By Stu Hatton
[Content/trigger warning: drug use, overdose, self-harm, suicide.]
If this is a mask, for what dark ritual was it devised? A rite of self-portraiture? What? A studio, Innsbruck? Max von Esterle’s? You’ll forgive me for never having heard of him. If these were the eyes that devised, how could they see to paint? Your colours gathered: cthonic, infernal, daemonic. All as it should be? You jest? A poet? Oh I can guess! Your poems: fugues of visitation, kaleidoscapes of loss. The charmed woodland path; shy, vanishing idyll. Vigilant evening threading its nest of foul proximities. Ransacked seasons of the medicine cabinet, a blaze you tended alone, twitching flamelets reflected in the fever-sweat upon you. Grete’s sleepy fingers seeking a chord’s stray third. Do you laugh, friend, or cry out for an end to laughter? Or is your laughter itself this crying out? *
Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was an Austrian poet associated with the Expressionist movement. His sister Grete (1891-1917) was a pianist and musical prodigy. After quitting school, Georg worked for a pharmacist, and this gave him ready access to drugs such as cocaine and morphine. He went on to gain accreditation as a pharmacist, and enlisted in the army. While working in a hospital in Innsbruck, he became connected with a number of avant-garde writers and artists, and was able to publish a first collection of poems. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein anonymously provided a considerable stipend to allow Trakl to focus on writing. Trakl later served as a medical officer for the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, whilst suffering from acute depression. In 1914, under the strain of assisting the wounded during the Battle of Grodek, Trakl tried to take his own life and was transferred to hospital. He wrote to Wittgenstein, but by the time the philosopher arrived to visit, Trakl had died of a cocaine overdose.
Trakl’s self portrait can be viewed here: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/surrender-to-night-georg-trakl-review-carol-tully/
My poem is an engagement with the self-portrait; a first draft was written while sitting with a reproduction of the painting. The narrating voice of the poem is not ‘my own’; at the outset, at least, it seems to be the voice of a skeptic, who is probing for an opportunity to criticise or skewer the artist and his art. However, in the third stanza that voice seems to make way, as if Trakl’s poems were speaking for themselves (and there can be no stopping them in this regard).
Attempting to distil Trakl’s life and work into a relatively short poem strikes me as a fool’s errand, but perhaps it’s fair to say that my intentions strayed in this direction. How could the prodigious, uncompromising feats of imagination, the nightmarish suffering of this self-medicating visionary be distilled? We need look no further than Trakl’s poems.
Benfey, Christopher, ‘The Mysterious Music of Georg Trakl’, The New York Review of Books, New York, August 1, 2017.
Rothenberg, Jerome and Joris, Pierre, Poems for the Millennium Volume One: From Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude, University of California Press, 1995.
Trakl, Georg, The Poems of Georg Trakl, translated by Margitt Lehbert, London, Anvil, 2007.
Tully, Carol, ‘Eternity’s icy wave: A poet in opposition to the world’, Times Literary Supplement, London, March 13, 2020.
Stu Hatton was born in Boston, England, and now lives and writes on unceded Dja Dja Wurrung country in Campbells Creek, Victoria. His work has featured in The Age, Best Australian Poems, Cordite Poetry Review, Overland and Southerly. He is currently preparing his third poetry collection, entitled In the Not-too-distant Present.