Trakl: The Dark Paths Of Men Are Strange

Trakl’s four mature prose poems written after 1913 all use the new style begun in “Psalm” and “Helian.”  All are strange and mysterious, fragmentary narratives that hint at a greater story lurking just beyond what we can easily see.  As with all things that hint of narrative, once we are swept up in it, once we engage, we take overt from what the poem has given us and create the sense of completeness ourselves—it’s something we insist on mentally, a sense of sequence and cohesion, moreso perhaps in prose than poetry.

That sense of cohesion is a necessary element given the length and speed of development of these prose poems.  Absent the sense of a story being told, the train of images would be chaotic, utterly disorienting.  The poems wold fail, on their own terms, and on ours.

The four prose poems are:  “Verwandlung des Bösen” (“Transformation of Evil”), “Winternacht” (“Winter Night”), “Traum und Umnachtung” (“Dream & Madness”), and “Offenbarung und Untergang” (“Revelation & Decline”).  The latter two are especially rich in imagery and astounding in the way they develop, finding hidden passageways between images and ideas.  I have taken up only one of them here, “Revelation & Decline,” and to give a sense of the movement and strangeness of the poem, I try to show it in two ways:  first as a prose poem, and then as a poem in a more traditional form, broken into sections and line breaks.

The narrative of the poem appears to center on a dream of the sister, in a world where death is the under text and incest, or the threat of it, is a constant mental companion, an ongoing source of guilt that cannot be expunged, and from which the only escape is a plunge into the abyss.  The poem opens with a vision of the world inhabited by dreamers.  Everyone is asleep, their rooms are stone, the light of each person small, motionless.  The narrator dreams that he is sleepwalking through it, an orphan whose father has died, a notion stated on one of the most beautiful lines in the poem:  “In this hour of the death of my father I was the white son.”  The speaker is haunted by dreams of his own madness and of the dead sister, and of his guilt, which is cause less but real.  There is death around him, bitterness in the world, storms, blood, a dead horse–what does he have to do with any of this?  Did he cause it?  Are these merely tokens of a world he lives in, or markers of any interior nightmare?  Or–as these are not exclusive options–both?  The poem is extraordinarily rich, very beautiful, and haunting.  We can feel the truth of it without necessarily knowing why, at every moment, it is true.

Here is the poem.  Note that the numerical section separators, shown in other versions, do not appear in the actual poem.  I do not include them in the prose version, but I do in the poetic version that follows:

Revelation & Decline

The dark paths of men are strange. When I was sleepwalking I passed rooms of stone & in each there burned a small motionless lamp, a copper candlestick, & when I collapsed freezing on my bed at its head the black shadow of the strange woman stood there again, & slowly & silently I buried my face in my hands. The hyacinth at the window had also blossomed into blue, & the old prayer came to Odmenden’s purple lips, the world-bitterness bringing crystal tears. In this hour of the death of my father I was the white son. The night-wind shivered, from the hill in blue rain, & with it the dark cry of the mother was fading again, & I saw the black hell in my own heart —that moment of glittering quiet.  Softly, a face that I cannot describe emerged from the chalky wall—it was a dying youth, the beauty of a race returning home. Moon-white, the coolness of stone embraces the waking temple, the footsteps of shadows fade on the ruined stairs, & the dance among the roses in the little garden.

I sat silent & alone, drinking wine in the abandoned inn under charred wooden beams; a shining corpse bent over the dark one & a dead lamb lay at my feet. The pale figure of the sister emerged then from the decayed blue, her mouth bleeding, saying: Black thorn, pierce. Alas, still I hear the ringing of silver arms from the fierce storms. Blood, flow from the lunar feet that bloom on dark paths the shrieking rat flits past. Stars flare in my arched eyebrows, & gently the heart sounds in the night. A red shadow with a burning sword broke into the house, then fled with a brow of snow. O bitter death.

Then a dark voice spoke from within me: I broke the neck of my black horse in the night-forest, because there was madness in his purple eyes; the shadows of elms fell on me, the blue laughter of the fountain & the black coolness of the night, & I was a wild hunter pursuing the snow-white deer; my face died away in a hell of stone.

Then a glittering drop of blood fell in the wine of the Lonely One; & as I drank it, it was more bitter than the poppy; & a black cloud enveloped my head, the crystal tears of the drowned angels; & gently the blood ran from the sister’s silver wounds & a fiery rain fell on me.

I want to be a silent thing walking at the wood’s edge, one from whose mute hands the sun of hair descends; a stranger at the hill of night who weeps & opens his eyes over the city of stone; a deer standing motionless in the peace of the ancient elder; o the brain filled by twilight casts about, listening restlessly, or the hesitant footsteps follow the blue cloud on the hill, & the grave constellations.  Nearby, the green corn goes along silently, & the timid young deer comes with us on the mossy wood-paths. The huts in the villages are closed up & silent & the blue lament of their mountain torrent is frightening in the black calm of the wind.