Book Review: Imperfect Penance

Georg Büchner’s strange and harrowing 1837 play Woyzeck introduced me to the world of weird Germanic writers. The recent Broadway musical Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind further opened my eyes to the modern subjects of sex, drugs, adolescence and suicide that central European writers tackled over a hundred years ago. Until I read Imperfect Penance I had never heard of another such writer, Austrian poet Georg Trackl, who killed himself in 1914. Trackl was brilliant but unhinged, addicted to any number of substances and possibly sexually obsessed with his sister. The gruelling details of his short life are the raw material for Parry’s collection of poems, prose poems and prose fragments. Trackl’s life was pretty unpleasant and Parry’s writing evokes that admirably: images of decay and despair are everywhere. It’s an ambitious work which attempts to marry many structures, tones and styles together. Some pieces are stylized and formal, while others are curiously modern and casual in their language and turns of phrase. There are many moments of emotional impact and many others where the writing or the sentiment seems to just miss its mark. There is a palpable air of madness just below the surface and I had the sense that the author had immersed himself in the material in order to experience and relate Trackl’s altered states. Again, sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Parry often incorporates lines from Trackl’s own work (“There is a light in my mouth / that has extinguished.”) but their weight threatens to overshadow Parry’s own attempt. Parry notes that the family incest is suggested by not confirmed by historical sources. He evokes the guilt and desperation of this credibly but by adopting it as the source of Trackl’s inner agony he may do us all a disservice – tortured artists usually struggle with emotional and intellectual issues that aren’t quite as concrete or easy to define. (Kris Rothstein)

by Mitchell Parry, $17.95, 107 pgs, Goose Lane Editions, Suite 330, 500 Beaverbrook Court, Fredericton, NB, E3B 5X4

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