Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Paper Conspiracies by Susan Daitch

"Taking on the role of animating but anonymous power that revitalized Buster Keaton as his eyes grew sadder and (I thought) more disillusioned, or pumping up a flimsy, short haired Myrna Loy revealed an odd kind of romance I sometimes had with these images.  Or maybe it was a case of antiromance, the romance of solitary, imaginary pleasures."

"Yet when I watched movies and cartoons made before 1939 I couldn't help but pretend to inhabit those faces known only through photographs, wondering if they had watched these too, and in that projection back, the ghostly clusters took on a mixture of strange and familiar features."

The magic and mystery of the film industry, and the restoration of old and damaged reels is the setting for this novel that examines both current attitudes and historical events with the same intense focus on what is hidden and what is revealed.  Intentions to divert, distract, and conceal are all a part of the discoveries Frances makes as she tries to recover films from the past.

Her own sense of romance about her job alters as she realizes, through her boss, that substantial historical secrets could be literally under her fingers.  Set on preserving and discovering the truth, she learns about the infamous Dreyfus Affair, a French scandal that involved anti-semitism, the Catholic Church, politics, the monarchy, and even the writer Emile Zola.  The connection between this still-bitter historical event and the novel is what the novel investigates as the films of George Melies. 

The damaged film may hold the key to incriminating details to the Dreyfus case, and Frances finds that her life is changed as she tries to sort out clues from what appears to be distractions set to throw off the search for the truth. Old letters, vengeful agents, and Frances' bulldog personality all make the search for the riddle's answers that much more difficult.

Everything about this book revolves around the mystery of film and using that as a motif, Daitch manages to reveal her characters in a light that makes us wonder if we are seeing them as they are or as another shadowy transparency. While the book is extensive in scope, the writing is sharp and lean.  It doesn't linger too long on any one facet, even at times when I wish it had.  There's so much going on, politically and historically, that I found myself checking Google often to try and piece together my own take on what was fact and what was fiction.

"...Fabien saw special effects as links that created logical connections between otherwise entirely disparate events or objects....While he searched for props, he created or participated in another event, a parallel set of circumstances and phenomena..."

There's probably an obvious, underlying intention for the reader to question what they see and the forces behind whatever images they are presented with.  While this focuses backwards, there's an instinctive sense of acknowledgement that makes us realize the Dreyfus Affair is being repeated under other names and in other media right in front of us.

Special thanks to Stacey of City Lights for the Review Copy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Originally published at The Quivering Pen

"Stieg Larsson marries Quentin Tarantino"....(credit David Abrams with the cool title!)

At least the man knows how to clean and how to straighten up a room. I’ll give him that much credit, despite the fact his tidying up is only a way to kill time, waiting on a woman who may end up a victim. Vacuum expertise aside, however, it’s difficult to find much else of interest in this arrogant and chatty assassin nicknamed “Toxic,” the main character of the novel The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning, who continually reminds us just how skilled he is at murder. Immediately, we start to wonder how this will play out: is he going to turn into a valiant hero, or will he maintain his tragic vision and become the rarely seen, fully fledged anti-hero? 
“…I’m really proud of my hitman work. I always try to do a good job. ‘Victim first’ is my motto.”
Determined to come across as a fully-accredited badass, the protagonist narrates his every thought and action as he flees the U.S. after a hit goes wrong.  Seeing the FBI on his tail, he quickly changes his plans, kills another stranger, and steals his identity. He awakes on a plane bound for Reykjavik, Iceland.  The odds are good his escape plan will work, except that his new identity is that of a well-known fundamental Christian leader with a schedule of appearances awaiting him.  Deciding to play along with the ruse, he manages to record some disturbing radio sermons and manipulate his somewhat confused hosts, all while looking for a way out of Iceland. 

Author Hallgrimur Helgason often channels Quentin Tarantino with action similar to the film director’s style: fast-paced violence, pop culture references, saturated with sarcasm.  This is completely intentional, as Tarantino gets mentioned (as do Beyonce and Creed) several times in the storyline. The frenetic pace makes it difficult to absorb just how despicable the character is, and I found myself grasping for some quality to make him likable, some redeeming quality that would explain his often disturbing actions. 
“Usually I don’t want to know anything about my victims. It’s like back in the war. I kill strangers. I don’t feel for them. They’re just another head to swamp my bullet into…Usually they have refused to pay their tithe, failed to deliver for Dikan, or they show up with the same tie as he at the Mafia Oscars.”
See that? He manages to radiate disinterest and boredom, while at the same time making a really bad joke.  Unfortunately, that becomes the theme of this novel.  When hiding in an attic looking himself up on Google, he jokes, “I’m Anne Frank online.” Upon remembering a group of beautiful women, he shares his wishes for “mass rape.” He is endlessly amused at the low murder rates in the country, and spends his time remembering the better days in the States where he celebrated each kill with glee. 

It becomes clear at the midpoint of the novel that there is a source of his internal conflict and external bravado: he served in the Balkan war, and with his father and brother, saw and participated in terrible atrocities.  Helgason inserts the details slowly, and it’s possible to feel a tiny bit of pity for the protagonist.  But it doesn’t last, as experiences of war don’t seem sufficient to mitigate his present behavior.  If anything, the arc of the Balkan storyline appears so far into the novel that it feels too late to make up for his actions. Of course, mindlessly killing a small dog doesn’t exactly make him appealing.  And yet his self-awareness grows, likely because he’s out of his element and who he had been can’t exist anymore. In one brief moment, he admits, “everybody must have figured out I am the monster who lives under the bridge.” 

On the surface, the premise of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is very clever, but the delivery is so unsavory that it is neither tragic nor comic.  The sarcasm and humor feels forced, almost like a joke told by a comedian who is trying far too hard to get a laugh.  I get the feeling that Helgason is trying to reinforce just what a “monster” Toxic is due to his past experiences, yet there’s no evidence that he’s left the past behind. The other characters he encounters seem flat, as if they are only tools to further reveal Toxic’s depravity. 

Perhaps this can be attributed to the Stieg Larsson effect. Scandinavian crime novels boomed with his “Girl” trilogy, but the dark mystery novels were nothing new.  Other authors, such as Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen and Arnaldur Indridason have created suspenseful and imaginative crime stories in the same setting for years before the region became comparatively “hot” in the literary world.  While those authors don’t often present characters quite as colorful as Toxic, they usually succeed in developing deeper characters with a more compelling warmth. 

Review by Amy Henry

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spring Tides by Jacques Poulin (French translation)

Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman

Supporting the translator, to every means possible, seems to be the theme of this unsettling and comic book from Jacques Poulin. The story told is held up by the elements of myth and fable that make the island setting and bizarre visitors seem to impart a greater meaning than had they been placed anywhere else. Translator (Teddy) seems to be the focus, there’s also a Prince, an Author, the Boss, the Organizer, a Professor, a ghastly woman called Featherhead, and an Ordinary Man who come to share the small island with a princess named Marie and a family of cats. Of course, the Author is a grump.

Teddy arrives first, and his work as a comic book translator appears top-secret as his boss frequently flies in to check on him and his work, while also delivering, via helicopter, any possible item that Teddy might find helpful (which is how Marie arrived). Teddy works and swims, and focuses on the tides that isolate the island but also seem to keep it, while stationary, in fluid motion.

Interactions between characters are what propel the events, more so than the arc of a plot. Each character reveals something completely different to what we’ve understood about Teddy. So as they arrive, he appears to unravel a bit, both in our perception and in his literal mental health.

Reading this felt relaxing and amusing. The little digs at publishing, especially the character of the Author, felt spot-on. But something about this made me feel I was missing a bigger picture. Almost as if it might have been even more tragic-comic had I known what the joke was. Because that’s what I felt, as if I only had heard the punch line and was missing the setup of an “in” joke between the author and the story. What am I missing? I tried to find some literary link to another island with similar characters and all I could get was Gilligan (and don’t worry, this is not Gilligan’s Island).

Despite that, I did enjoy the word play, especially the behind the scenes nature of translation and why Teddy chose particular words over others, and his explanations for doing so.

While I review for Algonquin, this was acquired as purchase I made two years ago.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D'Agostino

Calvin Moretti is a jerk.  Despite being in his twenties, he behaves like a teenager, collecting vintage vinyl and sinking further into debt.  While he wants to be a man of the world, he ends up moving back home with his parents.  In fact, every decision he makes, or drifts into, leads him backwards. 

The timing home is difficult; his overachieving and obnoxious brother is also home for an indefinite time, and his little sister has rejoined the nest.  It all seems to be coming together for a Hallmark moment when the reader learns that the father of these children is dying of cancer.  All those kids, all that potential help!  Caregiving and getting to know each other, creating precious memories.

But no.  This is not that family.  Because "Dad" is not a Hallmark moment patient.  He keeps a Colt .45 in his robe.  Shooting at life-size family images through a window at night is just something to do.  He's bunkered down, stocking the house with everything he can to beat a potential enemy, just not the one that is killing him from within.  He makes Calvin promise to be with him in the end, and gives away his fears, it seems, only to Calvin.

An ensemble cast and a family drama like this usually leaves an author plenty of room to make it all work out with lots of hints at impending unity.  That despite it all, they'll end up closer and wiser.

But no.  This is not that author.  Kris D'Agostino doesn't take the shortcuts.  He creates characters that are messed up, and that much more real for their flaws.  Recognizing that challenges don't always bring out the best in us, he doesn't insult the reader by tidying up their sometimes ugly lives.  For example, Calvin works with disadvantaged and disabled children.  Perfect setup to make him a sympathetic character, but D'Agostino doesn't go there.  Calvin is just as much a jerk at work, impatient with these kids, and we see just how atypical he is. And here's the thing: the more layers of flaws and complications put on each character don't just make them difficult, it actually draws us in.

So how can you work a plot around some extraordinarily complicated characters?  D'Agostino does so by making everything a surprise.  A push and pull comes from moments when Calvin looks towards the future:

"What's going to happen to us?" I ask.

"In what context?" David asks.

"In the context of life," I say. "A year from now I'll be twenty-five. My father got married when he was twenty-five. He bought a house. I have nothing to show for it."

"We don't want those things," Wally says.
"Maybe we need to grow up," I say. "At least a little.  maybe it isn't all about us."

Yet pages later, Calvin is still short-sighted as always, looking for the perfect drug to deaden such questions about life.  These moments occur for the rest of the family, as their worry over their Dad and money and a new complication presents itself.  Many twists keep the tension ratcheted up, and it's difficult to put it down once you've started.  Possibly because, while most families like to imagine they are the Cosby's, the Walton's, or the Cleaver's, the reality is that they are the Simpson's.  And the Simpson's are what most of us understand.

Special thanks to Megan Fishmann for the Advance Review Copy.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Releases today! GRANTA 119: Britain

The release of a new Granta journal is always a big deal, and this issue on Britian gives you about ten reasons why.  As usual, it features poetry, fiction, journalism, and photography, but this time the issue is focused on one of my favorite places---Britain!  In fact, I probably watch more BBC than most Britons, so I practically devoured the whole issue.

The new issue features a delicate china cup in a traditional motif, but it’s cracked, without a handle. In Granta terms, that’s a big clue as to contents. This look at Britain is anything but stuffy or traditional, and it’s one of my favorite issues ever. Seriously, I’m the person you see at the thrift store going through piles of old books to find back issues of ancient Grantas, and who does a little happy dance when she finds one (one day I found five!!).

As usual, the journal features poetry, journalism, short stories and photographic essays. I first dove into Ross Raisin’s short story, “When You Grow Into Yourself”, because I was so fond of his novel, Waterline, which came out last year. And Mario Vargas Llosa’s piece, “The Celt”, is unforgettable in its sly humor and devastating realism.

Then there's Sam Byer's story, "Some Other Katherine":

"Katherine didn’t like to think of herself as sad. It had a defeatist ring about it. It lacked the pizzazz of, say, rage or main. But she had to admit that these days she was waking up sad a lot more than often than she was waking up happy.

“Like much of Katherine’s life, what she read and what she watched were governed by her sense of types of people: types she wanted to be; types she couldn’t stand. She didn’t want to be the sort of person (woman) who watched soaps and weepie movies. She wanted to be the type of person (woman) who watched the news and read the Booker list. She imagined herself at parties, despite the fact she never went to parties, being asked her opinion on world affairs and modern literature

Byer's short story is going to win some sort of award, even if I have no idea what they give to astonishing short stories.  The O.Henry? The "Katherine" that he creates is at times familiar but also scary as hell. The affect he can give to a fictional character is nothing short of brilliant.

Several poems are featured, my favorite being Robin Robertson’s “1964”, where the day’s journey of a kid --from playing in puddles, through the “museum of men” at the local barbershop, and to an unexpected end—creates an edgy yet innocent character.

“Under the gritted lid of winter, each
ice puddle’s broken plate
cracked to a star. The morning
assembling itself into black and white, the slow dawn
its developing tray. Cold steams off the grass;
the frosted yarrow and sea holy
smoke in the new sun.

I know how children came, so I look for the stork
in the cliffs over the mussel pools…
Search for her everywhere
in the gantries of the storm woods, in the black pines,
that she might take me back.”

For the most serious read, a section on Belarusian journalism by Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada details the numerous suspicious deaths of reporters who were falsely accused of being agitators. The article studies a group of thespians as well as the efforts of the KGB to intimidate them.

Mashka Henner

Mashka Henner
In the photography series entitled "Home", numerous artists play on the theme of the nature of home, from a hoarder, to a person recently released from Guantanamo Bay, to the looters and rioters who take from others while likely unable to define their own sense of place. In Mashka Henner's "The Gleaners" (two images of which are shown), the looters take on an almost classic portrait appearance, something you'd see at the Tate instead of on CCTV.

Special thanks to Saskia Vogel for the Advance Review Edition.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Use Your Words by Kate Hopper (non-fiction)

Okay, first off, let me rave. I love love love this book! And I was astonished at how much is packed into
its pages.  First, I write when I can fit it in, usually for this blog. It's difficult with kids to find the time. When you do get a free moment, your brain is fried. So it's refreshing when author Kate Hopper gets that, and addresses it immediately. But she goes further than the simple tried and true advice to "write all the time". She acknowledges time is hard to come by, and gives ideas.

But it's more than that. She includes motherhood as a genuine topic to cover. She states, "When you say you're writing about "motherhood" some people assume that the story --if indeed there is any story at all--will consist of only sleepless nights, diaper changes, nursing debacles, and tantruming toddlers. They assume if they opened your book they would be sucked into the minutiae of daily life with children." Isn't that exactly right? To say you're a mother who writes makes most people dismiss your work as less than serious.

Yet, instead of trying to prove that isn't the case, she urges readers to hone their craft by writing about everything in their life, and not just through the lens of mothering. Moms are complicated: "women--mothers--crafting memoirs and essays dealing with issues of identity, loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy....last time I checked, this was the stuff of which real literature was made".

To that end, she gives legitmate writing advice (concrete terms, sensory images, selective word choices). Then she shows prompts to make you practice writing about an event to make it feel real, not just a vague memory. This in itself is terrific practice. But beyond those, she includes numerous essays by writers who happen to be moms. These reveal the very truths about what Hopper urges: honesty, tangible descriptions, and the freedom to discuss what may not appear to follow the June Cleaver image of motherhood.

I can see using this over and over. It is not paced to be read in one sitting. It's more of a workbook that will only help if you sit down and try it....do the prompts. Interact with the essays. Make notes. And go back and do it again.

Lastly, it's a great introduction to the works of some wonderful female authors I had never heard of....now I have a larger list of books to search out: Jill Christman, Beth Kephart, and Alexis Wolfe are a few.  I'm planning on using this book over the summer to try and reign in my schedule to waste less time and write more. I can actually imagine a writing group structured around this book...

Bluesman's Daughter, by Jeffrey Alfier (poetry)

Normally, when I read a chapbook of poetry, especially one whose author I’ve read before, I jump around a bit in my exploration. I may read one or two poems, then put the whole thing in my tote until I get a chance to read a few more. Seldom in order. And that’s what I did with Jeffrey Alfier’s new chapbook “Bluesman’s Daughter” from Kindred Spirits Press. I dog-eared the pages that spoke to me, the verses especially poignant. But the night before I worked on the review, I did something entirely different.

It was a moonlit night; I couldn’t sleep, so I ended up again reading, but this time cover to cover. My perceptions changed-some becoming sharper-while other elements seemed to infuse the whole with a theme I had missed on my hit and miss reading previous.

Alfier is known for sparing prose, concise writing, and intensely visual descriptions. This doesn’t change in Bluesman’s Daughter. But something about this collection feels more historical and more personal. True, we can guess that he’s the Bluesman, and we know he has a daughter he cares deeply about. But it’s even more personal than that.

In “My Father and the Laws of Coal”, Alfier describes a coal man slowly converting to the use of hardwoods for warmth. Hardwood left less dust, less painful shoulders. And nothing much changed in the end as the house was still warmed either way. But the point isn’t the conversion of fuels but the change in mindsets, a sadness almost that the past is no longer relevant, and that by its easy replacement, becomes forgettable. Suddenly we sense that this isn’t about fuel and warmth at all.

“Before the Redeployment” features a father trying to convince his daughter to avoid another return to wartime battle. He can’t imagine her in harm’s way, no matter how much he respects her strength. Yet, there’s a point where fathers can’t control or dissuade their daughters, and the father here understands, “I’m still learning to trust the shadows you want.”

He creates a startling character portrait in “The High School Cafeteria Lady”, a woman who “breaks up fights quicker than coaches.” Her exterior is tough, but she goes beyond the ordinary to be the one that “teaches kids at lunchtime the difference between stocks and bonds, and if the scales of justice have to balance your checkbook you’ve gone too far.” This life teacher will probably be remembered by students more than the hip science teacher or the cynical English professor. Instead, she’ll be remembered as the hard-ass with a heart for Chesterfields.

The whole collection puts improbable characters and situations together and each feel like a glimpse of reality. Certain phrases just knock you out: “Fresh blue paint applied to a clapboard house warns that hope is something recycled here.” Yeah, it’s that good. Then there’s this description, “Her skin was the paper men signed confessions on”. Visual, concrete, and real.

Special thanks to Kindred Spirits Press for this review copy.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Naked in New York, a memoir by Alan Cooke

An audio book by Alan Cooke

“A landmark of nostalgia, ugliness, and reinvention”

Many themes cross in Alan Cooke’s memoir that traces his journey from Ireland to New York just after the events of 9/11. For one thing, the journey itself, being far more than just a change in location, displays the personal motivations that would compel someone to leave all they’ve known for something intangible. The idea of New York is what calls him. Being the center of art and culture, he wants to test his wings and see if the city of his dreams is indeed magical.

The journey takes place in October, when the world was still reeling from the terrorist attacks. Naturally, his family was concerned for his safety. But most touching to me was the way he relays the events of the day of 9/11, as observed in a Dublin pub. Somehow, knowing that the entire world was watching, gasping, and horrified as we were is very moving. The silence that descends on that Pub shows a tie of humanity across borders. This tie is explored by Cooke once he’s arrived into the city.

Another theme, reminiscent of the work of Tomas Espedal, is survival. Looking after oneself with just a backpack and the desire to explore, Cooke’s entry into New York is complicated by finding places to stay once his initial funds run out. Survival becomes consuming, especially when he realizes just how many of the crowded streets are in a similar position. He finds work, but being “illegal”, has to be concerned with both doing a good job and making sure he’s off the radar. Survival in New York, in his case, often means going without even food, but by a bit of Irish charm he usually manages to get by well.

What keeps this from being an ordinary travel memoir is the writing. Cooke is a poet, and the words he chooses to describe his adventures feel poetic. Phrases are built carefully rather than pages of repetitive prose. Less is more, as always, and the result is finely polished writing that is compact but powerful. He has much to say about the towers falling, and in approaching the remains of the towers, he notes “Ground zero wailing in silence.” He depicts the area as one of dread and death but teeming with hope.

The street life of Manhattan is dissected by some very careful and astute people watching. Taking notes while drinking endless coffee (how can this man sleep?), he watches the residents scurry, sometimes noting their resemblance to animals, while at other times he elevates their condition to that of angels. He sees “the functionally insane and the wholly mad” all around him, yet there’s a trick here. Is it the “holy” mad that he’s referring to? What he writes and observes makes you pause and wonder again at exactly what he has in mind. To turn a declarative phrase into such a complicated question is a subtlety that fills the book.

In his people watching, he always leans towards the positive. He doesn’t bash people; instead, he seems to notice little details that may explain even the rudest of characters he meets. One section contains a fascinating glimpse of humanity when Manhattan experienced a tremendous black out months after 9/11. The fear was instant, and people took to the streets en masse to find out what was going on…once it was learned that it was a simple blackout, the people visibly relaxed, forming a laughing and relaxed river of people walking the streets toward their homes. As the sun falls, Cooke notes the faces of the crowd peeling off months of tension as they suddenly feel a shock of good fortune.

As this was an audio book, it was especially enjoyable to hear it read in Cooke’s Irish brogue, and spoken the way he intended it. It’s peaceful to listen to, and even when discussing tragedy, Cooke maintains a calm demeanor and looks for the silver lining he’s learned always exists.

Cooke is an Emmy-winning writer, filmmaker, and actor who is also credited with creating the film, "The Spirit of Ireland".  I purchased my copy of this audio book at www.wildirishpoet.com.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Giveaway: Breathless by Anne Sward

Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner

British publisher MacLehose Press has generously given me an extra final copy of the new novel, Breathless, by Anne Sward.  It just released two weeks ago in the UK but you can win your own copy on May 22, 2012, 9:00 Pac Time.  My review for the book will post on that date as well.

Rules: US only, blog followers can enter by leaving a comment to this post with an email contact for notification.  An additional entry is possible by linking to this post on your own site or posting via twitter (just send me the URL) to amy at theblacksheepdances dot com.

The last giveaway for Olmstead's The Coldest Night was won by Amy Meyer.

Georg Trakl: Poems, translated by Stephen Tapscott

Originally published in the May issue of Gently Read Lit, edited by Daniel Casey.  You can find this literary journal at http://issuu.com/gently_read_literature/docs/grl_may.

Translated by Stephen Tapscott
Oberlin College Press/FIELD Translation Series

Stephen Tapscott’s new translation of Georg Trakl’s poetry illuminates an internal dimension to the poet that is often ignored in favor of the more external and controversial elements that sidetrack a serious discussion of the poet. Trakl isn’t well-known, but those who’ve heard of him are likely to think of his mental illness, suicide and suspected incestuous relationship with his sister and stop there, leaving examination of the poetry aside.

Tapscott lets the reader know immediately that his translation isn’t going to cover the scandalous factors of Trakl’s life, or categorize him as disturbed genius. Instead, “I wanted to try to register, in English, that droll ascetic tone. I tend not to hear the cri de Coeur of a young Expressionist victim…” This viewpoint is new and recognizes that the six years of Trakl’s writing career contains much deeper elements than controversy. In fact, viewing him as a victim seems to minimize much of the breadth of his lasting oeuvre. Tapscott finds wit, bravery, and elegance in the few poems Trakl wrote:

His lyricism is lean and acute: pointing lucidly toward what both is and is not there, firm in its stillness. In his silences I hear confidence, not victimized muteness, and I see clean, conscious craftsmanship in his sentences, lines, and patterns of repetition.

With this in mind, Tapscott’s translation looks instead at Trakl’s contemplation of self, and notes that in his poems, Trakl “details dynamic facts of the physical world – seasons and landscapes and times of day –as if they were already constituent elements of the self.” In doing this, Trakl creates an indivisible line between the exterior and internal, making each element stronger and yet more fragile.

Georg Trakl 1887-1914
In his Foreword, Tapscott mentions the essayist Martin Heidegger who wrote extensively about Trakl’s work. “Every great poet creates his poetry from one single poem,” Heidegger stated. Heidegger states that he feels that one underlying current, a single unwritten poem, outlines the work of each individual poet. It begs the question stated by Karsten Harries in his essay “Language and Silence: Heidegger’s Dialogue with Georg Trakl” (boundary2: Winter 76 Vol 4 Issue 2): “Even single poems are often too ambiguous to rule out different, even antithetical interpretations. Is such ambiguity only superficial, to be penetrated by more searching interpretation? Can we assume that a particular poem possesses one determinate meaning?” The interpretation Tapscott seems to deliver in this collection is that the language comes first, and that only within the complexities of the language and semiotic images that Trakl chose can an understanding be reached.

In his essay, “From the Evening-Land to the Wild East,” Richard Millington wrote that that the poems contained “visions of natural and historical decline that within the poems themselves are figured concurrently on several time-scales: diurnal, seasonal and cultural-historical” (German Life & Letters, Oct 2011, Vol 64 Issue 4). That this could apply internally on the part of Trakl is reasonable, especially in that Millington notes Trakl’s “symbolic geography” as well as his literal locations in Austria. Most of the poems take place out of doors, at night, with the play of shadows in action in the words.

In "Helian", the movement between locations in that symbolic geography is most obvious. Never still, it appears that Trakl’s words make the same journey as his subjects: motion is always present either in the walking or in the streams of water or wine, even the flight of birds.

It’s lovely, the quiet of the night.
On a dark plain
We meet shepherds and white stars.

When autumn has come,
A solemn clarity appears in the grove.
Gentle, we drift beside red walls,
Our wide eyes following the flight of birds.
At evening white water settles in urns.

Millington spoke too of the “semantic nuances” that Trakl’s poetry contains. In discussing the poem “Evening Song”, Dean Rader (Masterplots II:Poetry Jan ’02) notes that the poetic device “that Trakl employs in almost every one of his poems is silence…and Trakl is also fond of silencing objects that cannot speak anyway.”

Evening Song

At evening, when we walk the dark paths,
Our own pale forms appear before us.

When we feel thirsty,
We drink white water from the pond,
Sweetness of our poignant childhood.

….And yet, when dark harmonies haunt the soul, then
You appear, Whiteness, in your friend’s autumn landscape.

All of the details that Millington refers to are apparent in this poem, and the “if…then…” style of the poems suggests a forward motion that is unified and purposeful. “We” becomes the variable that can change the meaning of the poem per the reader’s impressions.

Color is another factor that is repeated throughout Trakl’s poems, however, the usages are never typical. The wine is brown, not red. Dew is black, not clear. Silence and sleep are both depicted as blue in some poems, black in others. What is intriguing is how he chooses these colors to seemingly catch us off guard and re-examine the cultural images of what a color should mean.

Trakl’s tragic death, after days of horrific experiences, makes many of the poems that much more meaningful. Yet, we have to remember he didn’t know how he’d die when he wrote these. Clearly distraught, and likely emotionally damaged already, he couldn’t have known of the chain of events that left him in charge of a hospital of wounded soldiers who he was helpless to assist. The mobs outside and bodies and decay all around him…one can only imagine that the exit he chose made sense in the world of madness he was locked into.

Christian Hawkey’s book, Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) is an excellent companion to Tapscott’s translation. In it, Hawkey analyzing Trakl’s work but uses radical ways to translate the work: experimental translation that literally rips Trakl’s poetry apart and reconfigures it in a way Trakl would likely sanction. Hawkey also dissects photos of Trakl and experiments with an imagined interview. Combining that book with this translation would give any reader a solid background in Trakl’s works, history, and indelible contribution to Austrian and global poetry.

----Amy Henry 2012