Thursday, January 15, 2009

Georg Trakl and Mitchell Parry

Mitchell Parry. Imperfect Penance. Fredericton, New Brunswick: Goose Lane Editions, 2008. 107 pp.

This is a multi-faceted book of poems that, taken together, form a subtext to the works and life of Austrian poet and dramatist Georg Trakl (1887-1914); a writer who, beyond his consummate skill as tone and color poet in the vein of poets maudit like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont—the late romantic/symbolist/early modernist precursors to our current idea of an avant-garde—also typifies a dramatic and tragic Viennese aesthete’s life history: he was a drug addict, held an incestuous love for his sister, and then fell victim during the first few weeks of World War I at the young age of 24. As Parry indicates in his notes, there is as yet no full biography of Trakl’s life that has been translated into English. As a result, Imperfect Penance is, for the time being, his biography.

…Of sorts.

And what sorts are these! Large blocks of prose recreating imaginary scenes in Trakl’s life, poems responding to signature examples of Trakl’s work, a chronological progression throughout the tripartite structure of Parry’s sequence, and a kind of biographical and descriptive re-framing of Trakl’s style that proposes an evocative “real event” providing the causes and contributing influences for Trakl’s work.

There are critical differences between Trakl’s poems and Parry’s, namely, the distance from Trakl’s emphasis on dream and delirium to the kind of cool heat of description in Parry’s writing. Parry’s poems are not late romantic/symbolist poetry: he clearly takes part in the documentary rage that defines our era, and there is no avoiding the contemporary pattern of softening (broadening, diluting) previous condensations of imagery and tropes, expanding the symbolist’s minimal color and tone palette into today’s accuracy of denotations (as in the naming of birds, the particularities of place-names, and other clearly referenced historical moments). One aspect of literary historiography specific to this project is the vividly recounting of “events” as we have had so often in television and cinema’s dramatic recreations of celebrity life. Viewing Parry’s work historically, we should recognize the present impulse to move away from or, in a way, efface the transcending spaces of literature in order to incorporate them into our obsessive currency of fact.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is Parry’s handling of Trakl’s poem “Rondel”. A rondel is a poetic form that mirrors the first two lines of the poem in succeeding lines, creating an arresting effect of difference in repetition:

Verflossen ist das Gold der Tage,
Des Abends braun und blaue Farben:
Des Hirten sanfte Flöten starben
Des Abends blau und braune Farben
Verflossen ist das Gold der Tage.

Here is my poor translation:

Long gone is the gold of days,
evening’s colors brown and blue:
the soft flutes of shepherds are dying,
evening’s colors blue and brown,
long gone is the gold of days.

With the shift towards biography, and its overlay of purposes, Parry writes:

Past is the gold of day.
The crocus folds its purple hands:
a young girl tucks her hair beneath her scarf.
The crocus folds its purple hands.
Past is the gold of day.

Which is evocative, certainly. There is, perhaps, more honesty in seeing the evocation of a pastoral moment in Trakl’s poem as so much melancholy regret at the covering up of a young woman’s hair. Yet, why not a line like “the purple folds its crocus hands”? In my opinion, what is missing most from Parry’s book is the full recognition of how biographically important Trakl’s sense of color really is. Here are three lines from Trakl’s “Rest and Silence” from the Daniel Simko translation: “A pale man/ Lives in blue crystal, his cheek leaning on stars,/ Or else he bows his head in purple sleep”. “Rest and Silence” is also the title of Parry’s initial text in Part One of Imperfect Penance.

What emerged for me as I read Parry’s book was a clear sense that this work exemplifies North American poetics, shows us what has taken place in our “New American” poetry up through to the end of the 20th century: a mistrust of poetry’s own mythology: that desire for an art that imputes significant sensuous reality to its poetic vocabulary, its composition of imagery, beyond all contextual framing that would rivet it to a unique time/place/subject position. So much poetry of our moment can only ironically permit the auditoria of the classical or romantic, in the feeling that all reference to the Western imaginary is an implication of its ideological failures, as if these tropes were the secret source-springs from which centuries of blind destructiveness were unstoppered. If so, then we can understand the “slight return” of Viennese Voodoo Chile Georg Trakl as pure trope—biographically, and poetically. To write a book that undergirds that mythology with the tempering modality of current historiographic and biographical conventions is to give penance not to the sequence of ideas resulting in the suicidal catastrophy of Europe in WW1, but to the fact that the delirium and dream of this specifically male poetic imaginary needs better acknowledgment. That it needs better recognition and melioration than our post-pop cultural exaggeration of surfaces. Parry’s flawed penance points to the composition of a purely fictive space in which fantasy and melancholy can be indulged in unflinchingly. The extreme stylization of Trakl’s erotics (as in the works of Egon Schiele, among many others—Fauvists, Die Brücke, Blaue Reiter, etc.) weds sexual transgression to sepulcral decay. That this was the symbolist’s fullest artistic fabrication and result was also seen as the extreme failure to provide a better mimesis that so convinced poets like Ezra Pound and Tristan Tzara that new aesthetic grounds would be necessary. If Trakl, or Parry, mean for us to see their works as ironic or melopoetic, than I think I have misread them all along.

Which leads me to think about the idea of Parry’s project in poetic biography. Whether or not Georg and Grete were physical lovers, what was pertinent to Trakl’s aesthetic was the tension between a prohibition, whose violation ensured a consequent damnation of the soul, and the resulting heightening of sensuousness of a primary kinship relation turned into an erotic longing. Symbolism, as reflection of a spectrum of fantasy recoiling from the approaching flattening out of the artist’s conjuring powers as a result of photography, cinema, and industrial production (to wit: the suburbanization of the world in its unceasing regularization of landscapes under corporate design homogeneity), was able to invoke a kind of depth psychology in which impotence could be leveraged into mythic prowess.What Trakl gained from his close reading and absorption of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Baudelaire was a consistent body of works that held close to its twilight/bright-lit nexus of themes and images. What we can say of Trakl is almost never said of contemporary poets: that he was a master of color. His poetry gains as much from the aesthetic of his contemporary painters as it does from the melancholy of its poets-maudit with their self-tragic histrionics. Trakl is in some way a better guide to Freudian psychology than Freud himself, because there is no attempt made to give over the contents of his obsessions to a yearning for normality that would extinguish its operability, its continuation. Trakl, above most others who follow him in characteristic American ways (such as Plath, Berryman, and to some extent Robert Lowell), has no interest in becoming normal, and instead revels in the purely negative components of his perceived (and, what may be his reason for survival as a literary figure, realized) damnation.

What Parry’s book suggests, in its title, is that, in terms of a Western “conscience”, there has been no complete resolution of the particularities of the fin-de-siecle, the decadents, and the relation of the artist’s to an alienated, criminal’s mind. I still wonder how, though, a homage to a Viennese poet of one hundred years previous is appropriate to today’s poetry audience? Is it that we can only now appreciate the ways that appropriated works are moving into the foreground among younger writers, especially for a generation that seems ready to accept (and celebrate) that no critically new (e.g. “foundational”) literary tropes are emerging in our culture? We seem, instead, to realize that our advances in understanding have more to do with the scale, scope, and speed of transforming our already-accomplished knowledge than with the ability for any single artist to crystallize and generate new paradigms. But the recourse to a failed biography of a rather grim modernist poet may also tell us more about our current acceptance of the loss of that impulse. Meaning: we’re not yet happy about it, and are perhaps again curious as to why so many writers of these distant generations were so invested in projects we now feel have completed themselves, even if we squeeze them of any remaining relevance they may have through our deft manipulations of reproduction and technological ability to remix.

Trakl’s poems, when read in succession, are a lot like Monet’s haystacks: the “object” of the paintings doesn’t change to any great extent, while all the means of understanding it, as a reflection of a changing and changeable light, do. Trakl’s poetry is faceted, and repetitive of singular moments comprised of a moral, visual terrain that will not change, whereas Parry’s book comprises a sequential narrative of the subject’s life, reflected in a kind of mimic voicing. Parry conveys a desire for realism that we may not be interested in acknowledging as the real pleasure we get from reading the book. And, as to the extent that Trakl’s work is relatively obscure for most North American readers can only increase the chances that Parry’s book will find an audience. I would not compare Parry’s efforts to the vivid and nostalgic Merchant and Ivory films of the 1980s and 1990s. It would serve us better to appreciate the degree to which Parry is able to express his own fantasy life (a world of 1990s and 2000s urban metropoles) under the guise of biography and stylistic metaphor.

Parry’s book is important simply because it is not a work of autobiography, as so many other extended lyric meditations are. There is all the latent voyeuristic pleasure of looking into a vanished, lurid, riotous bohemian world way over there on the other side of the century, with all of its famous personages of the scene: Wittgenstein, Kraus, Kokoshka, Freud, etc. It is also important because poetic biographies are very rare (I can think of only two other’s that strive for factual information in the same way: John Brown’s Body by Stephen Benet, and Edward Sanders’ Chekov). That puts Imperfect Penance in a category with few other works of poetry, and makes it a valuable, interesting, and uncommon book.



  1. Interesting. What would you give as a rundown of foundational poetic tropes in American/European poetry this century?

  2. What seems to propel a lot of poetic work, meaning that it gets funded and talked about, in the USA are the conventions of insight/wisdom (the epiphantic zen-pop, deep-summary last line zinger poems), the placating poem of heart's ease with a cup of tea, the "liberation" poem manifesting an identity group that simply normalizes whatever differences do exist, and then the rest is what I call "polytechnic guild" poetry--the serious academic stuff that belongs in the Museum of Modern Art and in graduate classrooms, but rarely anywhere else. Still, there are multitudes of outsiders. Poetry is the land of idiosyncracies, you know. But I name some others in my post. Post-identity poetry--issue of scale, register, speed and remix. It's an age of recycling! The UBPenn Poetics list seems fascinated by prostitution and science/nature poetry these days.