Book Review: “Blue Swan Black Swan” – Madness Made Beautiful


By Vincent Czyz

Whether we call this small volume poetic prose or prose poetry, a short story or a collection of verse, seems irrelevant. It’s bewitching, hypnotic and moving.

Blue Swan Black Swan: Trakl’s Diaries by Stéphanie Dickinson. The Bitter Oleander Press, 72 pages, $ 18.

Quiet in the darkness of the window; and ancestral inheritances,

Old household items

Lay there rotting; love and fall reverie.

So dark was the day of the year, desolate childhood,

When the boy with the cool waters and the silver fish came down slowly,

Calm and countenance;

When stony he threw himself where black horses ran,

In the gray of the night, his star possessed him.

– Georg Trakl, from “Sebastian in Dream”

that of Stéphanie Dickinson Heat: Interview with Jean Seberg is practically unclassifiable. A work of prose, it is neither novel nor new. It is rather a tribute to Seberg, heroine of French New Wave films, in the form of an imaginary interview. (Artistic fuse review ). Likewise, hard to pin down is Dickinson’s Emily’s Fables, a slim book that consists of 33 short stories – meditations on memorable moments in the life of the protagonist, Emily, a farm girl born in the 19e century. The beautifully rendered images and poetic observations seem to include small chapters arranged in chronological order, but I would be hard-pressed if asked to put the collection (of what?) Into a category.

Dickinson Blue Swan Black Swan: Trakl’s Diaries is also reluctant to be cataloged. Featured as a collection of prose poems and winner of the Bitter Oleander Library of Poetry Award, it looks more like a short story. Like fiction it has a protagonist, and like fiction there is a story – or at least the outlines of one – which in this case follows events in the life of the darkly introspective poet Georg Trakl. Some poems, by the way, don’t seem quite stand-alone and probably wouldn’t hold up as well if published outside of the collection. Taken together, however, they create momentum and, analogously, add to a visionary director’s film rather than a series of snapshots pasted into a photo album.

Trakl is a tragic figure in German literature. Born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1887, he battled mental illness and blackest depression before overdosing on cocaine in 1914 at the age of 27. One of six children, he was born into a deeply dysfunctional family. His sister Grete, the sister to whom he was closest, was a talented pianist but also suffered from psychological aberrations. They were raised primarily by a housekeeper rather than their mother, who was an opium addict. Cold and distant, she reserved most of her love for her collection of antiques: “Her pale fingers examine the hyacinth and gold,” writes Dickinson, “the vases with the long branches; their souls take away its migraine. The blue underglaze is calming. Following in their mother’s footsteps, five of Trakl’s children, including Trakl and Grete, eventually became addicted to drugs.

German poet Georg Trakl.

In an essay titled “On Expressionism,” Jorge Luis Borges writes that before the Expressionist movement, German poets were concerned with harmony rather than intensity. “It was the work of well-heeled gentlemen, a work that mingles sweet desires, bucolic visions and rigid tragedies softened by foreign places far and far away. Trakl’s poems derailed this well-bred verse – written as if to pass a white glove test – as did the poetry of the German Expressionists themselves, many of which inspired Trakl. Oskar Kokoschka, Austrian painter and poet quoted by Dickinson (in “The Wrestler, 1912”), summed up the German Expressionist credo in one laconic sentence: “To express the interior, the exterior must be radically distorted”. (Trakl, in this case, visited Kokoschka in his workshop around 1913.)

As its subtitle suggests, blue swan is written as if Trakl were talking (or writing) to himself, often veering into the voice that tells his poetry. Each of Dickinson’s poems is preceded by an epigraph from a biographical account on Trakl. Without these symbols from the outside world, it would be a bit of a high-flying act for us to maintain our position as Dickinson follows the fluctuations of the alien weirdness of Trakl’s consciousness. His ventriloquism mimics Trakl’s striking imagery, the hallucinatory quality of his verses, and the intensity – so admired by Borges – that permeates Trakl’s work.

Here are some examples of lines: “In the afternoon the mirror swallowed her in its silver depths. [his mother] witnessed her own drowning. “Cooing doves pour the cream of their song into the playroom.” “Her clothes insist that she moves like a rose dragging all the way through the bush.” Beautiful lines in themselves, but taking them out of context is like removing gems from their settings. Fortunately, “Strangerous 1” is short enough to be reproduced in its entirety:

I wrap my fingers around your arms and squeeze, lift you off the ground before letting you down. I crouched down on all fours; my breathing quickens, like a heartbeat; faster faster. We continue to look each other in the eye as if we can walk in absolute silence. The calm subsides, a purified cry. The witness beech. I, Georg, take you to break my sword in your heart. I trace the flat softness of your breastbone. The little white egret in the distance in the belly swamp rises. We recite these tunes, as in concert halls. You are solo and a waterfall stabs in the overcast sky. When I throw my head back, the thunder electrifies the long grass. You sing as if my kisses bite your shoulders.

The title could well be “Marriage Vow” and the you who it is addressed to could be anyone, male or female, except that the epigraph mentions Trakl’s sexual precocity and the suspicion of his biographers that when he was a teenager he was sleeping with Grete. The poem now takes on a very different hue, its beauty is disturbing, and the amalgamation of strange and dangerous has a disturbing meaning.

Whether we call this small volume poetic prose or prose poetry, a short story or a collection of verse, seems irrelevant. Bewitching, hypnotic and moving, blue swan is a sustained atmosphere tinged with black of melancholy and the blue of madness subjugated by beauty. You read it to let that mood come over you, to become your own state of mind, to enter into the dreamlike flow of Trakl’s psyche as envisioned by Dickinson.

Dickinson has been compared to Carole Maso, Annie Dillard and, among others, Jayne Anne Phillips. (Having read much of Maso’s and Phillips’ work, I consider at least these two quotes appropriate). In any case, it is a deliciously imagined book, a tribute to a brilliant but tortured poet whose life was only too short. Together with the other works of Dickinson, Blue swan black swan makes a convincing case to place her among the best stylists of her generation.

Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos mosaic, a novel and Adrift in a dying city, a collection of short fiction films. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two grants from the NJ Arts Council. The Condom Fellow 2011, his work has appeared in numerous publications including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Reviews, Quiddity, Tampa live review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.


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