PART TWO: THE GLASS MOUNTAIN
CHAPTER 15: THESIS IN A VACUUM
The decision to assume the character Celan had written marked a new epoch of my life, though the break was far from clean. For the time being I was still in Seattle, teaching at the alternate school, getting stoned, filling notebooks with semi-coherent ravings, and otherwise acting somewhat oddly. This time, however, I managed to avoid another trip to Harborview. Perhaps I had hoped the first time to be picked up and psyched out of it. But by now I knew that there was no one who could tell me better than Celan had, or release me from his geasa. He had been the last great poet, after all; what higher authority could there be?
I had begun writing the long-delayed dissertation on Celan at the start of 1972; no longer intending to pursue an academic career, nonetheless I felt that I could at last, and should, set down my understanding of him. Just now I looked up that first draft, and shuddered at how shrill and chaotic it is. No doubt it mirrored my state of being at the time.
It was entitled "Anticomputer," and bore three epigraphs. The first was a joke which a mathematician had told in Berkeley in the spring of 1966: The scientists decided to hook up all the computers in the world to one central computer. When this had been done, a dedication ceremony was held, and they decided to inaugurate the central computer by asking it a really good question. They settled on, "Is there a God?" The answer came back: "There is now." The second epigraph was Celan's statement to me: "Every poem is the anti-computer, even the one the computer writes." The third was a line by John Lennon: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."
What I seem to have meant by this combination of statements was that the reality of human suffering implies the possibility of a very different unity, a very different organization, from that created by the inhuman calculations on which mass society is based. The poem is an "anti-computer" not only because it asserts the primacy of human feeling but because its inner unity and links to other poems, point to a potential world order based not on calculation and brute force, but on compassion and the laws it dictates, and on a sense of rightness that is both aesthetic and ethical.
Such organization as the thesis had was chronological; the quotes were strung together in an attempt to reconstruct the poet’s inner biography. His quest was portrayed as an attempt to imagine this potential different world order actualizing itself, and to stimulate the beginning of this process. The critical act was identification with the victims in the power-struggle. It was not that suffering in itself had a positive value. But our willingness to identify with the victims is the only thing that can bring them back from silence, and that can ensure that we shall not align ourselves with the aggressors and thus perpetuate aggression and suffering. Identification with the dead is the basis for a true conversation among the living. It involves, also, acknowledgment of one's own suffering. These acknowledgments could become the basis for a covenant among humans, a Law. (To my professor's disgust, I quoted the Beatles: "When all the brokenhearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer.") Thus, "self-pity" can be a constructive emotion if it is not reserved for oneself but can broaden into an understanding of all human pain. In acknowledging oneself as victim one rejects the victor's definition of dignity and assumes full human stature. This has something to do with the poem's form and beauty.
The love poetry was interpreted in this light. It is always overshadowed by the image of the murdered mother, whom he wanted to make live again as the embodiment of the principle of understanding and judgment in the world. Its eroticism was an attempt to seduce the one affected into an identification with the victims; it was an attempt to shock the feminine reader into an awareness of her own responsibility for the future of humanity.
I stopped short of talking about finding my own name in a couple of poems, or about Celan' s personal appeal to me. I guess I figured that would never be accepted. And even though I had not been able to start the thesis until my bridges to academia had been well and truly burnt, there was still enough realism in me to want the thesis to be accepted. Instead this first version concluded with a ten-page account of my experiences with academic life, especially at Buffalo, around the time of Celan's death, and an appeal to literary scholars to acknowledge that we had been spoken to.
Until nearly the time of my departure from Seattle, I kept on teaching in the alternative high school. Perhaps it helped me to keep my feet on the ground, and probably my "trip" was no more disturbing to the students than the rest of the culture that surrounded them, even if I did try to draw a few of them into my world. One day I copied out Shakespeare's sonnet "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments" in crayons and tacked it up on one of the partitions. I read The Last Unicorn to the girl who was nearly blind.
One day at the school I saw a rock newspaper with an article on a singer named Judee Sill. Some of the things she was reported as saying caught my attention. I bought her album, which consisted of original songs in a kind of etherealized Country Western style. One of them was called "The Archetypal Man."
Fleeter even than Mercury
He flies inside the walls he calls his own.
He came hiding but now I see
He looks like everyone I've ever known.
His moon mirage is shining,
Shifting the things that he can't endure,
But all through the darkness his pain is pure.
I felt as if someone had shown me a photograph of Celan, although Judee Sill had surely never heard of him. She was largely uneducated, she had survived drug addiction while her brother had succumbed to an overdose and had had a religious vision; "The Archetypal Man" evidently was also influenced by a complicated relationship. That winter I also saw a poem in The New Yorker that I thought was about Celan. It caused me all the pangs of rivalry , and at the same time it was clear to me that this was a feeling to be overcome. Eventually I wrote to the author of the poem, but she did not confirm the connection. One day, too, the young woman who was working at the school as an art teacher, the one with whom I played that win-win chess game, drew a picture that started out as a man's face with a sleepwalking expression. Then she made the face into a moon and darkened around it a night sky and drew beside it a great tree with spreading branches and dense foliage. Perhaps a Jungian would say that these were all images of the "animus," the interior image of the male in the female psyche (just as the "anima" represents the interior image of the female in the male psyche). In the spring of 1972 I read an article by Adrienne Rich who speculated in passing that the female poet typically has a male muse, the “demon lover” as she calls him. She never developed this thought further, to my knowledge. Perhaps that was indeed part of the secret of Celan' s appeal: perhaps, through empathy with his intellectual mother, he sensed this image and was willing to identify with it. If there is something like a collective unconscious, then his fate might well send waves through it, which would explain the frequency of animus images in the art and poetry of those years. Encounters with these images helped me to feel less alone in what I had undertaken, and to hope for eventual alliances.
As in the preceding spring I attempted to involve my friends. Jason and Marsha took it best. They were still involved in some phase of communal enterprise but had moved out of the commune house and were living in a houseboat with their little boy, Avram, and perhaps also with Richard and Ellen. Over the phone Jason, with tolerance and good humor, talked me out of shaving my head, one day, when I was in a sacrificial mood. I went to visit them in the blue velvet and lace dress I had found at St. Vincent de Paul's the year before, and which I still wear on Purim. They showed me Avram, a rosycheeked child with dark hair and delicate features. Richard took my picture. They seemed to have accepted my fantasies as part of me; we enjoyed each other's company again. Perhaps the presence of Avram kept me from leaning on them quite as hard as I did on some others.
Nadine was alarmed. She felt that I was closing off possibilities and falling back into repressive attitudes I had been struggling with for years. After a telephone conversation in which I talked wildly again, she came up to Seattle. We climbed a tower in a park and talked about feminism. I talked about dialogue and understanding, and she said it was their turn to listen to us. I said we needed to take responsibility before seeking power. She thought that was a cop-out.
Late in March I took the Greyhound bus down to Berkeley again. On the bus I argued with my neighbor, a Christian. Then I wrote an ominous sonnet, part of a series I called "Nouvelles Chimères":
No, I am not Cassandra, though I gave
not to Apollo that which women give;
A hand outstretching held me from the grave,
And at the forked road's side a voice cried: Live.
Further I heard him cawing from the sky,
"Tell them a fair beast's carrion lies and reeks
Upon their plains; this let them quickly seek,
For he who will not eat of it must die! "
That is my news. I am the Death of Time,
A dryad whom the dead tree took to wife;
This world's account, forged in your fortunes' chime,
Lies as a sword between me and my life –
Blessed is he who calls my rightful name!
He shall undo those paths by which I came.
I had in hand the first version of my thesis, which I intended to show to Ismene and to one member of my doctoral committee. Politzer was teaching at another university that year. I had written him something about my perception of a connection with Celan and had sent him some poems, but he had made clear that he considered the matter preposterous. And yet he had been the first to sense the connection, to suggest it to me. We never talked about it face to face; by the time he returned to Berkeley I was in Madison.
On this visit I tried to find out from Ismene why she had taken the position that she had taken the preceding spring. After all, the understanding of Celan that I had reached, I had reached with her help. It must in some sense be her understanding too.
"I could see it was not good for you," she now told me. "When you stepped over the threshold of this house you looked like Jocasta after she finds out, in Oedipus Rex." It stunned me to think that she had not told me what she really thought. Even now she didn't quite acknowledge it. The reasons she gave were inconsequential, now one thing, now another. Sometimes she would say things she knew would be painful to me, as though to emphasize that she was not going to acknowledge this thing to the extent of respecting the feelings associated with it. At other times she seemed to be listening, so that the conversations did not completely break down.
Thomas also seemed to be listening, perhaps more openmindedly than he. When I talked about the needed social changes, he seemed to think it sounded like fun; why not? But I knew that he knew less about the pitfalls of the human heart than Ismene did. F or the first time, too, I noticed a tension between them.
Toward the end of the visit Ismene said: "There's a story by Agnon, called 'Enam and Edo.' You should read it." And handed me the book. It was my first encounter with the work of S.Y. Agnon.
"Enam and Edo" takes place in Jerusalem. For some reason the names of all the characters begin with the letter G, perhaps because it is the first letter of both galut (exile) and geulah (redemption). The main female character, Gemulah, is the only child of a mystic rabbi, who has taught her his knowledge. She possesses the gift of song and is associated with the constellation Virgo. She is married to a bookseller, Gamzu, but when the moon is full she walks in her sleep and visits a scholar, Ginath, who write down her songs. The songs are in the language Gemulah and her father once made up together, and Ginath has already given out one collection ofher songs as the hymns ofan ancient religion, and he is transcribing further songs. But Gamzu tracks her to Ginath ' s room and demands that she return to him, and Ginath agrees that she is obligated to do so, even though she claims to have been Gamzu's wife only in name. Not long afterward she leaps from a tower, drawing Ginath after her. It turns out that Ginath has bummed his manuscripts, and his last will states that his book his to be recalled and all copies destroyed. However, this provision is not carried out; the songs continue to circulate, still under the guise of ancient cult hymns. The angels of Chochmah and Binah are mentioned in the story, likewise the myth of the poet who is able to create a woman to be his companion. Evidently, the love of Gemulah and Ginath is something too foreign to the world of power and possession (represented by the one-eyed bookseller Gamzu) to survive for very long in it.
I understood – though it was a long time before I could accept it as final - that “Enam and Edo” represented Ismene's view of my situation. She believed my story; what she did not believe was that a vision based on this kind of connection had a chance in this world. At some time in the past, she had made her own choice.
After my return from Berkeley, I wrote another sonnet:
Sister, upon whose lips, as upon mine,
Drifted the coldest kiss, the saddest name,
Put from thee with strong hand the anodyne,
Take on thy tongue the wafer of my pain.
Shall all the loveliest pass, nor we regret,
Nor call Lament to mend the rent i' the air?
Sweeter is this than all we are like to get
From this dulled world, that will not say: Thou art fair.
Teach man to weep again, and call the dead!
For there be gods among them; shall these wait
Till we have nibbled the last moldy bread
And the last empty doorframe cry "Too late"?
Know: he who lay beside me, in the tomb,
Took from my neck a chain of tongueless doom.
I called this sonnet “Ismene,” for Antigone’s sister who refuses to join in her protest, and so have given that name to my friend in this account. This sonnet also reflects a conversation with Bernice, to whom I had shown my thesis. She had said it reminded her of an acid trip. At one point she had exclaimed: "My God! What does he want us to do?!" When, however, I tried to answer that question as best I could, she drew back, falling back on the philosophy of the youth movement that talked about love but regarded suffering as a sign of insufficient enlightenment. Once back in Madison I pleaded with her for a long time to join me there and help establish a community. She was at loose ends, we had been thrown together in a way that suggested our destinies were linked, her easygoing husband would probably have had nothing against it, and her mother lived in Madison and would have been happy to have her come back there. All this, it seemed to me, amounted to a geasa! But I could not persuade her. While in India she wrote a song that indicated she perceived my insistence as a threat to her independence.
Ismene must have gotten a copy of the poem, and I have a dim memory of sending it to Isadora. But Isadora wrote to me the following summer that what I was saying had little to do with real life.
Early in April I saw a poster for a memorial program for the victims of the Holocaust, to be held at the Hillel house near the university on April 11. At the entrance yellow stars made of construction paper were handed out; I still have mine. The film that formed the main part of the program incorporated footage taken by the Nazis at the camps. In one group of prisoners I saw a look which I recognized. I wept, not alone for once. At the end they said Kaddish; I heard for the first time the sound of Jewish prayer.
You would think I might have gone to the Hillel rabbi the next day. For that matter, you may have wondered why I didn't do that the preceding year instead of joining a meditation society that happened to have a hexagram in its emblem. But you have to remember that all of the Jews who had influenced me – Jason, Marsha, Isadora, Kent, Bluma, Jaszi, Politzer, Celan himself – were non-practicing. Even the seders I attended, at Isadora's house and at the commune, had seemed little more than a strange relic of a friend's childhood. We would not have met if they had not left the tradition, seeking a common ground outside it. I regarded them no differently than I regarded Ismene, Nadine, Linda, Bernice, David, my parents and brothers. Among those who thought of themselves as thinking people in that time, there was a general prejudice against “organized religion,” which I shared. And then, too, I guess there was still something left of the kind of eerie feeling that I had had in childhood when my mother told that people who were Jewish did not share our belief in the Jew we regarded as the Messiah. It made me feel as though I had just noticed a little hole in my world, through which its reality was slowly draining away. Since then I had encountered several different traditions, but Judaism was still, somehow, and despite all my sympathies, differently different. Thus it had taken me some time to set foot on this branch of the forked road home.
For a few more weeks I remained in Seattle, smoking myself into a delirium again, writing wilder and wilder poetry. The second anniversary of Celan’s death -- I still did not know the exact date -- approached. About that time I did something that will probably seem silly, but the reader is used to my vanities by now. I was passing by a shop where I lived and saw a black dress in the window. I went inside to buy it, and while paying for it noticed under the counter a gold ring in the shape of a fish touching its tail, with emerald chips for eyes. It had been made by a local craftswoman and was very reasonably priced. I thought about it, and when I went back to get it I noticed on top of the counter a picture of a Zodiac sign: Sagittarius. I also went to an antiques stall in the market in order to get a locket for a photograph that I had cut out of a publisher's leaflet, the same photograph had seen in Munich in 1968. The dealer had only one locket that would fit it; entwined on the back were the initials EP. I also found there a couple of other pieces with designs that reminded me of the fairy-tale I’d written when I first surmised our connection, and a hexagonal box to keep them in. I still keep these things carefully, and wore the ring until the spring of 2006. The emerald chips fell out and I could not have them replaced, for fear something would happen to the ring if I left it for repairs.
A few days after that anniversary, I felt that I had no reliable ties on the West Coast, and that I was losing control. I called up my mother and asked her to come out and help me move back to Madison. She was angry this time, but she came. While she was staying with me I let her see me smoking, and she told me that if I ever did that again she and my father would not have anything more to do with me. I promised her that I would not smoke again, and have kept the promise without difficulty. If at some point I had needed the herb of petrifaction in order to let myself think the unprecedented, that point was past, and now the drug was just making me incoherent. But I am not sure I could have stopped and kept off it by myself. It was not that I craved it, rather that reaching for it had become a habit, a pattern of action, which required force majeure to break.
Although Mother was justifiably angry with me, she understood my liking for Seattle. In contacts with tradespeople, on the buses, she felt there was a friendly, democratic spirit in the people.
Madison, where my father's appointment to the University of Wisconsin had landed us in 1947, once had a beautiful setting and an elegant design. The original settlement was on an isthmus between two lakes, Mendota and Monona, "lake of the evening" and "lake of the morning" in the language of the Native Americans for whom the isthmus was apparently a sacred spot. There are a number of mounds in the city parks, and in the upper-middle-class neighborhood on the edge of which we lived all the streets had Indian names. The school I went to was called Nakoma, which was explained to us as "I do as I promise." Our house was at the dead end of the least prosperous street, next to the railroad embankment. My brother and I liked watching the trains come by twice daily, and I liked to wander among the weeds of the embankment, looking at wild roses and wild geraniums or picking wild grapes or occasionally catching a salamander or a garter snake. Across from our house were open fields. The air was clear; I can remember seeing the Milky Way from our back yard, over a barn in the distance that had a neon sign on it. Slowly the city grew. After five years -- to me, bullied by the children at school and by the neighbor boys, they had seemed five centuries -- we moved out to another house, also at the city limit beside the railroad tracks, although the open fields across the tracks soon began to fill in with nondescript houses on small lots. Into one of those houses, again just a few blocks away, my parents had moved while I was at Berkeley. The house was a trilevel which a reporter who had interviewed my father once described as "modest." But it had a yard in the front and back, and in those days there were still many birds around. I remember the mourning doves especially from the spring I moved back.
Apart from my parents and my brother Don, who was still an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I had few connections in Madison and few pleasant associations with the place. I had not kept in touch with any high school classmates, and my college acquaintances were all scattered to the four winds. Only Madeleine, the friend whose mother I had called in Paris, was back in Madison with her husband Jerry, and at some time I contacted them. And they may have given me some contacts at the University, or perhaps I just went to the English department and started dropping in at people's offices.
But for some time I was glad enough just to read and write and practice at home or go out to the farm and walk in the fields there. I read through the entire Divine Comedy in the bilingual Sinclair edition. I wrote a lot of poems, of which I thought a lot for some years afterwards, although the high-toned style of most of them, like the sonnets of that spring, now makes me uncomfortable. Writing them was rather like the act of buying that jewelry; I felt that I owed it to myself. Like many beginning actresses, I was overacting. All the same, let me quote one of them, written, I seem to recall, after an attempt to communicate with Jaszi or Bluma about what had occurred, and which goes back to my experience with Goethe's Iphigenie.
As the wan priestess on the Taurian shore
Counted the waves and waited for those friends
To bear her home, as long-deserved amends
For priestly lies, that laid such trails of gore,
Then saw how truth and safety stood at odds,
How hate drew breath to sweep her from her goal,
And flung herself between, crying, "save me, gods,
Save me, and save your image in my soul --
So I, who pace within these chains of rhyme,
Shamed as a prisoner in a market-throng,
Cry out for trust against a truthless time:
Though the wrung soul speak through an empty mask,
Call me not false, do not yourselves that wrong,
Give me your hands, my journey, and my task!
The poem apologizes for its classical style, to which I continued to resort, perhaps because it gave me a sense of support in a social vacuum. Those to whom I sent such poems were not used to people turning into literary characters.
To my parents and my brother Don, I was undoubtedly a great trial. Again, there is nothing more dangerous for a person who has long been put down than to be suddenly convinced of their own worth. For a number of years my (what shall I call it? Enlightenment? Endarkenment? Metamorphosis?) made a worse person of me rather than a better. I had been in a sense reborn, but unfortunately that also meant that I had to grow up all over again. While my mother kept trying to make a mensch out of me, e.g. by breaking me of the habit of using bad language which I had acquired in college and still thought clever and radical, I kept trying to recruit them. For instance, at one point I urged my father to help me collect the good people in the community, in whatever line of work, in an "Honest Trades Association," that would try to set standards for their fields so as to better serve the interests not of their own professions as interest-groups ("every profession is a conspiracy against the laity," as Shaw once put it) but of the community as a whole. Though my ideas were amorphous at this point, I had a strong feeling that we needed to find other social forms in which to express our concern for the common good. With this my father did not agree. He believed that any change had to come through "the proper channels," that is, those that already existed. I tried to prove to him that the existing channels would never produce the kind of changes that were needed. We had a bitter argument over this, that lasted for years at a Wotan-und-Bruennhilde pitch. I felt that I won all the logical battles but lost the war. It was a wonder that my father did not throw me out of the house. But he did not, whether because my mother persuaded him, or because he was afraid of what would happen to me, or because on some level he was not sure I was completely wrong.
Naturally, they wished to know what I intended to do with myself; but I could not yet give them a very plausible answer. I was finishing my dissertation, although I had no plans to return to academic life; I was writing poetry and songs, and persuaded them to let me have some singing lessons. In the 1960’s folk singers had come as close as any else to being the leaders of the youth movement. Dimly I saw myself as Dylan and Baez rolled into one, at the head of a new revolutionary movement, carrying it on.
The dissertation: it grew, calmed down and solidified somewhat. Politzer did not like the joke about the computer or the John Lennon line, so for two of the epigraphs I substituted a Blake stanza:
For a tear is an Intellectual Thing,
And a sigh is the sword of an angel king,
And the bitter groan of the martyr’s woe
Is an arrow from the Almighty’s bow.
Some new materials were worked in, including an article on Celan' s early days as a poet. The article contained a poem by a friend and fellow-poet, Immanuel Weissglas, called "Er," which though written in conventional stanzas and certainly not a great poem was thematically close to the "Todesfuge." It alluded to Goethe’s Faust and thus confirmed the connection I had sensed in that Thorazine hallucination between that scene near the end of Faust II and the nightmare of Auschwitz. The article claimed that "Er" was written first. I repeated this suggestion in my dissertation without any sense of its detracting from Celan' s achievement in the "Todesfuge"; on the contrary, I thought it an interesting example of how an poem might pass through two minds before achieving its full realization! From what I have since learned about Celan, he would undoubtedly have hated that, and would probably have disliked the whole exposition, with its intrusive and often blundering empathy. Another passenger my train of thought took on was Simone Weil, to whom an article on Celan by Franz Büchler had alerted me. Someone I talked to that summer, a writer teaching at the university, also free-associated to Weil. Years before, when we had lived in the French House together, Madeleine had urged me to read her, but I had not been interested. But now I went to the library and got out a collection of her essays. The first one I read, “Human Personality,” impressed me, especially her concept of beauty as that which makes the contemplation of affliction, and hence justice, possible. This reminded me of the role that Queen Esther plays in advocating for her people, and so I replaced the concluding the passage about academic life with a passage from the book of Esther.
Politzer liked the translations, at least. Though they contained mistakes, perhaps they had the merit of being a little more informed by the English poetic tradition than some others, which tend to ignore the traditional resonances of Celan’s language and so flatten the poems out. I don’t think Politzer liked my interpretations on the whole; I remember he was especially annoyed by my perceiving a “novel-like continuity” in the poems. However, he and the committee eventually passed the thesis, though it contained some lapses into projection that he could not talk me out of. But it was hard to tell me anything in those days. Ismene thought that the final version was less powerful than the first one. But then she was into Artaud.
In one of the books I consulted that summer for the thesis, there was an extra page at the back advertising Die Rolle Esther (The Scroll of Esther), by Friedrich Weinreb. It caught my attention, and I ordered it through Interlibrary Loan. This book was my introduction to Midrash, the transforming embroidery which Jewish tradition has stitched around the texts of the Bible. The book also had a poetic quality all its own.
Weinreb associates the name Shushan – the capital city of Persia where the story of Esther takes place, and more specifically its Jewish population – with the word shoshanah (rose). On the other hand, the kingdom of the Medes and Persians represents the world of duality and conflict, whose “natural” laws are often said to be unalterable. The Jews, who represent another side of things, another law, seem doomed to be obliterated. Ahasverus, the king of the kingdom of duality, is characterized by the tradition as neither intelligent nor well-intentioned. But although he does not believe in the other side of things, it nevertheless has power over him, and this is manifest in the person of Esther, who represents the other side although he does not at first know this. The book of Esther is the one book of the Hebrew Bible in which the Divine Name is not mentioned. But the rabbis derive its protagonist’s name from the verb form astir (I shall hide) as in the verse where God says “I shall surely hide my face.”
Needless to say, all this resonated with the messages I had been receiving. “Esther” could then be half of the “double name” of one who “came from the rose.” (Dante’s Beatrice also “comes from the rose” of the celestial community.) And the opposition of this figure to the kingdom of duality recalled Elspeth’s journey-vision in which the “book of duality” had burnt up while I had been fireproof.
There was another book in the Hebrew library by Weinreb, on the Hebrew letters, and I read this too. It was a summary of traditional lore that has gathered around the letters, assigning to each one a spiritual function or quality, as well as a numerical value. For instance the letter nun has the numerical value of 50, the age Celan did not quite reach. Fifty stands for the transcendental limit which humans can approach but never attain.
That summer, too, in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, I picked up an issue of McCall’s and read a previously unpublished story by Sylvia Plath. The protagonist was a woman named Esther who regretted that she had not been born Jewish.
It occurred to me that in order really to understand Celan I would have to learn Hebrew. Obviously it was part of the Eastern European Jewish ambiance in which he had grown up. So I borrowed a grammar book from the library and started in. Naturally, I found it very difficult, because Hebrew is unrelated to Indo-European languages and because at thirty one’s ability to learn new languages is not what it was at twenty. Eventually I went to ask the Hillel director, Rabbi Alan L., for advice. He was a very bright, friendly young man who, as I later learned, had just finished writing his Ph.D. thesis – on the book of Esther. He recommended J. Weingreen’s A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, which I studied intermittently for several years. And he also showed me a page of Talmud, with the little central block of text surrounded by all the commentaries, as at the center of a labyrinth.
That fall, too, I attended a class at Hillel with Rabbi Shmotkin, a Hasidic (Chabad) rabbi from Milwaukee. I think he talked about the Tanya, a work by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe which I tried to read and found harder going than Buber’s (as I now realized) somewhat Westernized Hasidic anecdotes. One thing this rabbi said was: “If a thing can stay the same from one instant to another, it is eternal.” This saying prompted the best (as I now think) of my poems from that time:
QUASI UNA FANTASIA
It seems as if someone set me here as a reminder
and then forgot everything. Was it you, you?
Does my hair grow from undiminishing thought?
I seem to consist of glimpses and discomforts.
I am still turned toward that spot on mind's horizon
where you went out, shutting behind you
the door that cast the one beam of light.
Something else has got to come back through, soon.
Is it true, prince, what I thought just now:
that time is just like a mud covering
flaking off a wall of pure gold?
Then eternity -- must be that fresco in Novgorod,
a patch of saint, the rest so clearly palpable
behind the veil of having been eaten away.
But Rabbi Shmotkin also told a joke that expressed another side of Orthodoxy, its earthy realism: “A peasant was asked whether he would contributed ten horses to the collective farm. ‘Of course,’ he replied. What about ten cows? ‘No problem.’ What about ten chickens? ‘No way.’ Why would he give ten horses or ten cows but not ten chickens? ‘Because ten chickens is what I’ve got.’” I have often had occasion to think of those ten chickens.
I had a feeling, those first few seasons in Madison, of waiting for directions. After finishing the dissertation, I began to write the story of my encounter with Celan, with all its surrounding circumstances. I managed to cover most of the period from 1967 to 1971 before giving it up. It was too raw, and the direction in which things were heading was still unclear to me. One poem of Celan’s was often in my mind, the last poem of Lichtzwang, the book that had come out a few months after his death. This timing gave it the weight of final instructions.
WORK NOT AHEAD,
send not out,
This seemed like a caution against action that aimed at an outward result. I struggled constantly with the question how much I should tell others about what I had undergone, understood, and undertaken, or whether it might be best to be silent about it. But it was not possible to be silent or to concentrate on inner experience. After all, I had also been urged to tell of what had befallen. And perhaps I am not enough of a mystic, for alone I have always felt empty. As the reader may have noticed, my “spiritual” experiences were mainly textual ones. They were not about contacting some transcendent Source, but about making connections, finding a pattern. There was that mysterious process called writing a poem, of course, but into that I had and have little insight; I never seem to be there when it happens.
One thing I did was to look up the legend of Ste. Geneviève, to see how she had “saved the city from the Huns,” as Celan had said to me at our one interview. There was a short article on her in the encyclopedia, and on the Cutter shelves of the university library, where they keep the books no one ever looks at, there was a “Vie de Ste. Geneviève.” I learned that as the Huns were marching toward Paris, she had a dream that if the people did not flee but stayed on the Île de la Cité they would be safe. The people did not want to hear it, and even threatened to stone her. Finally a bishop visited her in her cell, where the floor was wet with her tears, and became convinced of her sincerity and managed to convince the people. They stayed on the island and the Huns did not attack it. I thought the story might be interpreted symbolically, taking the island as a kind of social center, a centeredness of society. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Perhaps if we could seek that center, it would shore society up against external threats. Perhaps it was that center one was meant to “stand in”to, not only one’s own inwardness. “There’s a center we must find, a common heart, a common mind,” as I put it in a song called “Earthlight,” some years later. This “last” poem of Celan’s went on to speak of a kind of atheistic or at least nondogmatic faith -- “Free (or: stripped) of all prayer” -- which would consist in being faithful to the complexity (“fine-structured”) of one’s own being, whereby one would also be following the “pre-script,” an implicit law that pre-existed all written codes.
“Work Not Ahead” stood in my inner landscape like a dolmen I kept circling back to, trying again and again to read its half-intelligible inscription. For the present I could see no better way than to go on trying to communicate with others, and learning what I could from their responses.
The feminist movement, whose first rumors had reached me through Nadine, was gathering momentum. Ms. was being published, consciousness-raising groups were springing up, and much poetry was being written by women who felt that the time had come to speak out. Naturally, I experienced my own emergence as part of this. I have never seen any indication that Celan was aware of, or anticipated, the first stirrings of the most recent wave of feminism on the continent. It was just another synchronicity, like the almost-simultaneity of his death with Earth Day. But evidently it was not a mere coincidence; there was some underlying process driving us all. One thing that I did early in 1973 was to gather a small group of women poets to share our work in progress and talk about our concerns.
It did not go well. Part of the reason must have been the sheer intensity of the emotion I was radiating at the time. But the others were also emotionally labile. I experienced for the first time the kind of anger women in the movement could turn on each other at a moment’s notice. It was the first group I started only to see it end in an explosion, and it would not be the last.
There was a lot of talk at that time about the collapse of the job market in humanities, the plight of the Ph.D. driving cab. This gave me the idea of trying to organize those who did not get academic jobs into an association that would pursue learning and thinking for its own sake. Perhaps I had already read about the Jewish cab drivers in Warsaw before the war, who when not driving could generally be found at the house of study. One day I went to the university and dropped in on Prospero Saiz, then chairman of the Comparative Literature Department, to talk about this.
Prospero Saiz – a man fully as clever and interesting as his name, and also a poet – did not react to my idea for the association; but after listening to me for a while, he asked if I would be interested in a visiting lecturer position for the summer. They needed someone to teach an eight-week course on the modern novel, and the fact that my dissertation had been accepted would make it possible for them to hire me.
I accepted, feeling as though I were letting myself be distracted from the main task, which, however, I did not know how to pursue at that point.