Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Georg Trakl's 'Decline' and Earle Birney's 'David': "O My Brother We Climb..."

DECLINE (Georg Trakl - translation by Leif Hendrik)

(to Karl Borromaeus Heinrich)

Over the white pond
The wild birds have drawn away.
An icy wind sheers from our stars at evening.

Over our graves
The shattered brow of night inclines.
Under the oaks we rock in a silver skiff.

The white walls of the city resound continually.
Under arches of thorn
O my brother we climb, blind clock hands toward midnight.


(An Karl Borromaeus Heinrich)

Über den weissen Weiher
Sind die wilden Vögel fortgezogen.
Am Abend weht von unseren Sternen ein eisiger Wind.

Über unsere Gräber
Beugt sich die zerbrochene Stirne der Nacht.
Unter Eichen schaukeln wir auf einem silbernen Kahn.

Immer klingen die weissen Mauern der Stadt.
Unter Dornenbogen
O mein Bruder klimmen wir blinde Zeiger gen Mitternacht.

Translation from German © Leif Hendrik, 2012. Used by permission.

I'd like to thank Leif Hendrik for letting me use his translation, which also appears on his excellent Nordic Mountain blog, along with other translations and literary discussion. I have included Georg Trakl's original poem in German, for anyone who knows German, or who would like to try comparing.

I have only read a few of Georg Trakl's poems, so far, but the despair and darkness that radiates from them is palpable almost immediately. He was an Austrian poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, clearly influenced by Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and he lived haunted by mental illness and drug addiction. Traumatized by experiences in World War I, he died in Krakow of a drug overdose which may or may not have been deliberate.

I read 'Decline' and froze when I came to the last line: "O my brother we climb, blind clock hands toward midnight." The implied dialogue between the dead young men in this poem is almost unbearable. This is the terribly sad scenario which the sensitive imagine when they have left the gravesites of their loved ones.

I realised that the poem was making me think of the fate of some who pursue extreme mountaineering. Perhaps this was because I read it just a few days after the recent disaster on the Mont Blanc massif. Nine died in an avalanche on the notorious Mont Maudit, and shortly afterwards, two more climbers died after being stranded in bad weather. I have been deeply fascinated by extreme mountain climbing for years - apparently, a combination of having read James Ramsey Ullman's Banner In the Sky, a novel for children based on the first ascent of the Matterhorn, when I was young; and much later, reading Joe Simpson's gut-wrenching Touching the Void, and then moving on to his other books, including The Beckoning Silence, and works by other mountain writers. It's so far from what I've experienced personally, but the visceral nature of these books and the experiences they describe transports me completely outside of myself. It's the ultimate in living vicariously. You begin to understand the dangerous philosophy that these men (and sometimes women) pursue - of living so close to death that you feel more and more alive.

Images in 'Decline' must have made me think of climbing. The icy wind, the radiant stars; and "Over our graves/The shattered brow of night inclines" conjures up a stark image of the European mountains' great north faces leaning over their dead. "The white walls of the city resound continually": this could be an image of avalanche. And finally, the twin hands of the clock climbing towards zero hour; a climb, but a deathly one.

I think that this intense association which came at me out of the poem also had to do with the fact that I'd just read Earle Birney's famous Canadian poem 'David'. Here is a link to the poem, reproduced on the University of Toronto Libraries' website:

DAVID (Earle Birney)

In a sense, these poems couldn't be much more different. 'David' is lengthy, and specific, while Tralk's poem haunts and implies and stays just out of reach in a few lines. 'David' conjures up a sense of striving and freedom and love of nature and intense friendship between two young men, and then ends it in a shattering, devastating experience. The terrible climax of the poem (or the end of the climax, you might say) is the only thing not really spelled out, hinting at the extreme trauma suffered by the narrator. There are lines here which could almost echo Trakl, at least in their horrified intensity - if not 'Decline' specifically, then perhaps another poem:

[...] At last through the fanged
And blinding seracs I slid to the milky wrangling
Falls at the glacier's snout, through the rocks piled huge
On the humped moraine, and into the spectral larches,
Alone. By the glooming lake I sank and chilled
My mouth but I could not rest and stumbled still
To the valley, losing my way in the ragged marsh.
I was glad of the mire that covered the stains, on my ripped
Boots, of his blood, but panic was on me, the reek
Of the bog, the purple glimmer of toadstools obscene
In the twilight. [...]
I suppose that this entry is more about the connections that I make while reading poetry than about one poem or the other, in the end; but the train of thought seemed worth following, and I wondered again if the loss of life so often risked in these endeavours is worth it.
The photograph at the top of this entry was taken by me at the famous Eiger Window on the Eigerwand, the mountain's legendary north face. My brother and I took a train trip up to the Jungfrau a few years ago, and I lived one of my dreams, of seeing the Eiger and even setting foot on (in?) it. Looking out of that window was a sobering experience - it was like being in a low-flying airplane, and it's only about halfway up the face. It was unforgettable.

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