Category Archives: Seagull Books

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017


I have the privilege every day of going to work at a place that I love and that has a long and rich tradition of education.  The Woodstock Academy, founded in 1801, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and it has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum– “Look back at your future.” (For the philologists out there, respice is a present active imperative, a compound made up of the prefix re (back, again) and the verb spicio (to look) and futurum is the accusative, singular of the noun futurum which is formed from the future active participle of sum.)

These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past.  My husband likes to say that this motto is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.  I thought Respice Futurum is apt for a reflection on books as well;  it seems fitting to look ahead to my reading plans for 2017 while also reflecting on the types of books I have encountered over the past year and how they will influence my reading choices moving forward.

According to my list on Goodreads I read 105 books, a total of 24, 484 pages in 2016.  A few books were left off this list such as Pascal Quignard’s Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night. The Goodreads list also doesn’t include a few volumes of poetry I’ve read and some collections of essays.  And my list does not include any of the Latin or Greek authors I’ve translated or retranslated in 2016.   This was not a bad year for me, but not my best either.   The books in translation I have read have come from the following languages:  French, German, Spanish, Estonian, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian, Korean, Malayalam, Kannada, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Slovene, Icelandic, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese.

In looking at this list of lit in translation, I would like to explore more books from Asia and Africa which are not well-represented on my list.  I would also love to explore more books translated from Arabic which is a huge gap in my translated fiction.  If anyone has suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Almost all of the books I have read have been published by small presses which will continue to be my main source of reading: Seagull Books, New Vessel Press, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, Archipelago, New York Review of Books and Persephone Books. 

My first read of 2017 has been The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospondinov.  This is #29 in the Cahier Series and the first one I’ve read from this series.  I loved it so much that I went back and bought six more titles from the series, so there will be more Cahier titles in my future.

Gospondinov’s book The Physics of Sorrow is my favorite book from the Open Letter Catalog and one of my first reads in 2017 that I just started is another title from Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup. 

A book that I have already started in 2016 and will finish in 2017 is The Collected Prose of Kafka from Archipelago Press.  This is a title that I am slowly making my way through and savoring.  Archipelago has managed to collect some of Kafka’s best short pieces into one volume.

I have discovered the works of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy this year and reading his extensive backlist published in English should keep me busy for a very long time.  Next up on my list of books written by him is his title on Sleeping.

Speaking of French writers, I am eager to read Pascal Quignard’s Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings in 2017.

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of  Russian author Sergei Lebedev’s The Year of the Comet which is being published in 2017 by New Vessel Press.  I am very excited that I will have an interview with Lebedev coming up in an issue of Numero Cinq, for which literary magazine I am also privileged to continue to do production editing, to scout and recruit translators and to write reviews.   I am also looking forward to two additional lit in translation titles from New Vessel:  Moving the Palace (from Lebanon) and Adua (from Italy.)

I am always eager to read whatever Seagull Books publishes and thanks to their wonderful catalog I have discovered some classics of Indian literature.  I am also looking forward to reading Goat Days by Benyamin which is already sitting on my bookshelf.  I also understand that Seagull is publishing more works from Tomas Espedal in English translation which I am very eager to get my hands on.  A long-term, very long-term goal of mine is to read the entire backlist from Seagull Books.  I will do my best to put a large dent in that list this year.

This year I discovered Ugly Duckling Presse and I am eager to explore their backlist of poetry as well as their essays.  I have a copy of To Grieve by Will Daddario on my shelf already.  I would like to read more essays this year, so please leave suggestions for essays in the comments!

Finally, I would like to read more classics in 2017, especially Tolstoy, Pushkin and other Russian masters.  I have a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and a copy of The Complete Prose of Pushkin sitting on my shelf that I have yet to read.  I also look forward to the reissues of classics from NYRB who is publishing more books my Henry Green.  I am hoping to have read all six reissued Green books by the end of 2017.  And, as always, I look forward to whatever classics from British, (mostly) female authors that Persephone Books has in store.

And as far as posts on my blog are concerned, I have always shied away from writing about Latin and Greek and classics, but my reading of Logue’s War Music has inspired me to continue writing about The Iliad and to do some of my own translations and interpretations of various Latin authors.

classics-booksA sampling of some of my most cherished classics books; the Loebs are nestled snugly on the bottom shelf.

Well, I could go on and on about my reading plans for 2017 or I could just go and actually get to reading.  Happy new year to all of my fellow bibliophiles.  I hope you also get a chance to Respice Futurum.

chair-bookroomThe cozy spot where much of my reading takes place.  It is overlooked by a print of The Roving Shadows cover done by Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books artist.



Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, French Literature, German Literature, Hungarian Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Persephone Books, Seagull Books

My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.


Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.



Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas: a review of December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

This title was published in the original German in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

My Review:
decemberDecember comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten because in the original Roman calendar December was the tenth month of the year.  When two new months were added to the beginning of the Julian calendar, thus pushing back December to become the twelfth month, no one bothered to change the name.  As the month which concludes the Julian and Gregorian calendar years it is naturally a month of reflection, of looking back, of becoming more aware of the passage of time.  Kluge and Richter use this last month of the year for the inspiration behind their collection of stories and photographs; there is one entry for each day of the month in December and together the writings and art work serve as a philosophical and poetic commentary about time, fate, choice and even love.

The entries or pieces of writing for each day in December are a mixture of short story, poetry and philosophy.  The dates for the entries vary widely, from 12,999 B.C. to 2009 A.D.  Kluge does tend to favor the events of December 1941 and 2009 as many of the entries are set during one of these two years.  My favorite entry is the one for December 18th, 1941 entitled, “A WRONG DECISION IN WARTIME.”  Kluge describes Marita, the wife of the surgeon Dalquen, who had come to Berlin from her provincial town to stay at the Grand Hotel Furstenberg on Potsdamer Platz.  She falls in love with First Lieutenant Berlepsch but refuses to make love to him on that night because she had not wanted to prematurely hasten their relationship by engaging in one evening of unbridled passion.  Kluge writes, “Only three weeks later she would regret her decision.  The young officer fell in the fighting in northern Russia.”  Marita is deeply upset because she did not take the chance to be with the First Lieutenant when she was presented with a choice.  When Marita is faced with the opportunity later in the war to have one night of passion she takes it, and although it is not with Berlepsch whom she truly loved, she does not regret it.  Kluge’s last quotation in this story is very striking:

For one night full of bliss

 I would give my all


Kluge’s story about Marita and her fallen love brings up many more questions than answers.  Do we live our lives to the fullest and take advantage of every precious moment, whether there is a war or a crisis raging around us or not?  Do we take time to embrace and appreciate those whom we love?  And if we make the wrong choice is it irrevocable? Or can we find a way to learn from our mistakes and move on?

December is the month of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, so the cold and the snow and the shorter days feature  prominently in Kluge’s stories and in Richter’s photographs.  Another story that stands out is the one dated the 20th of December, 1832: “UNEXPECTED CONVERSION OF A HEATHEN.”  Dr. Wernecke has just helped a woman give birth in the village and is setting out through the snow and the woods to go back home.  Kluge writes:

At first he took the path which the villagers, either out of habit or out of superstition, had created as a kind of VILLAGE EXIT INTO DEAD NATURE, because in this hard-frozen winter such a ‘track’ led into nothingness.

As the doctor gets farther along on his snowy journey he becomes increasingly tired and bewildered.  He keeps on moving so he doesn’t freeze but he is becoming tired and disoriented.  The snow and the woods around him are closing in:

The endless expanse of snow produced a certain brightness in the night.  Wernecke could neither say ‘I don’t see anything at all’ nor ‘I see something.’ For that a clue would have been needed, a difference in the monotony of the snow-covered land.

december-2The doctor estimates that he has about four or five hours to live when suddenly he sees a faint, flickering light in the distance.  He isn’t sure if this light is a figment of his bewildered mind but he chooses to follow it anyway.  The light, which is indeed the very thing that saves him, was the lamp of the cathedral verger who at that precise moment was climbing the stairs of the cathedral to ring the nightly bells.

Dull-eyed, Dr. Wernecke nevertheless resolved to trust the light that had soon disappeared.  The light had guided his obstinate heart.  So the doctor found his way to the first houses of the town.

Because the good doctor is saved by this light, he, the “heathen” pays to have an iron lamp installed in the tower next to the bells.  Once again, Kluge poses many deep, philosophical questions with this brief story.  Why do we choose to follow certain paths and not others?  When a light appears in life do we choose to let it guide us, or do we let our obstinate heart convince us to take a less fortunate and unhappy path?  Do we choose to trust and to follow the light like Dr. Wernecke did, or do we ignore it at our own peril?

Each of the 39 photographs in the collection are a variation of trees in a forest that are covered with snow.  The photos are taken up close and give one the feeling of being closed in by the forest and the snow.  Dr. Wernecke’s description of his time in the snow-covered forest, as being able to see something and yet nothing at all, is a fitting description for Richter’s art.  In one picture there is, in the distance, a tiny image of a deer and in the very last photo in the collection a small cottage appears in a clearing through the trees.  Like Dr. Wernecke, can we make our way out of this claustrophobic woods and find that faint glimmer of light?

The second part of the book entitled, “CALENDARS ARE CONSERVATIVE” contains various discussions and meditations on calendars, time, and the passage of time.  One passage in particular caught my attention because of its reference to Latin words for time.  In “Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas’, an Islamic astrophysicist from Bangladesh and a European ambassador who is a medievalist are discussing different kinds of time by using the Latin names for them.  TEMPUS is time associated with the clock, with checking our watches, it is earthly time that we are always fighting against.  AEVUM, however, is celestial time, experienced only by the angels or other celestial beings.  In Latin it can be literally translated as “Time regarded as the medium in which events occur, indefinite continuous duration, the time series.”  It is oftentimes translated as a “span of time,” a “generation,” or an “age.”  Finally AETERNITAS is brought up by the scholars which, they argue, is the sense of time experienced only by the highest divinity.  It is translated as “infinite time,” eternity,” or “immortality.”  This tricolon crescendo of time presented by the men makes us step outside ourselves and think about time as something other than that ticking clock on the wall or that alarm that wakes us up or that watch which is constantly staring up at us from our wrists.

Seagull Books has published another extraordinary, thought-provoking, beautiful book.  This book is worth owning not only for the literature, philosophy and poetry contained within, but the beautiful prints reproduced on glossy, heavy weight paper make it a very special piece.

About the Author:
Alexander Kluge is one of the major German fiction writers of the late- twentieth century and an important social critic. As a filmmaker, he is credited with the launch of the New German Cinema movement.

About the Artist:
Gerhard Richter is one of the most respected visual artists of Germany, and his seminal works include Atlas (1964), October 18, 1977 (1988) and Eight Grey (2002).





Filed under Art, German Literature, History, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books, Short Stories

Soul as the Prison of the Body: The 2016-2017 Seagull Books Catalog


Seagull Catalog 2016-2017

The diverse offerings of thought-provoking and interesting literature in translation from around the world has made Seagull Books one of my favorite publishers.  Naveen Kishore, Sunandini Banerjee and their staff at Seagull publish a catalog each year that not only tempts us with descriptions and photos of their books, but they also include pieces of writing from authors and translators around the world.  This edition is very special to me because Naveen invited me and a few of my favorite bloggers to be contributors.

Naveen begins by sending out a provocation and asks each person to write a response or a reaction to his provocation.  As you can see from this year’s provocation Naveen is a master of creating poetic prose that is beautiful and thought-provoking:

Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.

For my own response, I wrote what I know and what I experience every day—Ovid, teaching and my daughter:

Ovid, in Book XV of his epic poem the Metamorphoses, lays out the stoic vision of the transmigration of the soul. Ovid challenges the human race not to fear death because the underworld is merely a transition, a brief holding place until the spirit takes on another form. Animae semperque priore/relicta sede novis domibus vivunt habitantque receptae: And our spirits, with an old place always being left behind, and having been received by new homes, live and dwell in them.

In my Latin 2 course when I teach the passive voice I give my students this passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses with which to practice their translations. This is always one of the most animated and lively classes of the year for my students as they decipher the Latin as well as the Stoic argument that the soul is never destroyed but that it is the part of us that always lives on. As a contrast, I also give the class an explanation of the Epicurean view of the soul, which is quite the opposite; the Epicureans believed that this life is all there is for us and once we are gone there is nothing left, neither a physical body nor a spirit.

Every year, without fail, my students unanimously reject the Epicurean idea of the afterlife and embrace the Stoic notion that our souls, the very essence of who we are, survive in some form. Out of the dozens of lines of Latin prose and poetry I translate with my students over the course of their five years of study in my program, this is the one passage that they always remember; this is the passage that they quote back to me long after they have graduated and this is the passage that a few of them have even had tattooed onto their bodies. Morte carent animae: Our spirits lack death. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit: All things are in flux, nothing is lost. Ipsa quoque adsiduo labuntur tempora motu, non secus ac flumen: Time itself glides in continual motion, not differently than a river.


We were recently translating another passage of the Metamorphoses in an upper level Latin course, the suicide death of Pyramus. The students were horrified by Pyrmaus’ impulsive decision to take his own life because his soul will be stuck in limbo for eternity. The Romans believed strongly that the punishment for taking one’s own life hastily because of what Vergil calls a durus Amor (a harsh love) or unrequited love was that the soul would forever wander in the Underworld. Even though Ovid tries to take away the fear of an afterlife, it is the fear of the unknown that still lingers. Will we come back into a body as something better than before, will we come back as human or beast, or will we come back as anything at all?

Ovid’s writings about the soul are the very things that keep his work relevant and immortal even in the twenty-first century. It is his discussion of the human soul that saves the literary soul of the Metamorphoses for generations to come. Ovid’s own words can be applied to each new class, each new year, each new generation of students’ interaction with his writings. Nova sunt semper. There are always new things. Momenta cuncta novant: All moments are renewed.

The optimism of believing in an undying soul reaches even farther back into the spirits of children. When my daughter was three or four years old she started asking questions about death and dying. We are not raising her under any particular religious doctrine, so my husband explained to her what various religions believe about the soul and what might happen to us when we pass from this world. Her favorite explanation was the idea that we are reincarnated and that the soul lives on and takes on new forms. Even today, as a fourth grader, she is still a Stoic in her belief that some part of our spirit remains even when we pass from this life. It is my hope that she will learn Latin so I can translate Ovid with her and witness her reaction to Ovid’s writings about the soul.

My interactions with my students and my daughter have led me to believe that there is a youthful optimism and hope that the soul, the spirit, the very core of who we are, lives on and on. Do we retain this same optimism as we grow older? Is this an extension of the idea that young people think they will live forever? Or is this even a faint hint of a memory from some life in the past?


Anthony, one of my favorite bloggers, whose site is aptly entitled Times Flow Stemmed, takes a deeply philosophical approach and reaches all the way back to Aristotle for his inspiration. He responds:

My sense of soul is rooted in Aristotle who also used the term psyche in a time before we rooted psychology in the brain, rather as a form or a forming of the whole body. Was and imprint, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, are one, but this begs the question of how we become one. Identity is a precondition for unity of self, awareness of our selves. The eye is for sight, the ear for hearing but there is no organ of memory, no place in the body where identity can be seen to reside.

Joe, who blogs at his site Rough Ghosts , provides a response that is, like his book reviews and essays,  poetic and contemplative:

Literature as liberator, you suggest.

     I am, I want to reply, inclined to agree.

     But I would caution you that words can confine us, as readily as they set us free.  We can become entangled in meanings, lose ourselves in definitions, search in  circles for explanations when all we know is that the words we hear don’t seem to touch the heart of what or whom we seem to be.

And Tony Malone, who blogs at Tony’s Reading List concludes the collection with a meditation on existential angst:

So, what to do with all this, the soul of literature, the literature of the soul, existential angst and the compost of the day?

I think I’ll just delete it and go to bed.  Sleep’s supposed to be very good for your soul.

Finally, a word must be said about the beautiful and stunning art work in the catalog that is done by Sunandini Banerjee.  She is the graphic artist for Seagull Books and does the art work for their catalog and their book covers.  I did a post about her art and the piece that has been featured on my blog.  The poetry, essays, photography and book descriptions are always amazing, but it is Sunandini’s art that puts that truly unique finishing touch on this spectacular literary catalog.



Filed under Literature in Translation, Seagull Books

Review: Sebastian Dreaming by Georg Trakl

I received a review copy of this title from Seagull Books.  These poems have been translated from the original German into this English version by James Reidel.

My Review:
sebastian-dreamingGeorg Trakl died from a cocaine overdose while recovering from a nervous breakdown in a military hospital during World War I.  He was awaiting the proofs of Sebastian Dreaming which he had requested despite the fact that the publication of this collection was put off indefinitely because of The Great War.  Sebastian Dreaming was the second, and final collection that was prepared for publication by the author himself and James Reidel’s translation of this collection is the first that has appeared in English in its entirety.  Although some of the poems have appeared in other collections, the translator has argued that these poems ought to be read as part of this single collection, which is what Trakl himself intended.

In my review of Trakl’s  first collection of poems that was also published by Seagull Books and translated by James Reidel, I argued that, although Trakl’s struggle against depression and despair is evident, an underlying sense of triumph against these demons lingers; Trakl does not let his feelings of dejection overwhelm or destroy him.  Not yet, anyway.    But Sebastian’s Dreaming, which contains more overwhelming images of decay and dying, foreshadows Trakl’s impending overdose which many speculate was a suicide;  by the time this collection was composed he had finally been overwhelmed and defeated by his emotional disturbances, excessive indulgences in drugs and alcohol and the incestuous relationship he shared with his sister.  In short, the tone of these poems is more deeply melancholic than those in the previous collection.  In  Dream and Benightment he writes:

O, cursed breed.  When every fate is consummated in filthy
rooms, death enters the household with mouldering footsteps.
O, that spring was outside and a lovely bird might sing in
the blossoming tree.  But the sparse green withers grey at
the window of those who come by night  and the bleeding
hearts still think about evil.

The collection is divided into five sections, the titles of which suggest something of a final scene, before the curtain of his life has fallen: “Sebastian Dreaming”, “The Autumn of One Alone”, “Song Septet of Death”, “Song of the Solitary,” and “Dream of Benightment.”   In the poem Passion there exists a struggle against nature and our natural surroundings which bring about our inevitable demise.  Orpheus, who was torn apart by wild beasts as he sings a lament for his lost wife, is an apt figure for the destruction that passion can wreak on a human soul:

When Orpheus strums the lyre silver,
Lamenting one dead in the evening garden,
Who are you, one reposed, under towering trees?
The autumn reeds rustle with the lament,
The blue pond,
Dying away under greening trees
And following the shadow of the sister;
Dark love
of a wild kind,
For whom the day rushes by on golden spokes.
Silent night.

Anyone familiar with Trakl’s complicated relationship with his sister Grete can’t help but notice the proximity of the word sister to those of Dark love/of a wild kind.

I found it interesting to learn from reading an introduction to Reidel’s  manuscript,  Some Uncommon Poems and Versions,  that the Austrian pediatrician who lends his name to the disorder believed that Trakl displayed the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome.  Trakl’s poetry demonstrates two of the hallmark symptoms of this syndrome:  a gift with language and an emotional remoteness.  As an expressionist poet it is natural that his poetic landscape is full of this movement’s angst, interactions with nature and vivid colors.  But after reading Reindel’s comment about Asperger’s Syndrome I viewed his poems with a different eye, one towards someone who has difficulty with intimate connections and certain emotional cues.  Trakl never tells us he is melancholy or sad or overcome with despair.  But instead he describes Love as a pink angel appearing quietly to a boy or Joy as an evening sonata playing in cool rooms.

Finally, I would like to mention the pervasive use of colors in this collection.  The pages are consumed with the various shades that Trakl sees in nature.  Colors play an interesting role in expressing our emotions; we wear black at a funeral and a red dress to a festive party.  Different colors are associated with different holidays and seasons.  Trakl’s uses of color in his poetry brought to mind the vivid and bright pieces of the Expressionist painters.  Perhaps color was the best way that Trakl knew how to deal with and process his complicated emotional struggles.  He writes about a “blue soul” and a “black silence” in Autumn Soul.  The poem By Night contains a different color in each line that captures the mood of what could be the beginning of a passionate night:

The blue of my eyes is put out in this night.
The red gold of my heart.  O! How still burns the candle.
Your blue mantel enfolds the one falling;
Your red mouth seals the friend’s benightment.

Seagull Books will publish one final collection of poetry in the Trakl series.  I look forward to reading that collection and comparing it with the previous two volumes.

About the Author and Translator:
G TraklGeorg Trakl was born in Salzburg, Austria. As a teenager he gravitated towards poetry, incest and drug addiction and published his first work by 1908, the year he went to Vienna to attend pharmacy school and became part of that city’s fin-de-siècle cultural life. He enjoyed early success and published his first book in 1913. A year later, however, he died of a cocaine overdose due to battle fatigue and depression from the wartime delay of his second book.

 James Reidel is poet, translator, editor and biographer. In addition to the works of Georg Trakl, he has translated novels by Franz Werfel and poetry by Thomas Bernhard, among others. He is the biographer of poet Weldon Kees and author of two volumes of poetry.


Filed under German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books