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PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 3: IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF UTOPIA
Alongside my reading experiences in the last months of 1967, my own life, what there was of it, went on in its rather feckless manner. I was living in the basement (or garage?) of Barbara’s house, with kitchen and living-room privileges. On one wall of the living room hung a large oil painting in trompe-l’oeil, showing a brick wall with a hole cut out of it in the shape of a woman’s body in three-quarter profile. Through the hole you saw an urban sunset landscape. This painting, Barbara said, was the work of her sister, who, like herself, had a way of getting into disastrous relationships. Barbara liked to listen to Nina Simone records. She had a ten-or eleven-year-old daughter named Tanya, who looked very much like her.
I did not communicate much with Tanya. She was reserved, and I have never had a great way with children. But one evening as we were both sitting at the dining room table, she began drawing an underwater landscape. Looking up from her drawing, she pronounced:
The sea is not where people fish.
The sea is where fish
It was just the sort of Zen bit one always hoped to hear from a child in Berkeley, and I was duly pleased with the gift. Indeed, I probably reacted too effusively, insisted that she write it down, made her feel self-conscious. We didn’t talk again. Yet perhaps there was a real exchange of influence between us, of a kind which the Berkeley atmosphere seemed to favor. She may have thought of her koan, who knows, partly because of the nickname of the person sitting next to her. And a few weeks later, in a conversation with Nadine and someone from the German Department, I found myself defending Goethe in his relations with women, on the grounds that even though he was not constant, it must have been a great privilege to be connected with such a being even for a while!
Besides the place where I lived, there was a house in the neighborhood where I visited frequently: in the fall of 1967 Jason moved into Marsha’s duplex on Grant Street, in the flat part of Berkeley. The houses there were small and close together, but the gardens had roses even in the winter. Marsha’s duplex consisted of a living-room that occupied the front half, a bedroom, and a kitchen with a restaurant-style booth. The living room was dominated by Marsha’s loom and the rows of cubbyholes where she kept her wool. The sofa was a day-bed covered with an Indian bedspread. On the walls were colored photographs of mountain landscapes from the Sierra Club, a wall-hanging by a neighbor who also wove. The three of us would sit in the booth over Marsha’s vegetarian casserole and a bottle of Chianti, and Jason would unfold his views on “intentional community” and his plans for the association of communes he intended to found. I showed them some of my translations, perhaps my own poems as well. Marsha was always encouraging; Jason seemed to reserve judgment. He had a kind of socialist austerity about Art. In the corner of the room stood a cello, which he never played. He was postponing such pleasures until after the success of his communal revolution. However, he enjoyed it when Marsha and I, by turns, played the guitar and sang folk songs.
Sometimes there would be meetings in the living room; perhaps ten or a dozen people. There was one astronomy graduate student, Michael, with whom Jason would get into long abstract discussions I could not always follow. The other participants were distinctly “hippie” types, with whom Jason did not feel much inner connection. That was always one problem with his communitarian efforts, the fact that they tended to attract not people like his captious, hyperintellectual self, but people whose ideal was summed up in the word “groovy” (Jason’s definition: “vague ecstasy”) and who were not interested in “head trips” at all. I was, then, one of his better prospects, one of those who he thought would benefit from his association.
Jason said to me once that in his world people like me would not be referred for psychotherapy; instead they would be put in touch with others they could work with, given tasks appropriate to their abilities. Come to think of it, his vision was not too different from that of the brotherhood in Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. I don’t know to what extent either of us thought I would stay with his project. But for the sake of a place to hang out with some people who seemed to have a use for me, I was willing to suspend disbelief. A good deal of Berkeley was about the willing suspension of disbelief.
In the world of solid arrangements, I now had a teaching assistantship and was, therefore, supposed to be teaching. Unfortunately, classroom teaching is one of the many abilities which I seem to have in reverse. Moreover, the textbook I had to teach from was a stumbling-block: a slick-papered tome, fat as the Bundesrepublik, illustrated with photographs, from which every reminiscence of literature had been expunged. Each lesson was introduced by a dialogue -- I seem to remember that the speakers were always male -- about some totally mundane subject. The students were supposed to memorize these dialogues. Most of the other teaching assistants accepted the book with good humor and managed well enough; I did the minimum and got impatient with my students for following suit. Because there was not much communication between the literature and language programs, my slipshod performance was allowed to pass.
So between the classes for which I was minimally preparing, and the dissertation I was not writing, I had ample time for my own form of dissipation, which consisted at that point mainly in brooding. Like many people in that time and place, I felt that I was on a spiritual quest, though that phrase was always in quotation marks in my mind. I had already seen things from too many different perspectives and at bottom did not believe the spiritual could be separated from the social, the erotic, the esthetic.
Growing up in a nominally Protestant family, I had at first experienced religion as boredom, except for some of the hymns (favorite: “This is my Father’s world”). In early adolescence, I had tried to feel devotion, but the approach of first communion (that ghastly metaphor of theophagy!) only brought on a headache; at Bible camp I had tried to pray, but only contacted the Void (according to a short story written in high school). Then there was that moment on the steps of the church when I felt as though God was actually my enemy. That too passed. Finally my parents took me into their confidence, and I learned that my father was a plain atheist, my mother an agnostic who would sometimes say, “Perhaps there is something...” By the end of high school I believed, like my father, that there was no God, that scientific materialism was the last word. But this view felt like a deterministic prison; I remember thinking that it would be worth going mad to get out of it. After that came the years of therapy and the pursuit of a “normal” relationship as if this were the Holy Grail (a sarcasm that occurred to me even at the time).
Once, in the winter of my first Berkeley year, I had heard myself saying to someone (who had announced with a great air of existential courage that “each one is alone”)” Perhaps after all we are not really separate, perhaps we are like leaves on one tree.” But I had nowhere to go with that thought till the spring of 1966, when the spiritual currents circulating in Berkeley finally reached me. My behavior therapist sent me to Bridge Mountain, a retreat center on the order of Big Sur, but quieter and gentler, in the redwoods near Santa Clara. The resident guru, a yogi named Kriyananda, taught me a Sanskrit mantram (“Thou art mother, Thou art father, friend, beloved, wisdom, strength...) and two of his own songs about love (“boundless the reaches of true love must be”), for which I must always be grateful to him. In the fall of 1966, after the breakup of my first affair, I studied yoga with him for a short time; and one night while drifting to sleep after the exercises he had prescribed, I had a kind of vision:
Three pictures appeared in my mind like slides projected on a screen, each one remaining long enough for me to grasp it and then giving way to the next. I had the impression that the pictures were rectangular, higher than they were wide, and of one size, though I did not actually see the edges or anything surrounding them. The first one showed a kind of castle consisting of two concentric rings of bricks. The background was black, the space in the center of the rings was black, and the lines between the bricks were black. The outer ring had been breached in one place and was torn up, the bricks scattered, but the inner ring was still whole. The second picture was also white on black, like several strokes in cursive handwriting drawn with a very thick nib, but what the letters might have been I could not decipher. The third picture was in color: an expanse of bright blue-green sea, on the surface a patch of foam, like Queen Anne=s lace. The patch of foam rose just slightly at the center, suggesting a woman=s breast, and at the center, just below the surface, was the head of a seal. The bright dark eyes of the seal seemed to be looking at me, and their expression was warm and friendly.
The apparition of these images filled me with wonder, and the gloom of my depression was pierced by an intense curiosity: if there was a chance of finding out about such things, it was worth going on living! I went on with the yoga exercises, but nothing similar occurred and eventually I stopped doing them.
In the winter of 1966-67 I had my first encounter with Jewish teachings through Bluma Goldstein, for whose course on German literature in translation I was grading papers. She was then a solidly-built woman in her late thirties, with dark, piercing eyes, an aquiline nose, an endless appetite for dialogue, and no inhibitions about making categorical pronouncements. She told the class: AIf you haven=t faced the idea of your own death you=ll never be able to see anything: not another person, or a tree, or anything.@ She mentioned Buber=s Tales of the Hasidim. About Kafka=s Metamorphosis she said: AThe trouble with Gregor and all Kafka=s heroes is that they can=t accept what has happened to them. They pretend it hasn=t happened and go on trying to act as if everything is normal. The Hasidic idea is that whatever thing God has made you to be, you have to be that thing and not try to get out of it. If he makes you a bug, then you have to be a bug.@ And she mentioned the Hasidic belief in a Divine spark concealed in every earthly thing, so that the true way is not to turn away from earthly things but to find that spark in them. This struck me, and influenced that sonnet “When angels shall reseam these rags...”, though I did not get around to reading about the Hasidim until later. And I also remember her saying B it was at the Mediterranean Coffeehouse, where she and I and another student named Isadora met once or twice B that Judaism had a strong belief in rationality, that we were not just creatures of instinct but could work things out by using our minds.
Isadora, who befriended me that same winter, was also a source of knowledge about Jewishness, though without any such intention. She was beautiful in a classically Jewish way, and she lived in a rickety old house on Derby Street with three roommates, all very different. Lilian was British, precise in her manner and appearance; she had an intellectual, problematic African-American boyfriend and was the resident expert on the I Ching. Serena, who left shortly after I came on the scene, was motherly, serene, involved with a beautiful golden-skinned disciple of Meher Baba who was dangerously spaced out on meditation and psychedelic drugs. Marcy, overflowing with joie de vivre (“lark-like Marcy,” Isadora called her), went on acid trips in the Berkeley hills with her long-time friend Evan; they and their relationship seemed indestructible at the time. Only Isadora was not involved with anyone. Perhaps that was why she wanted me around, as a fellow-sufferer. She had written a sonnet in the style of Millay (at last, someone else who admitted to liking Millay!), about waiting for the one who would eventually come. Isadora had dignity; she knew how to wait. It was she who made a household of this chance collection of roommates and their visitors. The visitors included three or four young men from her home community in Los Angeles. Though they and Isadora were otherwise nonobservant, they invited me to my first seder, and one evening in my absence Isadora and her friends agreed that I should be an honorary Jew because I was bright, and had curly hair and a lot of problems. I took a few black-and-white photographs of Isadora, in her midnight-blue velvet robe (purchased at a thrift store), presiding at the hearth or sitting on the ragged sofa in the dark-paneled living room. There wasn’t enough light to capture her at the square piano on which she played classical music. Isadora also constructed rebus puzzles, which I was invariably the last to guess. One other thing Isadora did from time to time was lay the Tarot cards.
I Ching, Tarot, astrology, even a ouija board on one occasion – I don’t know that anyone really believed in them, they were part of the aforesaid atmosphere of suspended disbelief. But one day a young woman who was a regular visiotr arrived visibly shaken by a telepathic experience with another frequent visitor, a troubled young man, and everyone was somewhat taken aback.
At the end of the spring semester Isadora left for a year in Freiburg, and that was the end of Derby Street for me. Perhaps Isadora’s leaving was another reason for my move from the studio apartment to the house with the lions. For I had rented the studio partly because it was near the Derby Street house, and now it was a satellite without a home planet.
Such was the extent of my spiritual beliefs, practices and experiences, as of the fall of 1967. I must admit to one other practice, which the reader will have guessed at anyway, given the time and place. The statute of limitations has run, so I cannot be arrested; and I must hope that what I say cannot be read as any sort of recommendation. I used cannabis off and on for several years starting in the spring of 1966; and its influence can=t be factored out of what happened to me. Celan would never have approved; a friend of his, years later, told me that he had worried lest his own son be drawn into drugs. Well, but I have subsequently also learned that he drank a good deal B all that wine imagery in the poems was no mere poetic trope! B and that probably also was not without some effect on his fate.
What would have happened if I had resisted the countercultural imperative to Aget stoned@? Would I, while retaining self-possession, have been able to acknowledge Celan=s appeal to me, to entertain the thoughts that the poems suggested? I don=t know. But thoughts are thoughts, however arrived at. To anyone tempted to consider that route I would say: if anything this book evokes is dear to you, please don’t. Darken the room, light a candle, sit around it in a circle of friends, pass around a pipe filled with some neutral substance, put on incense, the right music (nothing loud), read some poetry that has a hypnotic rhythm. Then speak in turn, don’t interrupt each other. If you need the lure of the forbidden, know that if you let your mind go you will have dangerous thoughts. But you will at least not be poisoning your brain; you will have all your wits about you for whatever you may need to deal with; and you will hopefully not get disoriented, make bad decisions, have a quasi-schizophrenic breakdown, and degenerate into mental incoherence, as I was starting to do in the spring of 1972 when I finally stopped using the drug, for good, by giving a promise I couldn’t break. Fortunately for me, there was someone to whom I could make such a promise.
To the reader for whom the word “drugs” is a mind-closer - if he or she is still reading this - I would point out that the search for an exit from normal consciousness, whether drug-facilitated or not, is an old and universal story. Most primitive tribes felt the need to delegate one person (the “shaman”) to go out of ordinary reality now and then, in order to invoke the aid or counsel of the spirit world, which, whatever its ontological status, seems to have been a convenient storage place for necessary truths. Shamanism may have helped the people to find wisdom in time of need, instead of being completely at the mercy of power-trips and conformism. It is no coincidence, then, that a generation that wanted to change society sought ways out of ordinary consciousness - stumblingly and self-destructively, like children without any spiritual traditions to speak of. And it’s also no coincidence that with the “turn to the right,” as society has become ever more rigidly stratified and unresponsive, the “war on drugs” has intensified. Nor do all those who are anxious about drugs appear to be thinking about supplying what some of us were seeking in drugs, namely a bit of vision, the sense of a wider existence. Too many just seem to want to lock everyone back up in the same old prison.
Again, much of the drug’s effect may have been due to suggestion. For me, the geologist=s daughter, being Astoned@ had an extra connotation, which might have been enough by itself to send me into a kind of Plathian state. But for all of us, to light the forbidden cigarette was to draw a magic circle, within which the mind had free play. This I first experienced with a poet I’ll call Kent, one of Isadora’s friends, with whom I had the second of those brief affairs. The intensest part of our relationship was the sharing of thoughts in that state, when time seemed to stretch out to infinity and we felt free to contemplate each other’s minds:
our thoughts ascend
one spiral bends
around the other
as I put it in a poem called “Symposium.” (Only recently I learned that the term “symposium” originally meant “drinking-party@; apparently even philosophy needed an intoxicant to get started.) I still have an impromptu poem Kent scrawled in one of those two or three sessions. Besides the dangerous gift of the weed, Kent brought me the assurance that it was important to write one’s own poems, whether anyone else thought they were any good or not. Our relationship -- he already felt bound to someone else -- would have lasted longer as a friendship; that it could not remain just that, was due neither to the drug nor to spontaneous desire, but mostly to my need to prove myself. After it ended I went on smoking perhaps once or twice a month, usually in company, always with pen and paper handy. I was the only one I knew who got stoned and took notes.
From time to time I was warned off cannabis. Synanon “squares” had to pledge not to use it, so for a few months in the spring of 1967 I did not. Also, during that spring I was going with Ardan, the most beautiful and weirdest of my three half-hearted lovers, and Ardan could not use the drug; he had tried it once and it had exacerbated his paranoia. Teachers of meditation invariably cautioned against drugs. But meditation did not seem to work for me. After Kriyananda I had attended the classes of an Indian teacher, Sri Easwaran, but experienced only scattered thoughts; in the fall of 1967 I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation and tried to practice it, in that dark basement room, but felt only an increase of sadness. The meditation teachers also told you to ignore the imagery that would sometimes come up; you were supposed to withdraw your mind from images of reality and seek nirvana (or whatever term was used). But it was the images that interested me, rather than the hope of nirvana, for which I was in no hurry. (At fifteen I had written: “Peace is but cessation,/ Struggle while you may.”) In using cannabis, too, I was less concerned with the sensation of being “high” than with what the trance might bring up. Images, insights. I did not actually write poems while stoned, but sometimes a poem would take shape a day or two afterward.
Not that this happened often. One thing that strikes me, as I look back over this period, is how much more time I spent in obsessive thoughts about writing poetry than in the activity itself. The advice to Asit down every day and make yourself write something@ did not appeal to me. A poem had to be waited for, till it crystallized out of the stream of consciousness as a rare and significant event. There were three more of these in the fall of 1967, besides the cycle I=ve cited already. From early in the fall there was this:
The house of the head
settles: a crack
between mind and evidence.
without footbridge, banks
without water, the ghost-boat
the railroad tracks
rear up, in a landscape
This poem was published a couple of years ago in a magazine, alongside poems by strangers who wrote in a kind of violent surrealist manner to which one has in the meantime grown accustomed. What could it have meant there? To me this poem is very much Adated@; it speaks of the Apsychedelic@ era, the state of disorientation in which we were all living to some degree, and to which Celan=s poetry, surprisingly enough, offered a distant and deeper analog.
From around the same time there is a poem that casts my own poetic horoscope:
The hours are swept, dust and sounds
settle, the world
enters a dark still crystal.
Now, shade of my sign, you approach,
your feet do not disturb the even dust.
There is cold
as if I had drunk,
your form’s ether.
In my fingertips freezes a polar wind.
You had me neither the crown nor the ears of grain.
Once I drank the eternal guilt; now it empties my veins.
I am dark and transparent:
through me shine,
I cannot see them, a few
I’d guess that this was written after Atemwende came out, because of the imagery of dark and cold. Celan’s poem ABy the Hailgrain@ is now a conscious influence. As in the poems with the doll and statue imagery, I seem to be accepting the invitation to identify with a “timeless” image -- even at the price of being frozen. The next poem was less accepting:
A woman, sitting at her window, writes.
No longer to her lover; that is lost;
now that November counts the garden plants
she stares at panes opaque with growths of frost.
Before her, on the paper, the words stand
like stubborn messengers: they have turned back
at that same wall she cannot see beyond.
They stare to say no man can make them talk.
She thinks: a long, thin sounds, like tearing paper.
Words that fall, shuffled, a random snow.
A silence starts to grow, echoing itself forever.
Another leaf gets etched on the window.
“November” was probably meant (semi-consciously) to link this poem with “By the Hailgrain”; I seem to recall that the real time of writing was December or January. The setting was imaginary; there is no frost in Berkeley, and the basement or garage where this was written had no windows. The poem also owes something to Plath and to Bob Dylan (“Now the wintertime is coming, the windowpanes are filled with frost,/ I went to tell everybody but I could not get acrost”).
Of course the main theme of this poem is the end of my own love-life, such as it had been. Outwardly it was by no means over; there were one or two encounters in that garage or basement, there would be several more after that; but like all attempts to give the lie to one’s inner voice, these were futile and joyless for me and doubtless also for the men who had stumbled into my tangled web. You can see that in this poem I was detaching myself from such relationships, trying to compensate by seeking poetic connections, and feeling very ambivalent about this substitution. Note that the leaf that gets etched on the window, at the end of the poem, is the poem itself! Thus the poem does not communicate but forms a further barrier between the I and any possible You.
Years later, I read an article on Celan that quotes him as saying: “I place a grille of language between me and my reader, he cannot get hold of me.” The poem is what it protests against - for, after all, it does protest! In Celan’s poem “Speech-grille,” the perception that “we are strangers” is laden with anguish. At the end of the poem the I and the You seem metamorphosed into pools of water on the flagstones: “Two mouthfuls of silence.” Surely the reader is not supposed to accept that. And yet must accept it. But I have touched here on a theme - something like “the complicity of poet and reader in each other’s solitude” - which we shall have plenty of leisure to explore.
By midwinter I was feeling the need to move again. The garage or basement surroundings were depressing; and though I cannot recall quarreling with Barbara, we had perhaps run out of things to say to each other. So I began looking around for a different living situation. Of the places I looked at, the one that attracted me most was a room in a house with six young men; the only woman in the house was moving out. I spoke to her, and to at least one of the young men, who told me about an antiwar art piece he had staged. The atmosphere seemed pleasant, and from what the woman who was leaving told me it seemed that the men simply wanted a feminine presence in the house. I thought that living in such a situation might help me to understand men better! But when I mentioned to Jason and Marsha that I was considering this, Jason was horrified. To rescue me, and to maintain a meeting-place in Berkeley while he and Marsha moved out to Lafayette, he suggested that I live in the duplex; he would pay half of the rent.
So I came to live on Grant Street for the spring semester. I am sorry to say that I did not take my duties as custodian of the meeting-place any more seriously than my other obligations at the time. Neatness was another of my weak subjects.
Jason had financed the purchase of the house and two and a half acres in Lafayette, as a site for communal pilot projects. It was a modern house, with one floor and an exposed basement. On the main level were two bedrooms, kitchen, bath, living room. The living room had a cathedral ceiling, a fireplace, and two floor-to-ceiling windows that met at an acute angle, reminiscent of the Frank Lloyd Wright “praying hands” church that is one of the main architectural landmarks of Madison. Into the angle of these windows Marsha’s loom now migrated. Jason and Marsha had one bedroom; to help meet payments they rented the bedroom to another couple with a child, not affiliated with the commune. Nadine moved into the exposed basement, which had wood paneling and its own bath. I had introduced Nadine to Jason and Marsha and she had become friends with them. She loved Marsha devotedly and Jason exasperatedly and was, like me, attracted to the commune in a tentative way. On Saturdays, the associates of the commune (there was never any formal membership) would come out to Lafayette. As an initial project, Jason had decided to build a chicken house. I must have worked on it with the others, in the mornings, though I have no memory of doing so. The highlight of the day was the lunch prepared by Marsha, who shopped with zest at the grocery coops and health food stores. Her soups and breads had the taste of new departure, nuanced with reminiscences of borscht and challah. Jason affectionately called her a “baleboste,” which is Yiddish for a super housewife. After lunch there would be a discussion. Of these discussions I recall very little, certainly nothing like a meeting of minds, unless in those long, spiraling abstract duets that Jason and Michael would occasionally get into. What happened was that Jason went on making his plans, consulting mainly his high-school friend Greg, with whom he had cooked up the idea of the commune and who was then living in Seattle. Everyone else went along, more or less, until their own projects took them elsewhere. But the chicken house was completed that spring, and Michael moved into it.
Now that all this has come to nothing, it is easy to say that it was absurd. It reminds me of the time when I was five years old and wanted to construct a rabbit trap. My mother had read me Alice in Wonderland, with its wonderful and elusive white rabbit, and then another book that had mentioned rabbit traps. We were living out in the country then, in the Great Smokies of North Carolina, and my mother had to keep me amused. So when I mentioned building a rabbit trap she found me a cardboard box in which I suspended a carrot and, for good measure, a little silk sachet which she helped me to sew. The words “Rabbit Trap” were scrawled in large letters on the side of the box, which was then set out in the yard some distance from the house, and every morning we would visit it to see whether it had caught a rabbit.
Of course the Lafayette endeavor was only the start of the journey, for all of us. Jason is no longer living, as I found out from the Web; but it seems he stayed married to Marsha and was occupied with communitarian projects till the end. I imagine he tried at each stage to learn the lessons, to keep the good. And in the spring of 1968 it was very good to know them. I remember Marsha, sitting beside the fire in the living room at Lafayette, singing a song I was hearing for the first time: “Eli, Eli,shelo yigamer leolam...” (My God, my God, I pray that these things never end, the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the lightning of heaven, the prayer of man.”) I have a series of black-and-white snapshots of Marsha at her loom in the window, and on my wall hangs a piece of her weaving, lozenges of color like autumn leaves or deposits in a geological cross-section, with a few twigs woven in. I remember sitting with her and a college friend of hers in the bedroom one night, listening to them talk over the lives of the commune associates and other friends, thoughtful, concerned, as one might examine and sort the strands of wool one meant to use in a weaving. Here, I felt, was the heart of the community. Her Hebrew name, she told me, was AChaya,@ which means Alife.@
It was Marsha who introduced me to Ireni. One day when Marsha was visiting on Grant Street, the three of us met at the corner. It is with that moment that I associate a vision of the world as a mega-novel in which we are all characters. Or maybe it was at some other moment, but anyway it was in connection with Marsha. And it might well have been at that first meeting with Ireni, for Ireni was certainly one of the more important characters in my own subplot. It is hard for me to imagine how I would eventually have interpreted Celan without her inadvertent assistance.
I came to Celan from a certain background of reading. In fact, if I had consciously designed my graduate and undergraduate studies as a preparation for reading Celan, I could not have done much better. All right, I’d have taken Hebrew as my non-Indo-European language instead of Chinese, which was a waste of time because I never did get to the classical poetry and have now forgotten everything except one little song the instructor brought in the last day. (It=s a well-kept secret in language departments that one song is worth a hundred hours of drill; the words to Schubert=s Die Winterreise were my express train to German.) And I’d have tried harder to understand Rimbaud and the Surrealists. And I’d have taken a course in Dante instead of just reading the Inferno. But I had learned French and read Baudelaire while still in high school; as a sophomore in college I had come under the spell of Russian poetry; I had taken a B.A. in linguistics, the same field in which Celan got his licence ès lettres, and written my senior thesis on Mandel’shtam’s syntax; in a course in modern French poetry I’d read Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” and Valéry’s “The Young Fate.” And of course as a student of German I had read the Old High German incantations, the troubadour songs of Walther von der Vogelweide, Goethe and Hölderlin and the miscellaneous chestnuts that used to be taught in German language schools. Even the folk songs I learned from Joan Baez records were not irrelevant, because Celan also liked folk songs, and folk echoes persist in his work till the end. A friend who liked my singing once told me that my voice, though not a large voice, had many overtones. Certainly Celan’s poetic voice has an enormous number of overtones. Nobody can catch them all, but my studies had prepared me to catch a fair number.
But all that reading, by itself, wouldn=t have been enough. In one book that everyone in Berkeley seemed to have read - Tolkien=s Lord of the Rings trilogy - there=s an episode where a message is written in Amoon letters,@ which can only be deciphered when the moon is in the same phase as when the letters were written. Perhaps in the Berkeley of the 60’s the moon was in the same Aphase@ as in the Czernowitz of the >30’s, about which I knew nothing as yet. In one of his speeches Celan says that he came from a landscape “where books and humans lived.” Thanks to Isadora, Jason, Marsha, and Nadine, as well as to Politzer and Bluma and Jaszi, Berkeley was that kind of landscape for me. And perhaps thanks to Ireni most of all.