Tristan Foster reviews Sebastian Dreaming by Georg Trakl

Translated from the German by James Reidel (Seagull Books, 2016)

Sebastian Dreaming was the second collection Georg Trakl prepared himself, and also the last. Trakl, one of the foremost proponents of Austrian expressionist poetry, died in 1914, wedging a little over a century between us today and the composition of the poems in the collection; that this was done by his hand, in this order, is crucial both to our understanding of Trakl as a poet and to our understanding of his creative project.

Immediately discernible to the reader, even from the title of the poem that opens the collection, is a sense of a deep nostalgia. On first inspection, “Childhood” is a dream or a memory cut from deep in the back of the skull—maybe both. Childhood is personified; unconscious of itself, as childhood can only be, it casts an eye over the landscape, taking stock of what it sees. “More pious you know the meaning of these dark years,” Trakl writes, hinting that the speaker knows more now and these are the leftover objects of another time, objects that hold their clarity and profundity despite the passage of the seasons. It reveals the sensitivity of a soul who has made it through childhood and into adulthood, but only just, yet still yearns for those bittersweet days because they offer a comfort now lost.

Developing the themes established in “Childhood” is the titular poem, “Sebastian Dreaming.” Presented in three parts, it is a coming-of-age story of sorts, beginning with a birth and ending in decay. While the child grows up into adulthood, he also grows into melancholy:

Pink Easter daffodils in the mausoleum of night
And the silver voices of stars,
Such that a dark madness eased from the sleeper’s brow in shivers.

The bittersweetness of childhood becomes simple bitterness, demonstrating that nostalgia and melancholy arrive arm in arm and that nostalgia is never not characterised by loss—lost time, lost places, lost people.

A sensitive land breeds a sensitive child. The trees are at the whim of the seasons, the dark night is brought on by a setting sun. Autumn is Trakl’s subject par excellence—this is the season to match his mood; the death-winter and its whiteness are never far off. The prevalence of autumn—a season of transition, of decay—in the poetry of Trakl turns every poem into a lament. “Evening Land Song” is exemplary, opening with: “O, the soul of a nocturnal wing beat.” This cry of “O” is repeated in each stanza. “O you times of silence and golden autumns.” The poem “The Damned” takes an even more literal approach. Over three parts, it traces the death of a woman and the crooked path of a boy and a girl—mother and her children, maybe. “In the garden apples thud dull and soft.” We, unable to evade death, it is clear, are the damned. It is as if Trakl, like Dante, has found himself in a shadowed forest because he has lost his path.

Trakl placed distinct limits on his project. Themes and images recur time and again: colours—blue, red, white, green, black, silver, gold; garden paths; shadows; night; dying; and, as mentioned, autumn. Opening lines set the scene, as if the poet is writing from the back of a bird in flight. The poems are populated by a hunter or a girl or a boy, no one else. These elements could be the scaffolding of dreams.

Sebastian Dreaming is presented here by Seagull Books in a new translation by James Reidel; in an essay on his translation, Reidel discusses the difficulty in translating Trakl even though there is a consistency in his obsessions: “Translating him is like finding one’s footing on the blue glass mountain of fairy tales.” Trakl’s crystalline writing and his pristine imagery—rendered compellingly here by Reidel despite the slipperiness of meaning—is too sharp for the haze and confusion of the dreamworld. He is better than that; his poems depict the mystical point where the natural and the human worlds intersect—at this he is a master. So what are we encountering?

The poem “Birth” holds a clue. It begins, “Mountains: black, silence and snow.” Trakl lists the other elements of the poem-image: a forest, deer, water in a gorge, the cold moon reflected in the eyes of “an old stone-hard woman.” None of this unfolds without a witness: “Sighing the fallen angel beholds his image.” The screams of a woman in labour pierce this scene, rupture it—an unhappy birth. It is the kind of sound that pins itself in memory forever. The penultimate line reads: “The night touches the boy on the temple.” These are scenes viewed, to borrow a line from “Year,” from the “dark stillness of childhood.”

The naïve landscapes of Trakl’s poetry are those of his childhood, not played in or explored, but observed from a safe, coddled distance. “You, a blue animal trembling,” he writes in “Transfiguration of Evil.” One does not get the sense he ever pressed his small hands into the dirt or tore holes in his clothes while climbing trees. Instead, he stood for hours at a window watching and lay awake in the night, listening. Trakl composed his poems from a blue winter of the mind, which necessarily prompted an examination of these memories. In “The Sun,” he writes:

When the day dwindles silently,
Something good and evil is caused.

A return to time lost is Trakl’s project—to days that are followed by twilights which readily hand themselves over to anxious and moonless nights. Each poem quivers with this refined yet hesitant life, like a butterfly at rest before it springs into flight. His scenes are painting-still; each poem is a remnant of a quiet day or slow night that feels like a lifetime ago, captured, as if under a bell jar, before it slips away.

Two-thirds into the collection, a descent. “This time breathes darker tears,” Trakl writes in the poem, “Limbo.” Finally, the spirits haunting the poet have found a way to the surface—or he has joined them down below:

A golden chill drifts from the graveyard
After the strider, the stranger
As though a fragile corpse followed in his shadow.

What has been only hinted at earlier in the collection takes on a malicious and physical form. The dead are here now. Is there an escape by the living from the dead?

Not part of the collection is Trakl's infamous and, some have speculated, last poem, “Grodek.” Named for the city in which the Austrian army were badly beaten by Russian forces, a battle at which he was a witness, the poem has all the traits of the poetry discussed above: autumnal forests, blue lakes, red clouds, “the golden boughs of night and stars.” The garden path, however, has been covered and lost, or simply excavated altogether. In its place is a road. “All roads lead to black decay,” Trakl writes; no longer is there easy access to the memories of a faraway childhood, instead the road passes right through the present moment and, as far as Trakl was concerned, went only to one destination.

It is not possible to discuss a Seagull book without discussing Seagull Books. Since 1982, this Kolkata publishing house has been salvaging literature which time may have otherwise cast aside. Not only do they pluck from obscurity, they also present literature with a seriousness and gravitas befitting an era preceding our sales-obsessed one. Their books are less consumer goods than they are artefacts: house designer Sunandini Banerjee's sensitivity and skill result in hardbacks with covers that bloom like rainforest flowers. This beautiful, slim collection and Poems, the collection which preceded it, are no exception. The fact that Trakl selected these poems and organised them in this way might easily have been dismissed, but it is given import here, and rightly so.

The collection concludes with the prose poem “Dream and Benightment,” a pool in which all the themes of the poetry preceding it meet and coalesce. The piece follows the panicked speaker as he dances on the edge of madness: “Feverish he sat upon icy steps raging at God how he would die.” Throughout the collection, Trakl has threatened to fully submerge himself in the nearby darkness, like a lonely suicide threatening to jump from a windowsill. With “Dream and Benightment,” he finally does descend, “sinking into emptiness like stone,” this piece his final, slow fall through the night.

Trakl, soon after being sent to the frontline as a medical officer, broke down. While recovering in hospital, he requested the manuscript of Sebastian Dreaming from his publisher. A war was raging; there would be no book. A week later, Trakl overdosed on cocaine tablets—he was 27. Sebastian Dreaming is a book of longing and nostalgia. Here we are today, nostalgic as a society for conflict, because we have forgotten the despair it works over those who bear witness. Young Georg Trakl and his poem-dreams are necessary reminders that this nostalgia—maybe all nostalgia—is misplaced, sometimes tragically so.