PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 8: THE FARTHEST POSSIBLE APPROACH
It might have been restlessness, a desire to escape certain thoughts by a change of place; but the city of Berlin really had appealed to me on that excursion in the fall.
A friend in Berkeley had given me the addresses of two friends there, one on either side of the Wall. In the West I had met Astrid and her friend Botho. Astrid was a small girl with long, straight brown hair and very large eyes which, strangely, did not appear thoughtful; they were deep-set, and the rest of her features were rounded and pertly pretty, making her look younger than her twenty-five years. She smiled constantly and had a great deal of nervous energy. In her political views she was radical and deadly serious. She and Botho had known each other for nine years. Botho was a very likeable young man with red-gold hair and beard. He seemed gentler than Astrid and sometimes inclined to smile at her vehemence. He smoked a pipe. They were the first German students I had found it possible to speak with that year. Moreover, Astrid’s circle of acquaintances included several soldiers from the American military base, and she took me up to a loft near the Kurfuerstendamm where they went to get stoned when off-duty. The loft, which was rented by a soldier named Joe, was a huge, shadowy place with nothing in it but a small record player, a few mattresses, some cushions arranged around a low table with a water pipe, and low partition concealing a kind of kitchen. Joe put on Dylan and early Donovan records, and nothing had sounded so good in a long time. We sat and smoked and talked. Other friends drifted in and out. I think I told about seeing the clock with the mechanical figures in the Children’s Zoo, and Joe had seen it too and knew what I meant. It was almost like being back on Derby Street.
In East Berlin I had looked up a woman named Erika, who lived not far from the Friedrichstrasse station, off a dark courtyard in one of the side streets. She was thirty-five, and looked older; she had an infant son by her friend of twelve years, with whom she had quarreled. She was a potter and earned her living by working as a lab technician. Her apartment was very small, and everything in it had an air of having cost more than it was worth and needing to be handled carefully. But she was cheerful, open, and seemed to have a number of real friends; the state had taken good care of her when she had had her child; she could live, though she was not on especially good terms with the authorities and was irked by many restrictions. She wished she could visit the West and talked wistfully of her friends there, but she was glad to be living in the East. People were more help to each other in the East; you knew who your friends were and who they weren’t. Influenced by her, doubtless, I had formed a favorable impression of East Berlin. Shabby and partly ruinous as it was, after the suspect splendors of Munich and West Berlin it rested the eyes.
In Berlin, too, I would have the company of Kyra, my fellow-poet from the ship. Actually, had I stayed in Munich I would have had the company of another of my shipboard roommates: Ellen, who was similarly discontented in Freiburg, had decided to come to Munich. After I left she moved into the room in the Adelheidstrasse. She told me later that that the landlady, whose name I cannot remember, did not receive my one letter from Berlin and was disappointed that I did not write again. Sadly, I have many such things on my conscience. And the reader will already have noticed a certain turnover in this book’s cast of characters. I cannot help it; it is the form my experience has taken.
Kyra advised me against studying at the Freie Universität, where she herself was enrolled. It would have been the logical place for me to go, if I did have to move in the opposite direction to Paris, given that Peter Szondi, known to be a friend of Paul Celan, presided over the German department there. But that campus was much disrupted by student demonstrations, whereas the Technische Universität was still quiet, according to my Munich Dozent. So I enrolled at the Technische Universität and sought out as adviser the man he recommended. My new adviser was younger, with a more casual attitude than the one in Munich, but no more sympathetic. When I confided to him my anxieties about the direction Celan’s work was going – “This can’t go on (Das geht nicht weiter)” – he said nonsense, all sorts of writers had Sprachkrisen (linguistic crises), why he knew one writer who’d been in and out of asylums for years and was still writing at eighty. I said that trying to write about Celan made me feel like a criminal, and he replied: “Oh, cut him up and sew him back together again; he’ll still look the same.” I’m afraid that even after that I mentioned to him something about my trepidations about the interview, and thus had only myself to blame for his reaction: “It won’t be half so terrible; besides, Sie als junge Frau...” I saw this advisor only once or twice, and that was the extent of my connection with the Technische Hochschule.
However, enrolling in the Technische Hochschule made it possible for me to live in the nearby Viktoria-Studienhaus, a private women’s dormitory, and that was a piece of luck. Largely because of that, my memory of that second semester in Germany is almost idyllic by contrast with the first (although my mother still remembers my letters as a sustained lamentation).
The Viktoria-Studienhaus was a spacious old building with light, high-ceilinged rooms and a large overgrown garden in back. Many of the residents were musicians, and one often heard them practicing. The housemother was a strait-laced old woman who kept the atmosphere tolerably genteel. On each floor there was one student responsible for maintaining order and other administrative tasks; she got her rent free. The monitor on my floor was a woman named Brigitte.
Brigitte was from Switzerland, and was training to be an opera singer. She was near the end of her twenties, tall, blondish, I would say statuesque except that the robustness that told of peasant ancestry seemed reconstructed around the column of her voice, so that her weight seemed to be striving upward. Her blue-green eyes had a curious light in them – I was to notice this later in Gwenyth, the theosophist I met in Buffalo – clear as crystal, with a keen glance that seemed to come from very far. She knew eight languages, including ancient Greek, and was able to understand the modern Greek of Theodorakis’ “Ballad of Mauthausen” (Christina had introduced me to this work) when I played the record for her.
There was an air of victorious struggle about Brigitte. Her manner was invincibly cheerful, though one sensed a turbulence under the surface. Moreover, she managed on what I gathered was a tight budget to be superlatively dressed. She always wore dresses with calf-length full skirts and close-fitting waists, that looked as though they had been cut to her form rather than bought from a rack. She one of few persons I have met for whom the epithet “a great lady” comes to mind. I got the impression that she personified some spirit of Switzerland, as a place where the distinction between nature and culture had managed to disappear. Once when I had called something a “Misthaufen (dunghill)” she informed me with humorous seriousness that in Switzerland a Misthaufen was a work of art: the farmer places the layers of manure just so, in order to insure that it will decompose evenly, and also give an appearance of design to the eye. A Misthaufen, in short, was nothing to be sniffed at! Whereas this city life... When she first came to Berlin, she’d once had to get off the trolley and vomit, she had been filled with such revulsion.
I am not sure why she had had to leave Switzerland; personal matters, perhaps. Also, though she looked as strong as an ox, she had had something the matter with her lungs, and her best friend, Gertrud, once told me that she feared for Brigitte’s health. While I was there she sang Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro; I did not hear it, but read a review that questioned the suitability of her voice for opera. She wanted to learn the role of Orpheus in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. She had decided late upon a singing career, after studying first languages and literature and then acting. Until Berlin all her training had been in Anthroposophic schools – schools, that is, founded and run by followers of Rudolf Steiner.
I had encountered Anthroposophy once before, in Bonn; a neighbor in the dormitory had lent me a book by Rudolf Steiner which, to me then unacquainted with things like chakras and astral planes, had not made much sense. After that I had run across other Anthroposophists, and rather liked them; they seemed pleasant and free of self-conceit. The man on whom I would develop a crush in Buffalo had some Anthroposophic background. And years later, in Madison, a long-lost cousin would turn up, and would turn out to be an Anthroposophist. The vocabulary of Anthroposophy is close to that of Theosophy. But, as I began to gather from Brigitte, Anthroposophy is more concerned than most mystical sects with the quality of earthly life. They have developed a system of education, which has schools throughout the world, especially in Germany; they value and cultivate the arts and crafts, although they seem to have produced no new masters. (Through just recently Marc Widershein introduced me to the fine poems of Daisy Aldan, an Anthroposophist.)
I took a few singing lessons from Brigitte – my first formal training in that art; I was her first pupil, too. But the lessons produced mainly a sense of strain. Somehow I could not sing for her, perhaps intimidated by a sense of her attainments and her exacting standards. She talked to me a lot about breathing. I said, “That sounds Indian,” and thus began a discussion of religious topics. She gave me a number of books to read, in which I found varying degrees of satisfaction. One was about precious stones and their structure and meaning. It reminded me of the little I knew about Goethean science, a mixture of the subjective and the objective. From it I learned about the “Tracht” (habit) of the crystal, and used this term in translating one of Celan’s poems (“Below”). On the other hand, it said that precious stones were the eyes of the spirit world, buried in the rock. This was not meant as a poetic conceit, but literally. I could not help reading this book partly with my father’s eyes, hearing what he would have said about it. And in another work Brigitte lent me, an Anthroposophic history of the earth, I could only imagine him dumfounded to read that humans had been present on earth, though in the forms of amphibians, reptiles, etc., since Devonian times! How could Brigitte, with her obviously superior intelligence, find mental nourishment in such stuff?! I was equally mistrustful of a book of “Finnish” stories that reminded me of “Ossian,” the Celtic bard invented by some late eighteenth-century impostor whose windy sentimentality deceived the Romantics. Finally there was a book on the history of the fairy tale. The writer began by claiming – none of these Anthroposophists ever found it necessary to adduce factual evidence – that the fairy tales had been spread around Europe by the rhapsodes of the suppressed Orphic religion; people had repeated them word for word until the present, and so they were a kind of revelation. The author also went into the story of Orpheus and Eurydice at great length, treating them as historical personages, the founders of a religion. When it came to the fairy tales themselves the analysis was more plausible. For instance, when the hero sees on successive nights a copper snake, a silver snake and a golden snake, this was said to stand for the stages of the soul’s transformation. It is a Jungian commonplace; Jaszi had said something like that about Goethe’s fairy tale; still the reminder at that time affected me, and probably helped generate the fairy tale I was to write two years later.
I returned the books to Brigitte, telling her that I felt there must be some truth in it all somewhere, but that as the daughter of a scientist I could not follow most of the reasoning. Brigitte took the books back, quite unperturbed, saying that someday I would see; she could tell that I had spiritual capacities, and the time would come when these would be opened. I lingered a moment to glance around her room. It was, like her dresses, impeccable, with pictures in neat frames on the wall, and a display of small mineral specimens in the bookcase. Brigitte also lent me Rudolf Steiner’s autobiography, which increased my mistrust by the gracelessness of its prose, and a very confusing novel by Gustav Meyrink where the heroine, named Ophelia, drowns herself so as not to have to go on the stage. Later her image appears at a seance, but the hero looks into her eyes and sees that it is not her but the Medusa, whereon she vanishes.
Despite my bafflement, I felt that the world Brigitte was trying to show me was somehow related to the world of Celan’s poetry, and so I showed her a few poems. Brigitte’s reactions were fresh and immediate. She appreciated the movement and the luminousness of the language. She also felt a connection with her spiritual world: “Yes,” she said, “these layers of the mind are very active in him.” She experienced, however, none of the terror which I felt at the distortions of normal speech patterns, the ghastly associations; she approached them with a saving humor. When I showed her “When I don’t know, don’t know,” she laughed: “It’s good for a person to get all that out of his system.” One could say that the event proved her wrong; and yet her reaction made me feel for a moment that my response wronged him, and that feeling has not altogether dissipated. It was like when someone at that session in Joe’s loft repeated a rumor that a certain folk singer we thought highly of would commit suicide in the next year. Like Ibsen’s Hilde Wangel, waiting for the Master Builder to jump. The audience secretly hungry for sacrifice. Maybe Brigitte should have gone to Paris, instead of me.
Brigitte professed to have no fear of solitude or desire for marriage. Once she spoke to me of a visit with married friends who, she felt, had ceased to develop spiritually. “We,” she said, “have chosen a different path.” She did me too much honor; and besides, Brigitte did have a friend who visited her occasionally, though she never spoke of him to me. I caught a glimpse of him once: tall, dark, handsome and very intelligent-looking. Still her declaration impressed me, like everything about her. It was at least good to know that there was an alternative to desperation, even though the latter had control of me and would not allow me to accept the absence of what I kept on pushing away. I had no trouble getting briefly involved with men I could barely stand; but, for instance, when I went back to Botho and Astrid’s apartment that spring and found only a somewhat tousled and bewildered Botho who informed me that Astrid had moved out, the very thought that here was a chance made me quickly obtain Astrid’s address from Botho and head for the door. Late in the semester I heard about something called “autogenic training,” essentially a form of self-hypnosis, and I took a course in it, hoping that autohypnotic suggestion would help me to root out whatever said “no” to any meaningful relationship. The instructional materials informed us that the suggestions would be more effective if couched in rhythmic and alliterative language; they claimed that even physical changes, as in temperature or heartbeat, could be produced in this manner; and it was then that I first noticed (again fleetingly, mutedly) a certain resemblance between such techniques and Celan’s poetic devices. But Nietzsche, I gather, once said that although man can do as he wills, he cannot will as he wills. The autogenic exercises just made me feel that I was doing violence to my own psyche, and I left off doing them. But I did not stop reading the poems.
Brigitte strongly advised me against smoking hashish or marijuana. “It is all very well for–“ and she named one of our floormates. “She is robust and doesn’t have much of a mind. But your constitution is much too frail. You could ruin yourself.” Not that I smoked very much that spring, only once or twice, but I had spoken of it to her, from a mixture of honesty, braggadocio, and the thought that she might find my experiences of interest and perhaps shed light on them. But it was impossible to discuss the subject with her.
Similarly, Brigitte would doubtless have shuddered to know some of the other company I kept that spring, especially Astrid’s circle. That circle no longer included Joe, who was basically apolitical, who was trying to learn to play the guitar and write poetry and who in the loft off the Kurfuerstendamm sought quiet and good company and nothing more. He, like Botho, had fallen victim to a purge. Astrid’s movements that spring were rapid, tense, controlled, something just prevented them from being jerky; her mouth was fixed in a clench-jawed position that was and was not a smile; in her large, sunken, dilated eyes something glittered of which I was afraid.
That spring Günter Grass’s play, Davor (Before the Event) was performed in Berlin. The plot is that of his novel, Local Anesthetic: a young man conceives the idea of burning his dog alive at one of those tea-and-cake places frequented chiefly by stout old ladies, as a protest against the Vietnam war. He is egged on by his girlfriend, Vero, but is finally dissuaded by an elderly dentist who believes that all would be well in the world if only everyone’s toothaches were properly taken care of. The play was treated as a great betrayal by the students and praised by the mayor of Berlin. I disliked the play as much as the students did, but for a slightly different reason: I disliked it because it portrayed all the male characters as well-intentioned, mild-mannered fellows, and all the female characters as shrieking furies. But I could not help noticing a certain resemblance between Vero and Astrid.
Yet I clung to Astrid, to the idea of reaching her or the hope of some absolution from her. Was not her rage – like Brigitte’s getting off the streetcar to vomit, like the hand clutching my throat that made it hard to sing, sometimes even to talk – another sign that things were wrong? I spoke to her of my thesis, of my doubts as to whether I ought to finish it, and of my uncertainty about the doubts themselves, whether they represented convictions or just laziness. Astrid’s opinion was unequivocal: I was wasting my time studying Celan’s poetry. The horrors of the present needed not aesthetic or mystical contemplation, but action; all the rest was mystification and contributed to the perpetuation of the evil. Nothing could be done without the use of force.
I asked her whether she did not think the most effective mass movement of the century had been Gandhi’s, and had he not preached non-violence? She answered that the conditions then in India and the conditions now in Germany were altogether different. I’m not sure where she saw the significant difference; perhaps in the current brutalization of the people through the media, which was a popular topic of discussion that year. I had attended one meeting of a study group on this topic in Munich. It had lasted two or three hours, during which the sins of the Axel Springer Corporation were analyzed well past nausea. And it was not the first meeting of the group; last week they had talked about this stuff, and next week they would talk about it again; looking from face to face I saw bitterness, hatred and the readiness to fly into a rage at anyone who would attempt to dissuade them from feeding on ashes.
Similarly, one evening that spring I went to a concert of the latest “music.” “The prolonged Dadaism of a culture with the dry heaves,” as I described it a few years later. (I am transcribing from the 1972 notes at the moment, having happily forgotten a lot of this.) The second part of the program was something called “The James Bond Oratorio: On the Joy and Magnificence of Killing.” All you saw were heads poking through holes in a curtain (the performers must have been standing on ladders behind it), and the heads, garishly made up with bloodred mouths and black smudges under the eyes, were illuminated one after the other by a greenish light. Of course the heads did not sing; they screamed, howled and made various unclassifiable noises, and the accompaniment consisted of mechanical sounds. I walked home afterward with another resident of the Studienhaus, a woman about my age, with a pinched, set face and a rigid way of moving. I said to her that such a work was no longer a work of protest against savagery, but an expression of it, and she answered, as Astrid would have, that in this world any display of mildness or grace was a betrayal, a concession.
I could not “drop” Astrid; I followed her around for quite a while. She introduced me, among other things, to a German-American political group that was publishing an off-base newspaper for the American soldiers in Berlin, trying to incite the soldiers to desertion by stories of what was happening not only to the Vietnamese people but also to American soldiers at various bases. Once someone mentioned at a meeting that such and such a story was not literally true, and questioned whether it ought to be printed. The young man who seemed to be in charge of the meeting countered that while the story might not be literally true, it was essentially true; the only important thing was to turn the soldiers against the government, and any words which would serve this end were true. It was the first time anyone had openly employed this doubtless very ancient sophistry in my hearing. I think I did speak up and mention that if they did not tell the truth people would eventually disbelieve them, but this was ignored. The memory has remained with me, as an epiphany with great explanatory force. Astrid finally dropped me after some act or omission that she interpreted as a betrayal.
The person I felt closest to that spring was Kyra, who felt as I did about many things and was glad to have someone to talk to about poetry. She had written, in the last few months, a great deal more than I had; alone in her dormitory room, she had been sorting out images from Indiana and Berlin, combining them with images from the books she was reading, trying to figure out what sort of world she was in and if there was a way out. Some of her poems sounded like fragments of my own from Munich: we both had images of frozen tears, of eyes fusing to a common surface. Sometimes she took satiric aim at our environment, which I was unable to do; it depressed me too much.
One day Kyra and I were walking past the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, the ruinous church left standing, with a modernistic addition, as a war memorial. On the steps of the Gedächtniskirche a number of young people in hippie uniform were sitting, and the odor of cannabis was in the air. “Hasch und Gedächtnis” (hash and memory),” I said to Kyra. A joke in bad taste, which I wouldn’t have cared to make in Celan’s presence; but also one more moment in which his images appeared to concretize themselves before my eyes, and the first making of that connection between the “stoned” state and the world of his poetry, which was to have consequences. There was a daring feeling about it, like the moment when Don Giovanni invites the stone guest to dine with him.
Another time I found a gray pebble shaped like a four-sided prism, and discovered that scratches on it would show up in white. I scratched on it the first four lines of “I Heard Tell.”
My own poetry did not flourish that spring, apart from one poem that I wrote after a trip to Peacock Island in one of the lakes that Berlin is built around. On the island is a little Schloss where one of the Prussian queens used to play dairymaid like Marie Antoinette. The “practicing” of the English recalls the fact, hard to remember these days, that West Berlin was divided into several sectors, administered by three nations, and the possibility existed in some minds that people on the two sides of the Wall might someday be shooting at each other.
on cedar branches, sometimes
launched themselves like blue
down to the grass.
You and I -- a faun
dreaming of tundras
and lumberjack boots, a nymph
swinging a camera --
populated the perspectives
(when no one was looking
yours the grin
dodging from beard to eye-corners).
Luise, the dairymaid,
did not come out, but behind
the Gothic stonefront
closing a flight of dust-
and mauve-colored willows
a door stood wide,
the farmwife gave us news.
The English were practicing
-- at the water
air filled with shell-poppings --
over our path, an oak,
Curiously this poem, despite its apparent immediacy, is built on echoes. It starts out as a riff on Wallace Stevens’ “Domination of Black” and modulates into the rhythms of Celan’s middle period (e.g. “A Day and One More”). But the “you” in this poem was someone close at hand, namely Marty, a fellow-Fulbright student in Berlin to whom Kyra had introduced me. It was another of those brief, awkward affairs driven less by desire on either side, not to mention love, than by the self-validation needs of two people with low self-esteem. But Marty and I did have one thing that we could genuinely enjoy together – we were both folk singers. He knew more guitar than I did and taught me the tunings for Joni Mitchell’s “Marcy.” And there was, beneath the ego needs, some rudimentary liking between us; I thought him a decent person, though somewhat lacking in flamboyance.
That was the main difficulty. For me the approach of friendship or intimacy was generally the signal for a display of verbal acrobatics, even though I had often been advised to play dumb and men had frequently reacted to such displays in more or less subtly repressive ways, as did Marty. “Whistling girls and crowing hens always come to some bad end.” Perhaps my persistence was due to upbringing, to the encouragement of proud parents who throughout childhood and adolescence had been almost my only intimates; perhaps it was just the wish to share the pleasures of thinking with my companion; but then again there was an awful competitiveness mixed in with this, a need to shine at others’ expense, a tendency to try and make any interlocutor into a foil, which has doubtless also subverted my attempts at teaching. It’s complicated. On a good day I could turn in a performance not unworthy of Beatrice in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and maybe what I needed was a Benedick who could top my lines, wrestle me to the ground in a battle of wits. Of all my short-term boyfriends Kent had come closest to this, but he had chosen to go back to his long-term girlfriend, who was, I understood, more domestic. At our one meeting after that he had shown me a poem that ended by drawing a contrast between his writing vigil and her receptive, peaceful unconsciousness.
Celan has one poem in this vein, too – “Below.” I translated it that spring. It ends: “And the Too-much of my speech:/ deposited onto the tiny/ crystal in the habit of your silence.” A conclusion I duly noted. Not that I could articulate all of this to myself, but the warning flag went up. I understood that this poem was for Gisèle Celan-Lestrange – and yet behind Gisèle, as so often, appears the shadow of the silent reader.
So my “Pfaueninsel,” which came out of my best day with Marty, reflected one moment in which a rather grim battle seemed to become that dance of two butterflies around each other which I so longed for. That word “practicing”: military, target practice, but then also musical practicing, and maybe the sense that I was practicing with Marty for someone else (giving a possible double meaning to the “you,” quite as in the Celan poem just quoted). I seem to recall that Marty received the poem with of uneasiness. I don’t recall how that relationship ended; probably with a drifting-away rather than a quarrel.
Apart from “Pfaueninsel” I produced only fragments with little shape or conviction. The following has stuck in memory and seems to want to be included here, even though I don’t much care for it:
the autist speaks perhaps
diatribed in monotony
and runaway letters
govern my life
at which i sit player piano piano player
and attempting to answer
a question I cannot even ask
the face of holes in paper
the lump of needleform crystals and
the empty sporangium
now i can see you
I think this was meant to grapple, again, with the question whether art is a channel of communication between subjects or just a process that creates more dead objects. Or does the creation of this dead object, as a sort of catharsis, make the confrontation between subjects, freed from this weight, possible? This is what seems to me at times to be going on in Celan’s early work and in “The Meridian.” And there is this:
out of the space between
sill and lintel of the horizon
that is where
you came from
This may have been the last poem I wrote before leaving for Paris. But I am no longer sure. I did not think the “you” of this poem referred to anyone in particular; it was meant to be entirely open – as it is in many of Celan’s poems.
Shortly after coming to Berlin, I had finally faced the necessity of writing to Paul Celan, if I was to see him at all that year. The only person I could ask for his address was his friend, the Hölderlin scholar Peter Szondi, who taught at the Freie Universität; so one day I went to see him. Professor Szondi was a well-dressed, handsome man in middle life, with a certain superiority of manner which, in addition to his being the poet’s friend, intimidated me very much. No one then spoke of being worried about him as they worried about Celan; it was not anticipated that two years after Celan he would commit suicide in the same manner. (The behavior or the students, their evident determination to return under color of protest to the Yahoo state, was said to have been a factor.) I did not inspire in him enough confidence to extract Celan’s address from him; he suggested that I write to Celan’s publisher. A discussion about Celan’s poetry did not get very far; he said that it was impossible to understand without knowing the personal allusions, as it was all autobiographical, and as an example he mentioned the name “Franz” in the poem Assisi, which refers of course to St. Francis Assisi but to someone else as well – “I’m not telling who.” (I think he meant Celan’s first son, François, who died soon after birth.) Between Celan’s death and his own, he would write down an explication of a poem that had come out of Celan’s visit to Berlin, explaining where each image in the poem had come from.
Professor Szondi showed me two recent poems by Celan – “Be Thou as Thou” and “Todtnauberg,” both of which baffled me completely – and also a recent translation of Donne’s “The Malediction,” which I read with an uneasy mixture of feelings (and with what mixture of feelings had the poem been translated? written?). He also Xeroxed a couple of articles for me, one of which he had written, about the plagiarism libel that had dogged Celan’s later years, set in motion by the widow of a fellow-poet and kept alive by people who may have been anti-Semitic, anti-poetic, jealous, or just troublemakers. It was utterly baseless, the poems in question by Celan having been written and even published before the meeting with the other poet, who was, besides, a much lesser light. But since I had never thought but that poets drew from a common stock and fed on one another’s work, it was long before I understood how damaging that accusation had been to Celan. Finally, Professor Szondi he said that one of the few copies of Celan’s earliest collection, which he had withdrawn after publication, was in the library of the Germanistisches Seminar; I should look at it.
With the trepidation that accompanied any approach to a new work of Celan’s, I went to the seminar desk and asked for Der Sand aus den Urnen (The Sand from the Urns). The young man at the desk smiled pleasantly as he handed it to me and said I might take it out into the garden if I liked. So I took a chair out under the flowering trees, sat down and opened the book.
The poems in the first section of this book were written before Celan found his distinctive style. They contain striking images but are not hard to understand. They are mostly rhymed, and few of them use the triple meter that was to become his hallmark. Apparently some predated the invasion of Czernowitz; they were poems of adolescent discovery which at one or two points reminded me of my own juvenilia. I began to be attuned to the immediacy of youthful feeling in the sometimes awkward lines; with astonishment I thought of Thread-Suns, and the question actually surfaced in my mind: why was that modern trip necessary? wasn’t what was here enough? Then I came to a poem called “Black Snowflakes,” which tells of the murder of the poet’s parents in the Transnistria death-camp -- and froze. “Black Snowflakes” doesn’t tell much directly, though it is more direct than the work he published later. It wraps the horror up in a lot of literary allusions, even trying to sound at times like Homer or like primitive Germanic verse. You would think these things would distance it from the reader, but for some reason, on the contrary... It was, I think, at that moment that I looked up and saw that a shower of white petals was falling from the trees all around me. How banal, something in me remarked sarcastically, just like that samurai film (where the camera had panned to falling cherry-blossoms while the hero committed hara-kiri). Yet I was awed, touched and incredulous, I felt despite myself as though something had spoken to me. But there was no one to ask if it was so.
Images from this poem kept haunting me as I worked on my letter to the poet. As with some of his latest poems, I felt admitted farther than I could quite endure into the darkness of another’s experience. The letter which I finally wrote to Paul Celan, and sent to him in care of his publisher, was duplicitous. It said nothing of Politzer or my project of writing a dissertation about him. This falsehood by omission was due partly to my reservations about the task, and partly to Politzer’s letter to me about their last “unpleasant” encounter. I just said that I was making translations of his work and thinking of publishing them and would like to discuss them with him, and enclosed a number of my translations. The omission of the dissertation was not a very great falsehood, for that spring it seemed more improbable than ever that I would ever write “on” Celan – the very phrase seemed a presumption. Each time I tried it I would produce, with tremendous effort, a page or two of awkward sentences, not one of which seemed true on rereading.
I don’t remember exactly when I wrote the letter, nor do I recall waiting in suspense for the answer. Perhaps the arrival of a letter from the poet seemed to me like an impossible event, like two planes of reality intersecting. But one day late in June, to my terror and consternation, there was in the mail an envelope from Paris. The note was typewritten and bore the return address of the École Normale Supérieure, where he was teaching.
Sehr geehrtes Fräulein Cameron,
besten Dank für Ihren Brief, der mich, da Sie ihn an meine alte Adresse gerichtet hatten, mit einiger Verspätung erreicht hat.
Mit Ihren Übersetzungen habe ich mich bereits des längeren auseinandergesetzt, ich finde sie im grossen ganzen recht gut, hätte aber an mehreren Stellen – night nur an den von Ihnen hervorgehobenen – einiges zu bemerken. Da Sie an eine Publication denken, erlauben Sie mir, Sie darauf aufmerksam zu machen, dass Sie hiefür der Zustimmung meiner Verleger und auch meines Einverständnisses bedürfen.
Sie um den 1. Juli hier in Paris zu empfangen, wird mir nicht möglich sein: ich bein zwischen dem 27. Juni und dem 10. Juli in Deutschland (am 30. Juni lese ich in Kiel, am 4. Juli in Bonn.) Vielleicht ist es Ihnen möglich, zwischen dem 10. und 25. Juli nach Paris zu kommen, ich würde mich freuen, Sie persönlich kennenzulernen.
Mit den besten Grüssen
Dear Miss Cameron:
Thank you for your letter, which, because you had addressed it to my old address, arrived with some delay.
I have examined your translations carefully and find them on the whole quite good, though in several places – not only those you mention – I would have some comments to make. Since you are thinking of publication, allow me to point out to you that you need permission from my publisher and also from me.
It will not be possible for me to receive you here in Paris around the first of July, as I shall be in Germany between June 27 and July 10 (I am reading on June 30 in Kiel and on July 4 in Bonn.) Perhaps it would be possible for you to come to Paris between July 10 and 25. I would be happy to get to know you personally.
This letter which, with its hints of mistrust and cordiality, was about as impersonal as it could possibly have been, might have reassured me had I been disposed to be reassured rather than to find occasion for agitation. As usual when terrified of giving offense, I had managed to say one wrong thing; still he hadn’t refused to see me. Ought I to go and hear him read in Germany first? Of course I should have. I was running low on cash, but that was the flimsiest of excuses; my mother (who told me afterwards that all that year I wrote to her only when I needed money) would have provided it. But mostly it was that such a journey would have emphasized the asymmetry between us. I saw myself making the trip and sitting anonymous in the audience, after which he would go off with others. Pride, and a tendency to anticipate rejection, were stronger than any wish to hear him read, or the fear that by not going I would offend him. The next note from him was dated July 11:
Dear Miss Cameron:
Thank you for your letter of July 9 and the enclosed translations of my poems.
I will await you on July 23 at 3:00 p.m. at the entrance to the École Normale Supérieure, 45 rue d’Ulm. As a sign for identification I will be holding my last book.
I wish you a good journey.
“My last book.” Thread-Suns. The allusion to this book, which in my mind always opened to one page, did nothing to moderate my apprehension about standing face to face with him. Likewise unbidden came to mind an anecdote from Buber’s Tales, about the hasid who was going to visit a certain tzaddik not in order to learn Torah from him but in order to see how the tsaddik tied and untied his shoelaces. And that scared me, if possible, still more.
The interview did not take place on July 23. In the interval it was discovered that I had an ovarian tumor. The doctors said that at my age it was probably not malignant, but I had better have it out immediately. Without of course mentioning the nature of the complaint, I wrote to the poet of the necessity for a hospital stay which would postpone my trip. He wrote back:
Dear Miss Cameron:
It troubles me to hear that you have fallen ill, but I hope that you will soon be restored and able to travel.
I shall be in Paris until August 15 and not difficult to reach.
With best wishes for your health,
The operation then quickly took place. Afterward the doctors told me that the tumor had been, as predicted, benign, and that the ovary had been preserved, although an examination many years later revealed they had in fact cut it out. It appears that such a tumor often does result in the loss of an ovary; doubtless the surgeons felt that by not telling me they would save trouble all around. I am just as glad not to have known (assuming I did not, at some level, know). I was left with a scar at the base of my abdomen, like a minus sign or the line under a column of figures about to be added up. It had not entirely healed by the time of the interview, and for me our conversation was underlaid by the consciousness of bearing an unmentionable and still open wound. And I daresay my more extreme reactions, later, had some of their roots in this trauma. I don’t recall letting myself think about the Pallas Athene poem at the time.
My parents knew nothing about the operation, as I had chosen not to tell them, and their thoughts at the time were definitely elsewhere. A few days after the operation someone from the Studienhaus, probably Brigitte, brought a letter from my mother to the hospital. The letter proudly informed me that my father was among the scientists selected to work on the rocks that had just been brought back from the moon. I am, in case it is necessary to say it again, not making this up.
Then I was out of the hospital and had a few days to pack up before leaving for Paris. There was one more note from the poet:
Dear Miss Cameron:
It is good to know that you are better.
I await you on Monday, August 4, at 3:00 p.m. at the entrance to the École Normale, 45 rue d’Ulm. If anything in Paris interferes with your plans, send me a pneumatic letter and let me know where I can reach you.
Good journey, all the best,