For many local readers, Robert Firmage writes chapbooks of poetry: "Antislander," "Romances of Departure" and "Looking Glass." Others remember him as a philosophy instructor at the University of Utah, or the jazz aficionado selling CDs at Smokey's or the freelancer who contributes populist pieces to local magazines.
But for the next year, at least, he'll likely be best known as the translator of one of the most significant poetry books of 1989: "Song of the West, The Selected Poems of Georg Trakl," (North Point Press).Trakl was the Austrian poet whose somber vision of life and lyric voice have influenced dozens of American poets from Robert Bly to James Wright.
"I became interested in Trakl while I was translating Rilke in 1975," says Firmage. "I found that the existing translations of his work weren't saying what I was reading. I became fascinated with him at that point. Here was a man who was a wonderful poet, but was forced to be something of a societal pariah."
Indeed, Trakl spent a good deal of time on the lunatic fringe. At age 14 he was already smoking cigarettes dipped in opium. He would eventually die of a drug overdose. He felt the poet's job was to scramble the senses and redefine the world.
"He was seen as a crazed madman, but he still was an excellent poet," says Firmage.
And why should stable, middle-class America take an interest in his work?
"For its uncanny beauty," says Firmage. "They should be interested for the same reasons they should be interested in the crazed, visual images of Van Gogh.
"Trakl was trying to discover truth, and I think people interested at all in poetry may like to know what he found."
As for Firmage's translation, it has a lighter, more lyrical feel than the earlier Trakl translations of James Wright. And that notion pleases the local translator.
"Certain poets write in concrete, everyday imagery that you can translate fairly directly," he says. "Others, like Trakl, rely on syntax to make a point. Those poets are almost impossible to bring into another language. But I like to try. For me, poetry translation is the ultimate word game, the ultimate crossword puzzle."
And, after 13 years of work, Firmage has apparently given the country one of the ultimate books of the year.