A Poet's Hope
Nov 1, 2005
16 Min read time
Paul Celan: Selections
edited by Pierre Joris
University of California Press $17.95 (paper)
Paul Celan, translated by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi
Green Integer, $10.95 (paper)
Paul Celan, translated by Piere Joris
Green Integer, $12.95 (paper)
Paul Celan, translated by Piere Joris
Green Integer, $13.95 (paper)
Paul Celan, translated by Piere Joris
Green Integer, $12.95 (paper)
Paul Celan’s reception in America has always been connected to his status as the great Holocaust poet, the poet who showed that, Adorno’s caveat notwithstanding, it was possible to write poetry, even great poetry in the German language, after Auschwitz. As “poet, survivor, Jew” (the subtitle of John Felstiner’s groundbreaking study of 1995), Celan became the iconic poet for advanced theory, his elusive lyrics endlessly mined for their post-Holocaust wisdom by Continental philosophers from Hans-Georg Gadamer to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. The result, ironically, has been to place Celan in a kind of solitary confinement, a private cell in which his every “circumcised word” (Jacques Derrida’s term in his essay “Shibboleth for Paul Celan”) can be examined for its allegorical weight and theological import, even as, Pierre Joris suggests in the superb introduction to his new Selections, its actual poetic forms and choices are taken for granted. “Perhaps the greatest risk for the reading of Celan in our time,” writes Charles Bernstein, “is that we have venerated him, in the process of removing him not only from his own time and place, but also from our own poetic horizon. . . . a crippling exceptionalism has made his work a symbol of his fate rather than an active matrix for an ongoing poetic practice.”
In this context, the new translations of Celan’s poetry are especially welcome. Joris’s three volumes for Green Integer give us the key books of the later 1960s, Atemwende (Breathturn), Fadensonnen (Threadsuns), and the posthumous Lichtzwang (Lightduress), here translated in their entirety with helpful introductions and notes. Green Integer has also brought out an excellent translation by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi of Celan’s Romanian Poems, written between 1945 and 1947—surrealist lyrics and prose poems that, far from being juvenilia, shed much light on Celan’s poetics to come.
Joris’s Selections for the University of California Press’s “Poets for the Millennium” series, which has so far given us volumes of André Breton, María Sabina, and José Lezama Lima, draws on the whole range of Celan’s poetry, although Joris’s predilection is clearly for the more minimal, fragmented, and oblique poems of the later years. The earlier work is more fully and adequately covered in John Felstiner’s Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (Norton, 2000), which also has the advantage of being a bilingual text. Indeed, California’s decision to publish the poems in English translation only is a major liability. Still, Joris makes the most of the assigned format, including, along with roughly one hundred pages of poems, a number of key prose pieces such as Celan’s famous speech “The Meridian” (1960), whose discussion of the work of Georg Büchner is central to understanding Celan’s own aesthetic. The volume, handsomely illustrated with semi-abstract etchings by the poet’s artist-wife, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, and a set of photographs, also contains a selection of letters, newly translated by Joris; a useful bibliography of works by and about Celan; and important short essays on the poet by Derrida, E.M. Cioran, Andrea Zanzotto, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and Edmund Jabès. These prose texts are largely reprints of existing translations, as are the earlier poems in the collection, whose poet-translators include Jerome Rothenberg, Cid Corman, and Robert Kelly.
The introduction has a revisionist cast. Of the celebrated “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), for example, we read: “[Its] poetics are still rather traditional: the relationship between word and world, between signifier and signified, is not put into question. . . .The poem is written (or spoken) by a ‘survivor’ . . . who speaks in the name of a ‘wir,’ the ‘we,’ of the murdered Jews.” Here is the fourth stanza, in Jerome Rothenberg’s 1959 translation:
Black milk of morning we drink you at
we drink you at noontime Death is a
gang-boss aus Deutschland
we drink you at dusktime and dawntime
we drink and drink
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his
eye is blue
he hits you with leaden bullets his aim
there’s a man in this house your golden
he sets his dogs on our trail he gives us a
grave in the sky. . . .
The startling imagery of this death-camp poem, Joris suggests, was soon replaced by the more subtle obliquities of such poems as “Engführung” (“Stretto”):
with unmistakable trace:
grass, written asunder. The stones, white,
with the shadows of the stalks:
Stop reading: look!
Stop looking: go!
(translated by Robert Kelly)
In these arresting opening lines (the original begins “Verbracht ins / Gelände / mit der untrüglichen Spur”), Joris notes, “We no longer know who speaks, who is being addressed; the landscape can be, and is, simultaneously an inner and an outer landscape” as well as “the landscape of his parents’ death, the ‘Gelände,’ the terrain into which they were ‘verbracht’ (the prefix ver- here brings the word into resonance with Verbrechen, meaning ‘crime’).”
This is an astute observation, although the past participle “spent” does not have the connotative power of the German: here and elsewhere in the first sections of this book, one wishes Joris had translated the earlier poems as well as the later ones. Still, his discussion of “Stretto” is on to something important: the “unmistakable trace” of white stones dotting the grass of a “darkening field”—the trace that makes the disembodied voice of lines 6 and 7 say “Stop reading: look! / Stop looking: go!”—could refer to any death or painful memory, the poet’s Holocaust experience notwithstanding.
That experience, as Joris points out here and in the introduction to Breathturn, has been repeatedly treated in isolation, especially by the poet’s German critics. Born in 1920 in Czernowitz, located in present-day Ukraine, Paul Antschel (Celan was the anagram he later invented for the Romanian form, Ancel) was raised in a Jewish family that insisted on the best secular education for their son, so Paul had a classic German education. He had already spent a year studying in France when, in 1940, Soviet troops occupied Czernowitz and forced him to work in labor camps until the Nazis took over in 1941 and immediately began to purge the Jewish population. On a June night in 1942, when Paul was staying with a friend in a hideout, his parents, who had refused to join him, were deported, and before long their son received news of their deaths. Paul survived, first working in Nazi camps, then at war’s end for the victorious Soviets until in April 1945 he moved to Bucharest, found work as a translator, and began to publish his poetry. In 1947, he moved on to Vienna and then to Paris, where he was to live the rest of his life.
The guilt Celan rightly or wrongly felt for not having managed to save his parents was certainly traumatic and may well have led to his later mental breakdowns and eventual suicide by drowning in the Seine in 1970. But it is also the case, as Joris makes clear and as the Romanian poems testify, that Celan was a strong, resourceful, and charismatic figure who quickly came to be admired by his fellow poets in Romania and Austria (Ingeborg Bachmann is said to have represented their love affair in her great novel Malina), as well as in Germany and France. True, Celan remained the ultimate outsider—the French citizen and École normale professor writing and giving readings across the border in Germany; the “foreign” Jew persecuted in Paris by Yvan Goll’s widow, who accused him of plagiarizing her husband’s poetry; the husband and father who, in a moment of insanity, threatened the life of his wife and son. Celan’s life was nothing if not tragic, but the difficulty with the ubiquitous designation “Holocaust poet” is that its thematic import has eclipsed the role of sound, rhythm, tone, and spatial form in the lyric of this particular poet.
Take the poem “Todtnauberg,” whose title refers to Heidegger’s famous cottage, the Hütte in the Black Forest. On July 24, 1967, Celan gave a reading at the University of Freiburg-im-Breisgau that was attended by more than 1,000 people, including Heidegger. The next day, Celan was invited to visit the great philosopher at Todtnauberg itself, where Heidegger had conferred with so many disciples and composed so many of his most important works. But the meeting’s outcome was equivocal, as Celan’s inscription in the guest book shows: “Into the Hütte-book, while gazing on the well-star, with a hope for a word to come in the heart / July 25 1967.” The hoped-for word was evidently some form of apology, or at least recognition of the role Heidegger had played in the Nazi regime. But that apology was never to come. The poem dates from August 1 and can be found here.
Critics from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Otto Pöggeler to John Felstiner and Joris himself have engaged in extensive discussion of individual words and phrases in “Todtnauberg,” so as to assess the poet’s response to the famous philosopher. It has been suggested that the poem’s imagery underscores the poet’s recognition that the “kommendes / Wort,” the “word / to come,” was never—and would never be—proferred. The Sternwürfel, the wooden cube above Heidegger’s well (resembling a Mallarmean die in “Un coup de dès”), is metonymically linked by its star design to the yellow arnica flower, viewed as the Jewish star; the Waldwasen (rather than Wiesen, or meadows), which are uneingeebnet (“unleveled”), suggest turf, peat bog, or even grassy graves; those “Knüppel- / pfade” (“log- / trails”) are literally “paths made of wood” or Holzwege, the title of one of Heidegger’s own books, idiomatically meaning “dead end” or “mistaken path.” Lacoue-Labarthe notes that Celan is accurately pinpointing Heidegger’s grand refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust, a refusal that was, Lacoue-Labarthe believes, much more reprehensible than Heidegger’s original association with the Nazi party.
“Todtnauberg” is thus read as a subtle critique of Heidegger (who seems to have not perceived its negative thrust) and a fascinating glimpse into the conflicted relationship between Jewish poet and once-Nazi philosopher. But what makes the poem so remarkable, I would argue, is its unique blend of documentary precision—it recounts, after all, an actual event—and the irreducible ambiguity created by the extreme condensation of its language.
Consider, for starters, the musical development, within a mere ten words, from the two plants of healing—Arnika for the limbs, Augentrost for eyes—to the drink from the well and the Sternwürfel. Just as the reader is thinking that the drink, like the two heal-alls, can bring renewal, the gold star Celan and his fellow Jews were forced to wear comes to mind, reinforcing the death aura of the poem’s title. (The name “Todtnauberg” contains, of course, the German word for “death,” Tod, and so we can read Celan’s title as “the mountain of death,” but the name’s etymology has a wholly different import: in 1025 A.D. Emperor Henry II took the town from the French, who had originally called it “Toutenouua,” or “all new.”) In this context, lines 4 and 5 are strangely shocking in their simplicity: the scene has shifted from the seemingly pastoral exterior to the most ordinary designation for the interior, from the incantatory sound cluster formed by the consonants r, n, t, m, and f, and the assonance of Arnika/aug-/aus/drauf and Trunk/Brunnen in the first three lines to the casual pointing of “in der / Hütte.”
No translation, of course, can capture these sounds—and I don’t think the retention of the German Hütte helps—but Joris’s version does render Celan’s syntax and word choice with great finesse, so as to foreground the poem’s curious collusion between concrete and abstract within the parameters of a single long sentence draped over 26 lines. Heidegger’s hut is the locus of “ the book,” the urgent interrupting question, “—whose name did it record / before mine?—,” telescoping all the poet’s fears as to those who may have crossed this threshold before him. Hence, in line 9, it is no longer “the book,” an object external to the poet (and the book is also the Bible), but “this book,” this testing ground where the hope is expressed that the “thinker” in question will utter the longed-for word. And even this hope is ambiguous because the locution “kommendes / Wort / im Herzen” (“word / to come / in the heart”) may refer to either the host or the guest.
Or perhaps both, given that the poem now breaks off with a comma and stanza break, leaving the poet’s hope in limbo. The white space between stanzas—this is a Celan signature—is a measure of the actual space now traversed: the compound Waldwasen (“forest sward”) takes us some distance from the Hütte, into the uncultivated turf or peat bog at the outer perimeters of the property, where the orchids grow singly. “Later” (note that time has shifted along with space), an unspecified “crudeness” is mentioned, a crudeness that remains shrouded in mystery. “He who drives us, the man” may or may not be the same as “he who also hears it,” and in any case, what is “it”? Who says it (host? guest? accompanying stranger? driver?), and who are the “us” being driven? These lines constitute what John Ashbery called, in reference to Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, “an open field of narrative possibilities.” Celan’s inspired shorthand makes no statement about the Holocaust; on the contrary, it allows for any number of scenarios.
Now come those brilliantly broken lines, whose harshly alliterating sounds are repeated in Joris’s succinct translation: “the half- / trod log- / trails on the highmoor.” Terra incognita? Unfinished journey? Ambivalent outcome? Misunderstanding? We never find out: in the end there is only something damp, a Feuchtes (“humidity”). And there is viel (“much”). Much what? Or just (too) much? And just as viel picks up the f phoneme of Feuchtes, “much”—the literal translation, used by Celan’s first major English translator, Michael Hamburger, as well as Felstiner and Joris—repeats the u in the preceding line. One thinks of “mulch,” the Waldwasen just traversed.
Bear in mind that all this is perceived in the course of driving away from the scene of the crime: the “half- / trod log- / trails” are seen rather than walked on. The humidity–much complex may thus exist in the mind’s eye or in memory rather than in the forest. But whatever the case, the scene is not pretty: even the wildflowers along the walk and drive cannot make it palatable. At the same time, this condensed set of lines exhibits no trace of self-pity, no foreground of the plight of the undesignated self, no words of wisdom or commentary for the poet’s audience. The situation merely is. And so “Todtnauberg” demands our attention, not because it is “about” Holocaust memory or about Heidegger’s Great Refusal, but because its acute syntactic ellipses and verbal resonance draw us into its very heart.
Joris, who as a native of Luxembourg grew up speaking French, German, and English, is keenly aware of the aporias of translation. He remarks, for example, on the difficulty he had with the final stanza of “Aschenglorie” (“Ashglory,” in Breathturn), which reads “Niemand / zeugt für / den Zeugen.” His first version, he tells us, translated these words literally as “Nobody / witnesses for the / witness.” But “the German word zeugen also has the meaning ‘to beget, to generate,’ a meaning kept more or less alive in the English word ‘testify’ via its Latin root testis, which refers both to the ‘witness’ and to ‘testicle.’” But in English there is no synonym for “witness” based on the verb “to testify”—“the back-formation ‘testifier’ sounds odd and is unusable”—and the sentence “Nobody testifies for the witness” would lose the force of the repetition. In Breathturn, Joris thus chooses the locution, “Nobody / bears witness for the / witness,” “bears” at least connoting “the load of procreation that the German word carries.” Even this translation was found wanting: it evidently put too much weight on Niemand. So in the final version (see Selections) “Nobody” is replaced by the intentionally misspelled “Noone.”
Not all of Joris’s solutions work this well. A case in point is the locution in “ Weggebeizt”:
gedicht, das Genicht
which Joris renders as “my hundred- / tongued perjury- / poem, the noem.” Joris’s note tells us that Mein-gedicht is formed on the analogy of Meineid, a false oath, or perjury. But it can also mean simply “my poem,” and since Genicht is made from the past-tense prefix ge- coupled with the noun for “nothing” (and also echoes the participle vernichtet—“destroyed”), Celan seems to be saying that the hundred-tongued poem which was mine has become a nothing, has been annihilated.
How to render this in English, with or without the secondary meaning of perjury? Like Joris, Hamburger uses “noem,” but renders “Mein- / gedicht” as “pseudo- / poem,” whereas Felstiner renders the passage as “the hundred- / tongued My- / poem, the Lie-noem,” which transfers the meaning of Meineid to the second noun Genicht. But the “nothing that is not there,” to draw on Wallace Stevens, is not necessarily a “lie,” nor does the childish neologism “noem” convey the import of one’s Gedicht being reduced to the emptiness of a Genicht, by that single change of consonant from d to n. At the same time, “perjury-poem” or “pseudo-poem” makes the secondary meaning of Mein-gedicht the only meaning. There is, in this case, no real solution, and this is why, in poetry as complex as Celan’s, bilingual texts are so essential.
Fortunately, we can supplement Joris’s Selections with his comprehensive Green Integer volumes. With these in hand, the reader might well begin with the bilingual Romanian Poems. Here, to conclude, is “Love Song,” in the Semilian-Agalidi translation:
When the nights begin for you at dawn
Our phosphorescent eyeballs will scurry
down from the walls,
You’ll juggle with them and a wave will
crash in through the window,
Our single shipwreck, the translucent
floor through which
we’ll peer at the vacant room below our
You’ll furnish it with your walnuts and
I’ll suspend your
tresses, curtains for the window,
Someone will come and it will, at last,
We’ll return upstairs to drown alone at
Here surrealist love lyric can be seen to anticipate such bitter elegies as “Zähle die Mandeln” (“Count the Almonds”), what with those “phosphorescent eyeballs” (“Those are pearls that were his eyes”) figured as “chiming walnuts.” Most intriguingly, the poem presents shipwreck and drowning as upward movements—movements that raise the lovers above “the translucent floor” and finally pictures them “return[ing] upstairs to drown alone at home.” It is a form of consummation, of upward thrust that looks ahead to the gnomic lyrics of Threadsuns, where “eyelidreflex during / the luxuriant / dreamlevel / null” float upward so that “On the sea-ish woundborders lands / the breathing number.” In comparison to the earlier work, Joris aptly notes, the “late poems were pared down, the syntax grew tighter & more spiny, [Celan’s] trademark neologisms & telescoping of words increased, while the overall composition of the work became much more ‘serial’ in nature.” But the almond-seeds were there all along, and Pierre Joris’s imaginative new translations make it easier for the Anglophone reader to trace their spectral connections.
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November 01, 2005
16 Min read time