“…language always finds a way to surprise us.”
In the author’s note to ORAKL, Daniele Pantano states simply: “I have translated. I have alphabetized. I have nothing to regret.” This is Pantano’s introduction to the work at hand: having translated the poems of Georg Trakl, whose work has sustained his interest over many years, Pantano then arranged the translated lines in alphabetical order, creating the collection. Asking himself whether the world needed yet another collected translation of Trakl’s oeuvre, Pantano decided to “reshuffle his topography, his kaleidoscope of images” with an experimental form.
Pantano began reading Trakl’s poems in the library in secondary school in Switzerland, then went on to publish a collection of his translations, In an Abandoned Room: Selected Poems by Georg Trakl, in 2008. Avid readers and writers often carry on intense relationships with their favorite authors. Unlike parasocial relationships with celebrities, the reader-author connection can run far deeper. The bond is even more intense in instances of translation.
Pantano describes his relationship with Trakl while working through translation: “How would Trakl write this line in English? What exactly is he looking at, and how is he looking at it through this nightmarish fog that permeates his work? What can I get away with in English; how far can I stretch the target language without losing the reader? What lines, what images do I need to massage a bit more? Then you sort of workshop everything with the dead poet you channel. In the end, you try not to disturb the fog too much and hope for the best.”
Imagining the poet/translator workshopping with the dead poet calls for a brief biographical note on Trakl. Born in 1887, the Austrian poet dropped out of school and eventually enrolled at university to train as a pharmacist, enabling him easy access to the drugs he craved. Witnessing the horrors of World War I as a field medic culminated in Trakl being left to care for 90 seriously wounded soldiers, one of whom shot himself as Trakl looked on. Traumatized, Trakl was placed in a hospital infirmary, where he died of a cocaine overdose. Whether his death was accidental or a suicide is left to speculation.
A complex person, Trakl was the author of complex, otherworldly poems. What happens when those otherworldly spaces are reordered? Pantano says “the alphabetical order of the lines simply serves as an invitation to approach ORAKL in any way the reader feels inspired to. As a result, meaning was, is, and will be made, re-made, and transformed with every reading of the text, if that’s what the reader’s after.” Although every reading is indeed different, examples of the possibilities for meanings rendered would include these lines that seemingly take on a narrative tendency:
Always the sister’s lunar voice
Always the white night leans against the hill
Always you walk down the green river
Amid an airless beech tree silence
An ancient lullaby fills you with dread
An angel’s blue poppy-eyes open (19)
These lines demonstrate the extraordinary coincidence of how lines fall together to create unexpected new meanings:
Rot glows in the green pool
Rotten fruit falls from the branches
Rotting human beings rise
Rows of roses (69)
Curiously, the end of one lettered section can invite the beginning of the next, as “Bygone evening that now sinks across the mossy steps, November” (34) transitions into “Calm was our step, round eyes in the brown chill of autumn” (35). “G” begins with the startling “Games of lust”, an outlier in Pantano and Trakl’s vividly descriptive universe. Although randomly appointed by alphabetical order, “L” begins on a solid introductory note: “Last year’s withered reed still rustles.” One can only imagine what will follow, and that is one of the pleasures of ORAKL: while all of the lines of drawn from the same rhetorical universe, it is up to the reader to organize the stars into meaningful constellations.
Pantano takes the metaphor in another direction to describe the way Trakl’s work is shifted into another register through the translation and transformation that occurs in ORAKL: “Trakl’s original rhythm is certainly still there — a classic bassline, let’s say — but ORAKL hands this basic rhythm over to a bunch of jazz musicians who don’t give a damn about meaning and are only in it for the capricious energy of sound and language.”
Like Sara Manguso’s 300 Arguments, ORAKL is a book that a reader can pick up and open randomly with the certainty of finding a line or section that will resonate long beyond that glance at the page. Even the pages for “X” and “Z”, which are crowned only by the initial and have no lines of poetry on them, speak with their blankness. Those pages present a contrast to the many pages of “I” or “T” that seem almost tremulous with a desire to overflow the page.
In instances like this, Pantano is creator as much as translator, mixing and sampling Trakl in a collaborative endeavor. The collection draws early 20th century German Expressionism into an early 21st century pastiche.