At the Burning Abyss
Isabel Fargo Cole is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for her translation of Franz Fühmann’s At the Burning Abyss. Read her introduction to translating Fuhmann’s work here.
from At the Burning Abyss
For poems are not, as people think, feelings (those you have early enough)—they are experiences. For the sake of one poem you must see many cities, people and things, you must understand the animals, you must feel the birds fly, and know the morning gesture with which the little flowers open. You must think back on journeys in strange regions, on unexpected encounters and partings you long saw coming—on days in childhood, still unexplained, on the parents you couldn’t help hurting, when they brought you joy you failed to understand… And it is not enough even to have memories. You must be able to forget when there are many of them, and you must have the great patience to wait for their return. For the memories themselves aren’t yet it.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
My first glimpse of Trakl’s appearance, in a photographic image, keepsake pose, barrel-shaped body bent slightly forward, knitted cap sagging over his right ear, smiling obligingly next to his companions, gave me a shock beyond belief: Not, at first, that it was this form, but any form at all, any corporeality. – Then, too, that it was this one. – Thou shalt make no image; I had none, only his poems, and through the vicissitudes of nearly two decades they’d remained the revelations of a fire god: flame shooting down into shadows; blazing thorn bush; foehn and flare; grim glare from hellish depths; now and then the mild glow of sunsets, and beneath the crust of suppression lava’s smoldering incandescence, lowering in fissures.
I needed no image, and when it was forced on me I fended it off, and biographical details too, until painfully I began to grasp that a poet is also a person, and not a mouth alone.
This understanding, which, by the way, I am far from truly reaching, demands a sum of experience, and it is of this I wish to tell.
A burst of fire through smoke and darkness, that was my first experience of Trakl: Under vaults of thorns / O my brother we blind clock-hands climb toward midnight. – And in this light a poster, plastered back then on every wall: against a smeared grim grey background a steel-helmeted profile gazing toward a hidden sun, the hand gesture that signals the tightening of the chin-strap, and below that the solemn appeal to the beholder: The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn! – Now, suddenly, I saw: Toward midnight.
It was the 3rd or 4th of May 1945, just before the capitulation of the Wehrmacht, and I, a soldier of twenty-three, had through a string of coincidences been released from the military hospital, still hobbling on a stick, and was spending a few days at my parents’, scot-free, with an official pass granting me sick leave, and subsequent marching orders to Dresden, which lay in ashes somewhere. And probably in enemy territory: the Americans and Russians had met at the Elbe, Berlin was taken, Breslau blasted, Cologne shattered, Hamburg burned, but: The darkest hour is just before dawn! and in the mental no man’s land of a madness that had no more hope, and all the faith in the world, we whispered of the miracle weapons that would annihilate entire armies, and waged these battles of annihilation at the pub table, amidst puddles of beer and streaks of schnapps and marking lines of sausage skins, for here, in the valleys of the Giant Mountains, there was still beer, and schnapps, and sandwiches, and the nighttime stillness was broken only by the drunken singing of the Yankees’ and Russkis’ conquerors staggering homewards. – Now and then, at vague sounds, we stopped and listened, were the new shells’ explosions already wresting dawn from the east? But the night kept its silence. – Early next morning I’d have to set out; now, as always after dinner, I sat with my father in his study, each of us immersed in reading, he in fantastical handwritten formulas he dreamed would bring an upswing and save his little pharmacy (such as a poison bait for roaming vermin which would stick to the teeth when bitten and couldn’t be spat out; or a marvelous rejuvenating elixir in suppository form; or green herbs which, taken as tea, would bring sweet dreams at night): he, then, in an olive-brown velvet jacket adorned with hussar braid, bent over his magical schemes, and I, already half in uniform, with a book of poems purchased in a used book store en route from the military hospital, a large-format volume with large type, pale-blue titles over the blocks of verse and a laurel-broken lyre on the grey cover, and through the night behind the window and the eyes this distant lightning flared:
Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight.
In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars.
Over our graves
The night bends its broken brow.
Under oak trees we sway on a silver skiff.
The city’s white walls ring forever.
Under vaults of thorns
O my brother we blind clock-hands climb toward midnight.
There was no need for the title Downfall to grasp what this poem voiced. – It was our downfall. – I had never read poems without the images they uttered looming large as life before my eyes (I had no notion that poetry could be read in any other way), and so I saw the pond, and I saw my forest lake, the lake dearest to my heart, both a piece of the earth’s surface with specifiable geographical coordinates and the most secret recess of my soul, but now the forest was nothing but a blur of black, and the lake, which in my remembering dreams had always had the lunar sheen of silver, was now white in the awful sense that it reflected nothing, as chalk reflects nothing, no shore, no tree, not even a sky, only a veneer with not a ripple now stirring beneath it. – And yet my pond all the same, its singular form. – When I’d found this lake – an eight-year-old, on vacation, escaped from my parents while hiking and suddenly lost in an unfamiliar forest – its hue was that of the thrill it aroused, the mystery of an enchanted place to be shared with no one. Everyone is granted an experience of this kind; the only key thing is not to scorn it. This place can be a cave, an elderflower arbor, or a rock crevice, or merely the corner of a room in a certain light, a section of sidewalk over a drain, a basement window, a mountain, a field’s edge, a strip of asphalt – for me it was in fact a lake, and its unfathomable depths contained the frantic lust of escape as the essence of all possible futures, just as the possibility of all power is contained in Aladdin’s lamp. – And now I learned that this fullness was gone, transformed into its emptied opposite: the lake filled from the very depths with chalk; in the air still the rush of the birds as they took flight; woods and sky rapidly dimming, and from our stars an icy wind was loosed. – Our stars were the ones that had shone upon our victories, not a certain constellation such as Orion or the Corona, but their totality at a certain hour, that of victory, which we believed would return like a morning breaking time and again, and now this hour, too, was gone forever; our stars nothing now but holes in space; cold descended, and although it was May, I knew the white of the pond for the white that appeared in the face of a comrade trudging beside me through the snowstorm, white as a harbinger of life dead from cold, whose sight makes you wonder if you too already bear this sign. – Death: and suddenly cold entered the room; a breath, and I sensed the pond outside the window, and for the blink of an eye I knew without yet grasping it that the war was lost.
The reader will long have felt the narrator’s difficulty, namely the infeasibility of relating, in the consecutive manner of an unfolding narrative, a moment which holds an inward and outward era as a second of eternity. And he will be nagged by the sense of having little way to ascertain the objectivity of the account: Who can assure him that this is not mere fantasizing, projecting today’s insight more than thirty years back into the past? These qualms are as impossible to allay as the discomfort with the linear mode of narrative. And so it seems a convenient opportunity to interject a few explanations to make the narrative less insupportable as well as addressing the listener’s scruples – whether they will dispel them, we do not venture to guess.
Let us begin with a third thing.
No one who studies Trakl can fail to notice his penchant for colors, and some of his interpreters point out that Trakl’s colors express and evoke opposing sensations: White is the color of snow, but also that of mold; yellow is gold-like, but also fecal; green is May foliage, but also decay, and thus “green” says both hope and fear. – We will find the opportunity to generalize these observations of Trakl’s poetry and grasp the essence of the poetic word as the unity of opposites, even in such unremarkable constructs as “and” and “also”.
The German language was so clear-sighted as to give the noun “Wort” [word] two plurals, “Worte” and “Wörter”, and our intended logic is to assume the existence not of a twofold plural, but indeed of two different, albeit homonymous singulars, from now on assigning the term “Wort” as the singular of the plural “Worte” to the realm of poetry, as strictly distinct from a singular “Wort” with the plural “Wörter”, which for us refers to the word as a scientific instrument. Here we follow the example of Schiller, whose declaration “Three words [Worte] I call you, weighted with import” refers not to Worte in the sense of coined thoughts, but to the simple lexemes “free”, “virtue” and “God”. But this logic means no less than to assume the existence of two languages, homonymous in their basic elements and yet essentially different, a language of science and one of poetry, two languages in which identical-seeming building blocks are so very different that, say, the adjectives “red” and “yellow” in scientific language must be regarded as unambiguous “Wörter”, that is, as names for the retinal impressions of certain electromagnetic waves, but in the language of poetry as ambivalent Worte which, though each is precisely defined, can never be tapped to the full. “Red”: that is the name for the retinal impression of the frequency 4 × 10^14; and “red” bespeaks a unity of life and death.
Contradiction as a word and in a word provokes the reader to contradict: Why should the whiteness of the pond be specified as the white of chalk and frost, when it could equally well be interpreted as the white of a gentle thing, as the white of asters or anemones shivering in the icy wind? Of course the pond can be seen this way too, and the best testimony to the possibility of different readings is provided by Trakl himself. This poem is the fifth version of an effort whose four preceding versions have been preserved, showing the following metamorphosis of the pond complex:
Version 1: Intertwined we plunge into blue waters –
Version 2: When the coolness of blue waters breathes upon us –
Version 3: When the face of stony waters breathes upon us –
Version 4: Under the dark vaults of our dejection
The shades of dead angels play in the evening.
Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight –
these third and fourth lines then being adopted as the beginning of the final form the poem took. But however we construe the pond’s whiteness – don’t the different ways of looking at it all lead to the same conclusion: a final despair? And isn’t this despair so irrefutable because the white in each reading comprises both interpretations: the pond as a lovely frozen thing, or loveliness as something hopelessly threatened by frost? – Trakl’s verse unites both possibilities (and the very word “white” unites them) such that it becomes the leap between the two, the switching of one to the other within the unity of a poetic image, the exquisitely accurate word for a motion containing a cosmos.
What Trakl has sometimes been accused of, or what some have been prepared to excuse as “the urgency of utterance” – namely the use of conflicting adjectival messages in the different versions of his poems – this supposed weakness is his strength, the preternaturally confident use of the poetic word as the elementary building block of all poems, the Wort in the sense of the plural “Worte” whose essence is the contradictory unity of human experience. Thus every interpretation of poetry is on the right track so long as it is capable of embracing at least one of the elements of that unity of contradiction, which at the same time means relinquishing the claim to be the one right interpretation. Such a one could do no justice to Trakl, let alone those attempts at interpretation that from the outset view a poem not as poetry, but as the mere vehicle of a scientific insight, that is, one expressible in Wörter.
And should anyone find it suspicious that our interpretation fits a later point in time so perfectly as to suggest that this poem was written not in 1913 by Georg Trakl, but rather thirty-two or even sixty-four years later by his interpreter, let him see how he responds to this argument: that it is history itself that seems to have conformed to Trakl’s poetry. Without a doubt it has, in the sense that Trakl expressed what was to come: the downfall of a world that feels itself invincible and acts in the belief of this invincibility even as its foundations tremble. – Poetry is the other kind of reality, the anticipatory, and the misfortune of the poetic image is that one day it is realized. With that I return to my father’s study a few nights before the end of the war.
He sat there in his velvet hussar jacket, sipping wine and scribbling calculations on an empty pack of cigarettes, and over our graves the night bent its broken brow. – Over the white pond / The wild birds have taken flight. / In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars. //Over our graves / The night bends its broken brow. / Under oak trees we sway on a silver skiff. – Poems are another kind of dream. – Our graves were the holes that stared in space in our stars’ stead: the night, and its broken brow. – I could see it, just outside the window, and suddenly I recalled a scene from a horror movie. The mad owner of a wax museum has lost not only his intact human face but his mind to a fire that ravaged his business, and so, hiding his charred features beneath a wax mask, seemingly crippled and showing himself only in a wheelchair, he attempts to create himself a new collection of curiosities by luring people into his clutches and dousing them with boiling wax. Once when he attempts to overpower a victim, she fights back, his mask shatters beneath her blows, and as he rears up the grimace of death emerges from his broken brow. – Women always fainted at this scene; the cinema lived from this horror, and we sat in our seats, boot-shod juveniles, and laughed, and cracked jokes, and yet we felt the thrill that the madman might reach for us – and now a veneer cracked again, this time beneath the blows of silence, and I lifted up the book as though to fend them off, when suddenly I heard my father ask whether the poems I was reading there, by a Georg Trakl, might be by a certain Georg Trakl from Salzburg, and when I confirmed that the collection contained poems on Mirabell Palace and the Mönchsberg, as well as other lines that might refer to a cathedral city, a gratified smile spread over my father’s still-incredulous face; he gazed across his formulae at the book as though at an apparition and said with a misty-eyed shake of the head, stroking his hussar braids: So poor Schorschl made something of himself after all.
Of course I asked if he knew Trakl, and my father took the book from my hand and leafed through it, explaining as he did that he’d been Trakl’s comrade, the same age as he, and also a military pharmacist, Medikamentenakzessist was the official term, more or less lieutenant rank, strictly speaking a bit higher than a lieutenant, though unfortunately, well, without the same recognition, and he lowered the book and explained that as part of a medical battalion deployed in early fall 1914 near Przemyśl Fortress he’d often rubbed shoulders with Schorschl, eating next to him in the mess hall and sometimes sharing quarters, which was why, if I was interested, he could tell me quite a bit about Schorschl; about his crackpot notions, that loose screw of his, because there was no doubt about it, the chap was crazy, which naturally earned him a proper bit of ragging, and the man of sixty took off his pince-nez and rubbed his eyes, blinded by the sudden light of memory, and blinked, and sighed pensively: dear me, how they used to ride that Schorschl, sometimes it was a bit much really, especially how they’d wind him up about his doggerel, his floating corpses and his funny birds, he’d jump up from the table sometimes and couldn’t even talk, just swung his fists, and then he’d run out like he was going to do himself harm, but he was that daft, good old Schorschl Trakl, you just couldn’t help making fun of him, and him a bear of a man, and a good fellow, of course not a good pharmacist, but he could put away the wine like only the staff surgeon could, those were quite some drinking binges back then in Galicia, between battles and battles, well, and then Schorschl suddenly disappeared, probably dismissed, there really wasn’t much you could do with him; and all at once, as though fearing thirty years later the guilt of delayed acknowledgement, my father propped the pince-nez back upon his nose, cleared his throat, refilled his wine glass, and began to read.
The night was outside, its brow riddled with holes, and it and I watched my father, losing himself in the poems now and quarreling with memories; he’d stare at one line for a long time without moving his eyes, and sometimes he said: “My God” and looked up with a helpless smile, and swallowed, and read on reluctantly, chewing, as he did in awkward moments, at the ends of his bristly moustache, and then he leafed through the book so distractedly that I both feared and hoped he would break off reading with some pleasantry or other, but all at once he nodded vigorously and exclaimed with the eye-widening pleasure of recognition: Yes, he was exacting, the daft old thing, he’d say that for him, and they gave him a pretty hard time about that at a drinking party once, they’d found some of his papers and passed them around in the mess hall, and read them out, he remembered it now, word for word, and how Schorschl bellowed, and went red, and white as a sheet, and trembled so you thought he’d lay about him, bear that he was, but then he just sat there, chalk-white, scary, as if he couldn’t hear a thing now – and before I could ask him which poem he meant, the man in the yellow hussar jacket laughed, jovial but raucous, and quoted a phrase and laughed some more and offered his two cents: rubbish like that no sane person could understand. But in the midst of his laughter, as though sensing in me the upwelling of that angry sadness that had twice led to blows between us, he broke off and snapped the book shut and proposed a toast to poor Schorschl, a good fellow, maybe not a good pharmacist, but undoubtedly the oddest Medikamentenakzessist in an Imperial & Royal Austrian Army that had no lack of odd birds.
We drank, and the night watched us. – I no longer know today, and probably didn’t know then, even as my father silently handed the book back to me across the table after we raised our glasses, which poem he had meant; perhaps one with the figure of the sister as a monkess, for so the phrase he quoted seems to ring in my memory, but I can’t say for certain. All I remember is that toast, and that my father didn’t ask me what I thought of the poems, if I liked them, if I understood them; he turned wordlessly back to his formulae: the poison in the fox’s mouth and the herb of dreams, burying himself in tomes of organic chemistry, and I felt shy or fearful of asking him any more about his comrade, the Imperial & Royal Medikamentenakzessist Georg Trakl, not knowing then that at the very time my father believed him dismissed he had sought refuge in death from the horror of his day, and probably by his own hand. – I knew nothing then of the lives of the poets; I wanted no image. – And so I asked no further, and took the book, and drank wine, and it seems to me that I read once again the poem that had shaken me in the way that leaves cracks you sense will open only later, the Downfall, its third stanza, the last, never again forgotten: The city’s white walls ring forever. / Under vaults of thorns / O my brother we blind clock-hands climb toward midnight.
 Wörter refers to words in the technical, quantitative sense, as a collection of grammatical units without regard to deeper meaning or connotation. Thus a dictionary is a Wörterbuch and a computer word count will calculate the number of Wörter in a document. Worte emphasizes words in a more complex sense as units of meaning and vehicles of thought: Goethes Worte. “Wort” in this connection can also serve as a pars pro toto, referring to a more complex, multiword unit of meaning, a phrase or sentence – as Fühmann calls it here, a “coined thought”. Ein Wort Goethes is likely to refer to an entire Goethe quote. Certain English usages (God’s Word, good word, word of honor, have a word with) reflect a similarly broad understanding of the “word”. (Tr.)