“The Last Gold of Expired Stars”: A Note on Trakl

Why would we read poetry such as Trakl’s that seems so distant from us? Our world is not his world, after all. If one is afraid of the melancholic or of making the bucolic something beautifully sinister, one would surely not wish for exposure to the lines of this wonder of language. For to a large extent, Trakl achieves Rimbaud’s desire for poetry, viz., the derangement of the senses. Maybe as Gadamer might have it, we read Trakl as any older artwork: to experience a fusion of horizons, part-present part-past, that somehow (mysteriously) expands our sense of life. We irrigate ourselves by un-situating from sterile, habitualized comforts and by comforting ourselves in more despondent situations through that empathic affinity with suffering that we may find tapped in Trakl’s poetry. Certainly, if we appreciate sadness subtilized and alienation beautified, we have our guy here, no matter the historical distance. Take lines from “Whispered in the Afternoon”:

The forehead dreams God’s colors,
Feels the gentle wings of insanity.
Shadows revolve on the hill
Fringed blackly by rot.

Dusk full of rest and wine;
Sad guitars flow.
And as if in a dream
You turn to the calm lamp within.

(trans. by Doss & Schmitt)

This poet is not a rutilant genius like Baczynski or Hart Crane. His gifted descriptions rarely strike our hearts like suddenly unleashed levin. Nor should we expect a Stevensesque metaphysicality. Rather we get lots of colors that spread out through his eyes to tinge nature and village. We walk with him through a bleak and crepuscular world populated with nuns, shepherds, maidens, scythe-swinging harvesters, lepers, and the brackish forms of trees. We smell the fetor of rat-infested alleys even as we hear the bombilations of insects over the fields. Trakl offers us a sepulchral montage that captures a mournful, decaying, and lonely time in the dusk of old Austrian countryside. His language touches us deeply with his own sensibility that is by no means idealized, unless sickness and sadness are your ideals.

What I’m more interested in are the places of surprising images that erupt in the midst of his dark topoi. The truly creative depth of his subtle yet flying imagination. Take lines from “De profundis” as example:

I am a shadow far from sinister villages.
I drank God’s silence
From the fountain in the grove.

Upon my forehead cold metal steps.
Spiders seek my heart.
It is a light that extinguishes in my mouth.

To me, lines such as this take any poetry beyond mere description. Even were Trakl’s descriptions and portraits not brilliant as such, were only a unique perspective we’re privileged to share with him, Trakl’s poetry would be excellent. But those flashing insights of fresh images once in a while take his verses into an ineffable depth that I crave beyond description.

– JCS