By Christian Hawkey


Ugly Duckling Press
October 2010

Reviewed by Josh Billings


As designed by the mad scientists at Ugly Duckling Presse, the physical object that is Ventrakl looks less like a book than an empty mirror or broken computer screen, over which two sets of titles, authors, publishers and publication dates flicker back and forth from words to shadows of words, depending on which side you're looking at. In the middle of this frame, where we expect the author's head or at least a tasteful period painting to be, is white paper. Nothing, in other words, or rather a space, meaning an area set apart and so prepared for something to happen inside it, like a chalk circle or forest clearing.

What is this thing that will happen in the space that is Ventrakl? The living American poet Christian Hawkey calls it "[a collaboration]" – a fact that is both true and a lie, since whatever else his co-author, the German poet George Trakl, may be, he is most certainly dead. Can the dead and the living collaborate? Experience suggests that they can't; but one of Ventrakl's opening propositions (one of the fictions that it asks us to accept in order to enter its parenthesis) is that they can – that they do, in fact, all the time, in a strange process that Hawkey calls "reading". "To read is to animate words, let them speak with you, alongside you, as you," he writes in his preface, suggesting a relationship spookily similar to the one between a spirit and a medium. 

Hawkey's definition of reading as possession by rather than of an author allows Ventrakl to avoid the tone of pedantic mastery found in most works of literary criticism. At the same time, it keeps him from slipping into the transparent first person of more traditional translation memoirs, like Edward Felstiner's Translating Neruda or Suzanne Jill Levine's The Subversive Scribe. Like those books, Ventrakl is fully aware of translation's limits; unlike them, however, it accepts those limits cheerfully, twirling them back and forth like an astronomer focusing his telescope. "When I was working on this book, I did not yet speak or read German," Hawkey admits. His sincerity is canny; for by keeping a straight face, he suggests that it is exactly our desire to stick to our mapped trail of good translation that keeps us from meeting any real ghosts. We want to be sure that what we're reading is "the real Trakl" (or Lorca, or Rimbaud); but for Hawkey this ignores the one thing that his translation wants to offer us - that is, a direction or arrow, inviting us "to enter, to collaborate, to fill or fill out the pointed-to space."

Like all good haunted houses, Ventrakl creates its effects by combining the strategies of two lesser, but still vibrant 19th century staples: the séance, and the magic act. Hawkey displays such an intuitive sense of his audience's interest that his readings of Trakl's photographs, biography, and poems become a performance, for example in this examination of a tintype of Trakl sitting on a chair:

I am looking at his face. I am looking at his eyes. I am looking at someone I do not know, never could have known, since he died long before I was born. I look at his eyes, which seem small to me, too small, like the eyes of an animal, and then I wonder how or why eye-size ever came to represent levels of humanness, or compassion (the unusually large eyes of elephants and horses and whales are said 'to have soul,' whereas small eyes, 'beady eyes,' are often considered non-human or even non-mammalian – reptilian, cold). I'm trying to look at his eyes, and I am trying to write about looking at his eyes. I am doing two things, it seems, at once. Or three things. Since this is an image of a writer, I am seeing him – seeing in him – what I've read of and about him. I am seeing his image as a word, I am seeing words in his image (his words, the words of others). And then, fourthly, I am measuring what I know of these words against his face. In this sense I am reading him endlessly, and each time I am reading what I see, one of many, possible sights.

Anaphoric patter has been a staple of misdirectors from Harry Houdinni to Ricky Jay; but no matter how rhetorical he gets, we never feel that Hawkey is trying to trick us. On the contrary, he seems to be simultaneously on stage and in the audience, both watching with us and keeping notes on his/our watching, so that by the time we get to the end of the above paragraph, we understand its "endlessly" as something more than self-referential hyperbole. Reading, as Ventrakl demonstrates, really is endless, not just because an uncrossable field lies between the reader (Hawkey) and his object (Trakl), but because the movement we make across that field is digressive, fractal. We start out looking at a face and end up seeing ourselves seeing "one of many, possible sights." Such an out of body experience may seem disappointing or even unsettling to readers looking for a crib, but in the world of Ventrakl, it is the whole point of opening a book and so putting ourselves in the way of someone else. We read not to find ghosts, but to be them; to stand for a few minutes in the nowhere place and examine the one thing we can never see in life, at least not without an intermediary: our own face.

Ventrakl's folio structure – in which each page both recapitulates and forgets its predecessor like mirrors in a funhouse or cards in a deck – creates a space that could conceivably go on forever. Leaving this space is less about coming to its conclusion than deciding when to stop. It means choosing which kind of book you're reading. Or not reading. A book of criticism? A biography? An epic poem? My own version of Ventrakl was partly an eccentric novel in which the hero's desire (for Trakl? of Trakl for his sister?) is unconsummated and yet satisfied, too, meaning transformed via imagination and sincerity into a book. A young poet's book, like Eugene Onegin or Sons and Lovers or the Notebooks of Maltte Laurids Brigge; a book of failure – which theme supports and is supported (I think) by the Ventrakl that contains my version. To say that this larger book fails at being, for example, a translation of Georg Trakl's poetry, is to remain correctly, smugly untransported by it. To my own mind, Ventrakl is a (faithful) translation of exactly that poetry – but in order to say this I've had to expand my ideas of what translation is. Most books arrive dead, meaning easily vivisectable; but certain books come alive in our minds. Reading these books is a sort of two-way test, since it requires that we re-ask ourselves questions that most of our other reading counts as settled, and re-open arguments that reigning tastes might prefer to call closed. It requires that we make a choice about what we're reading – and then in this way, Ventrakl offers its reader the rare opportunity to be uncomfortable.