Christian Hawkey, Ventrakl

by on Oct.13, 2010

[This is a guest review by Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle:]

Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey
Dossier: Ugly Duckling Presse 2010

Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

Billed as a collaboration; Ventrakl performs itself as séance, a purported dialogue with the dead poet Georg Trakl conducted through some interzone like Blavatsky’s mantic womb. As such it is pivotal, but not in any peacock word, back-cover blurb, book award sticker acceptation. Pitting poetry against poetics Ventrakl turns tooth and nail on itself. It’s a fight to the finish! Poetry prevails. Poetics gets stomped out.

At 150 pages its “better half” beckons from Victor Hugo’s phantom mouth of shadows. Comprised of thaumaturgical poetry transmigrated from Trakl, these transversions are vatic, utterly unforeseen. “Concerning the translation of poems—a form of ghostly reanimation—the literature that constitutes an argument against literal or overly faithful translations is now nearly as large as its extant supporting examples.” * Spooky, truly moving, Ventrakl’s poems gimme the chills. Its veiled protests notwithstanding, this is original art. Unprecedented invention: adroit, and magisterial.

Hawkey’s un-authorized de-compositions were achieved by various liberal, indeed licentious coups. For attention-getters, firing a shotgun at Trakl’s work then lifting whatever was left doubtless packs maximum wallop. Factor in the fact that Hawkey, at the time of writing, did not speak or read German. “This made it somewhat hard to talk [with Trakl]!” Where some of Ventrakl’s means and ends recall David Cameron’s devices skewed to produce his laudable misprision of Baudelaire, Flowers of Bad (humor, homophonics, homographics, irreverent irrelevance, sheer guess-work and lies, English online Spellcheck applied ostensibly to “correct” the foreign originals) here I prize contact sport. Watch Ventrakl’s illegal use of the hands. Hawkey soaked Trakl’s texts in pails of murky water.

Witness “Bluetrakl,” one color field poem deploying lines from different Trakl poems, which themselves employ blue.

A blue moment is even more spirit

And move your arms more beautifully in this blue

Every single poem in this book is superlative as well as supernatural. Effulgent on wide heights, you can’t get there from here. Still, all good books should be shorter . . . The unified poetic subject is a boogey man. Rebuilt for the intellectual Left by the Frankfort School, essentialism has become a core Post-Modern master narrative, and our fondest fear. “I see dead people.” Hobgoblins inherited out of the air.

With an adept’s sleight of hand Jack Spicer, the consummate author, reincarnates as a reader! Presto change-o! Georg Trakl today cites Roland Barthes. Yet, Patti Smith, who used to wait for the muse to descend, later saw she’d written all her songs herself. Channeling’s for chumps, con men, or colloquiums. In a sprint with poetry it’s an also-ran. We don’t need no steenkeeng table rapping! Twenty four hundred years ago Plato’s charioteer drove both the black and white steeds of the soul.

Be it feeble fable or fractured fairy tale Ventrakl’s Ghostbusters’ poetics hamstrings its haunting verse. Trance/lation. Hawkey jello melds with Trakl. “Today I tell him . . . I don’t really understand. You seemed to welcome if not war then the experience of warfare. In fact you asked to be sent to the front several times.”

Hawkey must have crossed hot wires on Cocteau’s car radio. Then Spock’s Vulcan mind-probe blew. Maybe shoulda studied German. The phony lines are down. Trakl nursed a death wish straight from birth. E.S.P.+ E.S.L.= R.I.P. Trakl didn’t want front row tickets to the atrocity exhibition; he wanted it to kill him.

Laboriousness is an objection. Poetry is the answer, without the burden of proof. No pose, prose, props, pretentiousness, padding, projects, Power Point presentations. Ditch the syllabus or sales pitch, fit for grant and residency proposals, seminars; a seat on a panel at a poetics conference in Orono, Maine. Speaking of his earlier work Citizen Of, Hawkey stated in an interview, “With Citizen Of I wanted to push a little bit at the boundaries of a standard collection of poetry, if only because the book was 150 pages. There were and are so many poetry books clocking in at a neatly digestible consumable 75-ish pages . . .”

A man’s got to know his limitations. †The first word in “best seller” is a number not a value. There’s no woozy 80-page D.O.A./death of the author mood-piece sapping Flowers of Bad. Quantity is not quality. Poetry aint poetics. I wildly favor Cameron’s clean knife work over Hawkey’s fuzzy thinking. Do not get me wrong; Ventrakl’s a lavish dish. The meat, sweets, and potatoes stand. Though if he’d cut the fat it would have been a killer. Then weighing in at fighting trim: a lean n’ mean “75-ish pages.”

* Viz. Jack Spicer’s After Lorca
† Dirty Harry

(For an impassioned plea, see Dorothea Lasky’s cautionary tale: Poetry is not a Project, also in the Dossier series from UDP.)

Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes


    Great review. Despite your ambivalence about the project, you have definitely made me eager ot read the book. The occult aspect of ‘translation’ obviously interests me a whole lot. It takes me back to my post about Carolyn Forche: translation as digging up the dead vs translation as seance. Atrocity kitsch with a shotgun. Sounds fascinating.


  2. Johannes

    And of course translation as ventriloquism, translation as puppetry.


  3. Lara Glenum

    And translation as contact sport! This all sounds amazing, Geoffrey. I’m going to try to lay my hot little hands on this book right now.

    I’m glad to find you here.

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    Geoffrey, I must confess, I get a little lost in your review about halfway through. In the first half it seems like you’ve yourself ‘got the spirit’– exhilarated by, a bit contaminated by the contaminated/occult feeling of the text. And then you reject that modality? Can you straighten me out? I’m also really interested in your opposition of poetry/poetics and your notion (am I reading this right?) that the occult gives us a way to do poetry without the poetics?


  5. John B-R

    I do want to read this now. But: I hope “Rebuilt for the intellectual Left by the Frankfort School, essentialism has become a core Post-Modern master narrative, and our fondest fear” is meant to be hilarious, not true.