Early in the fall I heard that Celan had brought out another book of poetry, Fadensonnen (Thread-Suns); I bought a copy in the bookstore behind the University. 


Perhaps Munich was exactly the right place in which to read Thread-Suns, in order to get the full impact of its fear and nausea.  Like Breath-Turn, Thread-Suns produced the impression of going too far.  Only of course it had to go farther than Breath-Turn.  Breath-Turn had seemed to take place in a kind of dark space behind the world, or a polar night. The atmosphere and lightning of Thread-Suns was artificial, as in a prison where there is no night and no day. (I'm speaking, of course, of global impressions.)  In his work through Breath-Turn, Celan for the most part employs the classical literary language.  Except for a few foreign words thrown in now and then, he uses almost exclusively native roots.  This is possible because even scientific terms in German are (or were) often formed by translating the Latin and Greek terms, instead of just importing them.  For instance, German renders "psychology" as “Seelenkunde,” though “Psychologie” is also used.  In Thread-Suns "Psychologie" and other words like it are used for the first time.  They come with the intrusion of the scientific and technological world, which till then had been kept at a distance.  The poet seems to be deliberately shattering the surface of his language, producing dissonance with every linguistic means at his command. One poem concludes:


the glottal stop



This, I’ve gathered since, is an allusion to Kafka's and Freud's deaths from tuberculosis and throat cancer respectively; but even without knowing that I felt physical discomfort on first reading the lines.  And the book is made up mostly of such effects, which can be analyzed, made to yield meaning, but which have an edge that cuts before you understand.  Even the first poem, the last rhymed (or semi-rhymed) poem he seems to have written, produces a constriction in the throat because of the way it tightens toward the end.


About this same time I saw a photo of Paul Celan for the first time, accompanying a baffled review of this collection.  Looking into the eyes -- that is what the picture is about, the eyes -- I felt this same constriction of the throat. It was not a new sensation for me; I remember it from the years in Berkeley, like a hand over my face.  I cut the picture out of the newspaper and put it up on the wall of my room in a collage of pictures of family and friends: Maria, John in his Chevy truck, Marsha at her loom, Jason in Sausalito, Marion in the house on Derby Street.  But the thought of meeting the person who had sat for that picture was less and less thinkable.


For what does one say to a person who has written:


YOU WERE my death:

you I could hold

while all else fell from me.


One could investigate exactly which episode in the poet’s life gave rise to this three-line poem; perhaps one would find out something; but the appeal is cut loose from circumstance, to strike the reader right in the face.  And there are a couple of other poems which in outright obscenity go beyond "On the White Prayer-Strap."  They've been translated, there are even people who are capable of quoting them in a review.  They bought back an earlier experience which had helped to isolate me because I couldn't imagine sharing it with anyone:  When I was fourteen my piano teacher assigned Chopin's Nocturne in E flat, opus 9 no. 2, which enthralled me as no piece of music has before or since.  The name of this fascination I didn’t know at first, but one day while I was playing it an unexpectedly coarse phrase occurred to me, connecting the sender and the receiver of that seductive musical signal.  What anguish could be spared, if youth were given a fuller edition of the facts of life.  For several years afterward I dreaded the very name of the composer, although I kept on playing his music.  I had a dream in which a figure identified as Chopin -- though bearing no resemblance to pictures of him -- appeared to me in a kind of yellow, sickly light; I used to recite Leonie Adams' "Lullaby" before going to sleep every night, in hopes it would keep me from having that dream again. ("Hush, lullay,/ Your treasures all/ Encrust with rust,/ Your trinket pleasures fall/ To dust...")  Once, at a summer music course, I met a girl named Sondra who was very musical and very sophisticated.  We talked about the composers we liked to play, and she said, "Oh, Chopin, he's my love."  Well, but she also read pornographic novels -- a glance at one of them was my introduction to the genre.  I did not admit anything to Sondra, nor did her casual admission diminish the feeling that I was condemned to solitude because of that nasty phrase, which I could never imagine repeating to anyone, not even in therapy, for which reason therapy seemed bound to fail.  (I’m not sure why I believed then that a cure, or human intimacy, depended on being able to say everything; surely maturity and relationship begin with the acceptance of limits; but in those years that piece of wisdom had been mislaid somehow.)


And then there is that particular poetical horror that begins “When I don’t know, don’t know.”


Like many of the late poems, it consists of fragments that seem as if stopped by the camera at some instant of their flying apart.  It is up to the reader, if so inclined, to connect, to try and pull things back together.  One “stanza” consists of the word aschrej,  the next of the phrase "a word without meaning."  Certainly aschrej had no meaning for me at the time.  If anything it seemed like a portmanteau word of Asche (ash) and Schrei (scream). Several years were to pass before I learned that in Hebrew "ashrei" means "happy" or "blessed" -- it is the first word of all those sentences that begin "Happy is the man who..." or "Blessed are they who..."  In particular, it is the first word of a prayer that is generaaly referred to as the "Ashrei" and that occurs in most Jewish prayer services; the first two lines are: "Happy are they who dwell in Thy house; they shall forever praise Thee."  But you might say it is still a "word without meaning," given the fate of many who knew that prayer.  -- This word is then "injected into/ the helmeted ovaries/ of the Jewess Pallas Athene," recalling some of the atrocities in the camps.  It may be just a surrealistic distortion that claps the characteristic helmet of Athene over the ovaries. Or could it be meant to suggest that the injection is really into the mind?  And what did Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom, have to do with being Jewish? 


Eventually I would connect this poem with Aeschylus' Eumenides, where Athene is called in to judge the "test case" in the conflict between patriarchy and matriarchy.  The other gods recuse themselves as partial because each is either male or female; only Athene, as a female with only a male parent, represents a possible middle ground.   Here, the "Jewess Pallas Athene" belongs both to Judaism and Western culture.  Could she, then, symbolize some middle ground between these two sides?  But to me in 1968 that image could not but echo (not, again, consciously; I just felt the impact of the connection in a muffled way) the recent incident where I had put on the Greek helmet at the S. home.  And as if that were not enough, toward the end of the poem there pops up this figure of “the Allemande” who makes bobbin lace (spitzenklöppelt).  Maybe the Allemande (French for “German woman”) was suggested to Celan by the fact that he was writing in German on French soil.  But the lace?  Certainly it came to him by some train of thought utterly unrelated to my great-grandmother Lallemand who knew how to make bobbin lace -- and who had figured in that shrillest poem of mine, "Hymn to the Ancestors".  (In the family we had always felt the name Lallemand to be paradoxical; given the feelings between those neighbors, a German Frenchwoman was another uneasy combination).  Again, as with "By the hail-stone" and "Talisman," it seems as if I had been "influenced" by one of Celan's poems a few months before reading it.


In "Hymn to the Ancestors," lacemaking stands for a tradition ("Whitehand weaving the lace") which is partly literary and partly familial.  And in “When I Don’t Know” some such tradition also seems to be in formation.  The injection of the word without meaning leads to a kind of pregnancy:  “And when he,// he,/ fetal,/ harps Carpathian Notnot…”  Who is the "fetal" "he"?  The Messiah, some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born? In some German Jewish texts (notably the Buber Bible translation), HE (ER) is one of the names of God.  And what is meant by "harps Carpathian Notnot"?  Celan came from the region of the Carpathians.  It seems as though whatever is begotten in this monstrous begetting carries on something of Celan's ancestral tradition.  The act of lacemaking parellels the knitting of the living tissue.  What the Allemande (the impregnated Pallas Athene) knits is das sich übergebende un-/sterbliche Lied, which is the kind of phrase that makes a translator’s life miserable, because the verb "sich übergeben" has two different meanings and the poem needs both.  It can mean "to vomit" -- a symptom of pregnancy, as well as a possible reaction to this poem and the atrocities it alludes to.  But it can also mean "to hand itself on," as in a tradition (“übergeben” can be read as an etymological translation of tradere, the root of the word “tradition).  Only in this meaning does its coupling with the "im-/mortal song" make sense.  


It's an odd thing that while the images of the poem on first encounter are dissonant and horrifying, when you examine the poem more closely it seems to be trying to transmit a message of hope, the hope for the birth of a new tradition.  The kind of hope that is born of desperation, of course; still, the transmission did work, in ways – the poem had not yet finished with me in the fall of 1968 – which could seem downright uncanny.  Was that working unexpected by the poet?  The word “aschrej” is also described in the poem as “trans-Tibetan.” Tibet is proverbially the homeland of mysterious powers.


And then there was the encounter with “Der Meridian.”


In the bookstore where I bought my copy of Fadensonnen, I also found a new “selected poems,” a small orange-covered Suhrkamp paperback, that had just come out.  The poems were from the collections I knew already, but in the back there were two prose texts, the speeches he had given in 1958 and 1960 on receiving the Bremen prize and the Georg Büchner prize.  So that was when I first read “The Meridian,” the 1960 speech for which the earlier one is a kind of sketch.  I have an impression of reading it in the little cafe in that street behind the university, a quiet place with a tiled floor where you could sit for a long time over a cup of hot broth, listening to the pigeons cooing in the interstices of the carvings on the building’s stone facade. 


“The Meridian” is prose, but not like any other prose you’ve read.  It is not what one usually calls poetic prose, being precise and pointed; but it has the condensation of poetry, or of aphorisms perhaps, except that the aphorisms are arranged in a train of thought, in groups of paragraphs, set off by spaces; sometimes a single sentence, or a pair of very short sentence-paragraphs, is set off that way, as if standing in empty space.  It starts off “Ladies and gentlemen” and repeats that phrase from time to time, so that you keep seeing him standing in front of that audience, in a scene enacted once at Darmstadt, but widened now to include a global circle of readers.   There are a number of convoluted sentences that come to a sudden point.  Now and then comes a phrase with double meaning that could be taken as referring to “what happened” (he refused to give it a name).  The argument is circuitous, elliptical, and keeps the reader in suspense as to what he is driving at, a suspense that takes more than one reading to resolve.  It was not until the spring of 1972 that I managed to form a general interpretation of the speech.  On that first reading, did I connect Celan’s reference to the childlessness of Pygmalion’s creation, to the opening of “The Munich Mannequins”: “Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children”? 


Two things, at least, I noticed then.  First, where he says:


Ladies and gentlemen, I find something that consoles me a little for having walked in your presence this impossible way, this way of the impossible.


– it was like seeing someone teetering on a very high wire.  Second, I had, as with “When I don’t know,” an unexpectedly personal, or personal-literary, association.


            For non-German majors, some background: In “The Meridian” Celan was accepting a prize given in the name of Georg Büchner by his native province, Hessen.  The laureate was supposed to talk about Büchner.  Büchner was born in 1813, just as Romanticism was on the wane.  He studied medicine and sympathized with the sufferings of the poor.  His first work was a revolutionary tract, Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Country Courier) which urged the Hessian peasants to rise up against their masters.  The fearful peasants did not react quite as Buechner hoped; they took the pamphlet to the police.  Büchner then turned to literature.  His first play, Dantons Tod (The Death of Danton), is about a revolutionary who falls victim to the process he has started; it is a work of disillusion and nihilism.  His next play, Woyzeck, is about an oppressed soldier, the victim of a frivolous medical experiment, who ends up murdering his mistress; thanks to Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck it is the best-known of Büchner’s works.   Büchner also wrote a novella, Lenz, based on the life of a friend of the young Goethe who wrote some plays of social criticism (precursors to Woyzeck) and then became insane.  From each of these works Celan picks out a passage or two to comment on, passages that reflect a certain kind of epiphany, having to do with the creative process, with the nature of Art, but at the same time with political and even cosmic rebellion.  Büchner’s last complete work, and the last work that Celan talks about, was a satirical comedy, Leonce und Lena.  He died of a fever shortly after writing it, at the age of 23 – not much older than Celan was when his youth was spoiled for him by "what happened."  This last play satirizes the concept of free will.  The title figures are heirs to adjoining principalities whose marriage has been arranged.  Not wanting to submit to an arranged marriage with a stranger, each runs away.  On the road they meet, incognito, and fall in love.  Prince Leonce charges his jester, Valerio, to engineer their marriage.  Valerio solves the problem by disguising the couple as robots and tricking the king into letting the robots be married as "proxies" for their absent selves.  The masks are lifted, the couple accept the fact that they have been "cheated" of their rebellion, and the final speeches look forward to a Utopian future in which the kingdom will be turned into a subtropical paradise by solar heating.  (It seems like a parody of Kleist’s hope, in the  Marionettentheater, of a return to Paradise through self-knowledge.)  Valerio has the last word: "And then we'll lie down in the shade and pray for classical bodies, musical throats, melons and figs, and an accommodating (kommode) religion!"  An early editor, who happened to come from Celan's home town, misread that "kommode" as "kommende" (coming), and Celan makes a mischievous reference to this at the close of his speech.  (A new tradition…)


            As it happened, I was already unusually well acquainted with that last play of Büchner's. It had been put on by the German Department at the University of Wisconsin in the spring semester of 1962.  Four women had tried out for the female roles in the play: a conventionally pretty one, who suited the role of the princess; a rather silly-looking one, who made a tolerable governess; a vampishly handsome one, who was type-cast for the dancing-girl Rosina; and yours truly, for whom no role had been written.  The professor who was directing offered me the job of promptress, which I accepted.  It was in one way a fateful decision, as it pleased the department chairman and led to the offer of an exchange scholarship to Germany, which in turn would lead to my choosing German as the easiest field for graduate study and thus to my sitting at that café table in Munich, late in 1968, with the uncomprehended text of “The Meridian” open before me.  But all that was quite unforeseen; I accepted the promptress role because I was in love with the boy who got the Valerio part, a tall, lanky Dane named Ed, with a clown's face and a mime's gestures and a nihilistic humor that (as with Büchner) stemmed from a deep melancholy about life; he told me once that he had considered suicide as an adolescent.  I think I liked him because of some air of freedom about him, perhaps even because of a certain ruthlessness which I criticized.  Once, when I asked him why he had to be so cutting about people, he had answered: "If you don't cut people you never get anything into them."  He knew about my attachment but related to it ironically; perhaps he sensed that in my internal drama I had cast him as the unattainable, a casting which the outcome of the tryouts naturally reinforced.  So all through that semester I watched him from the shadow (this ready-made symbolism inspired a poem in German) while Ed played himself and forgot his lines, and I, for daydreaming about him, forgot to prompt him. After rehearsals he would walk me home to the French House, where I was staying at the time, improvising his own lines now, while I played the audience.  Just once, on the steps of the French House, he grabbed me and said, grinning, "Shall we start now?"  I don't remember exactly how that scene ended.  His version of it, which I learned a few days later, was that I froze; yet I remember only a feeling of tremendous significance; I went upstairs believing that that moment was the beginning of something.  It was a moment to which I recurred obsessively for years, cursing myself for not having found the right reaction, unable to move on; the obsession with Ed was part of what held me back from accepting Uwe.  It wasn't the first time Celan had reminded me of that episode; there is a poem in Poppy and Memory called "The Chanson of a Lady in Shadow."


            I was still translating, concentrating, that winter, on the second collection, From Threshold to Threshold.   Bearing the dedication “Für Gisèle,” the collection dates from the first three years of his marriage, a time when he perhaps felt that he had reached a refuge from which to survey the world that was left to him.  The poems seem to me to come from a point of balance never afterwards recovered.  There are few stylistic experiments here (and critics interested in experimental advances tend to pass quickly through this collection); mostly he explores the possibility of the form that he found toward the end of Poppy and Memory: lines of varying length with a lot of syntactic parallelism, mostly in the triple meter which had become his rhythmic signature.  In each poem an image of a situation is built up, an internal drama unfolds and reaches a conclusion.  There is something wrenching about these conclusions; you feel each time as if the poet has spoken his last word and disappeared from the scene.  Yet despite their internal conclusiveness the poems are open to one another; taken together, they comprise a landscape.  It is a landscape always shadowed by trauma and the sense of loss.  Despite the love poems and the poems dedicated to other poets, most of the light comes from the memory of the lost and the hope – improbable yet undismissible -- of its resurrection in some form.  I thought of the Inferno; and the Inferno made me think, and try not to think, of that albatross-name that had been wished on me at birth.  It is from this time that I first recall focusing on “Before a Candle,” which is the centerpiece of the collection – the twenty-fourth of the forty-seven poems, and the longest.


            This poem begins with the poet’s forming a candlestick “of beaten gold,/ as you commanded me, Mother.”  Out of this candlestick there “darkens up” to the poet a figure whom he characterizes as “the daughter of your being dead.”  Upon this figure he pronounces a blessing “in the name of the Three/ who feud with each other until/ the sky plunges down into the grave of the feelings” and whose “rings” he wears.  The blessing is that she is to be “free” of the doom that is represented by a Goliath-like figure that “steps tower-high into the sea.”  He also says that she is to remain “a dead woman’s child,/ consecrated (geweiht) to the No of my longing.”


            Obviously “Before a Candle” is an utterly personal poem, a response to the murder of just one of the six million victims.   But as he had written in an earlier poem:  “My soft-voiced mother weeps for all.” “Before a Candle” opens an agelong perspective of misunderstanding, strife and suffering and hope deferred.  I’m not sure there is another poem, by Celan or anyone, that gives the reader (in the original anyway; such effects are always dependent on the exact rhythms and the resonances among the words) such a sense of looking into the very depth of human time, of witnessing an action that has dramatic unity though millennial length, that enacts itself on the inner stage of the world.  The poem seems written in a single convulsive instant into which all history is condensed


            Some of that history I knew then, and some of it I didn’t.  I didn’t know about the Jewish custom of lightning a yahrtzeit candle on the anniversary of the parent’s death, but lighting candles for the dead is fairly universal.  I had not yet read through the Pentateuch, so I may not have caught the allusion to the verse in Exodus where God tells Moses to make the candelabrum out of beaten gold.   I didn’t know about the parental custom of blessing the children on the Sabbath (though surely I knew about the blessing of Jacob?), or the formula spoken by the groom in the Jewish marriage ceremony: “you are hereby consecrated to me.”  On the other hand, my nominally-Christian upbringing supplied “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” as an association to “the Three.”  And a course on the German Enlightenment had included Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s drama Nathan the Wise, with its famous “ring parable” which may be summarized as follows:  A man had an heirloom ring that was supposed to ensure its wearer the favor of God and man.  This man had three sons whom he loved equally and did not know which of them to leave the ring to.  So he went to a jeweler and had two replicas made, then gave each son a ring, telling him it was the true one.  The sons became aware of each other’s claims and began feuding.  Finally they went to a judge, who told them that at the end of days it would be evident, by the way they had lived their lives, which of them had received the true ring. 


            This parable is told by the title figure of Lessing’s play as a way of getting out of a tight place.  Nathan has been challenged by Saladin to set forth the arguments on behalf of the three monotheistic faiths so that he may choose among them.  Nathan senses that he must steer between the dangers of pleading too strongly for his own faith and thereby offending the sultan, or not pleading strongly enough and thereby laying himself open to the question: “Why don’t you convert?” – a question that might well be somewhat forcefully put.  So he tells this story, the point of which is that the true faith will be known only by its cumulative effects on human life, at the end of days (when “the sky plunges down into the grave of the feelings”).  Nathan is said to have been modeled on the Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was friends with Lessing and whose work was part of the spiritual basis for Reform Judaism, and for all those hopes of a Western-Jewish synthesis which, between Nathan the Wise and “Before a Candle,” had come to grief, a massive grief that must be taken into account by any who would judge the poem’s blasphemous substitution of the murdered mother for the God who commanded the making of the tabernacle candlestick. 


            A few years ago, on a bus ride through Tel Aviv, I saw a small street marked “Rechov Natan he-Chakham.”  Nathan the Wise Street.  A monument to what the play once meant.  I wonder who named the street, how many of those who pass by it or live on it remember. 


            Curiously, that formula “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” actually fits the respective characters of the “Three” as “Before a Candle” describes them.  “The first of the Three,/ who screamed/ when he had to live where his word had been before him” could be taken as Judaism (the “religion of the Father”), whose adherents suffer in exile among the adherents of different versions of their own scriptures (some Jewish sages say it was an evil day for the Jewish people when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek).  Christianity is the religion of the Son, who might well have “looked on and wept” at the crimes committed in his name.  The religion of Saladin, however, drops out of the equation; in its place is “the third, who heaps white stones in the middle.”  The stones are a cairn, but (I think here of a related poem) the stones can also stand for the words of poetry, with which one can take aim or build.  I see this third figure as the poet himself in his work of mourning, reproof, and attempted reconciliation and reconstruction.  The “religion” of poetry could be called the religion of the Holy Spirit; Heine, though in the context of a rather frivolous love poem, once coined the phrase “the Church of the Holy Spirit.”  A fourth figure appears on the horizon of the poem: “the Amen that drowns us out,” the Goliath figure, a symbol of force that threatens to blot out whatever was beneficent in the spiritual traditions of the past.  Against this figure the poet pits his own creation – the “slender, almond-eyed shadow” that floats up from the candlestick.


            All those things I thought of much later, when interpretation became possible.  But my identification with that figure was not a matter of “interpretation.”  Reading, or rereading, it in that bare German apartment, I felt at one point as though I had unexpectedly caught sight of my own reflection in a shadowed mirror.  Well, as Yeats says in one poem, maybe we are all alike... But with “consecrated to the No of my longing” I had a specific association.  In college I had identified with Katharine Anne Porter’s Laura, in “Flowering Judas,” whose mantram is “no.”  I had felt that “no” at the core of my being, wished that I could pluck it out so as to join the world of the living, and could not, as though under a jinx, though of course I knew there is no such thing as a jinx.


            But if there were such a thing as a jinx…  One of the traditional ways of casting a spell is to fashion an image of someone and then do to that image (usually with needles) what you want to happen to the person.  I had even done this once, for a stupid joke in an idle moment, molding a little figure out of the wax left from some cheese, of course not expecting the slightest consequence.  My roommate Selma, whom the figure resembled, was not amused; but the figure was not removed until a few days later, when Selma accidentally ran a needle into her leg.  In “Before a Candle” the image is molded from words and is given a “blessing” which could also be called a hypnotic suggestion.  The psychologist with whom I discussed this in 1971 confirmed this, and declared himself impressed by the technique; he noted that the line “du bleibst, du bleibst, du bleibst” (you remain, you remain, you remain) was the “lub-dub” sound, as doctors call the sound of the heartbeat.


            One might say that the figure in “Before a Candle” is just a symbolic representation of the poem itself.  But if someone were to come along and see herself in that symbolic representation, then that person would receive the suggestion.  And maybe the poem doesn’t always just wait for someone to come along; maybe the sound of a heartbeat can travel farther and by other ways than we know.


            I do not suppose Celan wrote this poem with the conscious intent to cast a spell.  As any poet will admit, the poem is a form that comes to you, asks you, sometimes quite forcefully, to realize it, work it out, and you don’t necessarily think about the reasons or the consequences.  I am reminded of that story by Kleist, "The Marquise of O.", where the title figure, a respectable young widow, finds herself pregnant without being able to recall how this could have happened.  Almost a century before Freud, Kleist seems to have glimpsed the almost infinite human capacity for denial.  On some level, I think, Celan did know what he was doing, as surely we all must.  In that poem that so shocked me in 1967, "On the White Prayer-Strap," where the poet “again” seeks the "smoke-trail/ in the shape of a woman," he says: "the lord of that hour was/ a winter creature, at his/ will/ what happened, happened."   I hear that as a kind of apology, a plea of duress.  "On the White Prayer-Strap" is one of several sequels sequel to "Before a Candle"; “When I don’t know” is another; the “Jewess Pallas Athene” seems to me prefigured in the poet’s brainchild who rises from the candle-flame in a birth as unnatural as that of Athene.  And like the “Jewess Pallas Athene,” the figure of “Before a Candle” is “in the middle” –“wed to a crevasse in time,” as the final stanza puts it.



            My knowledge of the terrain on the Jewish side of the crevasse increased somewhat that winter, thanks to a letter from Politzer that reached me shortly after my arrival in Munich.  Politzer had met Celan that summer, but Celan had not been in a good mood, because of the recent separation from his wife. Politzer had told him that he had a student who was writing a dissertation on him, and Celan had not received this information very graciously.  Both of these pieces of information, in different ways, increased my dread of an interview.  But Politzer added that there were two books I ought to read, in order to understand Celan better –  Buber's Tales of the Hasidim and Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism – and the library had copies of these works.


            I didn't at first know what to make of Scholem's introduction to Kabbala; but the Hasidic stories opened a new world.  The "Tales" are brief anecdotes, almost like jokes, except that the point is profound, though it may have a touch of humor too.  The hero of the anecdotes is the tsaddik ("just man") the Hasidic teacher; the straight man, so to speak, is the disciple or hasid ("pious man"), who looks to the tsaddik not only for religious instruction in general but for an interpretation of his own life.  Besides the relationship of the tsaddik and the hasid, there is the dialogue among the tsaddikim themselves.  Some of the stories are about miracles, but more are about moments of communication and understanding.  There is the sense that all of these masters and disciples are at work on some common task, the outline of which is not clearly seen, but it is connected with the eventual redemption of the world.  According to Kabbala, as I'd already heard from Bluma Goldstein back in Berkeley, the sparks of divine light are scattered through the world, and it is the task of the just to "uplift" these sparks.  It occurred to me that this uplifting of the sparks was a recurring gesture of Celan's poetry.  For instance, in that first poem Politzer had shown me:  “I only picked up from the ground that crumb of bread/ that has your eye's form and dignity...


            Of course, in the Hasidic world this gesture takes place against the backdrop of a firm belief in the Torah.  There was one anecdote in which a boy asks his father, "How do we know we are not wandering in one of the Worlds of Delusion?"  The father answers, "We have the Torah, that's how we know."  I thought of that moment in the preceding summer when I'd looked at the world through lenses that made everything appear green and orange and wondered by what criterion I could decide which were the true colors of the world.  "The Torah" seemed like an arbitrary answer, but I could see how if one accepted it, the world would hang together.


            Certain anecdotes spoke to me in a more personal way.  There is one in which the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, still young and unknown, comes to an established rabbi, and the rabbi sees on his forehead a sign that he has seen once before on the forehead of his own daughter, and thereby knows that this young man is her predestined mate.  And there is one about a tsaddik who visits the Wailing Wall and sees the apparition of a tall woman in mourning.  "For whom would the Divine Presence be mourning, if not for Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz," says the tsaddik, and tears his clothes.  And then there was the parable -- I read it not in Buber's collection but in Walter Benjamin's Illuminations -- about the princess who lives in a village where no one speaks her language, and who one day receives a letter from her betrothed; the princess was supposed to represent the soul.  I felt the resemblance of all these stories (but they were not factual, clearly!) to something that was happening to me, but, again, could not look at it too closely. 


            Finally, in the bookstore behind the university I found a slim volume of essays on Celan -- Peter Horst Neumann's Zur Lyrik Paul Celans.  One chapter was devoted to echoes of the golem myth in Celan's work, centering on that poem in The No One's Rose where he talks to Rabbi Loew of Prague, who is said to have fashioned an animated human figure of superhuman strength, in order to defend the Jews of Prague from persecution in the sixteenth century.  The golem, which could not speak, had the word “emet” (truth), which is one of the names of God, inscribed on its forehead; when the golem got out of hand, the Maharal rubbed out the first letter of the “emet” – the letter aleph, which stands for God – leaving the word “met” which means “dead,” and the creature fell dead.  Neumann did not talk about "Before a Candle"; but the chapter concluded with the memorable words: “the speaker and the addressee of Celan’s poetry, even the poetry itself, have a mysterious analogy to the fateful form of the speechless golem, which bears “truth” and “dead” inscribed in a single word on its forehead.”  My first poem in response to Celan, “Aphelion,” had begun by describing such a figure.


            I kept on trying to write poetry that winter, though it was like trying to drive wooden pegs into concrete.  Besides "Angel" and "Foehn," I wrote one addition to the cycle of family poems which I daresay every apprentice bard needs to write, like a training analysis.  I include it here because I think it shows that amid all the terrors to which Celan’s poetry was exposing me, a certain work of reconciliation was also going forward.




                                                                        for Jim


Stalks shrink and rattle as the sky expands,

emptied by birds, scoured by cirrus. Darkness

adulterates the potions of the sun,

in the field the breathing of the seasons has stopped.


Double blade welded of rust and black azure

curving itself round the horizon's shoulder,

the railroad tracks, each autumn, draw us out.

The family shoulders winter coats, gets going.


I and my brother run ahead. Our parents'

faces, at wind's level, erase in memory:

I am ten, he seven. We climb the embankments,

looking for milkweed to stuff in paper bags.


There the burst pods, lined with brown satin,

like inside rooms in ravaged French chateaux,

there the green pods' unfledged stickiness --

but these just ripe, a crack


and the stuff swells out. Sap's whiteness returned

ready for flight, it cannot be woven.

We will find a use for it.  We will make milkweed pillows,

I sill spin it somehow -- already

we know it is to be wasted.


The sunlight mixed with darkness is draining away,

they turn, and we, like balloons on a string, must follow them

to a room where lamps beat back the nightfall,

the winter sky sucking emptiness like a lung.


Again the poem owes something to Plath – the touch of the macabre, but also a sense of something magical and precious in the self and others, that comes through her work on occasion.  Jim and I had fought a lot as children and had few interests in common; he was mathematically and mechanically talented; he managed to get along socially and seemed to shy away from introspection.  But every now and then there would be a flare of synergy, although it would die away without result, like the wasted milkweed seeds.  I showed this poem to Jim a few years later; he remembered the walks and liked the poem; said it was like old, good wine. 


            The other poem that I managed to finish that winter came after an excursion to Berlin which had included an impressively-staged performance of the first part of Faust.  In the last scene, where Faust confronts Gretchen in prison, the prison came into view as a box on a white surface, from which a whimpering mad song issued, and then Gretchen emerged.  This gave rise to the following:




A space -- heart-contracted. Guilt comes true.

A stone rolls from forever. You watch it roll

right to your feet. It's for you.

The tone is the pain which is not real.


It is a minute remembered -- transistorized,

its voice still on, quite soft.

There's a flash. Your head hopes for a judgment,

the whole world's power off,


light to be restored, if at all,

on a sugar-frosted plain,

the people, pegs, impossibly white,

small, equivalent, clean --


You give it up. You begin bending

toward the stone which is hard matter for you alone,

the faint unstanchable whimpering --

at your back a broken window. The sun.


Something of the impression of Celan's poetry was in that, also the diction of Ted Hughes' "The Thought Fox," one of few poems that spoke to me in the seminar on modern British poetry .


            Late in 1968, I met one person with whom I could have a conversation.  She came from New York, her name was Cristina, and she was a few years younger than I, but more sophisticated.  She was going to write her master’s thesis on Beckett’s novels.  She lent me a book of Freud's essays in literary criticism -- the interpretations of Jensen's Gradiva, the tales of Hoffman, and so on -- which I found more convincing than anything else I'd read by him.  I think Cristina confessed to writing poetry, or to having written it at some time; but she did not show me her poems, and that robbed me of the courage to show her mine. I felt that her standards of judgment would be very high.  (According to my notes from 1972, Yeats was for her the greatest poet of the century, the one she kept coming back to.  I had forgotten that, at the time of my own return to Yeats, in the '90's.)


            At midwinter I flew back to the United States, mainly to attend the Modern Language Association meeting in New York – known to graduate students as the “slave market” – in hopes of landing a teaching job for the next year.  Before the meeting I spent a couple of days with my parents in Madison.  The only thing I remember about that visit is that one night I woke and realized someone was in my room. It was only my mother, but being awakened in that way terrified me.  I pretended to be asleep and eventually she went out again.  The next morning she said apologetically, "Did I disturb you last night? I woke up with this terrible fear and just had to make sure you were still breathing."   Coldly I said that I had noticed nothing.  In New York I had only I had only a few job interviews; the job market in the humanities had just begun to go sour.  But one of those interviews was with a friend of Politzer's, Peter Heller, also originally from Vienna, now the head of the German Department at SUNY-Buffalo.  His manner was kind, if somewhat relentlessly ironical, and Politzer's recommendation counted with him; so I was offered the job and accepted it.  Cristina also went to the M.L.A., and invited me to stay with her at her mother's apartment.  Besides the meetings we found time to go to a couple of movies together.  Her choice was Godard's The Weekend, which I found ugly and boring.  Then she wanted to go to an Andy Warhol film, but I insisted on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, which Cristina violently loathed; I might have suspended criticism and just enjoyed the songs and the amusing artwork, if she had not kept up an angry muttering by my side.  We also listened together to a new album by Judy Collins, which she liked and I didn't.  I had loved Collins’ previous album, Wildflowers -- along with Joni Mitchell’s Song for a Seagull it had been a favorite of Tom's during that time on the farm in British Columbia -- but in the new album it seemed to me that the form was lost, it was all pose and gimmick.  This loss of form was something that struck me in the later work of other folksingers of the '60's.


            The last part of my time in Munich was spent in pleasanter surroundings.  After the New York trip I bestirred myself and found a room with a family in the Adelheidstrasse, a side street not far from the opera house and the river.  The building was set back in a courtyard and mainly occupied by a bakery where the father worked as a confectioner.  The stairwell was unfinished, full of shadowy scaffolding, but the apartment itself was light and cheerful.  I had a large room with a high molded ceiling; there was even an old upright piano, which I had tuned.  To decorate it I bought six art nouveau posters, including the one by Aubrey Beardsley of Isolde drinking the potion, and spaced them at even intervals along the walls.  I seldom saw the confectioner; he worked long hours, or else he worked nights and slept days; but with his wife I used to have long conversations about nothing in particular.  She was short, still blond, motherly, a cheerful cynic about the world in general and men in particular.  The family had come from Austria some years before, and she was still rather isolated in Munich.  Some evenings she worked as an usher for a small unpretentious theater, to which she once gave me a free pass; they were doing a play by Somerset Maugham.  Our conversations in her kitchen were cheerful, even though their content was often pessimistic; when we talked I did not feel my existence as problematic, nor did she seem to feel sorry for me because I was not married; it might be just as well.  The strange thing is that even in 1972, when I wrote those first notes, I could no longer recall her name, even though I can still see her face, and the kitchen, and the cat, always in heat, that rolled around our feet while we were talking, to her amusement.  But I remember the name of the little boy, Emmerich, who kept guinea pigs and collected junk, and who once gave me a present: an empty octagonal wooden box, the lid a glass pane framed by a molding, which had been the casing for an institutional wall-clock.  I felt on receiving this the same kind of muffled delight as when the Greek helmet fit.  The line “Zeitleer die Waben der Uhr (Empty of time, the honeycomb of the clock)” must have reverberated in my memory, even though I had not let myself hear it.  Another example of the way the images of Celan’s poetry seemed to want to materialize. 


            But I did not stay long in the Adelheidstrasse.  I had decided to spend the spring semester in Berlin.



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