Reviewed by John Bradley
“All roads end in black decay,” Austrian poet George Trakl tells us in his poem “Grodek,” (as translated by Daniel Simko, in Autumn Sonata, Asphodel Press, 1998). This was certainly true for him. Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, Trakl served as a medical officer. After a battle in 1914, in Grodek, he was assigned to care for ninety injured soldiers sheltering in a barn. Overcome with horror, Trakl tried to shoot himself, but was stopped by friends. He was then hospitalized. He took his life, in 1914, in the psychiatric hospital with a cocaine overdose. He was 27.
One of the poets that Trakl influenced was James Wright, who, with Robert Bly, translated some of Trakl’s work, in Twenty Poems of George Trakl, (The Sixties Press, 1961). Wright notes in his introduction that in Trakl’s poetry
all sorts of images and sounds come out of the trees, or the ponds, or the meadows, or the lonely roads—those places of awful stillness that seem at the centre of nearly every poem Trakl ever wrote.
That “awful stillness” permeates Blue Swan Black Swan: The Trakl Diaries.
To provide some context, each prose poem in the book opens with a brief quotation on Trakl’s life. Dickinson must have spent years researching Trakl, given the many sources she cites. But research can potentially stymie the imagination. Not for Dickinson. In each poem, she fearlessly recreates a moment in Trakl’s life, using emotive imagery that could come from a Trakl poem. In “The White Angel,” for example, which was the name of the pharmacy Trakl worked in, Dickinson writes: “The anglerfish must find the female and fuse with her or die; they are one form in two beings.” This line alludes to Trakl’s affection for his sister Grete, which may have been incestuous. The poem hints at an unnatural relationship, as he instructs his sister how to play the piano: “B-flat, you must dare to transgress as if your fingers are white ibises devouring their own eggs.” The imagery is stunning, overpowering the bleakness of Trakl’s life. In “Blue Light in Krakow,” the books’ closing poem, Trakl is fearful of his fate. “Shall I join with the starry sky or the dirt?” he wonders. And then the poem offers this image: “Will an orange garibaldi fish with blue freckles deposit eggs in my hair?” Dickinson’s images are rapturous and yet grounded in Trakl’s disturbing world.
While most of poems are written from Trakl’s point of view, there are prose poems in the voice of his sister Grete, her husband, and, at times, Dickinson uses the third person for Trakl. This shift in perspectives offers a fuller sense of the complexity of Trakl’s life.
These are inspired poems—biographical, imagistic, and darkly transporting. As we learn in “Water Lilies,” “The heart of God is a giant swan unable to fly.” While “the heart of God” may not be able to fly, the same cannot be said of Blue Swan Black Swan.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 23, Issue 4.