PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 13: MAD SCENE
The state I was in that spring of 1971 caused me to make a lot of connections, many of which, in retrospect, seem mortifyingly silly. There is still a question in my mind as to what constitutes a "valid" association. Perhaps the making of connections is always a matter of unconscious choice, based on your own predilections and the social consensus. The kind of Gestalt that you make among the data is determined by what you want to see, or feel you ought to see or need to see. Perhaps the criterion for deciding whether you've made a valid connection or have been out in left field, is aesthetic; perhaps it's basically a sense of proportion, which must in the end derive from some global sensing of the whole of our existence. I had learned to make connections as a literary critic. Associative connections, I had learned, were what unifies a text. In making connections as an interpreter, one was expected to employ a quality called “tact,” which was and remains very elusive. But if you interpreted tactlessly, the worst that could happen was that a more discerning reader might point it out and make you look foolish. Now I was practicing literary criticism on my life. In such an undertaking, that sense of “tact” may be the one thin line dividing sanity and madness, distinguishing the perception of a valid geasa or mystical obligation from a schizophrenic whim. Unless one decided to scrap the whole inquiry and just do what the world in its inattentive rigidity expected of one. My flight from Buffalo was about my refusal to do that, as was my recourse to a substance that signified (whatever the physical, pharmaceutical effect) a departure from ordinary frames of reference. And now I had to learn to navigate in a medium where at times there was neither up nor down.
One day, as I walked across the university campus, I thought about that critical moment of the interview and seemed to hear the name that had not been spoken but only silently implied. It came to me like a whisper that had passed through cold space. And soon after that I finally brought myself to read Celan while “stoned.” I daresay I knew what I would find, and needed the drug, needed to go crazy, to give myself permission to find it. The drug was something like that “Narrenfreiheit” that gave the court fool a license to say things no one else could.
I focused, then, on a poem called “With Letter and Clock,” from the collection Speech-Grille. This poem addresses someone whose name is “unwritten” but “encoded.” The poem then mentions wax, honeycomb (“Empty of time, the honeycomb of the clock”), and worker bees (Immen) about to swarm. Only the word at the center of this semantic field – Biene (bee) – does not occur. With the help of a concordance that covered Celan’s first five books, I ascertained that this word does not come up elsewhere in those books either. (Nor have I found it in the later ones.) This word, then, is “unwritten”; and in English, though not in German, it is also a name. The poem, I saw, is a riddle, and a letter addressed to a bearer of that name, who was to receive it much later.
Did these connections exist only in my own mind? It still doesn’t seem to me at all far-fetched to suppose that a poet so conscious of names (the noun “name” is one of the key-words of Celan’s poetry) would have seized the opportunity of playing on a name so fraught with associations, in the hope of – if I may be pardoned an awful Americanism – “putting the bee” on someone. In that same collection, Speech-Grille there is another poem, "Blume (Flower)," that ends: “One more word like this, and the clappers/ will swing in the open.” "Blume" and "Biene" are phonetically similar and often associated. And a poem called “Summer-Report” ends with the sequence: “broken stones, hard grasses, time.” “Time” fits into this landscape description because we hear it as “thyme” (a plant whose fragrance attracts bees). But that pun does not exist in German, where the word for “time” is “Zeit,” while the word for “thyme” – mentioned earlier in the poem – is “Thymian.” The pun is only there for the reader who knows English. If the poet had wished to say to an attentive bearer of the aforesaid name, “Yes, you heard me right,” this is the sort of thing he might have done.
Having acknowledged receipt of "With Letter and Clock," I went on to confront a poem called “Where Ice Is,” which is found in Celan’s second collection, From Threshold to Threshold. This poem, too, hints at the name of the addressee, whom the poet has “summoned.” The meeting has a visionary quality – “A breath as of fire was around you” – as though he were summoning this person up as in “Before a Candle,” as the encounter were taking place on, say, the astral plane (in the later “Harbor,” a “virtual” love poem if there ever was one, he does speak of “the astral flute from beyond the world-ridge”). The first stanza ends “You came from the rose,” and the second stanza ends “From the rose you came.” In the third stanza the poet says, “I gave you the double-name.” Here, too, the name that is the answer to “With Letter and Clock” could fit, and doubly so. The nectar-gathering insect could have come from the rose; and so could Beatrice, who at the end of the Divine Comedy, having completed her mission of guiding Dante, resumed her place in the “rose” of the celestial community.
I know I must sound like the protagonist of Nabokov's Pale Fire, who takes to himself lines the poet addressed to his lawful spouse! “Wo Eis ist” appears in a book that bears the dedication "Für Gisèle," and one interpreter understands the "double name" as simply the hyphenated married name, Celan-Lestrange. (Another thinks the poem is addressed to the couple’s first son, who died soon after birth and is buried under the name François Antschel-Celan.) But it often seems to me, with Celan’s poems in particular, that the poem’s immediate addressee is “doubled” by the eventual reader.
The final stanza of “Where Ice Is” strikes an ominous note. The poet states that he is about to “close his eye.” He urges the addressee to “take this word” which “my eye speaks to yours,” to “speak it after” him, slowly, and to “keep your own eye open long enough” to do this.
Rereading this poem now, in the spring of 1971, I realized that I had already replied to it. In that poem “Give Me Your Word,” written and hastily put away in that bitter-cold January of 1970, I had heard “Where Ice Is” as spoken to me. I had read the last scene as a protocol of that moment in our interview when a message had been silently transmitted, and I had understood the word as a final behest – something like Hamlet's "Report my cause aright/ To the unsatisfied." In an uninterpreted dream I had heard the behest and had committed myself, not even pointing out to myself that “Where Ice Is” had been published fourteen years before our interview in time and space! But in that same collection there is another poem, "Cenotaph," that speaks of the poet's death as if it had already happened. Maybe it is that in the visionary dimension where this poem came from, past and future are equally present. There is an atmosphere in the poem that makes premonition seem plausible.
As I thought about these things, I began to remember things in my own past which, in retrospect, appeared as premonitory. There had been moments, few but memorable, when the field of ordinarily experience had seemed magnetized, permeated by the light of another time.
The first such moment had occurred at the National Spelling Bee, in 1955. Not long ago there was a best-seller, Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, about a champion speller, the daughter of a Kabbalist, who spells her words in a quasi-divinatory state. Of such I had no experience until my very last turn as a spelling contestant. I had worked pretty hard and gone farther than I expected; in Washington, well aware that many of the contestants knew more than I did, I had taken my place onstage hoping for nothing more than a respectable showing. And I had lasted several rounds, there were seventeen of us left from a field of fifty-some, when I stepped up to the mike and heard the word: chiaroscura.
I did not know the word. My mother checked her lists afterward; she had not given it to me. I knew that this was the end of my career as a spelling champion. But at that moment something happened that was just a little like what happens in The Bee Season. I became still, looked into some kind of internal space, and pulled out of that space, sort of, the first four letters, which were the hardest. (The beemaster – what did they call him? – had pronounced it so it sounded like "kyeroscura"; perhaps I had unconsciously absorbed the rules of Italian spelling from music.) Nevertheless I was spelled down because it is, of course, chiaroscuro. I had misheard the last letter, or maybe it had really sounded like final a, as it would in a Southern accent. My mother couldn’t understand why I wasn’t upset. But I’d made a respectable showing; I was proud of guessing the first four letters; and I thought it was a beautiful word, especially in my version. Chiaroscura. I felt as though I had been given a gift, a talisman, or however I put it to myself at the time. No one had spoken to me of the fusion of light and dark well known to mystics, and played upon by Celan among many others.
And then there were the poems I had written in 1961, in the spring of my sophomore year at college.
I was then rooming with a girl named Selma, who was my first real friend. In high school I had hung around, at different times, with three girls with whom I had various things in common. But Selma was my first experience of the friend as alter ego, like those episodes in Thomas Mann’s fiction where a same-sex friendship foreshadows the main encounter. Like me, Selma came from an academic family in the Midwest, looked Jewish but wasn’t, and wrote poetry at rare moments. Selma had bright brown eyes and a kind of nervous intensity that – I don’t think I’m imagining the similarity – was a little like that which I was to notice in Celan. At Selma’s suggestion we bought Yeats’ Collected Poems and read one of them aloud each evening. (Just recently I learned that Celan read Yeats’ early poems with Gisèle). Sometimes I would inflict on her the poems of Blok in the original Russian. Among Selma's contributions to the household was a record player, so I began borrowing records from the library: Die Winterreise and Die Schoene Muellerin, also Die Zauberfloete and a German version of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. I learned a number of songs and arias by heart; that was how I started to pick up German. It was through Selma, also, that I first encountered a poem by Rilke. Her Turkish boyfriend sent her a translation of a poem called "Solitude."
That semester I was taking a course in Creative Writing with a not very sympathetic instructor. I turned in half a dozen short poems, some of which received grudgingly favorable comments; but he graded on volume and was more interested in short stories. I did try to write short stories, which caused me to project myself into fictional situations because I am unable to invent characters. One of my heroines cut her wrists in the dorm bathroom as a protest against New Criticism. The strangest of the stories is called "Heir to Silence," a title that made me uneasy; I thought I must have heard it somewhere. It is set in France, and most of the dialogue is in French. (I thought that made for an effect of estrangement.) The title figure, a young woman, is watching by the bedside of her dying father. Her father is a composer. She has learned his music, identifies with it, to the extent that she hears all other music as if through its medium. (Here the instructor put a question mark in the margin.) But her father refuses to speak to her; he wants to speak only to his pupil, André. She tries to get him to talk with her – using English, their native language – but he replies to her in French, and the tension between them causes him to lapse into his final coma. Needless to say, the story isn’t a literary masterpiece. And there was nothing uncanny about it until about eight years later, when I met in France the poet through whose poetry I hear all other poetry, and agonizingly failed (or so it seemed at the time) to communicate with him. “Silence” is another key-word of Celan’s poetry – and still more, perhaps, of criticism about him; his poetry was often said to exist on the edge of silence
Of the poems I wrote that spring, three have stayed with me. The first was for my mother:
A spring storm rising in the west
Takes to lean upon its breast
A tree with last year's leaves, still bright.
A woman runs to grasp and fight
Clothes flapping in the storm-fresh air
That takes her breath and sweeps her hair
Into the sun. Some strands are white.
My mother represented vulnerability, fragility, mortality. I was frightened of these things, frightened by the force of my mother's attachment to her children. The suicidal heroine of a story called “Outside” attempts to detach herself from her mother's emotionality and imitate her father's stoicism and remoteness. And yet that remoteness could lead only to death, as admitted in "Outside" and in the second of the poems:
He and the moon looked coldly at each other,
And he said, "Put the shade down." And they did.
Now just beneath the frayed edge of his lid,
Casting its glare between him and the others,
Burned the night lamp. Into its flame he poured,
Like some rare oil, the hoarded power of sight.
And the light used it all, and there was no more light.
And then his eyes closed of their own accord.
Rereading this now, I am reminded of Dante’s “I dared to fix my sight on the eternal light until sight was consumed in it.” But that is in the last canto of the Paradiso, which I was not to read until 1972. Selma found this poem fascinating and disturbing. A few weeks later, with some agitation, she handed me a poem of her own. I am sorry I can recall only the first half:
Into the window came flying
A dove and touched
His wing to the light
I believe that in the continuation the light was scattered forth and illumined the darkness. Selma, incidentally, was the first person I knew who entertained a belief in the supernatural. She had spent a year with her parents in Turkey, where, she said, everyone believed in prophetic dreams and the like.
The third poem from that spring was influenced by Yeats. In Art History class I had seen a photograph of that figure (from the temple of Zeus at Olympia) which represents Hippodameia being seized by a centaur, or rather by the hands of a centaur, since the figure of the centaur is broken off. This prompted the following:
In presence of the bestial race
Apart from passions all, her face
Has no expression but its own
Beauty, inviolate as stone,
And Time, to all indifference friend,
Justified her in the end:
The centaur and his lust are gone.
Whole, restored, she stands alone.
Upon her breast – would she then deign
To see? – two bestial hands remain.
I had my reasons, in the spring of 1961, for writing this poem. It records the impression of a striking work of art, and in so doing reveals something about my own psychological state. And yet if my life were a work of fiction, one could say that this poem foreshadows the meeting with a poet who identified with the archer-centaur. The broken-off hands of the centaur could recall any number of Celan poems in which the air is thick with detached body parts; in particular there is one, “In Rome,” that states: “The arms become visible that entwine you, only they.”
A poem by Yeats that had haunted me a year earlier – “The Magi” – speaks of "The dark inscrutable mystery on the bestial floor." The word "bestial" is used twice in my poem. The first time it is simply a protest against the desouled sexuality that was being touted around me and adding to my difficulties of orientation; but in the last line I hear an echo of "The Magi." For Yeats, too, there is often a kind of violence about the connection between the spiritual and the physical; think of the “rough beast” in “The Second Coming” – or, still more appositely, “Leda and the Swan.”
One other thing began in that semester, namely my acquaintance with the work of Mandel'shtam. My Russian History and Lit tutor showed me a poem by Mandel’shtam, one of a series of poems for children. I went to the foreign-language bookstore and bought the edition of Mandel'shtam that was then in print. Two years later, I wrote my senior thesis in linguistics on Mandel'shtam's syntax; in the spring of 1966 I was taking that graduate seminar on Mandel'shtam concurrently with Heinz Politzer's Faust course; that was what gave Politzer the idea of lending me Celan’s Mandelstamm translations.
In June I bought out Selma’s share in the Yeats volume and left Cambridge for good, the decision having been made that I would finish my undergraduate studies in Madison. During winter vacation I went to visit Selma at her parents’ home for a few days. The visit was a little disappointing; Selma was moving away from poetry. In the living-room of Selma’s house, where I was sitting alone one day, the following came to me:
The hours are dumb.
The cuckoo's flown away
from his black house.
Here seconds pulse
with none to take their sum.
the hours are dumb,
your sluice is raised
for unreturning waves.
On my return to Madison, with that funny feeling the German language calls Ahnung, I copied this poem on the inside cover of my recently-purchased German dictionary. And only years later did I hear it as an echo of a poem in which the clock is “empty of time.”
Once I had read “With Letter and Clock” and “Where Ice Is” in this manner, it became possible to read many other poems as aimed at someone who would live after the poet and complete the transmission of his message. At first, at least, I was cautious about drawing conclusions, aware that one could perceive the intended references to the name I happened to bear, without thinking they were about me. I could imagine that a poet, on learning that in English the name of Dante’s muse has a diminutive that sounds like the name of an insect that has often been taken as a symbol for poetry or language or community or even matriarchy, would think of putting that name into a riddle, to be picked up by someone who might answer to it, just on the chance it might make something happen. Or maybe even thinking of nothing at all, just as I thought of nothing at all when writing “Give me your word.” But it did not seem like something that had happened by chance. It seemed like something that had been on the way to me for a long time, since before time.
Perhaps that is part of the reason why, in many of my poetic responses, I turned back from Celan’s style, which pushes modernism to its farthest verge, toward traditional form and diction. Celan’s evolving style represented the momentum of Time, and Time was no more. History was over. The poem in which I asserted myself as a bearer of the name Celan had hinted at was called “Proserpina.”
I am the bee that plies the fallow rose,
Yet nonetheless my mother’s name bear I:
Call it not harsh though many summers die,
Though many times the hollow petals close
Before the nightingale bleeds to the thorn
A sigh of embers wasted in the night
Because the watchful votaress was not born:
All hovers in this humming of the light.
I sing the pain of her who bore me, and
lay long in darkness, dreamed me lost for good,
Of him who long ago, with trusting hand
Laid on the world, touched stone and missed the wood:
The shining letters on the Darkened Light -
I kiss them, as he kissed the words, good night.
Somewhere between thought and vision I saw, that spring, all those I had loved, family, friends, lovers, and others like them whose names I didn’t know yet, thronging in a space of golden darkness, where in truth we had always been together, and there was no possibility of their not understanding.
I heard – no, not really voices. As at other times, I became aware of things mainly by writing them down, and the writing gave it all a kind of fictional quality. I was keeping notebooks in which I responded to various people – my brain-injured aunt Nazleh, who became identified with the victims of the Holocaust, the Plath of “Lady Lazarus,” a whole invisible world of exiled spirits pleading for my aid. And I believed I could give it. After all, a kind of miracle of communication had taken place. Somehow, as whales sing to each other across the oceans of the planet, I had sensed, through the fluid medium of the world-soul, the presence of Paul Celan, and he, I really have little doubt of that, had sensed my presence as well. This was something that was not supposed to happen according to the scientific world-view; therefore the scientific world-view was false, and many things now ought to be possible that had not seemed so. I could forget the odds, I forgot to fear that, like the Queen of the Night, my help would prove too weak. I wrote a blues song, a taunt-song to the powers and principalities:
Hey, Mister Military Man, don’t you drop that bomb on me,
Hey, Mister Military Man, don’t you drop that bomb on me,
You know I fly like a butterfly but I sting like a bee.
Hey, Mister Advertising Man, don’t you put them signs around,
Hey, Mister Advertising Man, don’t you put them signs around,
You know you’re making it so hard for anybody to get up off the ground.
Hey, Mister Religion Man, don’t you call me any more names,
Hey, Mister Religion Man, don’t you call me any more names,
You know we all ate that apple, you’re going to have to take some of the blame.
Hey, Mister Adam Man, you’re going to have to leave me alone,
Hey, Mister Adam Man, you’re going to have to leave me alone,
You know I need some kind of change from fighting with you over that bone.
Hey, Mister Brother Man, now don’t you get uptight,
Hey, Mister Brother Man, now don’t you get uptight,
Come and listen to your sister, there is still a chance to make it right.
Another song had the refrain “It’s been a long, long world.” I believed that the means of redemption would be language, which represented the web of interconnections among people. My associative faculty ran wild, discovered connections everywhere, played on words, names, initials, transformed lines of poetry, constructed itself a regular Kabbala, imitated with its proliferation the teeming of life itself.
The sense of being in different spaces was frequent though never quite hallucinatory. Once I was listening to Sylvia Plath. It wasn’t exactly that she was trying to communicate with me from the spirit world, rather I was listening to something like the echo of her voice in the vast white tunnel of air that had the iridescence of mother-of-pearl. Another time I seemed to be in a palace, full of light and air, whose stones were the blue of the sky, with a wind-chime in each room playing a different kind of music. And once when I was walking in downtown Seattle it seemed to me that while I was here, I was simultaneously in some room above the world, which had shrunk to miniature, talking with Paul Celan over a large wooden desk. I did not hear any words but I understood: I had to set this world in order, and then I could come back upstairs and stay with him for good. From above I saw my room in the grey house, with everything in place and no one there: it was from there that the setting-in-order had begun.
I dreamed about being married to him, crossing a bridge and looking at the ring that gleamed golden on my finger. I also dreamed about a child who seemed to be our daughter. She was about nine years old, and her features were a combination. She seemed more mature, wiser than I, slightly severe. She stood facing me, telling me that in his last months Celan had been better, he had spent a lot of time on the farm. As she said this, two books fell out of her hand. One of them had a gray photograph for a cover, like ashes or a moon landscape. The other, which was on top, had a green cover.
At the end of April, around the first anniversary of Celan’s death, or a few days later, I wrote the first poem that speaks somewhat openly of the physical response that I had to Celan’s poetry. Today it may seem banal, now that the strange phenomenon of the “virtual relationship” has surfaced, but in 1971 no one thought of such a thing, and the acknowledgment had the feel of a mysterium tremendum. The flesh made word. For a title I gave it those letters from the seance that had seemed so meaningful to me, wherever I had read them.
I rock a grief far older than my heart,
like a pale relic in the mortal shrine:
many are they who pause here, kneel and depart,
to view this pride, which I cannot call mine.
I would not have suspected how your name
fits every grief, rings in each evening note,
this reach of dusk is quiet with your fame,
the clocks of autumn have your runes by rote –
What poultice now, of plaster or concrete,
could ever stanch that singing wound of song?
Ah, on all stages where poor slaves repeat
the lying, barbarous words, the ancient wrongs,
over the scene your cyphers now appear:
in these signs the cries shall be made clear.
This was followed by three more poems. The first:
"Beyond humankind –"
Have you a smooth sheet of white paper
wide as the galaxy,
a pen of stars to write with?
Can you see this miniature earth, like the paperweight
on Montale's desk, with its distant
dark-red flicker of inferno?
No need now to hear the cries: we are burning –
even the tears you gave
could not quench our greed.
The “miniature earth” recalls several of Celan’s poems where the earth appears diminished and at a distance; there is a similar effect in Eugenio Montale’s poem “Ma così sia,” also in Paradiso XII though I did not know that yet. With that last line I meant myself as much as anyone. The poem that followed this one applies Rilke’s thoughts in the Duino Elegies about mourning and praise as a way of renewal:
This be thy journey's lore,
whom praise cannot restore
nor grief recall:
we mourn one, when we mourn for all.
Mourning one, we mourn for all,
in mourning we recall
and in recalling, praise,
and praise shall all restore
these be our works and days.
The last poem in the sequence was written after a discussion with a neighbor who was a Christian.
Friends, if you wander among stones again,
cast not the dice, lift not your hands for rain,
carve clearer runes upon the gates of hell:
Earth, hold this kindly, for one loved you well.
At some time that spring, those two poems from the preceding summer – “All winter the scholars” and “Shore Rocks at Corea” – were finished and fitted together with the new ones, and the whole acquired the title “Earthwake,” thus connecting Celan’s death with the posters of Earth seen from space that had appeared in the last year or so, one of them, I recall, with the slogan “Your Mother Needs You.” It is the case that Celan’s death occurred within a couple of days of the first Earth Day in 1970. A few days or weeks after writing those last lines, as I was about to be taken to the hospital, I stared at the wall of the entrance to a building, which was of some artificial stone composition, and felt a deep sadness for the stone itself. It was no stone that had a name, it was matter that had fallen beyond the reach of the word. I felt that Celan, through the physical precision of his images, and by his acting-out of some of those images, even to the manner of his death, he had been striving to reestablish a link between the world of words and thoughts, and the world of matter.
In writing “Earthwake” I was being true to myself, with all my impulses, connections and ambitions. I was expressing a response that had long been suppressed. I was following Sylvia Plath’s example in identifying with the object of my father’s professional studies. I was settling accounts with Western literature, from Dante through Eliot, Yeats, and Auden. But I felt no separation between my being and that of the world; I believed that my response was the world’s.
But there was another side to the experience, which felt neither poetic nor redemptive. “The horror! The horror!” (Oh yes, there was a literary parallel even for that.) In accepting the encounter that had, finally, occurred, was I not accepting the events that led up to it? How could I then accept myself, or hope that others would accept me? I felt as though my soul had been struck by lightning, I plunged down a black vortex from which nothing floated up but incoherent and obscene ravings. I have destroyed the journals from that spring. Why should I put anyone else through that? I am trying to get through it here as quickly as possible. Another of the “Nouvelles Chimères” recurs to the theme of the mirror that makes it possible to look at Medusa unscathed.
Look on the mirror which I hold for you,
Not on my face, which is not fair to see:
It is the dark waste where no man may be,
The wandering tomb, the sprig of withered rue.
Don’t look behind you, as the poets do,
Else my reflection never shall you see,
But this time, please, refrain from killing me:
It is my false reflection that is true.
The last of the “Nouvelles Chimères,” “Chiaroscura,” also struggles to master, contain, transform the sense of horror.
I ask for sleep, that I may wake again,
Not stare a madness into gentle eyes,
Not as a torrent shall this sorrow rise,
But clear the wine of night be poured for men.
They don’t know what they’re doing, don't see how
The threads are tangling between lip and tongue,
They have no thought of how the night was wrung
To free the trembling orb that rises now.
This thread will hold, wound upon spools of stone,
Those hands will read the patterns that we weave,
This night shall last until the work be done,
These words shall be the grain, shall be the sieve.
We shall not treat with Time. We shall not die.
Blind to the end, we pass the Ancient Eye.
This poem, again, refers to some notion I had picked up about the Sephirah of Binah, with which I identified in relation to Celan, hoping to transform his thought into a right order of things in society. I imagined transmitting this hope to my women friends. We would form a mystic association, we would be one mind. The last line of this poem refers to another motif from the Perseus saga, that of the Graiae, the Gray Sisters, who live somewhere beyond the world and have only one eye and one tooth among them. I hardly thought of myself during this time without thinking of various others. At some time in the spring I wrote to Marion, Linda, Nadine, probably to Maria. Marion and Linda wrote back a little indignantly at the demands I wanted to place on them. Nadine, returning my camera that she had kept for a long time, sent me the wonderful afghan and a note: “Celan is dead but you are alive.” I wrote back thanking her warmly for the afghan, but stating that she was mistaken on both counts. There was a poem about that too.
IS IT THEN TRUE: that he must wander hell
And I in rainless heavens count the rains
That fall on earth's dark furrows, and still in vain
Bind the dark land with many a healing-spell?
What echoes will I hear from that deep well?
To hold the star that lights that ear of grain
My hand grows cold; and will that crust of pain
Wash to the sky-shore as a perfect shell?
No; I am exiled to a puppet-show,
Mocked with a name, gloved to a mad ghost-hand,
Imputed to a voice I do not know
And gesturing what men will not understand:
Yet I will sing, though I see never again
The eternal smile between the poles of pain.
There was another version of this, in which the pronouns “he” and “I” were interchanged. I was no longer sure which was the world of the dead and which the world of the living.
Perhaps the strangest thing is that in the middle of all this madness – again, I am sparing the reader an account of all the various incoherencies, bad connections, the sheer silliness, please, this book is not being written to recommend insanity either – a few constructive things happened. One night Richard and Ellen came over to see me, at my request. I was already pretty crazy; before they came over I had in mind to act out one of Celan’s poems for them as a charade. Of the actual conversation I have no memory, but from Richard I gathered afterwards that I talked to them about their responsibility for the Market. They were running a restaurant in the Pike Place Market and were dependent not only on the location but on the sense of values within the Seattle community which the Market’s continued existence implied. But they were doing nothing to help save the Market; they were too absorbed in their internal problems and felt they didn’t have the time. Apparently I took Richard to task for this and – miraculously – he listened. He actually became one of the most active people in the campaign to save the Market (which was successful). I don’t know what I did right. Maybe the above-mentioned Narrenfreiheit, the very fact that I was so obviously crazy, made it possible for him to hear it as coming from nowhere.
And then my brother Jim came down to see me. He and Sharon and their children were in Vancouver while he did postdoctoral research. As children we had been very different from each other, and still were. He had gone into science, he had a practical outlook on life. But this time we talked about our childhoods and listened to Beethoven. A couple of weeks later Sharon came down with Jim and the three of us had a long afternoon of talk. Sharon told of how once, when she was seven years old, she was afraid someone had gotten hurt by some fault of hers, and she had stayed up that night until she saw the moon come from behind the clouds, and then she had known it would be all right. For the first time I felt that we were sisters. I recited one of Celan’s poems for them. Jim said, wonderingly, “You can let him come through you.”
But I don’t remember a conversation with Jason or Marsha during this time. Their child was due early in the summer. And perhaps they were angry with me.
At the beginning of May I went on a camping trip with some of the other members of the commune, Ellen and Richard and Michael among them. As we were sitting around the campfire I told them – affectionately, condescendingly, a little sadly – that I was going to save them all, even though they might think they didn’t believe it or want it. Richard reached over, stirred the fire. Nobody said anything in contradiction, and I took their silence for assent. Michael and I spread out our sleeping bags near each other. In my mind I had still not completely let go of him, not completely given up the hope that Celan might come back through him. For a moment we held each other carefully, at arm’s length, and looked into each other’s eyes. I don’t know how much we said or whether he knew that it seemed to me as if we stood on one level of a double-helical staircase that spiraled downwards and upwards through time out of mind, that this encounter in our present forms was not the first; still less do I know whether there was some truth in it, or whether it was just a side-path in the maze of literary fantasy in which I was wandering. “Warp of truth and weft of lies...” Then we said good night and turned each to a different dream.
In my mind schizophrenic fantasies proliferated relentlessly; but the next day, in an outdoor world fresh as only a Northwestern spring can be, this constant glittering and changing of language seemed part of the flow of the world, like the sun glancing on the surface of a river we walked beside for a while. The air was fresh, just slightly cool, you did not need a sweater, and the tall aspen trees’ delicately green, constantly trembling veils of leaves were full of light, and the rushing river was a different pale green, not quite transparent, as if it had a little glacier milk in it. I took off one of my earrings – silver earrings from a South American craft shop, each one of which had a piece of deep blue glass and a dove in flight surmounting two coins with the number five on them, and some silver spangles – and threw it to the river. Then we came to the shore, a beach of whitish-gray sands and heavy surf that brought in small, polished pieces of gray driftwood, each a shape that seemed to mean something; I still have a small piece shaped like a thorn. Then, a little inland, I was lying by myself on the sand, while some distance away the others were talking about matters connected with the commune, Michael was speaking especially earnestly, and suddenly, in broad daylight, a grey owl flew past, very low, almost brushing the sand between us with his wings.
The crash came not long after that. I was starting to feel burned out but had no way of stopping myself. The darker images in Celan’s work began to affect me more and more, producing ideas best left unspecified. I communicated these ideas to some of my friends by phone. Finally I went to the psychology department, and they called the ambulance. I went quietly, convinced that the trip to Harborview (Theodore Roethke’s alma mater) was just a new assignment in my mission. The first doctor who saw me was from Korea, which confirmed it beyond a doubt. On a table in an office lay a book with a gray and black photograph on the cover, entitled “Healing”; it made me think of the book that had fallen from the hand of the child in the dream. Then I saw a doctor whose name was Nolan. “No land,” I said. “I too have no land.” He was a young man with a high pale forehead surmounted by light brown curls. Deep blue eyes, chiseled features. “You’re also a unicorn,” I told him (that was from “Shibboleth”: “Unicorn,/ ...Come, I will lead you away/ to the voices/ of Estramadura”), and caught a smile which he tried to hide from me. Then I was lying in a white bed with a white gown on, they had given me a shot of something that made me feel as though the fluid coursing through my veins must also be cool and white, I felt that I was being transformed, I really was a unicorn and would not be able to change back into a human again, it was terribly sad but also all right, and then I fell asleep.
And the next day the door opened and my mother came in. She had on a pale green coat, her hair looked as if she had just had it done, and she was smiling. She couldn’t have smiled any better if she had come for my wedding.