Action Books ($18)
by Michael Overstreet
Midway through translator-poet Christian Hawkey’s intimate literary rapprochement with Georg Trakl’s life and poems, Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), he asks the late Austrian writer the question, “What do you mean by ‘read’?” Trakl answers him, “I mean widen your nostrils when approaching any text.” Understanding the act of reading—and, more particularly to Hawkey, of translation—through the context of the body is an aspect of his art that Sift, his latest book, carries forward.
In Hawkey’s poetry, translation acts as a point of departure. Ventrakl brings us into what feels like a posthumous familiarity with Trakl himself; woven among Hawkey’s experimental and sensitive translations of Trakl’s verse is a gradual introduction to the dead poet’s childhood and psychology via a portraiture of him and his family. Hawkey’s immersion in Trakl’s biography and writing becomes so far-reaching that he begins to address him directly, conducting dialogues with him and imagining his responses. Hawkey succeeds in rendering appreciable the most intimate, interior, processes of translation; namely, he allows us to become privy to the productive communion between author/translator. And yet despite the tremendous intimacy between Hawkey and Trakl, Ventrakl leaves us feeling oddly bereft. But of what exactly?
The 150-page book is home to many of Hawkey’s translations, as well as many homages to Trakl’s life. In the pages that do not contain actual translated verse, Hawkey attempts to express those aspects of Trakl’s corpus that were not expressly written: he translates the silence of photographs and the languor of a restless mind prematurely brought to rest at the age of twenty-seven. The question Hawkey’s work poses is intriguing: why does the addition of these other pages, which render Trakl’s person rather than his poetry, make Ventrakl such an effective work of translation?
As its playful title lets on, Ventrakl explores the liminal space of translation—the interaction of two discrete, corporeal existences; the productive play of that which lies outside, but which is also certainly involved in, the text: “We are two sternums, facing each other. Two rib cages. I do not know, at this hour, where the space my chest inhabits ends and his begins, where one language ends and another begins.” To translate, to read, to write, is to first and foremost filter language through our own proprietary sieve of bodily experience. Whether it be an ill-timed bit of sneezing, a headline of news in the corner of our screens, a loved one in need of attention, or the steady tapping of a leaky faucet, our individual ecologies of miscellany influence how we interpret it as language sifts through us. This brings us back to the question of Hawkey’s work: if a translator’s extra-textual experience during their act of interpretation is necessarily different from their writer’s experience, how can a translator ever achieve true fidelity?
Hawkey’s newest book-length poem, Sift, explores the messy, hermeneutic space of translation, albeit in a radically different form than Ventrakl. Hawkey wrote Sift while co-translating, with Marouane Zakhir, an essay by Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali, “In the Mirror of the Other.” Sift addresses the intertwining of as many subjects as one would find in their favorite internet feed—politics, personhood, parenthood, capitalism, mundanity, tangential rabbit holes—through the framework of his own etymology-tracing, language-dissecting task as translator. It is well worth showing how Sift starts us off:
& later weavers & later a place
en face the eyes toggle
back and forth a gutter
gulf self third text
of translation a factory
The text begins by fragmenting us, shattering our reading confidence, subverting our expectation of finding ourselves in another monolingual—English—book of poetry. Our initial lack of understanding of the first words disconcerts. It requires us to learn that, here, we must also read right to left. The slow trickling of our reading down the stilted stairs Hawkey sets before us reveals how vulnerable this lingual space has made us. He calls attention to our toggling eyes, tying them back to the text that they read, and he bids us to notice how they scan the page, how they hesitate each time we cross the divide, the “gulf self”; we wonder if there’s another way to read all this, or if there’s something we’re not catching. To call attention to our own act of reading is to break the mirror, to challenge the normative paradigm, or hierarchy, of author/reader in the interest of establishing a space where there can be productive hermeneusis, or one's own interpretation of text. Hawkey quotes from his and Zakhir’s translation of Benabdelali in his epigraph: “For translation is not a sign of dependence at all. Rather, it is transformation, renewal, migration, openness, reproduction, proliferation, and life.” Just as Hawkey calls attention to his own creative uncertainty while at work at his computer,
over this phrase hovers
how much time
in a given day
whether to click
we, in turn, receive his incertitude as if by transference, perhaps beginning to feel that there is no other text besides the interpreted, which is naturally accompanied by hesitation, frustration, and loss. Because the meaning of each line is dependent on how we interpret it, we are bereft of a certain comfort—that of an authorial presence, or guidance. Hawkey plays on this discomfort:
covered in thin gauze
the margins further er
What exactly is being subverted here? What exactly becomes exposed? Perhaps the only answer is that we, the reader, here share in the translator’s struggle to yield a static, monolingual interpretation of a text wherein every word can be shattered into a migrant etymological past as well as a fragmented, culturally subjective present.
i was born
left justified what
within a previously agreed order
gets to marginem
“edge, brink, border
what returns blood
to lungs sdrow
as if language ever
along my spine
reading the longest vein
“the slow time between languages
as triangle no one side sings
equally uoy &
self not un
It is hard to say whether Hawkey’s intent with Sift is to render the frustratingly inchoate space of translation-at-work—utterly unbounded, yet necessarily riddled with our own person—or if his aim is to encourage us to question how we process language into meaning, and if this meaning is actually dependent on the exact language we just consumed. Just as Hawkey had allowed his own subjectivity to shine through the quiet, posthumous interstices of Trakl’s life in Ventrakl, in Sift, we are given a riddled and pocked tranche de vie of Hawkey’s own life.
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