PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 11: BROKEN GLASS
For a long time afterward, I was to be haunted by the feeling that I had failed Celan. A similar feeling, I am told, often haunts people who have crossed the path of a suicide even by chance: the person who sold them the rope, the clerk who checked them into the motel. But to me he had appealed, or so I had read that silent, written signal; and I had not answered, neither in that moment nor afterward, during the whole eight and a half months between our interview and the night when Paul Celan left his watch on his desk and walked to the Seine.
Of course, no one could have answered that appeal. By trying I could only have made a fool of myself. And had I pointed that out to him, it would have been only another disappointment. And if I’d written to him like a normal rational person, pretending that had not happened, that would not have been much comfort either. Still one wishes one had reached out. I was debarred from doing so, during those eight and a half months, partly by an overwhelming sense of having been tried and found wanting – like Lord Jim, like Parzival, both of whom become exiles from human society after they fail the test. I should have remembered that although Lord Jim is irretrievably lost (although again, some of his after-the-fact heroics do save lives), Parzival is allowed to take the test over. After a long series of adventures he is once again led before the Fisher King and ritually asks the question – “What ails thee?” – and the Fisher King is healed. Perhaps my second failure was partly due to the exaggerated importance which my generation attached to spontaneity. My brother Don, whose job entails negotiations, tells me that he is not good at thinking on his feet, and often makes mistakes in the immediate situation. But afterward he can generally find a way to make it good. Whereas I just froze and stayed frozen.
When Isadora told me the news – it has always seemed like a kindness of Providence that I heard it from her – it was as if I had long known and as if the news was still a long way off and would take a long time to arrive, a long time for me to figure out just what kind of difference it made to me.
I stayed at Isadora’s apartment for a few days before we set out on the drive up to Maine which we had planned. A certain tension developed between us in Cambridge. It seems that I did not only have, as Ireni said, an internal image of myself, I also tended to form images of my friends and to want them to keep on resembling said images. For me Isadora would always be the maiden-matriarch of Derby Street, which was not necessarily her own view of herself now. She had cut her hair short, and I sometimes felt slighted by her when others were present. Things did not improve until I blew up, and then we finally set out on the trip.
We had good weather, and as tourist season had not yet begun we met with no crowds. We talked without running out of things to say. We took pictures, posing each other against a rocky beach or an abandoned barn, me in the flashy California clothes I liked then, Isadora in her more conservative darker ones. Isadora put up with my stopping at every country graveyard we passed, which, as though I had learned something from Reva, I treated as a great lark. Once – was it on Swan’s Island off Bar Harbor? – we came upon a particularly beautiful one, where the white marble stones were half encrusted with orange and gold lichens. I became interested in the graves of one family where all the women seemed to be named Keturah. Before one of those tombstones I posed Isadora, head in profile, finger pointing to one of the lines of barely decipherable writing. I wanted her dark hair and clear profile to stand out against the sunlit lichened marble as on an illuminated page, as if her face were the meaning of the words to which she was pointing. But the color slide did not come out as well as the picture in my mind.
On Bar Harbor we walked into the lobby of a stately white hotel, and on the newspaper rack I saw a paper with a strange item: in Camden a Torah that had been brought over from Europe had been desecrated by vandals and had had to be buried. I did not point it out to Isadora, but she saw it herself and said, “Look!” We both became thoughtful, and after a while Isadora said something about the reverence for the word in her childhood religion.
The northernmost point we reached was a town called Corea. A billboard by the highway as we approached announced development; but at that last moment it was still just a fishing town, the houses placed seemingly at random, the harbor at low tide a great raw place of red mud. The people looked up to glare at us as we drove our car to the end of a gravel road and got out and walked to the seaward side of the sheltering peninsula. It was a day of dark gray clouds. The shore was of coarse-grained pink granite, like the petrified flesh of prone giants, with glacial striations; dark islands loomed offshore, and in between roamed masses of slate-gray and white water, a fearsome surf with many cross-currents. On the rocks we found sea-urchin shells which the gulls must have dropped. Celan would have liked this place, I thought, and then no, this is silly, why he rather than anyone else, lots of people would have liked that place.
When we got back from Cambridge I left the car with some other friends of Isadora’s in the country near Boston and flew to Berkeley to see Ireni and Luke and Nadine. Ireni and Luke had bought a house in the northern part of Berkeley, close to the Alameda tunnel, a small, well-built house with good hardwood floors and a few ornamental moldings, but almost as bare of decoration as the house on Grant Street. After buying the house they found out that it was built right over the San Andreas Fault. They took it philosophically, laughed about it, were not going to try and sell the house to someone else. In that house I wrote a few fragments. One contained the line: “To still eyes the road is still.” One mentioned the Torah scroll in New Jersey, another recalled the moment near the end of our interview when he had removed the young man’s hand from his arm: “I could as soon have touched you/ as the twilight sky.”
Nadine had also moved; she had found another garden cottage, the place with which she is most associated in my memory. It was a two-room concrete block structure, painted mustard yellow on the outside. In the yard were nasturtiums and plum trees whose decaying fruit lay among the weeds. Outside the living room window was a table with plants, coleus and impatiens; Nadine was good with plants. A wind chime made of shells hung over the front door, and one of three Siamese cats was usually sitting on the doorstep. Inside it rather smelled of them, one had to get used to it. But she had the art of arranging shells and stones and small artifacts and dried weeds so that the result seemed a natural accretion. A large thin section of unpolished translucent agate stood against one windowpane. There was a braided rug, its colors darkened by grime; the day-bed was covered with a Peruvian fur rug and colored pillows. Over the daybed hung a small woodcut she had bought from her former sister-in-law. It showed a moonlit landscape, in the center of which stood a woman, bare to the waist, in skirts like a Minoan goddess, with a cow’s head, like something seen in a dream. There was a rickety wicker chair, and a harpsichord her ex-husband had built from a kit. In the other room the bed was covered with an afghan she had bought for five dollars at a rummage sale in Oakland; she had mended the moth holes. This was to me a fascinating object. The one I was crocheting had just a few carefully-chosen colors; but this one was the testament of years. It was made of small “granny” squares, finely crocheted, with different colors arranged concentrically, set together diamond-fashion; the background colors were dark-brown on the outside squares, rust-brown at the center, and between was a broad field of dusty rose. Within each square the inner colors were unpredictable. Pastels predominated, but every color and shade seemed to be represented. Time had faded the colors to a greater harmony. The eye never tired of going from square to square, comparing the different combinations in neighboring squares, or following the progression within each square from the outer rose or brown, through an intermediate color, to the central hue, and then drawing back and gazing once again at the motionless dance of the entire design. Surely an old woman had made it, and the different colors represented the contents of her work-basket, scraps of yarn left over from years on years of knitting and crocheting for children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, cousins and cousins’ children, friends and friends’ children and grandchildren; it represented hours of sitting and listening to others speak, hours of working alone in a house finally empty, cheered by a radio or perhaps the song of a canary or the birds outside. A life neither Nadine nor I would ever know.
Except for the first few days, the time in Berkeley was not peaceful. Some other friends of Ireni’s arrived, an unmarried couple with the woman’s two children. The man was supposed to be brilliant, but for the last six months had done nothing but stare into space and occasionally play classical guitar. He and the woman, a social worker by profession, were both mean to the children, especially the little girl, who seemed to be the only sane member of the family, and whom they lost no opportunity to insult, while the boy threw tantrums every other minute. Ireni made no attempt to intervene; her manner implied that it was not her business to judge people. I did not scream at them – there was already more than enough screaming – but I raged with clenched teeth. One afternoon, when I had lain down for a moment in Ireni’s and Luke’s room, I had a sensation that was like vertigo and at the same time like being dissolved, as though a dark-blue sky were descending between my cell walls.
Nadine also had house guests during that time, a young writer named Jeffrey and his wife Elaine. It was Elaine who had been Nadine’s friend. She had had a very hard life, with a number of cruel affairs, and had been in an almost schizophrenic state for several years; they she had begun to improve slightly; then she had met Jeffrey, a bright young man, a poet whose parents were both known writers, and they had fallen in love and were now happily married. Nadine and I both found that a heartening story, but in their presence I did not feel at ease. Jeffrey, a handsome young man who seemed very pleased with life, kept his hand on Elaine’s thigh, while she maintained an air of total passivity that would have satisfied D.H. Lawrence. Earlier in the year I had encountered a couple who seemed to me to rather flaunt their happiness in front of the less fortunate; and similarly there was something in Jeffrey’s smile as he patted his wife in Nadine’s and my presence that marked off the distance between his situation and ours. One evening the four of us went to a clavichord concert. It was one of those times when I was racked with an inexplicable pain that seemed to freeze and rend me at the same time. On the way back Jeffrey started talking about his literary career. With a strange note in her voice -- I would say of bloodthirsty curiosity -- Nadine said: “Tell Bea about all the translations you’ve published.” Instantly I was all ears. He named several authors, slowly, and finally came the name I was waiting for, preceded by a few extra introductory phrases, to give the knife an elegant twist. It is amazing how much people actually know about each other, what can be done with a few words, all the “little murders,” indeed, that no one can ever prove, just like that story where the victim was stabbed to death with an icicle that then melted, and no one could find a murder weapon. I swallowed hard, forced myself to ask a question or two in a neutral tone of voice. Fortunately we were almost at Ireni’s. I ran up the stars and, as soon as Ireni had spoken to me, burst into loud sobbing. Ireni’s insensitive friend came up and self-importantly offered the “comfort” of random bromides, until I told her to shut up, she didn’t know a damned thing about it.
Ireni spoke to me the next morning, or the day after, about some poems by Celan that she had read in translation. “It is very beautiful, the most beautiful poetry I have ever read. Everyone loves Celan’s poetry.” Her voice, gently pointed, asked: what is your privilege?
I rode up to Seattle on the Greyhound bus, reading The Golden Notebook, which I had bought at the bus station; Harriet had once recommended to me, though mentioning that she had not read the end. The book lasted me the length of the ride, exhilarating for the first two hundred pages, then steadily darkening. Failed introspection, failed communication, failed revolution. It was well past midnight when I got into Seattle. Jason and Marsha picked me up. They looked older than when I had seen them last, there was more gray in Jason’s hair, and I understood that the work of the commune was hard. Jason settled me in the living room where I was to sleep, pointed out some mail that had already arrived for me, and went upstairs. Unable to sleep, I opened the letters. There was a note from my new landlady, saying I would not be able to stay in the apartment next fall, but could store my things there until then. Apparently Mrs. Sherman, who felt that I had treated her badly – it was probably true, I had been careless that year in many ways – had gotten hold of her. I opened the letter from Ellen, my shipboard friend, hoping to end the day on a better note. It was the kind of letter she usually wrote, about academic life, how things were going with men, a book or movie she had read or seen lately. Only the postscript said: “I suppose you have heard the news of Celan’s suicide.” It was then that I clenched my fists and whispered into the night: “No! No!”
There is a story by some Yiddish author, called “The Temple Has Been Destroyed,” about a drayman whose horses die and who broods about his loss, until finally he goes to see the rabbi. It is midnight, and the rabbi is reciting the lamentations for the destruction of the Temple with great fervor. The drayman breaks down and weeps, lamenting the destruction of the Temple with still greater fervor than the rabbi. All of which is told with a bitter yet forgiving Yiddish humor, which I didn’t have in 1970; I wrote, a few days later:
I dislike contemplating too closely the emotion I felt on reading this. Self-pity, morbid curiosity, and the opportunities of releasing mundane frustration and weariness into the acceptability of grief. The real horror of it, if I feel it at all, remains in my consciousness like shrapnel; I cannot absorb or expel it, cannot express it. Cannot accept that it has nothing to do with me.
It was Jason who, of all the people I knew, said the most appropriate thing. One day he asked me why I thought Celan had committed suicide, and I stammered something about his having looked too deeply into things, till he came across some knowledge that had been too much for him. Jason said, “Yes, the rabbis were aware of the dangers of mystical speculation. There’s a story in the Talmud of four men who got involved in something like that, and only one of them came out of it all right. All the others were destroyed in some way.” It was the first time I recall hearing that classic story of the “four who entered Pardes.”
I had another glimpse of Jason’s inherited wisdom that summer, after we had been to see the film Teorema, which is about a beautiful young man, perhaps an angel, who drops in on a family, makes love to each of its members, and then departs. They all go mad, each in his or her own way; none of them can live in the world any more. Jason said that the Jewish tradition had always been aware of the destructiveness of an excess of Divine love, the need for its restraint.
Jason himself, that summer, was under strain; he was feeling the weight of what he had undertaken. The restaurant was supposed to be the first of a number of small business enterprises, each run by its own commune but linked in an association, a structure that would approximate the original plan of human social organization and attract those wishing to escape the “anomie” of the surrounding society. It was a dream he had worked out with Richard, starting when they were in high school together in the Bronx, keeping it alive through their college and graduate-school years. During those years Jason had married, given up Orthodoxy, married again; Richard – I forget what he studied in school, but recall that he was drawn toward Buddhism – had moved to Seattle and married Ellen, a well-brought-up, pale-blond girl from Whidby Island who said little but seemed to enjoy domestic tasks in a “natural” environment. Together they had decided that the first enterprise of their association would be located in Seattle, in the Pike Place Market.
There could hardly have been a more promising setting, after all. Seattle, in those days at least (I have not seen it since 1972), was a place where man and nature seemed to meet on friendly terms. The snow-capped peak of Mt. Rainier stood in the distance like a guardian; the city sloped steeply down to Puget Sound, and its heart seemed to be that ancient wooden covered market, several stories deep, built on the cliffside right at the waterfront. Farmers brought their produce to the market, and hippies their crafts; the past rubbed noses with the future which the “counterculture” looked forward to. From below the market you could take a ferryboat to Bainbridge Island, which was still quite rural; Nadine and I used to go to Bainbridge Island to visit a woman named Hildegard, who would always give us wine made from something that grew around there – dandelions, blackberries, broomflowers. The commune restaurant was called the Soup and Salad, and it was located at the end of one wing of the Pike Place Market, with a view of the Sound. There were benches and tables made from stumps of great trees cut in half and polished, beautiful though not very comfortable. The restaurant served home-made breads and soups, fresh orange juice, and yoghurt made from goats’ milk. Under the restaurant was the bakery, where I remember helping Marsha bake the bread, drawing peace signs with a knife on the tops of the loaves. The restaurant generally seemed tolerably full, but the profits were small; it was labor-intensive. Jason, the economist and financial manager, and worried a good deal. Most of the rest of us took it more lightly; Richard was evidently also feeling some tension which he vented on Marsha and on Michael, who had followed Jason to Seattle; Michael would take it with his distant smile, but Marsha would flare up in response. Jason did not attempt to involve us in the details, but just always gave us to understand that his mind was on them and he had little time for other matters. I am not sure he expected success; the mood of apocalyptic pessimism that was in the air that summer had gotten to him too, and he rather gloried in acting in the teeth of despair. In my mind I accused him of demanding sacrifices not as often as necessary, but as often as possible. Conversation, that had thrived in Berkeley and Lafayette and made the idea of the commune attractive to me, now seemed always overshadowed by practicalities. There was the matter of an excursion for which Nadine and I wanted to take time, and that kept getting postponed. I’m afraid that Nadine and I voiced our resentments to each other and strengthened each other in obliviousness to Jason’s point of view.
Marsha was caught in the middle, and had her own ambivalences. She would sometimes confess to a longing for a “vine-covered cottage” and simple dyadic bliss. Yet she loved Jason for his dreams and found a joy in helping him. Once she told me that before she had met Jason she had cared a lot about clothes, but now she was quite happy going around in things from Good Will; when you were really happy, externals like that didn’t matter. Anna Wickham has a poem about this, called “Song”:
I was so chill, and overworn, and sad,
To be a lady was the only joy I had.
I walked the street as silent as a mouse,
Buying fine clothes, and fittings for the house.
But since I saw my love
I wear a simple dress,
And happily I move
Marsha had a good deal to put up with. It was she, no less than Jason and Richard, who gave to the commune what life it had; and it might have lived longer if she had gotten more support. As it was, while the business seemed to hold its own, the community didn’t come together. It consisted of a leadership group on the one hand -- Jason and Marsha, Richard and Ellen, and Michael -- and on the other hand a loose assortment of individuals who were there for reasons of their own.
Had I been focused on the commune’s future, I might have given better support; but by an impulsive decision at the start of the summer I placed myself outside the leadership group. The twelve or thirteen commune members lived in two houses, which were some distance apart. Jason seemed to expect that I would move into the one where he, Marsha, Richard, Ellen, Michael, and Maxine, another unattached woman in her late 20’s, were already living. But I said that I would live in the other house, without looking into my reasons: whether it was that there was more room in the second house, or that I could perceive an incipient gap between the inner and outer circle and did not want to be party to a caste system, or that I was always a bit wary of seeming to form part of a “harem” around Jason. Nadine arrived a few days later and followed my example.
The house where I thus found myself living stood at the end of a long street that descended steeply to the Pike Place Market. It was a white frame house with five or six bedrooms and a large living room whose fireplace bore the inscription “East, west, hame’s best.” It needed a lot of fixing up. Besides Nadine and me there was a young couple with a baby; there was a young graphic artist, small, tough, street-wise, who talked a great deal, but somehow one never felt that one knew him; and there were two or three other young men whose identities were already hazy in my mind in 1980. They, the couple with the baby, and the graphic artist could all be roughly classified as “hippies,” and Jason was never wholly at ease with them; he could discuss things with them in a meeting, they could agree on some external goals, but his ways were not their ways. Perhaps the dichotomy would have grown even faster if Nadine and I had not taken rooms in the second house. At any rate, Nadine and I staked out our rooms – mine on the ground floor, hers in the attic – and painted them, and then scoured the thrift stores near the market for odds and ends to decorate them with. And then, between shifts of work in the restaurant, I could get on with the only business I could really attend to that summer, namely the processing of what had occurred.
It was then that I began writing two sections of what eventually became “Earthwake,” an elegy which was also my journeyman piece as a poet. For the time being it was just two unconnected poems, neither one satisfactorily finished. But the first one starts from the position expressed in that journal entry written soon after that first night in Seattle. The entry continues:
I had known of course about the death; the suicide was something I suspected but rejected because it would be too true, too logical a consequence of that poetry, which of all the poetry I have ever read is the most undismissably moving, because no one else seemed able to speak from within this time – they could only speak about it. Personal pathology is irrelevant; that, probably, is the price.
From the first, it seems, I accepted Celan’s suicide as a just critique of the world, rather than attempting to relativize it. I can now, from information and perspectives later acquired, call that stance simplistic and even see it as a moral enormity, of a kind which the apocalyptic mood of the period encouraged; and yet probably, at some final bar of judgment, I would have to stick to it. How we would go on wasn’t clear to me, but the first step was to take stock of what had happened.
All winter the scholars
kept their houses,
went out rarely, discussed
“The Death of Literature.”
Ash of predictions kept sifting
into the bread,
trees, turned to stone, stood
in a stone-eating sky.
No yeasty poems poured
through the open doors of libraries
that cancelled equinox,
though midnights babbled of a tongue
torn out like a telephone cord
before all metronomes ended.
Then there was July:
Along streets with their new constructions,
glass and concrete:
matter itself gone grey
and blank with pain
like the face of a clubbed peasant
telephotoed from Asia.
That is the final version. Originally there was a line about Kent State. It was that summer, in Seattle, that I first noticed a style of construction that has become all too familiar since, the corporate style: tall office buildings, out of proportion to their surroundings, as though designed by a blind architect. The image from Asia (one of Celan’s late poems, that Neumann had criticized aesthetically, was called “To a Brother in Asia”) arrived the following spring, linking it to second section:
Shore Rocks at Corea
Pegmatites. Over this edge:
ice cataracts, then as now
Under our feet,
exposed, the granules: the quartzes,
the feldspars, grown to eye-size,
stopped against sight. The tidepools:
green algae glares to the cloud.
Tidings, O tiny
far-traveled tsunami, here
curl to simile, die in the unrecorded
surf-gardens: a mind,
stranded and stemmed against absence,
beats in itself.
Cross-currents, there, the tides
race through each other, kanntet
ihr mich –
The poem is modeled stylistically on Celan’s “Matière de Bretagne”; it is meant to sound like an echo or answering shout from the opposite shore. “Pegmatites” are a form of rock with very large granules which my father used to study in the summers when he was away in Africa. I thought of pegmatites because the rocks at Corea had such large crystals, but when I showed my slides of the place to my father he said they were not pegmatites. But just lately I learned that pegmatite is also called “graphic granite” because some of its markings are thought to resemble Chinese characters. I like to think that Celan would have appreciated this piece of poetic luck. Again, the last two lines arrived only the following spring. The italicized words mean “Did you (pl.) know me?”; in “Matière de Bretagne” Celan had written
Did you know me,
hands? I walked
the forked road you pointed
I understand this to mean that in writing poetry he felt drawn along by forces beyond his personal identity and perhaps indifferent to it. But before coming to the word “hands”, the reader for a split second hears the question “Did you know me” as addressed to us, us readers. Then, that appeal is taken back. We are dismissed, he wasn’t talking to us after all. And yet he was, of course, and that was what I was trying to express by quoting the “Kanntet ihr mich” without the continuation. It meant an acceptance of the appeal, an acceptance which is then directly expressed in the next section of “Earthwake.” But in the summer of 1970 I could not yet write that acceptance. The two poems remained, provisorily finished but not yet quite right, while, as a separate matter, I went on trying to figure out where I was and what was to become of me.
Most of my conversations that summer were with Nadine. We exchanged poems, I showed her my dream transcripts. I had wild dreams. In one of them Celan appeared, looking dark and violent; he had run over someone with his car. Another showed me the end of the world, a chaos of flying mud with a sort of Dylanesque assemblage of figures taking their places in nowhere. In another I was in a laboratory where sat various human-shaped flesh-colored plastic casings with tubes leading into them and out of them, but the humans inside had long since dissolved; I was standing among them thinking I must transmit a message from Bluma to the young poet from the Midwest whom I had met at Buffalo. In still another dream there was a dress which was very old; it was mine, but it was in the possession of the Roman Catholic Church. The most vivid dream began in a banquet hall where a lot of people gathered in order to see me whip myself. Instead, I turned on them with the whip and killed them all. When that was done I walked from the banquet hall into the courtyard and stood in front of a large mirror. I was wearing a red-and-black striped dress with a long full skirt. On the skirt, two spots of white had already appeared.
Nadine laughed with recognition. “It’s so true, Bea. You always have such an air of innocence, and it’s so fake!” And then I was a bit dispirited by her willingness to believe the worst of me. Ireni, too, later told me that she had been afraid that summer that I would kill, not myself, but somebody else. But although the dream does remind me now of the bullied student who comes to school with an automatic rifle, at the time I felt that it was not so much about vengeance as about vindication – reclaiming a sense of my own worth from a world that always seemed to think there was something wrong with me. Amid the attacks of rage and anxiety that I experienced that summer it scarcely occurred to me to raise my voice, let alone a hand, to anyone. I was angry at fate, at the universe.
Nadine surmised that I sympathized with Celan because of the negative social experiences of my childhood. My parents had brought me to Madison just in time to place me in first grade. The others had been through kindergarten together, while because of the family’s frequent moves I had not been with groups of children very much. I was taller and academically smarter (though socially much dumber) than most of them, dark amid children of mostly Nordic descent but not protected by the official liberalism that sheltered the few Jewish and Black children, and to cap it all we were one of the least affluent families in the school district, living in a small new clapboard house at the edge of a neighborhood of older semi-mansions, beside the railroad tracks. Any one of these factors would have been a handicap; it was as though some malign fate had wanted to make sure of me. My mother appealed to the principal, the teachers, the parents of the other children, to no effect. The persecution included much namecalling; the name “Beatrice” proved an inexhaustible source of schoolyard wit. In junior high I shortened it to “Bea,” but the damage had been done; I was already so much out of the running that no one even bothered to plot against me. In leaving for college I hoped, finally, to escape. But social skills, like language, are learned at a certain stage, and I had missed that stage. I daresay my life has grown around this trauma, as the trunk of a tree curls around the lightning-scar.
To the extent that the various therapists offered an analysis, they tended to gloss over the social trauma and go back to my parents and their strait-laced morality. And so I spent some years trying to shake off said morality, to recapture the spontaneity of which they had deprived me. In the course of these attempts I did a number of things, by no means all related here, of which I am not proud, while the longed-for fulfillment eluded me. It was only Nadine (eventually destined to become a psychiatrist) who focused on the central issue, and so was able to set me on a more fruitful path. She did so by lending me a book: Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
It was the first book I had read that was explicitly about the great horror of which Celan’s poems speak mostly in in dark allusions. Grim as it is, Frankl’s book is a softened account compared with some others I have read since. However, the book is not only about the atrocities, but about the “search for meaning” that helped him to survive and live on afterward without despairing, and which was the basis for his practice of “logotherapy.” The premise of logotherapy is that “the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” He says moreover that logotherapy “focuses on the future, that is to say, on the assignments and meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.”
One of the key words in Celan’s poetry and statements about poetry, is Sinn, which means both “meaning” and “direction.” Thus in both Celan’s poetry and in logotherapy, the search for meaning is also the search for a future. An early commentator on Celan’s work, Adelheid Rexheuser, called her study Sinnsuche und Zeichensetzung (the search for meaning and the setting of signs). They differ in that Frankl urges the patient to find meaning in his own life, his own future, whereas for Celan the meaning depends on the response of an Other. Still there was enough in common to make me feel as though Frankl’s work broke through a kind of zone of silence that surrounded Celan’s work in my mind, and this in itself was healing. Frankl’s theory took a nobler attitude toward the human soul than psychiatry had previously represented to me. In the light of logotheraphy, perhaps, it occurred to me, after I’d seen the notes of yet another psychologist who saw me that summer, that these notes were dry, they contained nothing of the person I was, they were like a photograph taken in a booth at the bus station.
There were two things in Frankl’s book that struck me particularly. The first was that Frankl quotes the same statement from Emilia Galotti – “He who does not lose his reason over certain things, has none to lose” – which I had inserted into the letter about the sit-in! The second thing was the passage where, on the way to hard labor in the cold winter dawn at Auschwitz, he has a kind of beatific vision of his wife, whose fate he does not know, a vision of being beyond time, and attains the certainty that “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
And there was a third thing that I remembered having read in Man’s Search for Meaning, although now I am unable to find it there. I know that I read it before April 1971, because it furnished the title of a poem written then, and I don’t know what other book it could have come from. It was a story about a seance at Auschwitz, with an ouija board. At one point the board spelled out the letters “VAE V.” Someone identified this as the beginning of the Latin motto vae victis – woe to the vanquished – although the person manipulating the ouija board did not know Latin. The author of the account doubted there had been anything paranormal in this occurrence; the medium had probably read the phrase somewhere and forgotten it. And of course it could have been just a random combination of letters, with which the observer formed an association appropriate to the context. But the letters made a deep impression on me; they sounded to me like an abysmal echo to that “in hoc signo vinces (in this sign shalt thou conquer)” which the emperor Constantine allegedly saw written on the sky as the signal for the triumph of Christianity.
Nadine also lent me a couple of books about disturbed children, including I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. That book is about a courageous struggle with schizophrenia; but I was more curious about Deborah’s fantasies about Yr, of which not much is told, than about the process by which she was talked out of them and persuaded to settle for a dull-normal existence in a world that would always regard her as strange anyway.
One day I went up to Nadine’s attic space, under the peak of the roof that slanted down to the floor on two sides. You could only stand up in the middle. But she had painted it white, added a South American blanket, a machine-lace table-cloth from Good Will, only slightly torn. At one end of the room was a window in the shape of a half-moon, whose frame she had painted a pale blue, and under this window was a table with sawed-off legs that held her typewriter. At that moment the rays of the setting sun were just glancing through the half-moon window. She was not there. I walked in anyway, sat down tailor-fashion at the typewriter, and put in a sheet of the yellow newsprint paper that was lying there. And typed out the following:
shadows link arms, dance
away from the sun:
goodbye my straight treetrunks
my broad housefronts
my polished windows glinting
children I have never
I have imitated many poets, always on some occasion to which the other poet’s style seemed appropriate, to the point where I often felt as though I had no style of my own. “At evening” was my imitation of Nadine. I had appropriated her style as I had walked into her room and appropriated the piece of paper, as though only through the lens of another’s vision could I see the object I wished to hold fast.
The Nadine I imitated in this poem was the Nadine of the early poems, the ones written in Berkeley, that had so impressed me with the tension, the suspended weight, of their few words, that always made you see something – whether it was a clay pot or an odd turn in a relationship – so clearly. In 1970 her poetry seemed to be going through an awkward stage. Its earlier spontaneity had been replaced by an idealization of spontaneity. Many of the poems were about children; she seemed to regard children’s utterances as oracles to some primitive truth adults had forgotten. I thought the new poems did not cohere as well as her earlier ones. It was, I guess, a transition phase toward her mature style, that surfaced years later. But by then we were no longer communicating at all; I found her poems in a bookstore and they were the poems of a stranger.
Reva, my colleague and co-defendant from Buffalo, was also in Seattle that summer. Reva’s mood of manic despair was, if anything, heightened; the first time I called her she told me the news about Celan, in case I hadn’t heard it, in high-pitched colloquialism. She also had a great deal of news about the Justice Department, which, she said, was on the verge of turning the United States into a police state. I did not share this fear; most of the things people got arrested for in the United States, including sitting in university presidents’ offices without being invited, were not the things I considered important to do. But her talking that way made me feel afraid in another way; I felt that such melodramatic scenarios were a way of not thinking about what was really going on, not seeing what really needed to be seen. Another time she told me an anecdote about a friend of hers who had a large gun collection and a depressed husband. The husband shot himself with one of the guns from her collection. The friend was in bad shape for a while, and when Reva next saw her was still pretty shaky. “I still like guns, though,” she said to Reva. “Now that,” Reva said, “is the kind of attitude I admire!”
One night Reva and Nadine and I got stoned together and went out for a walk. It was a slightly misty night, very blue. One of the other commune members, a young man who was on a macrobiotic diet, came along with us. He was walking ahead; behind skipped little Reva, as if playing hopscotch; and behind her Nadine and I walked side by side. All at once Nadine said to me: “The monk; the silly nun; and the two doubtful sisters.” Later she told me a dream: This huge man had come charging into her family’s living room, and her father had tried to stop him. The huge man turned around to leave, but just as he was going out the door this machine gun came out of his back and shot her father down. We came to a big park with groves here and there on rolling land. I stood on one of the hills and watched Nadine dance downhill away from me, arms swaying gracefully, the mist weltering between us. It seemed to me like a dance of nothingness, submergence of a world, impossible that there would be a future. And then I lay on my back in the grass and looked up at what stars I could see twinkling through the damp air. I wondered how long the dreadful loneliness would last, or if it would last forever and get worse, if we were like bodies moving farther and farther away from one another in an expanding space.
Much of the time I was just terribly depressed, and no bargain to be around. It wore on Marsha’s nerves especially. One day she became especially exasperated with me. She and Jason had finally yielded to my nagging, and made time for an excursion to Mount Rainier. It was a bright July day, the alpine meadow in full bloom, yet I was still depressed. After Marsha yelled at me I tried to get my mind off it and look at the wildflowers. And then, near the ice-field, a little girl ran toward me, a towheaded child of about nine in a long light-green T-shirt. We spoke a few words, and then she ran off again; I heard someone calling: “Ruthie! Ruthie!” This produced the following poem:
RAINIER PARK. RUTHIE
Dogtooth violets, spitting
saffron out of a whiteness
by a concupiscent sun.
We danced on the spreading
page of the snowslope
like blinded letters. Then spots
with sight, and a brown earth
glistening, and the pasqueflowers
in fisted shoots like tiny
In your green shift, old shoes, you
ran toward me beside the glacier:
priestess, your limbs turned
in a dazzle of spruce.
As in “Shore Rocks at Corea,” Celan is a linguistic presence, but this time with a feeling of resurrection and new life.
Not long after that, if I can trust some notes from a few years later, a small thing happened that made me think seriously, for the first time, about the possibility that there might be “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” My mother had written to me that our old cat was very sick. Then I heard nothing more for three weeks. One night I dreamed that my mother was talking about a dog cemetery where a dog we had had many years earlier was buried. The next day I heard that the cat had died. This prompted the following:
Mother, where did you bury
You wouldn’t take her to a pet cemetery,
you’ve too much class for that.
Nor would you plant on the grave
catnip and morning-glory;
I hear you say, “They’re only
animals -- we mustn’t grieve --”
You take a shovel
down to the yard’s end,
pat it level,
not to stare in.
Nadine approved of this poem: “That sounds more like Sylvia Plath than Celan. Maybe now you’ll get back to Sylvia Plath now, that’s good.” I wondered why she thought Plath would be a healthier model; after all, Celan had managed to last it out here a good deal longer.
Just at the end of my stay in Seattle I managed to get myself into another mini-affair, the first since Germany, with a poet named Michael. Not the Michael of the commune, who had the reputation of being ambivalent and unreliable and capable of stringing several women, including Nadine, along at once, but someone Maxine, the third unattached woman in the commune, was hopelessly in love with. He was about my age, tallish, slender, with thinning blond hair. He was divorced, did public relations work to support himself, affected a Country Western manner. His poetry was like a lot of poetry written at that time: hip, studiedly casual, with a lot of apocalyptic imagery that hedged its bets with irony. When we left the Soup and Salad together for the porch where he was living it was understood that we would go to bed together, after a long conversation on the state of the world.
I talked to him about Celan – not so much the man and his fate, but the kind of vision his poetry had given me, which I gropingly tried to convey in my own words: the dark crystal of the world behind this one, the icy cold of it and yet its strange attractiveness, the feeling that this was home. Michael’s part at that stage of the relationship called for him to regard whatever I said as cute. And a bit of playing with death, at such times, also adds a certain charm. The next day he made some sort of joke, or perhaps a poem that humorously alluded.
Marsha said that when I got back from Michael’s place to the restaurant I looked “radiant.” The makeshift affection, and above all the fact of being involved with someone again and hence back in the land of the living, was enough to inspire rapture, even though it had been awkward, even though from the first we had both had to stifle impulses of dislike. We repressed the dislike long enough to get together, and then it reasserted itself and pushed us apart with a force that could be felt. A friend of Michael’s came to town, the three of us got stoned together and the two of them closed ranks against me, and then I wandered off and started writing some really awful poems, in Michael’s offhand manner, about how Celan and I had met somewhere besides Paris. The lines, or what they were trying to say, seemed to waver and resonate as if in another kind of space, another kind of air, not dark, not light.
But the friend left town, Michael and I made up, and it was not quite over when I left Seattle.
I left the commune, and Nadine also left, because apart from working our shifts in the restaurant we had put little into the commune and had accordingly gotten little out of it. True, I had probably made some attempt to suggest to Jason that the commune could not live by bread alone, that it needed a culture as well as a business enterprise to hold it together. Who knows whether my words would have had more weight if I been more firmly committed. At the end of the summer I could not make the decision to forsake the university world, which still seemed solid at least, for the rickety structure Jason had tried to build. And so I went back to Buffalo, while Nadine went to medical school in New York. Jason neither attempted to hold us back nor expressed rancor at our going; I daresay he had assessed us pretty accurately and had expected it.