberg poems, for example ‘Returning, We Hear Larks’, have something of the transcendent quality of these ‘war poems’ too.
Georg Trakl died of a cocaine overdose on 2 November 1914, the day before he was due to meet his patron, Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was a suspected suicide to start with, but in fact probably an accident. Mind, Trakl’s whole way of life veered, if not toward self-destruction then toward an embrace of reckless risk. Let the final words go to Karl Kraus, who is quoted within the book:
He is surely no victim of war. It was always inconceivable to me that he could live. His madness wrestled with godly things.
The publisher’s description of A Skeleton Plays Violin can be read here.