PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 10: THE FROZEN LAKE
A book should be the axe for the frozen lake within us.
It is easy to say, from this distance, what a normal, rational person would have done after that interview. After all, his last words to me had been encouraging, and it was not to be supposed that the confidence of such a person would be easily won. A normal, rational person would have written soon afterward, sending more translations; with a little more courage, perhaps a little later, she might have sent some poems, that would have at least said to him: “I hear you.” That is how Brigitte, who had found the poet’s notes to me perfectly natural and laughed at my overreaction to every nuance, would doubtless have advised me to act. But then Brigitte had not written any poems and was not in shock. In the first month after the interview I thought once or twice of writing to him, but a kind of firewall went up in my mind, and I did not pursue the thought.
In Berkeley I spoke with Jaszi and Bluma Goldstein and above all with Politzer, who was anxious to debrief me about the interview. I felt that the little I had to tell must disappoint them, but Politzer was moderately encouraged by the length of time the poet had spoken with me. He said that although Celan had the reputation of being on the edge of madness, it seemed to him, Politzer, that Celan generally knew pretty well whom he was dealing with. This did not make me feel any more comfortable. Now I must try and write that introductory essay before going on to Buffalo and my assistant professor’s job. I managed to type out forty-five pages of “literary criticism,” of which I did not believe a word, before it was time to leave.
Communications with my Berkeley friends had been intermittent during my year in Germany. Ireni had told me that she didn’t write letters, and she had kept her word. Jason and Marsha had gone to Seattle and gotten married. They had sent a CARE package to me at the S. home, with a cap that Marsha had knitted herself, but it had not been delivered to me. Nadine was generally a faithful correspondent, but even her letters hadn’t transmitted to me the impact of the preceding year’s student disturbances, which I felt only now, on site. Nadine showed me a poem called “The Burning of the Humanities Building,” by a friend of hers, Peter Dale Scott. (It was later published in his book, The Rumor of No Law.) The Humanities Building had not actually been burnt, but I guess there had been enough riots and rhetoric to make people feel as if it had.
I stayed three weeks in Berkeley, at first at Luke and Ireni’s house, then, so as not to impose on them too long, at the International House. While I was there my brother Don telephoned to announce his arrival. He had run away from home and was hitchhiking around California. Luke and Ireni put him up.
Don was then sixteen. He had grown a lot since last year. He showed up in faded jeans and a limp navy corduroy blazer, probably fished from a Good Will bin. Thick light-brown curls flared out around his head. He was high-spirited yet introspective, keensighted and ruthlessly honest, yet kind and concerned for others (apart from the upset he’d caused our parents). He and Ireni were old friends immediately. I have pictures of them from a day we all spent at a beach in Marin County, a wild beach with high dunes, on a day of mist and heavy surf. Don wears a Mexican poncho, Ireni a gypsyish skirt and jacket and a headscarf; as they walk along together they look like members of some nomad clan, en route to some unmapped destination. There are also Ireni and Gabriel in profile, seated on the crest of a sand dune in front of the gray sky, and Luke on the foreshore, playing joyously with a long, snake-like piece of seaweed he has found.
After Don left, Ireni said to me, “I think he is the best one of your family.” I felt both gratified and a little hurt. She said one other thing on that visit that worried me: “You have an image inside of you, of what you think you are. I don’t.” Ireni never clarified her statements, they were oracles not meant to be paraphrased, and I felt that this one came to signal a spiritual distance, a difference, which no word or act of mine could nullify.
It was the tone that worried me, more than the aperçu itself, for as far as concerned me, she was quite right. If that distancing, judging note had not entered, I might have admitted it, perhaps even told her about the time when I had stood on the edge of a cliff and wondered why I didn’t jump, and the answer that came was that I had to transmit my image to another human soul. Certainly as to externals the difference held: Ireni never took any trouble with her appearance, she wore no makeup and did not seem to care if her clothes matched or not, whereas I didn’t appear without eye makeup and a muted shade of lipstick, and every act of dressing was a composition. For the interview, incidentally, I had worn my favorite dress, a simple one of heavy dark blue synthetic with cap sleeves, a neckline just below the collarbone, and a hemline an inch or so above the knees, about average for those days. And my favorite piece of jewelry, from a shop on Telegraph Avenue: a brass disc that hung from a brass wire and that had a face embossed in it, indistinct features with an enigmatic not-quite-smile. Solunar. But if my interlocutor took note of this visual signalling, he gave no indication.
While in Berkeley I also kept trying to write poetry, but nothing took shape, except for a few lines that came to me between sleep and waking:
Whether alone or far from water
stick your key in the masonry
* * *
In Buffalo I was picked up at the airport by Roland and Olwen Forster, who offered to put me up while I looked for someplace to live. Roland, who looked to be in his forties, was in my department and also in the university administration. He was witty, amiable, and – like almost everyone at Buffalo – a bit cynical. Olwen was about my age, tall, dark-haired, with a fair complexion, a high rounded forehead, large dark eyes, strong yet delicately modeled features, and a certain aristocracy of dress and manner. She was writing her Ph.D. thesis – for Harvard? – on an author with whom Celan had some affinities. She admitted to writing poetry but would not show me any of it. She told me, serenely, that the spirit of the age was not conducive to communication through poetry.
Olwen’s serenity derived, apparently, from her study of a form of theosophy. She believed in reincarnation; she believed that the things one is shown in certain dreams are true, that one does “visit” other planes then. She could perceive people’s auras, and said that mine was light blue (I had thought dark blue) and I should wear that color. She lent me a book or two on spiritual subjects. I felt about them pretty much as I had about the books Brigitte lent me. All the same it seemed to me there was a providence in my happening upon another person so much like Brigitte – there was the same kind of strange clarity about them both – and in so short a time, as if I were being handed off from one to the other.
Olwen cast my horoscope and determined that my rising sign was Sagittarius. She had guessed it before consulting the ephemeris, and I too was not surprised. Of the people who had influenced me deeply, a high proportion were Sagittarians: not only Paul Celan but also Bluma Goldstein, Ireni, Isadora, and my brother Don, to whom I felt closer at that point than to any other member of my family.
Like Brigitte, Olwen made light of my worries about “not being able to accept myself as a woman” (an accusation that had often been lodged against me). She said that the soul was hermaphroditic anyway. Brigitte had said the same thing. Because neither Brigitte nor Olwen was alone as I was, I was not altogether comforted; still their views were a gleam of light. They both had this air of standing above the turbulence, being of those who know. Like Brigitte, Olwen was both old-fashioned and forward-looking. She told me that she hated the idealization of spontaneity, the rejection of all moral and social restraint, that was so fashionable nowadays. At the same time, she believed women would play a great part in the changes that were going to have to take place.
Oddly, it was through Olwen and Roland that a bit of indirect speech from Paul Celan was carried back to me. They read or showed me a letter from a friend of theirs who had seen him that fall. “A rather attractive person,” the letter writer described him. He said that Celan had said to him that he did not know English very well, though he could read the classics; if he learned English he would have to go to Buffalo!
Olwen and Roland helped me look for an apartment, and eventually I settled on a flat consisting of six rooms, the second floor of a house that belonged to an elderly Jewish couple, the Shermans, who lived below. It was too large for one person; but I was tired of looking. Once I had the flat the idea of creating a setting, the way Isadora had done, took hold of me; and the city of Buffalo assisted me in doing so.
Buffalo had been prosperous about the turn of the century, and broad streets were constructed, with great mansions and rows of the tallest elms I ever saw, that soon, when the leaves turned, were like a sky of translucent gold overhead, a sky that was coming apart and falling around one. There were gaps in the golden canopy: the avenues of elms were being thinned already by Dutch elm disease – I suppose they are all gone now – and the mansions were emptying their contents into the antique stores, where beautiful things were dirt cheap. And so I had old Chinese rugs, a bit worn but still glowing, a dark-red-and-blue one in the living room and a blue-and-white one in the dining room; I had a great oak table at which the entire German department could have sat at meat, if I had ever used all the leaves; I had two morris chairs and a sideboard with a mirror, and two Art Nouveau standing lamps, and in the study a huge wooden desk, a deep chair in faded light blue plush with carved rim around it like a bowl, and a small Kurdestan rug. In the study I tacked up color photographs of the Sierras (they were from Marsha’s place back on Grant Street): in the dining room there were Hokusai prints and colored photomicrographs from calendars my father had given me; in the living there was a Dutch still life and Rembrandt’s “Young Girl Holding a Medallion and Murillo’s “The Little Fruit Seller” – and also a geometrical “psychedelic” poster in turquoise and magenta on a silver metallic background; I think I tacked this up over the mirror on the dark oak sideboard. I sewed drapes for the living room of dark blue lining satin and covered the small windows on either side of the false fireplace with colored and oiled paper; the fireplace I filled with candles in wine bottles. At twilight it was a sort of ceremony to go from room to room and close the curtains and light incense. I imagined often entertaining friends there, as in Jason and Marsha’s house in Berkeley, and I imagined students coming over for tea in the afternoons. It did not work out that way.
For Buffalo was not Berkeley. Its atmosphere, as I experienced it, was described in a poem begun the following summer, as an elegy for Paul Celan: “All winter the scholars/ kept their houses,/ went out rarely, discussed/ the death of literature.” Somebody did come and give a guest lecture that year entitled “The Death of Literature,” which was listened to with complacency. No doubt my view of Buffalo was largely shaped by my social position and the internal place where I found myself that year. But the following fall Isadora’s brother Irving, a cheerful, extroverted family man, came to Buffalo on a year’s appointment. He told me how one of his new colleagues had interrupted their first conversation with the words, “We don’t entertain.”
I had really been very fortunate in Berkeley, with Politzer and Jaszi and Bluma for teachers, people for whom the study of literature was a dialogue with the minds of the creators. The department chairman at Buffalo, Peter Heller, was of the same school as Politzer, with something of the Viennese refinement I had noted in both Politzer and Celan, and he was also a poet. But his poetry was relentlessly satiric, and he regarded what he regarded as my idealism with amused tolerance. Once at a party he told someone in my hearing, “Oh, we have plenty of Geist in this department. Miss Cameron is incandescent with Geist.” Maybe he had glimpsed something of the momentous joy that sometimes invaded me that fall, unrelated to anything around me. But in that atmosphere all such perceptions immediately had that automatic irony clapped onto them, like handcuffs. At another party a senior faculty member said to me, “You’re teaching Tasso? Isn’t that a bit old-fashioned?” Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, a blank verse drama from the same period as The Natural Daughter, is about a tormented poet and his relation to court society. It is a work of dark beauty; think of the Schubert Quintet in D major. No one would have said that to me in Berkeley.
Strangely enough, I happened that fall to see the third of Goethe’s great trio of Weimar dramas: Iphigenie auf Tauris. A company from Switzerland – maybe even from some Anthroposophic institute – came to Buffalo and performed it. Iphigenie is the proverbial drama of the Enlightenment, Goethe’s attempt at writing a humanistic ending to the bloody saga of the house of Atreus. The central figure, supposedly sacrificed to Artemis long ago, has been spirited away by the goddess and is serving as priestess on the remote island of Tauris. To this island comes Orestes, seeking atonement for having killed his mother, who had killed his father for having sacrificed Iphigenie. Apollo’s oracle has sent him here in order to retrieve “the image of the sister.” He thinks he is meant to steal the statue of Artemis from the island temple. But when he and his friend and co-conspirator are caught and taken to Iphigenie, he is moved to disclose himself to her: “Between us/ Let there be truth.” Brother and sister recognize each other, and she agrees to help him get the statue. But at the last moment she cannot bear to deceive Thoas, the barbarian king who has pressed her to marry him, but who has behaved well toward her otherwise. (Here Goethe departs from his classical model, the play by Euripides, in which the two just make off with the statue.) She reveals the plot to Thoas, and then they realize that Apollo didn’t mean Orestes to steal the statue but to retrieve Iphigenie, and Thoas, his magnanimity awakened, lets them go home to purify the polluted ancestral hearth. I had never liked this play, which Goethe himself afterwards distanced himself from as “verteufelt human (devilishly humanistic),” quite as well as Tasso and The Natural Daughter, both of which end on an ambiguous note. But when I saw it performed, I was gripped. Whatever the “realism” of the ending, Iphigenie and her struggle were very real to me.
But any hopes I had of making such things real to my students in Buffalo were quickly dashed. I was teaching the literature of the classical period, and one or two sections of elementary German. In the elementary German classes I had to use the same text that had proved a stumbling block in Berkeley; it did not improve on further acquaintance. I had looked forward to teaching my first literature class, but that turned out still worse. My pedagogical method consisted of plunging the students into the flux of my own thoughts about the texts. They were not used to such waters, and soon scrambled out, shaking themselves vigorously. They wanted something easily digestible, regurgitable, and felt that I was not “organized.” This was doubtless true. Since then I’ve learned, or relearned, a healthy respect for organization; at that epoch, when thinking about literature, I seemed to see, through drifting mists, portions of a huge structure, and these glimpses were the only thing I was interested in imparting. I think there were a few thoughtful students in the class who may eventually have found something they could use. But the two “best” students in the class, two girls who had made themselves favorites in the department through their industry, came to my office one day and announced that they saw no good in the course whatever. I had difficulty holding back my tears. They later went to Peter Heller, and Peter Heller called me in and gently rebuked me. When I said something or other in self-defense, he said, again gently, and with that sort of irony he had that always seemed to turn on itself: “You are an elitist.” Reva’s view was that the thing to do was to accept the fact that this was just a place to earn money, and go to Bermuda for vacations.
Perhaps it had something to do with the quantities of snow that fell on that city, situated on the shore of Lake Erie, during the interminable winter. Also, Buffalo was then known to be a center of the Mafia, and though I never encountered anyone who had met them, perhaps in some way they diffused a subtle poison through the atmosphere. The physical environment, despite its past splendors, bore the traces of neglect and pollution; there were potholes in all the streets; it was said that the Buffalo River might catch fire; if you drove through Lackawanna on the causeway you looked down on the crowded clapboard houses and their African-American residents through a bluish haze. As for nearby Niagara Falls, the water below was not only turbulent but sudsy. In the Buffalo library hung a painting of Niagara Falls before the arrival of the Europeans: a small, solitary Indian stood gazing at the cataract amid dark, silent forests. It is from that winter that I remember the first widespread discussions about “the environment.” I read about a bird’s egg without a shell that had been found in the Great Lakes region and tried to write a poem about it, but the poem did not come out.
And friendships did not seem to develop in that atmosphere either. The friendship with Roland and Olwen, which had begun so promisingly, soon tapered off. After I got settled in my apartment they came one evening at my invitation, but stayed only a short time and did not reciprocate. Olwen gave me to understand that they were withdrawing somewhat from social contacts that winter. The people of whom I saw most were Reva and Tom, the other two assistant professors in the department, and Tom’s wife Sally. Reva, who was Jewish and occasionally mentioned that most of her relatives had been killed in the Holocaust, was tiny, shrill, tough, and angry. Tom and Sally were from the South. They were very goodhearted and helped me out on many occasions, including driving me around to the antique stores which they also liked to frequent. Tom liked to repair and make things better than he liked German literature, and after his job did not work out he stayed on in Buffalo as a carpenter. Unfortunately he tried to repair my landlady’s water softener, and it had to be replaced, and this may have marked the beginning of my landlady’s taking against me. She may also have gotten a glimpse of my decor and been put off by it; she was an anxious, vulnerable person whose feelings I probably did not consider enough. Tom and Reva and Sally and I communicated mainly on a plane of nihilistic humor – manic on Reva’s part, mournful on Tom’s, probably both on mine, with Sally as spectator. It included a lot of sexual jokes, which were not a prelude for involvements but a resigned way of expressing affection. Though I laughed at these jokes, they rather depressed me. We were a sad lot, except for Sally, who was already thinking about the children she would have, and did have later. Sometimes when alone I would think things like “The function of art is not so much to project an illusion, as to allow us to believe for a little while that life itself is not real.” Or: “Life is a dirty joke at the expense of the dead.” But I could not get much pleasure out of trying to be clever in that manner. That winter I saw a New Yorker cartoon showing two similar, unattractive creatures looking at each other. The caption said: “As the last surviving male and female of the species, I’m willing to say the hell with it if you are.”
The one thing that moved toward greater coherency that fall was my own poetic oeuvre, such as it was. After sorting through the poems written since the fall of 1966, I put together a collection of thirty-one poems and called it The Occasional Poems of Esther Carnes, thinking and not thinking of Plath’s autobiographical heroine in The Bell Jar and of that poem from Atemwende which ends with the name Esther, as if he were giving this name to the addressee. A hand is placed on the addressee, in a gesture that feels ceremonial.
Just lately I learned something about the person who seemed to have inspired that poem: the Jewish philosopher Margarete Susman (1872-1966), whom Celan met in 1963, when she was going blind but still intellectually active, revered as a sage by many. He seems to have regarded her as a guiding star (hence, perhaps, the name Esther); with her he talked about Buber’s Hasidic tales! The poem was part of his contribution to a Festschrift for her.
What a surprise that was for me! I had always assumed that the poem was addressed to a person younger than the poet, a potential influencee. It reminded me of Heine’s most famous poem, “Du bist wie eine Blume,” where the poet imagines placing his hands on a young girl’s head, praying that she will always remain as innocent and lovely. Years later I would witness the ceremony of which this poem, in turn, reminded me: each Sabbath evening the Orthodox Jewish parent places his or her hands on the head of each of the children and says, in the case of a girl, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” Well, I see I must now go and read all of Susman’s works, as soon as possible! But it was to be some time (as the reader will have to see) the thought of following any such wise role model would occur to me. Meantime I was simply fashioning a pseudonym, not for disguise exactly, since I did not The Occasional Poems of Esther Carnes to anyone who did not know me; rather from a vague apprehension that a poetic identity was something one needed to fashion for oneself. The name “Celan,” after all, was a made-up name, an anagram of his parental name, Antschel.
As for “Occasional Poems” – a term often used derogatorily in the criticism of that generation – this was a kind of programmatic statement, half a confession of my own inability to forge for myself a consistent style, half a protest against the ideology of “art for art’s sake.” I was far from having an exalted opinion of my own poetic gift, but I thought (and still think, as should be clear to the reader) that poetry can be useful for keeping track of reality, regardless of one’s degree of talent.
There was a prominent critic teaching at Buffalo, and Roland and Olwen urged me to look him up. I showed him my poems and my translations of Celan. He invited me to a restaurant, and in the cab we started talking about Goethe’s plays. The critic dismissed Goethe as a closet dramatist. I said that Iphigenie was very powerful in performance, while Tasso and Die Natürliche Tochter could be compared with the best of Racine. The discussion continued in that vein till we got to the restaurant and the critic had to go into the restaurant to get change. When he had shut the cab door the driver, an elderly man, turned to me and said, “That’s right, young lady! You just stick to what you think!” The critic said my poems were all right, though he didn’t really care for them; I had put more feeling into my translations of Celan. As an example of writing he considered properly emotional he recited Pound’s “compleynt” against pity, which I thought an odd thing for a Jew to quote to me. Still, he said, I should start sending my poems out to magazines. “When you’ve been accepted by seven or eight good magazines, then you’ll be a poet.” I said I didn’t want to go about it that way, and he asked why, was it some kind of pudeur? I said no, it was that I believed in the primacy of experience. I had very little faith that the poems written in the silence of the too-spacious flat furnished with other people’s pasts would ever connect me with his world.
Early in that winter I had a dream: I was sitting in a chair in what seemed to be an examination room. The room was blue, the blue I remembered from when I was just going under or coming up from anesthesia, in Berlin. Seated in a row in front of me were Politzer and a few other men who seemed to be colleagues of his. Politzer leaned forward, lifted up the hair that fell over my forehead, and said: “It is time.” One of Celan’s early love poems – “Corona” – ends with those words.
I would sit in my study, a small room with robin’s-egg-blue walls, darkened by the brown curtains at the window and the Kurdestan rug and the battered, heavy desk. I would meditate in the deep armchair with the carved rim, using a mantram, but the mantram would sometimes go away and leave me in a suspended, half-conscious state into which a few words would then enter.
Noises of demolition subside:
to a space structured by absence
there where the shelf was
take down some book,
outside the roses still tangle,
the creepers' silencing hands,
shadows move upward
or wake, in the suspended
warmed by that hearth's
or the fires deep in the earth
That was written in sympathy with Nadine, who had sent me a poem about her carriage house in Berkeley that had been torn down.
under the leaning weeds
at the yard's end, they said, your
shorn rays, the colors
solitudes of descending
sun on old planets
The asters and the leaning weeds were a memory of my family’s first house in Madison. The aster (a cognate of “Esther” and “star”) is considered, by those who like to make such arrangements, to be the “birthflower” of those born in September, just as the star sapphire is the “birthstone.” The “shorn rays” were borrowed from Milton’s description of Lucifer after his fall; of course the name “Lucifer” just means “light-bringer” and originally referred to the morning star, the star of Ishtar. Behind me, over the armchair, hung a poster of John Graham’s “Venere Lucifera,” that slightly eerie geometrical drawing of a woman with an inward-turned look surrounded by mystical signs. The next poem recalls a morning when the frost on my front window-panes turned red with the rising sun.
under frost crystals
colors come out of things
darkness draws into them
a wound's edge
The next poem in the cycle was for someone whom I ought not to have been thinking of. Late in September, as I was walking to a tea for new faculty members, a Volkswagen coming along the street had suddenly swung over to the curb, and the driver had stepped out and come toward me. He was very all, darkhaired, graceful in his movements, very much the type that attracted me physically, and clearly intelligent too. It was also quickly evident that he was not for me; he engaged to a girl in Germany, and if he reciprocated my attraction at all, as I sometimes thought, he rightly nipped in the bud any rapprochement that might endanger his loyalty. If I rather pursued him anyway, it may have been the unscrupulousness of desperation, or else that I needed an ostensible love-object (like the lady whom Dante addresses as a “screen” in the Vita Nuova) and knew that with him I was quite safe from fulfillment. We had only one interesting conversation, when he told me that after his mother’s death he had become interested in anthroposophy and followed it for several years, but had gotten over it. He also told me that he and his fiancée had read the first cycle of Atemwende – the cycle that was published separately as Atemkristall, with Gisèle Celan-Lestrange’s pencil drawings – to each other. I remember pointing out to him the expression “astral flute” in one of the Atemwende poems. For him, then, I wrote the following:
No fathers of mine came from your country
none of yours dwelt on my land
it's said we look alike
if you should ask me
I would arrive one morning
carrying only the few, mythical
flowers of a native valley
I have not seen
the rest already in your keeping
The environs of Zahle, my grandfather Macksoud’s home town near Beirut, were said to be very beautiful. But no one had said that this young man and I looked alike.
In the next few poems the eye turns completely inward; if they make sense then they make sense.
Over all mirrors let fall
the third eyelid
now is what moves in there
glaciers saurian thickness a forest
bones down in the hole
of an open eye
things shiver in themselves
as in mirrors
and i a space between
a statement to be multiplied
it is one and
subterranean stone swept
dustless, the scattered
and what make i here
i artificer of afternoons
o light slow to travel
across a green dial a dream
Finally the “you” resurfaces:
A star, which I
twisted of plantain bark, now
The “plantain” is not the relative of the yam but a weed that grew on the edge of that same yard in Madison. We lived by the railroad embankment, and I felt an attraction to that semi-wild, semi-waste place, the sort of place that Speech-Grille sometimes evokes. And “plantain” was a word he might have liked, like “limpet.”
One day, coming down the stairs in the languages building, I had met my colleague who was going up. We stopped to talk briefly of something inconsequential, and for a moment he laid his hand on my arm. That was all; but early one morning, soon after:
novemberfrühe (november early morning)
wachst auch du zu dieser stunde auf (are you also waking at this hour)
denkst wie wir uns auf der treppe dort begegneten (thinking how we met there
in the stairwell)
wie du flüchtig mir den arm berührt hast (how just fleetingly you touched my
wie kalt sind diese laken (how cold these sheets)
The next poem was evidently written close to the solstice.
each day the light's retraction
makes of us islands
the days like ice-floes driven
beside us the others
gaped open in readiness
for the resumption of sight
in a cup at the hearth the final
breathing bent survival
of an enclosed wing
In that phrase “beside us the others” resides, I think, the main element of hope in the poem: the expression of a hope not only for romantic love but for community. The next poem invokes one of those “others,” a graduate student in the department who was also a poet; he had showed me a group of his poems, many of which referred (like mine) to a midwestern childhood, and which I found quite fresh and appealing.
A young man with a smooth forehead
beneath which the eyes hide
like small animals under rocks
out in the country.
The next poem is a recollection of that street behind the university building in Munich, the one place where I had felt at peace there, which for some reason inserted itself at this point.
Facade: where the wind stood
like soft gray buds in stone
the pigeon bodies stirred.
The pigeon voices' winter
a gradual light,
the abandoned quiet
The next poem begins with some words from a Greek children’s song, translated in the last line. There’s also, I think, an echo of T.S. Eliot’s “Quando fiam uti chelidon – O swallow swallow” at the end of The Waste Land.
eilth', eilthe chelidon:
it will come again
that spring with the swallow
flying in and out of the mirrors
and outside the children singing
"the swallow, the swallow is here"
It was a dream of community as well as love in the narrower sense; the swallow flying in and out of the mirrors is a poetic eros that binds different subjects together, helping them to overcome the limitations of the ego. There’s a line in a poem written by Celan that winter: “There will be a great striding/ across the bounds they draw for us.”
The next poem I wrote (though in the final version of the cycle, in 1971, I placed it last) could be addressed to someone in particular, or to love itself; I think it was mainly the latter, that the poem and the cycle were already addressed to the network of listeners that I was so often to evoke afterward.
incline your ear
the infinite untouched
texture of your listening
The two poems that followed snap back into negativity:
an ache words cannot raise
sky and the
earth its template
joined steeled with still
levers of weightless horizons
on the thruway alone
road line of sight draws to the horizon
silicate mists with brown dendritic inclusions
distances dead fields under yonder
half granular wall vague gape
yesterdays concrete choked
footpressure stone flung to past
in regression forward
inside the shock of speed
At that point I saw that there were seventeen of these poems, a number that Celan uses in an ominous way (though it was some time before I knew that seventeen is one short of the “eighteen blessings” of the Jewish daily prayer that he, with his faith shattered, could no longer repeat), and decided to tie off the cycle. I called it “House of Solstice,” which was meant as an allusion to Atemwende, a title I had translated as “Breath Solstice (the German for “solstice” is Sonnenwende). Then I saw that the little poem written in Berkeley already belonged to it, which brought the number to eighteen. I typed the poems out on half-sheets of paper, paper-clipped them together into a booklet, and gave hand-made copies to people in the department, including the colleague on whom I had a crush and the midwestern poet.
I suppose it was a token of some faith I still had in the department, in my future there. In December that faith suddenly appeared more plausible when an unexpected visitor arrived: Helmut, who had been the Berkeley German department’s star graduate student and was now teaching there. Helmut was a native speaker of German, whereas most of us American students had learned the language in high school or college; but none of us could have matched his industry, his memory, or his refinement, which showed in everything from his choice of words to his choice of clothes; he always wore suits, and preferably in a light greyish blue that went well with his blond hair and gray-blue eyes. He was tall and extraordinarily handsome. For my first year or so in Berkeley I had had a tongue-tied crush on him, of which he (another engaged man) had taken no notice. And now, it seemed, there was a possibility of his coming to teach at Buffalo! Knowing that he was now married, I did not attempt to flirt with him, but during his visit we walked around the campus and had, for the first and only time, a sort of conversation. I remember quoting to him Rilke’s lines
Jede dumpfe Umkehr der Welt hat solche Enterbte,
Denen das Frühre nicht mehr und noch nicht das Spätre gehört
– which is perhaps best translated by Matthew Arnold’s
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born
Helmut gently rebuked me; he felt that we had no right to regard ourselves with that kind of pathos. The department faculty held a dinner at a restaurant to entertain Helmut, and a very pleasant atmosphere was created. It came out that Helmut and I had been born on the same day – September 10, 1941. I think it was this incident that prompted me to fantasize to Ireni, a few weeks later, about creating community in the German department. In the event the department offered him the job, and he mentioned this to the Berkeley department, which topped the offer, and he stayed in Berkeley. The Buffalo faculty were not surprised; they said that was the way things were done.
At the end of the semester I gave a party for my friends and acquaintances, some of whom brought people I did not know. One person brought a plate of hash brownies, of which I ate recklessly. While the party lasted there was good music, good conversation, though not quite the stoned communication I remembered from Berkeley and from Berlin and was trying too hard to recapture. But the guests left rather early, and then the hashish too effect. I started to feel as though I was becoming double. A poem of Celan’s that talks about “both worlds” started to cut a blue canyon in my brain. I wanted to look in the mirror and was terrified of doing so because the image would become as real as I was. And so on. Clearly I was not going to get through this night alone. With an expenditure of will such as I have never used before or since, I walked to the phone, dialed the number of Roland and Olwen, who had been at the party earlier, and when Roland answered told him in a controlled voice that I had had too much hash and was freaking out, and could they put me up at their house for the night. He was very understanding and arrived immediately, and at their house, perhaps with the aid of a sleeping pill, I was able to fall asleep. The next morning I felt a bit shaken, but clearheaded. Over breakfast the three of us had a normal conversation, and when I left, apologizing for the inconvenience, Olwen said in the most natural tone, “It was good to see you again.”
I have always had the feeling that the jewelry I inherited from my father’s side of the family was stolen that night. There was a small gold heart, enamelled in blue with a pink rose, tht had belonged to a great-aunt who had died in childhood; a gold pin with tiny pearls, both of which I had worn as a child; and above all a gold pendant consisting of a lovely outline, something like the central part of a fleur de lis inverted, which held a rose with a small diamond in the middle. Grandma Cameron had given it to my mother for me, probably expecting it to be saved till the day of my marriage, and my mother had not held out and had given it to me the evening before I left for graduate school in Berkeley. And now in this dark cold city it was lost.
I discovered the theft soon after my return from a winter vacation that had been full of encounters and impressions. After visiting my parents in Madison, I had flown out to see Luke and Ireni and Nadine in Berkeley, and then Jason and Marsha in Seattle. Jason’s departure from Berkeley had meant a departure from university life; he was now fully committed to the commune. Marsha had sold her loom on moving from Berkeley; she had bought another in Seattle, not quite as large, but had not set it up. They were planning to open a restaurant in the Seattle market, the following summer. I listened to them talk about their plans while crocheting an afghan, for which I had bought the wool in Madison, soft French yarns in russet, maroon, driftwood brown and a pearly grayish-white. Possibly under Marsha’s influence, the impulse to do something of a textile nature had come over me for the first time in many years. “I wonder what you’re weaving into that,” said Marsha.
I did not quite face the question whether I could really throw up my job and go join the commune. But in Jason and Marsha’s presence I felt alive and hopeful. Their project was one of several things that made me feel as if I had alternatives. Another was the communication I had at the time with my brother Don. He had come to see me late in the fall. I had driven him around Buffalo and out to Niagara, where they had diverted all the water to the Canadian side in order to shore up the rapidly-eroding American falls; we walked on the dry stones and talked about the political-economic system and its effects on the lives of people we knew. It was Don’s year for protest; he was cutting school and taking part in demonstrations. I took him to Roland and Olwen’s, and Olwen told me that he had “a very old soul.” The day before he left, his friend Steve, who had been hitchhiking around, also dropped in. One thing Steve had been doing on his travels was to keep a reading list of the books people recommended to him. He said to Don that they should be sure to trade reading lists before the visit was over. I was deeply moved by this glimpse; it fostered the impression that there was a real learning community out there that I could belong to.
It must have been in January, in one of my spaced-out moods in the flat, that I wrote the following:
Give me your word it will be so,
Your birds will find the crumbs I fling them.
Their wings are on the wind, like snow –
Give me your word it will be so.
Tell me their markings, let me know
Which way to greet the winds that bring them.
Give me your word. It will be so.
Your birds will find the crumbs I fling them.
The poem is undated, scrawled in a barely legible hand. I did not interpret what I had written. It went into the folder of scraps and drafts and stayed there, unread.
All this while I was still trying to attract my young colleague in Buffalo. One evening at a faculty gathering, when I had been especially obvious, he began to respond emotionally, to encourage me, but then resolutely – laudably, after all – stopped himself and changed the conversation to a neutral topic. I wrote (and, of course, never showed him) the following:
This light has broken.
Your likeness, idol mio,
rides in, diminished; yet
one name will not leave you.
It binds you to one
known to me, darkened,
in whose shoulder’s shadow
I have cast my homeland.
The “one name” I had in mind was “you,” as in Celan’s work poems inspired by various persons are addressed with the same “you” and without externals that could differentiate them. He had written, in “The Meridian”: “The poem wants to get to an Other, it needs this Other... Every thing, every person is to the poem, that is trying to get to the Other, a form of this Other.”
And then the student demonstrations at Buffalo began.
The trouble started with a protest in the athletic department against some allegedly discriminatory decision, and soon spread to a large segment of the student body. At first my inclination was to keep out of it. I was just starting to get the hang of teaching second-year grammar; the original incident did not seem to me worth making such a fuss about, nor did I like the tone of the demonstrations. One afternoon, sitting in my basement office and listening to the shouting outside, I let my hands rest on the keyboard of the typewriter and began to write:
LINES WRITTEN IN THE BASEMENT
insinuated with sirens,
among the sheetmetal
carapaces of instruction.
congregations of penguin voices,
talk of striking.
Too cold to stand here.
The snow, white as helmets,
brings up its reinforcements,
wind keeps shoving us along,
let’s have coffee.
This white office cubicle...
Strife of voices,
and the silent agreements:
there will be metal twisted, glass broken,
a car turned to a smudgepot,
maybe some broken heads
repossessed by the cold:
The leafless trees are skeptics.
I took it to the student newspaper, but it did not get published. I went back to the internal dialogue, which, for a finale, produced the following:
Voice in the wings of the thorax, voice in the wings of the clenched cerebrum, prisoner within the wings, voice of my voice --
Tendon of pain, limbs scattering out of that one direction --
It overturns all synonyms like a wind among walls that have died standing up
I give it your name to play with
it flings the name away and goes loudly searching for it in the trees made from its calling
my name it has taken and denies this
yet it has promised me battle and I live by this:
All the ungiven glances like darts in a box
all the points of silence sharpened
towards the day when I fall
vanishing and they
fall past me flaring at equinox
over the dark sowing-time
of an alien earth.
This reminds me of certain furiously erotic poems in Atemwende, but I daresay it was also powered by all the adrenalin in the environment.
The demonstrations continued. Someone tried to firebomb the library. The acting president of the university called in police to patrol the campus. This in turn provoked cries of “police state” not only from the students, but also from a large segment of the faculty. A faculty meeting ended in a resolution calling on the acting president to withdraw the police. The resolution was ignored. On Saturday, March 14, Reva told me that a group of faculty members was going to hold a sit-in in the president’s office next morning. I said I’d be there.
The chance to join up with something, finally, was irresistible. Something in me did observe that, if people were going to try to burn down the library, there was nothing extraordinarily repressive about calling the police to stop them from doing so. But those who were pointing this out seemed to be the ones who just wanted things to return to the status quo ante, the lifeless parties and the mindless educational assembly line. I had a conversation that spring with Roland , who was working with the administration but did not hold my stand against me personally. I said something about what the university was doing to young people’s spirits, and he said it was standard, every human society has to sacrifice, send to the slaughter, or otherwise get rid of a large portion of its youth. I said, “Rather than live like this, I’d shoot myself.” He replied, “Ah, but most people don’t shoot themselves. They shoot very slow bullets at their brains. It takes fifty years.” That, of course, was what I was really protesting. The acting president’s refusal even to answer the faculty resolution made it barely possible for me to join the sit-in with some sense of justification. A few days after the sit-in I managed to get four or five of the “Hayes Hall 45" to join me in drafting a letter which did get printed in the student newspaper, about how the problem was not just “police on campus” but the administration’s refusal of dialogue, the increasing subordination of educational to administrative goals, of mind to matter, which was the real threat to intellectual freedom. The letter included a quotation from Lessing’s Emilia Galotti: “He who does not lose his reason over certain things, has none to lose.”
On Sunday morning, March 15, about fifty faculty members, none of them much over thirty, met in one of the classrooms and briefly discussed what we were going to do. Most of us agreed that if ordered to leave we would not do so unless arrested. Then we went to the president’s office. It was not locked; we filed in and sat down around a long table, those who came last taking chairs at the side of the room. Reva was there; so was the colleague I had thought myself in love with. We had not been there long when someone from the Administration came and asked us to leave; when we didn’t, he left saying he was going to call the police. After he left, the tall, robust young man at the head of the table, whose Ivy League authority still had a rabbinic tinge, began to read from Kafka’s Trial, a passage on the mysterious workings of bureaucratic justice. The reading was interrupted by the arrival of the police. The senior officer announced that we were in violation of the law against trespassing, and that anyone who remained in the room from this point on would be arrested. A few did leave, including my former “idol,” who as a foreign citizen would have gotten into more trouble than most of the rest of us. Forty-five stayed, and the arrests began. The police were polite, and only one or two of the men decided to go limp and had to be carried to the paddy wagons. The man who had been reading was taken out; someone else had to continue; I reached for the book, feeling a little like the allegorical figure of Liberty that appears in reliefs from the time of the French Revolution (even if it had occurred to me earlier that we were using Kafka a little loosely). Alas, we seldom appear to others as what we are in our own eyes: a few weeks later I picked up one of the accounts we had been asked to write for our lawyers and read that after the arrrest of the bearded man (mentioned by name) whose reading had inspired us, the reading had been continued by “some woman.” I felt a slight chill, and did not look through the other accounts.
A police officer came and, a little apologetically, took me by the arm. I had a surge of feeling of an unexpected kind, as though I were about to be led to the altar rather than to the jail cell which in fact awaited me. A similar escort was offered to Reva and the only other woman in the group. That night I saw us on television, walking through the falling snow. Reva stalked along in dark glasses and duffel coat; I looked demure and a bit dreamy, with downcast eyes. One elderly professor in the department told Reva afterward that we had looked like Italian movie stars, by which he meant – she added – that we had made perfect fools of ourselves.
Reva and I were confined in adjacent cells for a few hours, during which they brought us each a cup of pale, dilute instant coffee. The wooden bench of my cell still had space for more graffiti; I took the belt off my dress and scratched with the prong “Die Gedanken sind frei (Thoughts are free).” Then, at the intervention of some of our colleagues, we were released on our own recognizance. We regrouped that evening at the home of one of the protestors and were briefed on strategy. A lawyer had been engaged for us, a conservative with a good reputation for getting people off. As we were going to have to stand trial, we were instructed not to make any statements about what had occurred; we were not even to say we had been at Hayes Hall! Having supposedly gone in there to prove a point, we were now prepared to equivocate our way out of the situation. Only a few objected to this, and I was not one of them; I had never asked myself whether I could take an actual jail term, and my wish in joining the protestors had been not so much for a showdown with the administration and the court system as for a meeting with some people who shared my discontent and with whom solidarity might be possible. The opportunism of the single woman was also present. Perhaps if I had had those two motives sorted out at the time, I might have been more effective; as it was I did not know how seriously to take myself. At any rate, I pleaded, in the many meetings that were held between the demonstration and the trial for purposes of planning and moral support, that we, as teachers, should not approach our situation mindlessly, but that we should try to become an association concerned with the ethical responsibility of the intellectual, we should work for an educational program that would reflect humane goals, for relations within the university which would respect the dignity of the mind. A few people agreed with this enough to meet separately and draft the letter and one or two other statements, but basically they felt that nothing much could be done. As for the others, there was only one who bluntly remarked at a meeting, “I didn’t get into this to meet people.” But for most the courtroom struggle was enough. There were one or two veteran activists for whom our faculty protest was a little tame. But the majority were quiet people who had been carried away with the excitement and were now worried about their futures. It did not seem possible to establish that there could be a middle course between mere counterproductive gestures, and mere passive acceptance of “reality.” In the end one or two chose the former, most the latter.
The student strike had succeeded in shutting down classes for the remainder of the semster, and we had a good deal of time on our hands. Reva and I, as the only unmarried women among the protestors, inevitably spent a lot of time together in manically depressing conversations. Our case came to trial late in the spring. For a number of days we sat in the courtroom all morning, while the lawyers made statements and counter-statements about technicalities of evidence. As we could not be called to testify about ourselves, we were silent. I crocheted a lot of afghan squares during those sessions; it was probably their only constructive result. In the end we were found guilty of trespassing and sentenced to thirty days in jail. But the case was appealed and the verdict overturned by a higher court, and most of the trial expenses were paid by the contributions of our colleagues.
I don’t recall whether our trial ended before or after May 6, 1970, the day of the shootings at Kent State. But the Saturday after that we were all in the streets, students and younger faculty together, galvanized to a last common cry of protest. On the main street in front of the university, students and police faced each other. From the front lines ahead of me, as at some signal, a volley of rocks arced across the intervening space. There was a pause, and then high over the same space appeared other, unfamiliar objects, and then there was a mad rush: “Tear-gas!” I ran the wrong way, downwind, and fell down on the lawn near the administration building, lungs filled with fire. But it lasted only a few seconds. I picked myself up and walked – to a faculty meeting, I seem to remember. The more conservative members were in control, there was no reaction to what had happened.
All through that spring, there were still more violent demonstrations at the University of Wisconsin. My father was asked to be chairman of a committee appointed to sort out the conflict. He agreed, feeling that he could not refuse the trust, just as he had served for years on the parking committee. My father was a political conservative. He felt that the Vietnam war was necessary to oppose the spread of communism. When I talked about the suffering it caused he said that he did not believe political decisions should be based on emotion. He was critical and well-informed, though mostly from conservative sources; he was not a person who liked to shut his eyes to the future and just live from day to day; he was already worrying about the country’s increasing dependence on foreign resources. His discouragement over people’s apparent inability to work for anything but their own short-term interest, had taken their place in my mind beside the preceding winter’s lecture on “the death of literature.” In his work on the committee that dealt with the riots, I am sure he did his best to be moderate and fair. A few years later I talked with a very intelligent woman who had been at Wisconsin then, and whose sympathies were on the whole with the left. She remembered my father as a great man. At the time, however, fantastic accusations against him were printed in the student newspaper, my parents’ house was placed on a list off addresses publicized by the radicals as good targets for bombing, and for several nights Don sat up on the roof with a gun.
My father and I exchanged letters. His was the tone of aggrieved reason; he was horrified by the tactics of the student radicals and believed that nothing good was to be achieved by violence; if change was necessary, it had to be worked for “through proper channels.” My reply (quite as if I had taken a leaf from Sigrid’s book) was full of vitriolic sarcasms, to the effect that if change could come through proper channels, those interested in maintaining said channels were not doing anything to prove it, and if he supported a regime which was committing violence abroad, he had no cause for complaint if the violence sometimes came home. At that distance from Madison, it was easy enough to say.
Celan was not much in my thoughts that spring, except as the subject of a dissertation it was now more and more difficult to imagine writing. Had I intended to write it, the approaching summer was the time; but I had decided to try out Jason and Marsha’s commune. I arranged with the department to take leave without pay the spring semester of the following year, leaving the question open in my mind whether I would write the dissertation then or simply leave. With Tom’s help I moved my things out of the Sherman’s upstairs flat and into a smaller place where I could store them without paying rent until the fall. Then I set off in my car for Cambridge.
Just out of Buffalo I saw a car parked on the side of the highway with a white handkerchief fluttering from the window. I guessed that it was a distress signal, but the knowledge did not get to the foot that should have pressed the brake pedal; the momentum of flight from nowhere to nowhere pulled me on past. A few minutes later there was a rest stop. I pulled in and told an officer and drove on, down to Cambridge through mountains whose stands of conifers had yellowed with the snows of a heavy winter. Winterkill. That was what was wrong with my soul too. Did winterkilled things come back? When I got to Isadora’s apartment in Cambridge only her roommate Sara was there. She and I talked briefly, and then she let me rest. I said something about the winterkill and she looked thoughtful, as though she could have said something but decided to keep it back.
By the time Isadora got home it was dark. We went into her room to talk, and Isadora lit a candle. The light was small in the large, high-ceilinged room. We exchanged some news about ourselves, and then Isadora said: “By the way, did you hear that Celan died?”
I felt as though certain things inside me had turned into small glass animals and I had to move very carefully so as not to break them. “Where did you hear about it?” I asked. She said that Peter, Sara’s boyfriend, had heard about it in publishing circles. She did not know any details. She asked: “Do you think he was ... in some kind of a state at the time?” and : “Do you think it’s an omen?” To both questions I answered: “I don’t know.”
We talked a little longer, and then I said I wanted to sleep. We made up the sofa in the living room. I asked Isadora for a stick of incense and lit it on the table beside the sofa, intending just to think about him for a little while. But I couldn’t think of anything to think, and fell quickly asleep.