Blue Swan Black Swan: The Trakl Diaries by Stephanie Dickinson

Review by Walter Cummins

The Austrian poet Georg Trakl endured a short, distressed life (1887-1914) before he overdosed on cocaine in a psychiatric hospital in Krakow, sent there after a breakdown while serving as a pharmacist at the front during World War I. Before he died, he had published one volume of poetry; others were posthumous, admired by both Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Georg also suffered serious mental issues—possibly schizophrenia, possibly Asperger’s, was drug addicted, and had engaged in an incestuous relationship with his musically gifted, but equally disturbed and addicted, sister Grete, who committed suicide three years after Georg. In fact, the entire Trakl family was dysfunctional, the parents cold and detached, the father dying early and bankrupt, the drug-addled, antique-obsessed mother indifferent to her children.

Such a family history sounds like material for an extensive case study, material for several of Trakl’s Austrian psychiatric contemporaries. But Stephanie Dickinson has turned it into poetry, a collection of prose poems awarded the Bitter Oleander Library of Poetry Award for 2020 and published by that press in 2021.

While most of the interior monologues in the collection reveal the mind of Georg, other family members, especially Grete and, in the opening poem, the mother, are explored. Dickinson’s words capture the surreal sensibilities of the Trakls through the visions of their psychologically and chemically disturbed minds.

This is the conclusion of “Water Lillies,” a poem inspired by young Georg’s rebuke from a schoolmaster because he would not sit in class:

… I dive into hydra stems soon to thicken around me. They know my secrets. Each stem is larger than a forearm. They hate humans—even the kindest are cruel. They make me their prisoner in a cage of old lilies and sunken treasure ships. Aufstehen. An ancient water forest. Sitzen. Wilderness where the extinct auroch of Europe roam. The ones that drowned in the Danube. Aufstehen. Their stems are hung with barnacles that once were moons. On the underwater shore the sun still shines. Milk, fleshy. Sitzen. The schoolmaster’s head is a wild wolf. His yellow hands fingered with nails of cold flames. Aufstehen.

These words conclude “Raft,” a poem of Grete to her Georg:

Now our shadow selves hover, clothed in their fiery drizzle—blue milkweed pods with shattered throats.

Dickinson first discovered Trakl’s poetry in an anthology and later came upon the “20 Poems of Georg Trakl” translated by James Wright and Robert Bly. These examples from that translation indicate how Trakl’s images influenced Dickinson’s in her own poems about him and his family.

A thorny desert surrounds the city.
The moon chases the shocked women
From the bleeding stairways.
Wild wolves have broken through the door.

(from “On the Eastern Front”)

… Cold metal walks on my forehead.
Spiders search for my heart.
It is a light that goes out in my mouth.

(from “De Profundus”)

Beyond turning the disturbed Trakl visions into her own poetry, Dickenson confronted the challenge of giving essential information about the family and its members to provide a background for the poems. Most readers probably will be unfamiliar with even Georg as a poet, much less the stories of his parents and siblings. Her strategy is to preface each poem with a brief, informative epigraph from a variety of sources that offers a biographical context for the specific poem. The result is a rich and complex picture.

One who reads the poems in Blue Swan Black Swan should come away with a grasp of the history of Trakl family, but—more significantly—revelations of minds overwhelmed by the unique visions that destabilized them. The result is much more powerful than any case study analysis.