Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ventrakl is both a haunting book and, more interesting, a book that is itself haunted. Georg Trakl obviously looms over every bit of the work here, but Trakl’s own ghosts—his family, also complicate the spook landscape here, also for example the knife-wielding man he would apparently see behind himself, some kind of hallucination.
The most moving aspect of the entire work was the honesty I perceived to be on display from the constructor of this text, Christian Hawkey. I say ‘constructor’ because I’m not sure what role one might say Hawkey had in this book, moving through modes of being a translator both in actual translating and in engaging with the struggles of translation itself, but also an investigator, a curator of impressions about Trakl. Hawkey ponders photographs and biographical moments from Trakl’s life in what to my mind was at all times a deeply personal, occasionally chilling pursuit, seemingly looking for a particular something or an overarching takeaway from these searches and ruminations that doesn’t ever quite come.
It’d be easy to rattle on about how this book ‘raises so many questions’ about the nature of translation and appropriation, but really I don’t think Hawkey was overly concerned with such questions; his preface to the book nods to all these questions and does seem interested in them to a point, but my deeper feeling was that this a book more at work with a more abstract obsession, an obsession along the lines of the ‘conversation’ that takes place between poet and reader in any book of poetry, translated or not. Hawkey clearly and repeatedly emphasizes this kind of connection—we know that it is something powerful in this connection that has subsequently produced this very book.
Hawkey wasn’t merely interested in the above-mentioned questions or in some strictly intellectual play as this book began and grew; churning at the core of this book like a reactor is something I took to be more emotional to Hawkey as the curation and production continued. This is why I find the numerous modes of translation and erasure spelled out by Hawkey to be intriguing and even amusing at times, but really their nature, at least occasionally arbitrary, is the means and not the end here.
What I was left with was a feeling that I had caught at least a touch of Hawkey’s haunted pursuit, felt the bits of quiet anxiety and melancholy that permeate the entire text. I didn’t ever think I quite knew what was being looked for or what was needing to be resolved, but I felt myself hoping it would come, and it’s there I think the resolution is in the swelling of that sad tension outside of oneself, returning to the same feeling at least of connection that also seems vital to the work here. If the book isn’t concerned at its deepest levels with translation and appropriation I think it’s because those seem moot pressures—fidelity isn’t important here, and there’s no appropriation if everything is felt to be shared.
The only weakness I felt was the explicit nature of that sharing, of the ‘conversation’ between Hawkey and Trakl becoming a semi-literal reality in several snippets of talking, ‘interviewing’ as the two sat in a room together. These exchanges were occasionally amusing or unsettling, but more often than not they just seemed a bit too easy, made the rich nuances of the entire project too simplistic and direct; they never did anything the rest of the book wasn’t already doing in a more powerful way. I also thought they occasionally seemed to rob Hawkey of his stature in the book, seemingly putting him in the role of the dense student who is always baffled by the genius of the teacher; while I don’t question that this is perhaps a genuine sentiment at times, it just struck me as an unsatisfying role for Hawkey who I always thought was on much more equal, insightful footing than he was perhaps comfortable giving himself credit for.
I will also add quickly that per usual, Ugly Duckling Presse did a wonderful job on the aesthetics of the book-object, the covers nicely mirroring the reflective nature of the book’s duality not only between two persons but two very different times.
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