PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 2: A FIRST READING, WITH ECHOES...
I left Politzer's office that day in possession of four slender volumes, two bound in black with the gold script, and two bound in light gray, with white dust jackets. I have them still, with Politzer's name on the flyleaf, because he told me to keep them and order fresh copies for him from Cody's bookstore.
Of the two smaller, black-bound collections, Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Remembrance), bears the date 1952; Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From Threshold to Threshold) is dated 1955. Of the slightly larger, gray-covered ones, Sprachgitter (variously translated Speech-Grille, Speech-Grid, Language-Lattice) had come out in 1959, and Die Niemandsrose (The No-On’s Rose) in 1963. Besides that first poem in From Threshold to Threshold, Politzer had shown me the last poem in Poppy and Remembrance (“Count the Almonds”). He had also shown me the “Todesfuge (Death Fugue),” remarking that this was Celan's most famous poem although he, Politzer, did not think it was Celan's best. And that was all by way of orientation. From somewhere I learned that Celan was born in Czernowitz, the capital of the Bukovina region. Unfamiliar names.
How can the encounter of the reader with the poem (with the poet, through the poem) be described? That is another problem of this book -- that it centers on an event that eludes narration. The poem is composed of words, arranged in lines. The meaning of the words, the structure of the lines can be analyzed. But such analysis cannot evoke the Gestalt, the form, that comes toward the reader in the space of the poem, and that defies description, just as it never entirely survives translation (although I gather, from some of those who have read him only in translation, that a lot of power still gets through). That Gestalt is created by these words in this arrangement, which somehow manage to inform one nervous system about another. There is no literary theory which accounts for this.
The first poems in Poppy and Remembrance are highly lyrical, still Romantic despite the Surrealist imagery. Think Shelley or even Swinburne, with a double shot of Rimbaud. Or maybe that Richard Strauss song, “Allerseelen.” Many, most, are love poems. In the background, always, is the memory of the death camps, which is only once evoked directly, in that same “Death Fugue.” There is also one small poem, just five couplets, that talks about one particular death: “Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine./ My blonde mother did not come home.” Against that background, it seems, love still affords the lovers exaltation and a vision of each other, although the knowledge of love inevitably includes knowledge of the worst. The lines tend to be long and often have a kind of wavelike rhythm. These early lyrics are not the most often translated, whether because the tone is no longer in fashion or because that music is actually more difficult to reproduce than the convoluted word-play of the later work. But when I first read these early poems I was still in my mid-twenties, about the age the poet was when he wrote them, and I liked them very much. One of the first I translated was the second poem in Poppy and Remembrance, “At night God’s fever turns your body brown.” Politzer was indignant with me for liking this early poem. “That's something Wildgans might have written!” I guess Wildgans, no longer on the reading list, represented some kind of fin-de-siècle sentimentalism. Some of the refugee poets I later met in Jerusalem still liked him.
One day I was sitting in the department library, reading Poppy and Remembrance, when I came to the poem that bears the title “Brandmal (Brandmark)”: “We no longer slept, for we lay in the clockwork of sadness…” Whether I was reading this poem for the first time, or whether it had just struck me for the first time, suddenly I could not be alone with it. I handed the book to the person who happened to be sitting next to me, a small, pudgy, gray-blond, earnest young German named Johannes, and said to him, “What do you think that poem means?” He read it and said to me with a scared expression, “That is the expression of a love so great that nothing could ever satisfy it!” Silently I took back the book, and Johannes and I never exchanged another word.
By the way, that phrase “the clockwork of sadness” (Uhrwerk der Schwermut) describes a quality of these early poems that drops out in all the translations I’ve seen, including my own attempts: a strange combination of mechanical precision and deep feeling.
But this early Romantic-Surrealist singer begins to go away, already in the first pages of From Threshold to Threshold. The lines become shorter, less regular, the tone more muted, the imagery more austere. The color of the poetry changes, if you're one of those who see colors when you think of poems. To me Poppy and Memory is dark, but with a lot of deep, pure colors mixed in with the darkness, as in Redon's paintings or the early Chagall. From Threshold to Threshold is shadowy, black, brown and white, with an occasional star or candle flame. And in Speech-Grille one is in a hard, stony landscape, leached of all color. Or if you choose a musical comparison, then it is like the progression from Chopin to some austere atonal composer, only compressed into three books of poetry published within the same decade.
One day Politzer asked me whom Celan reminded me of. Without thinking I responded, “Sylvia Plath.” Politzer was taken aback: “But they are nothing alike!” I could not have given reasons for my answer. But in the poems I was writing at the time their influences blended effortlessly.
One of these poems begins with a quote from a poem called “Nächtlich geschürzt (Nocturnally furled),” in From Threshold to Threshold:
A word: you know:
a dead body.
This resonated with Plath's “Edge” to generate the following:
Then shut her eyes,
batten them down
and make for her earrings out of these dead
Her hands are rigid.
Here are two seashells: clasps
for abandoned shoulders.
Channel like stone the flutings
of draped whiteness
over the limbs you arrange
as you will,
but turn her head sideways,
and her mouth: leave it
for the stone birds to build in.
That became the first part of a series called at first “Four poems influenced by Paul Celan” and later “Aphelion.” The second and third parts were more an echo to Speech-Grille:
They found on the threshold
a mouth opened
and on the tongue was laid
the flat stone
of a voiceless word.
Voices in hollow
changing of empty hinges,
-- dry winds, sanding a time
into unsighted eyes:
what suns still turn in the stone,
what seas still
summon the winds?
(The lips crack
fragile, like snakeshells from
in the stone
These lines already express a recurring perception about Celan: that there is in his poems a paradoxical strategy of identifying with lifeless matter in order to summon new life-forces into the world.
Of Celan's fourth book, The No One's Rose, it took me longer to form an impression. It doesn't continue the trend toward austerity that culminated in Speech-Grille -- indeed it is hard to see how that trend could have gone farther. The No One's Rose is a longer, more heterogeneous, more unsettled book than any of the preceding; there are poems that almost return to the early lyricism, there are poems in the manner of Speech-Grille, and there are poems in which language is taken apart and reassembled in a way that anticipates the later style. For the first time there is a lot of Jewish religious imagery, there were words I didn't understand: gebentscht, yizkor. But one poem stood out for me, as it has for many others: “Psalm.” “No one kneads us again out of earth and clay.” These seem to be the voices of the dead, who see themselves forming, in their nothingness, the “No-One’s-Rose.” A community seeming to survive in some way beyond annihilation. I think that the voices of this poem were always in my mind from the fall of 1967 on; and I believe that however complexly my response to Celan may have been motivated, it was these voices that finally obtained my consent.
This much I had absorbed, I think, when Celan's fifth collection, Atemwende (Breath-Turn) came out.
A living poet is always a great trouble to the reader. With dead poets, you know what they have done and can go about analyzing them, translating them, putting them to your own emotional uses, in the assurance that there will be no great surprises. But a living poet is always shattering your impression, breaking through whatever subtle arrangements you have made in your mind to domesticate what he or she has said so far. (God has the same problem: every time some new prophet appears people want to say he’s the last.) I was always afraid of each new collection by Celan. But Atemwende, even allowing for this effect, was a shock.
A shock that I recognized. I had felt it once before, early in 1966, when the poems the Mandel’shtam had managed to write in the 1930's first appeared in print. Before that, I had lived for several years with Stone and Tristia. In those collections, written while Mandel’shtam’s living conditions were still marginally tolerable, there is an aching melancholy and awareness of doom: “But music does not save from the abyss.” Nonetheless, the poems are a classical edifice, like the elegant buildings that Peter the Great constructed over that northern marsh. The beauty and elegance and nobility exist in defiance of the political chaos that seethes in the background. But in the ‘30's Mandel'shtam was hounded by the Stalinists and finally sent to a prison camp where he is said to have died mad; and the late poems, despite rhyme and meter, no longer offer any shelter; they seem to peel off from a mind that is slowly shredding under pressure. Reading them was not an aesthetic experience; it was like receiving news of some terrible, both cosmic and intimate, catastrophe. That was how Atemwende also struck me.
Politzer did not share this reaction to Atemwende. With enthusiasm he read aloud some lines from a poem beginning “In die Rillen (Into the grooves),” which certainly are very impressive acoustically, or no, tactually: they feel like gravel in the mouth. I could not convey to Politzer the terrible feeling I had about the book, which even today, when I think about it, makes me look into a great darkness, not the darkness of the first poems which is still somehow nurturing, infused with the colors of life, but the dark of the cosmic void. The fourth section of “Aphelion” translates something of this impression:
a time when creations's furrow
lies still unsealed:
strange, mineral grasses sprout there.
The planets go dark in a forest
of dense and lightless crystals.
You must have been inside
the stone the dark moon and all we thought had
We are walking now
in the zone of broken glass. Underfoot
it is lenses, figurines, mirrors, drinking-vessels.
We did not know they were broken,
we drink from them still.
One shadow, one eyeless
over there, the words fuse
in black-cold, space-curve, night-obsidian.
During this period I also had one conversation about Atemwende with Jaszi, who was on my dissertation committee. “This is terrible!” I said. “He is insane!” I showed Jaszi one poem, I don’t remember which; he was inclined to say, oh, well, you know how poets are. Then I showed him another poem, “Am Weissen Gebetriemen (On the White Prayer-thong).” Jaszi read it and handed the book back to me with a subdued expression. “You are right,” he said. “That is completely crazy.”
What happens in this poem, and what could I have made of it then? Someone climbs up, by his mouth, on the “white prayer-thong” (that seemed a painful image; I may or may not have picked up the reference to the phylactery straps, which of course are black) in order to find a “you” who is depicted as a “smoke-trail” “in the shape of a woman.” A ghost then, the spirit or memory of one of the victims? But the “you” is said to be “on the way” to the “fire-thoughts” of the speaker. Moreover, as “smoke” on the way to the poet’s “fire-thoughts,” she seems to be going back to her own origin. Galatea on the way to Pygmalion? (The image of the “smoke-trail” also connects this poem to an earlier poem, “Before a Candle”; but another year would pass before I focused on that one.) And at the end of the poem she is told to “tell [her] fingers” about the encounter. That might mean to write about it. As I am doing now.
Maybe it is easier to talk about this since the Internet has introduced us to the “virtual” relationship. But it has long been understood (Mandel’shtam has a famous essay on “The Interlocutor”) that the poet writes for some distant, unknown “implied reader.” Every now and then some poet figures out that this distant reader may be a woman, and writes her some amatory verses – I’ve noticed a few, in the years since all this happened. But those are rather impersonal exercises; this is not. There are even a couple of touches that may be specific description (“long-legged,” “heavy-lipped”); they could, as it happens, fit me.
But all the foregoing paragraph represents what was unthinkable in the fall of 1967. The thought was there, but I slammed the door on it and managed to keep the door shut for about three and a half years.
Meanwhile, the hypothesis of “madness” was supported by rumors of Celan’s episodes of actual mental illness. Politzer suggested to me that I read a book on schizophrenic language, in hopes this would give me some insight into the strange combinations of Atemwende. I read the book, but it did not tell me much. We agreed that despite their obscurity, Celan’s poems were articulate and coherent, as schizophrenic utterances are not. “Though this be madness, yet there’s method in it.”
Not only that, but despite the sense of irreversible tragedy, there’s also something incredibly vital about the poems. “By Death! Alive!” as he says. The forms, although not standard, have a symmetry that made me think of the symmetry of living things. I guess the same might be true of any good poem, but it was Celan’s poems, more than any others, that made me feel this. This is a quality that does not seem to come through in any translation, as it is tightly bound up with the sound and syntax of the original language. There is a lot of alliteration, which reinforces a strong rhythm, typically amphibrachic (short-long-short), which persists despite the “free” verse, the fragmented and shortened lines.
There is another quality that translations of isolated poems would not convey, because it is a property not of the single poem but of the work as a whole. Celan’s poems employ a certain vocabulary, a certain set of recurring images (which in the later work tend to be more disguised). These form a kind of “shadowy web” in the background (as Rilke once put it with respect to his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), so that while each poem stands alone, in its moment, it gathers resonance from all the rest. Again, this quality is bound up with the language in which he is writing, with its vocabulary and morphology. The words don’t have exactly the same connections in any other language. Moreover, German has a homogeneous root-stock, from which most of its words are built up, so that one remains conscious of their kinship. In this respect it is more like Hebrew than English (and Celan’s work, possibly influenced by his knowledge of Hebrew, brings out that quality of relatedness like nothing else written in the language). In contrast, English often seems like a gathering of strangers who get along by forgetting their respective origins. For example, the German word for “night” is “Nacht,” which forms the obviously related adjective “nächtlich,” whereas we have to reach for the more distantly related “nocturnal.” And the aforementioned pervasive rhythm that runs through most of the work also reinforces this sense of an underlying unity. Each poem appears as whole – one feels its contour, one feels that it goes through a process and ends where it has to end – and yet there is also this sense that it is only a fragment of something larger that wants to be put together. And moreover the whole of which these fragments may be part appears “open” (a word that Celan often uses). You could say that his work, the totality of it, is more like the Divine Comedy than it is like the collected poems, say, of Keats. The “Ode to Autumn” does not bring up the sonnet on Homer in the way that “On the White Prayer-thong” brings up “Before a Candle.” Like the Commedia, Celan’s poems describe a journey. But the Commedia has a hard line around it. Obviously, it would not be possible to add anything to it. Whereas Celan’s poems always seem to be waiting for an echo, an answer, for further resonances, for something to come in and give the story another ending perhaps, or a continuation. And it is to this general invitation (whether or not the reader thinks I have been right to“personalize” it as, in the fall of 1967, I had already unconsciously begun to do) that the present work responds.
Despite the impossibility of translation I had begun translating, partly as a way of transmitting the impression the poems were making on me, partly as a way of postponing the job of interpretation. One day I asked Politzer if I could submit the translations for the dissertation in place of a critical study. He said he would accept this – but I would have to write a seventy-page introduction to the translations. Seventy pages of commentary looked about the same to me as seven hundred. But at least they did not have to be faced immediately.
Not much had been written about Celan in 1967. Politzer gave me – I have it still – a monograph published in 1966 which mentioned only about a dozen other studies, mostly short articles. The monograph, by Peter Paul Schwarz, is entitled Totengedächtnis und dialogische Polarität in der Dichtung Paul Celans (The Memory of the Dead and Dialogic Polarity in the Poetry of Paul Celan). Schwarz viewed the relationship of the poet to his mother, who perished in the death camps, as the axis of the poems; Schwarz believed that the “thou” of the poems, where not self-addressed, always referred to the mother. The central theme of the poetry is the mystical communion with the mother, often symbolized by erotic imagery. Schwarz invoked Buber’s “I and Thou” to explain how this single “dialogic” relationship between mother and son structures the poet’s world. Of course, since then the biographers have situated many of these poems in the context of various relationships; but at the deepest psychological level, Schwarz is probably still right. And the poems are designed to speak from depth to depth. Their landscape is symbolic, interior, rather than externally recognizable, even if the later poems contain more and more jagged chunks of exterior reality. In any case the Schwarz interpretation, perhaps just because it happened to be the first interpretation I read, probably influenced my view of the poems. So it is; as Anthony Trollope somewhere writes, we “drink our wine with other people’s palates”; we borrow others’ spectacles even to look at what comes closest to us. But I did read recently that Celan approved of this study, perhaps because it emphasized his role as representative of the Jewish victims.
One other piece of interpretation I read that year stuck with me. Politzer showed me the manuscript of an article by a friend of his at some German university. I don’t remember the name of the scholar nor the gist of his argument. I think it was an early example of the kind of “herme(neu)tics” (definition: an interpretation more difficult to understand than what it purports to explain) that is so frequently practiced on Celan. But amid the obfuscation this scholar quoted an anecdote, the punch line of which was: “The bright day washes out the word of night.” If anything that sentence keeps on gathering meaning.
One day, with a feeling of daring, I asked Politzer what Paul Celan looked like. Politzer said, “He is a pudgy little man with nervous gestures. The only beautiful thing about him is his eyes – which look very much like yours.”
And yet, three and a half years later, he was surprised... We truly do not know very much about what we are doing.
The complete texts of Celan’s poems are not given here for copyright reasons, but I hope you will look them up. If you cannot read him in the original, translations are available, and many have found the translations to be effective; moreover, some are dual language editions, which can form a bridge to the original. The first large selection to come out was Speech-Grille and Selected Poems, a dual language edition with translations by Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Dutton, 1971). Neugroschel’s translations, which include the collection Speech-Grille in its entirety (as well as “On the White Prayer-thong” and “Before a Candle,” so influential here), were seen and approved by Celan himself. Of Die Niemandsrose there exists a bilingual edition – La Rose de Personne -- with French translations by Martine Broda; there is also a French bilingual edition of Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (De Seuil en seuil), with translations by Valérie Briet. Other bilingual selections are Michael Hamburger, Poems of Paul Celan, and John Felstiner, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Pierre Joris has translated Breathturn and Threadsuns in their entirety (Los Angeles, Sun & Moon, 1995 and 1997), as well as Lightduress (Green Integer). Rosemarie Waldrop has translated the Collected Prose (Manchester: Carcanet, 1986; Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow, 1990). Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin, are the translators of Last Poems (San Francisco: North Point, 1986), a dual-language edition containing poems from Snowpart and Timecroft.