Paul Celan was born in 1920 and died in 1970. The symmetry of these dates, arranged around the end of the Second World War, seems cruelly freighted, as does the fact that Celan chose to end his life on Hitler’s birthday. Celan – he gave himself the name by inverting the order of the syllables of his original surname, Antschel – grew up in Czernowitz, then part of Romania, now part of Ukraine. During the war he worked in forced labour camps in Czernowitz, and was released in 1944 when the Soviet army advanced into Romania. Both his parents had also been sent to labour camps in 1942, along with all the other Jews in Bukovina. His father died of typhus, his mother was killed because she was no longer healthy enough to work. The German language, Celan often said, was his mother’s tongue and the tongue of her murderers (‘Muttersprache und Mördersprache’). Writing poetry in German was for him both an act of remembrance and a rescue mission, as if a language could and could not be saved from its historical contamination.
In his memoir the French poet Jean Daive reports an intriguing conversation:
Paul Celan asks me:
– Have you thought of writing in another language?
– No. Have you?
– Yes, sometimes, in French … But it’s not possible.
Celan lived in Bucharest for two years after the war ended, then in Vienna, moving in 1948 to Paris, which remained his home – or would have done if he had believed in such a thing – until he died. ‘Heimat,’ he told Daive, ‘is an untranslatable word. And does the concept even exist? It’s a human fabrication: an illusion.’
The dome of Daive’s title is the foliage of Paris, especially of the area around the École Normale, where Celan taught. The book, which appeared in French in 1996, records conversations that are literary and philosophical rather than confessional, and Daive writes of the ‘charm’ of Celan’s distance. But we get quite a few glimpses of the agitations of Celan’s later life: a ‘failed suicide’, an arrest leading to a period in a psychiatric hospital, the last days of his marriage to Gisèle Lestrange, his death in the Seine.
Daive was 25 when he met Celan, who was then 45, and both of them can be quite sententious in their search for aphoristic wisdom (‘a poet is a pirate’; ‘the world is a theorem that nobody wants to prove any more’). But there is a moment when both men appreciate the comic mischief of chance. They are walking down the boulevard Saint-Michel, and Celan has bought an issue of Die Zeit – he likes to keep up with German culture. He doesn’t need all the sections of the fat paper, though, and ‘feverishly’, Daive says, disposes of many of them as he walks, keeping only the literary pages. These he puts in his pocket. The two flâneurs take a bus to the place de l’Opéra, and as they step off the bus and onto the pavement, Celan finds a complete copy of Die Zeit at his feet. ‘You see’, he says, ‘this happens to me with everything, every day.’
There are all kinds of ways of reading this little allegory. The powers that be don’t like minimalism. Celan’s dream of getting rid of clutter, in life as in poetry, is a lost cause. Or more optimistically, concision in poetry is fine but you can’t expect the world to play along. Celan himself makes this point elsewhere by adapting (in the wrong direction) Hamlet’s ironic remark about his father’s funeral and his mother’s speedy wedding, the fact that ‘the funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’. ‘Thrift, thrift, Horatio,’ he says. In Celan, this becomes ‘Counter-economy, Horatio.’
As his career developed, Celan wrote shorter and shorter poems: brief lines, not many stanzas. He saw himself, we’re told in Microliths, as ‘word-poor and perhaps already irrevocably condemned to silence’. Longer pieces begin to seem strange exceptions. Daive picks up a crucial move in this venture: ‘Absence of the verb: the verb is absorbed into the energy of the composite noun.’ Verbs give clues, over-arrange the story. They involve agents and effects, and who knows if any of us are those or have those?
Microliths gathers together Celan’s hitherto uncollected prose: aphorisms, drafts for stories and plays, fragments of poetic theory, unsent letters, interviews. There are wonderful allusive jokes here (‘There’s something rotten in the state of D-Mark’), but there is also a sense of doom: ‘My Judaism: what I still recognise among the ruins of my existence.’ Celan writes this phrase in French. And there are subtle remarks that connect his poetry to what he imagines poetry more generally to be.
[Poetry is] that which, striving for truth, wants to come into language.
I don’t, in fact, write for the dead, but for the living – though of course for those who know that the dead too exist.
In the poem … the said remains unsaid as long as the one who reads it will not let it be said to him.
And most intriguing, perhaps: ‘There is no word that, once said, does not carry with it a figurative meaning; in the poem the words believe themselves not to carry that meaning.’
There are some interesting glosses too on Adorno’s famous claim that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. One of the meanings of this much misunderstood proposition is that it is barbaric to pretend to be civilised when everything you do shows you are not. This is close to Celan’s suggestion that ‘he who mythifies after Auschwitz is a murderer.’ Another meaning is that poetry is answerable to history, and that to write poetry as if nothing had happened is to cover up all kinds of horrors. Celan brings a curious wit and precision to this argument, noting ‘the arrogance of the one who dares … to poetically describe Auschwitz from the nightingale – or lark – perspective’. He also writes of what happens ‘where the lyrical I goes to the objects to caress them with language’. There may be charm in such work, he says, but it will necessarily ‘lack … the greatness of true downfalls’. He is not thinking specifically about Auschwitz, but the connection is easily made. A great deal of lyric poetry, especially of the civilised-barbaric kind, doesn’t know how to do anything but caress. Pierre Joris quotes Celan as saying something similar in relation to ‘euphony’ in poetry, ‘which more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horrors’.
The German language, like English, uses words as building blocks, but prefers to do it without structural support. Without prepositions, for example. So ‘worldview’ (Weltanschauung) rather than a ‘view of the world’; ‘damagepleasure’ (Schadenfreude) rather than ‘pleasure in damage’. Yet even in a language already devoted to this kind of construction, Celan invents a great many new buildings. Riffling more or less at random through the early poems we find übersternte, umsommert, nachtgewiegte, tagenthobene, Weltabwärts, herznäher. Joris’s deft translations are: ‘starred-over’, ‘ensummered’, ‘night-cradled’, ‘day-removed’, ‘worlddownward’, ‘more heartnear’. Geoffrey Hill had a good time with the title of Celan’s collection Atemwende, or Breathturn (1967). In The Orchards of Syon (2002) he anglicises ‘breathturn’ into ‘turn of breath’. But he also has ‘breath-hitch’, ‘catch-breath’, ‘breath-ply’, ‘breath-fetch’, and ‘breath-glitch’. As if he couldn’t stop the variants from piling up. Celan would have liked the idea, and he wouldn’t have needed the hyphens. There are pieces of verbs in Celan, we note, but they are all past participles; their time of active service was yesterday.
Joris’s translations of Celan’s collected later poetry, Breathturn into Timestead, appeared in 2014, and separate volumes were published much earlier: he started translating Celan in 1968. Now we have the collected earlier poems. Joris speaks of the pleasure of going back to ‘these four books in their order of composition’, and we may mention another pleasure: that of rereading the complete poems in a flipped arrangement, the second half first. It is astonishing how ‘late’ some of the earlier poems feel. This effect is enhanced by Joris’s style as a translator. A poet himself, he is not afraid of strangeness in diction. He doesn’t seek it out, but he knows when it sounds good. He brings us very close to Celan at work, shows him leading the words along and being led by them, as Celan himself describes the process.
We can think of the poem ‘Heimkehr’ (‘Homecoming’), probably written in 1955, which concentrates so firmly on its unmetaphorical snow that it is hard for us to think of anything else. But then it’s hard too not to think of the several different histories the snow invites us to imagine. What does snow have to do with sleep? Who are the lost? Why are the separate hills some kind of home? What loyalties does the flag represent? A note suggests the poem is in part an improvisation on Kafka’s story of the same title.
Snowfall, thicker and thicker,
dove-coloured, like yesterday,
snowfall, as if you were asleep even now.
Far layered whiteness.
Over it, endless,
the sledtracks of the lost.
what hurts the eyes so much,
hill after hill,
brought home into its today,
an I that slid into muteness:
wooden, a stake.
There: a feeling,
blown over here by the icewind,
fastening its dove-,
its snow-coloured flagcloth.
The books brought together in the new volume are Mohn und Gedächtnis/Poppy and Memory (1952), Von Schwelle zu Schwelle/Threshold to Threshold (1955), Sprachgitter/Speechgrille (1959), Die Niemandsrose/NoOnesRose (1963). The first of these includes most of the poems Celan published in 1948, in a volume he later withdrew from circulation because of its many misprints. It contained his most famous poem, ‘Deathfugue’, first published in a journal in 1947. Much later, Celan said he was ‘far away’ from that poem, and insisted, whenever it was reprinted, on its being separated from other works by a blank page before and after. In the same interview, in 1969, he also said that he ‘rarely’ read it in public any more. It’s worth pausing over these comments, because we can respect his sense of things without letting the extraordinary qualities of the poem escape us. No poet wants to be known for only one poem when he has written so many others.
The rhythm of the poem has the mood and movement of a ballad or a nursery rhyme, an ironic lightness that contrasts powerfully with its horrific content.
Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
It seems grotesquely comic to address the milk here. Why tell the milk it is being drunk? Does it need to know? If it knows anything it probably knows about that grave. There are interesting points of translation here. In Joris’s version, above, the camp inmates call the milk ‘you’ throughout. In other translations (by John Felstiner and Michael Hamburger, for example) and in the German text, they start by calling the milk ‘it’ and then move to ‘you’. I like the (incorrect) intimacy from the start, and confess that I had to look at several editions to find out what is happening. I initially read the ‘it’ (sie) as a polite ‘you’ (Sie) – all it takes is a capital letter (which isn’t there). And of course if you heard the poem without seeing a text, there would be no difference.
The poem continues:
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his dogs to come
he whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth
he commands us play up for the dance
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz
This is not so comic, and the equation of dogs and Jews is ugly, but the pace is still jaunty. We move very quickly through various assertions and juxtapositions. The placing of the fading light suggests we are somewhere to the east of Germany, where Margarete presumably resides. In the next stanza the poem invokes another woman, Shulamith, first heard of in The Song of Songs, and whose hair is ‘ashen’, not golden. She has no association with Goethe’s Faust or with German fantasies of blonde beauty. Her later avatar would be just the woman the man who writes is not thinking of – unless he remembers her as an inmate of the camp.
The German critic Hans Egon Holthusen saw what was ‘light’ about the style of the poem, since he used that word, but went on to associate the effect with ‘a dreamy surrealism already beyond language’, and an ability to ‘escape the bloody chambers of horror of history and rise up into the ether of pure poetry’. I would like to think that most readers feel exactly the opposite – that the remorseless levity of the verse makes the bloody chambers of history all too present – but who knows, and Celan himself certainly turned away from such ironies.
It’s helpful to listen to Celan read this poem (as we can on YouTube). He begins in a rather dry manner, as if only impersonality could suit these lines, and gets quite a way into the poem in this fashion. But well before he arrives at the poem’s last iteration of the milk and the grave, the man with the snakes and the two women, his voice has changed and slowed down, and there’s an anxiety, a sort of secrecy in it, as if the text were not supposed to be heard from too far away. He seems ready to break down when he says, for the third time in one stanza, that death is a master from Deutschland. This is not dreamy surrealism: he’s too human for the irony of his own text.
Celan told the poet Ingeborg Bachmann that the poem was ‘a tombstone epigraph and a tombstone … My mother too has only this grave.’ In many modern cases, counter to older traditions, graves in the earth are anonymous and collective, while graves in the air are individual and named – that’s why it’s so ironic that the poem should call a grave in the air the snakeman’s ‘gift’. There is a moving continuation of this thought in the later poem ‘Cenotaph’, where Joris’s note tells us that the two Greek words that make up the word for the memorial mean ‘empty’ and ‘tomb’. The poem says: ‘He who was supposed to lie here, lies/nowhere.’ The German doesn’t have the interesting pun on ‘lies’.
It does remind us, though, that lying nowhere, in ‘Deathfugue’, is lying at ease. ‘Da liegt man nicht eng,’ literally, ‘one doesn’t lie in a narrow space.’ If one is buried in the air, one has all the room absence and imagination can confer. And eng, ‘narrow’, is the key word in what Joris calls a ‘rewriting’ of ‘Deathfugue’. This is a poem Daive translated into French; indeed he speaks of working on it ‘side by side’ with Celan in a café. It is also fairly long, one of the strange exceptions to what I said earlier about Celan’s poems getting shorter with time. It is called ‘Engführung’, literally ‘narrow-leading’ or ‘leading in to the narrow’, and was written between July 1957 and November 1958. Celan chose the musical term stretto for the French translation and Joris follows suit. The reference is to the subject of a fugue being repeated before the first statement of it has finished; the poem notably offers almost no space for irony or evasion.
Eight of its nine sections are followed by a stutter of repetition (‘nowhere nowhere’, ‘came came’, ‘still the one still the one’, ‘covered it up covered it up’ and so on), as if we can’t be relied on to remember what we have just read. The last and most mysterious of the remarks on poetry I quoted from Microliths is helpful here, the one about language being figurative as soon as it is spoken, and the words of poems believing they can put a stop to this. Here the words are ‘carried over’, übertragen, and the words imagine they are unübertragbar, ‘un-carry-over-able’.
They’re not, but they can make the carrying difficult, and ‘Stretto’ does this very well. It takes us into a place with an ‘unmistakeable track’. There is grass there, ‘written asunder’, that is, presumably, split into too many words, or into words with no syntax. ‘Stop reading,’ we are told, ‘look!’ And then, ‘Stop looking – go!’ The place has no name but it is where ‘they’ lay. Or it isn’t. ‘They didn’t lie there.’ Years pass, hurricanes come and go. Were they hurricanes, though? Celan writes twice of ‘particle flurries’, Partikelgestöber, and of what ‘we’ read somewhere:
know this, we
read it in the book, it was
We may think of the camps again, and perhaps we need to. Joris reminds us that Celan’s language in the poem comes close to that in his translation of Jean Cayrol’s text for Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, a documentary about Auschwitz. But we are missing one of the main events. Or I was, until I saw in the notes that Celan is quoted several times as saying the poem is about ‘the ravages of the atomic bomb’, about ‘atomic death’. ‘The book’ is where Democritus says: ‘Nothing exists except atoms and empty space, everything else is opinion.’ Celan insisted that he wrote this poem ‘for the sake of this opinion – of the humans, and thus against all emptiness and atomisation’.
When we read this, we see the waste land and its track differently. Only some kind of vegetation has remained, ‘a sepal, a/thought of plant life’. And a stone. But then the ‘stone’ turns out to be ‘hospitable’. It speaks, and ‘the world, a thousandcrystal’, begins to assemble again. But what world is this?
In owlflight, near
our fled hands, in
the latest fault lines,
bullet trap on
the ruined wall:
choirs, back then, the
psalms. Ho, ho-
Michael Hofmann, in a remarkable piece in this paper (23 May 1996), points us towards Felstiner’s scary commentary on these lines. We recognise the reference to ‘Hosanna in excelsis’, but would we know without his help that ‘the Hebrew term means ‘Save [us] please!’? Will we catch the echoes of a Nazi marching song (‘Huzza, ho-ho’)?
In spite of these echoes, and the allusion to choirs, there is little verbal music in the poem, not much rhyme or echo, no allusive play of words. There is what there is (what is left), presented in language that is referential but not metaphorical. It may be hard to hang on to this distinction, but at least we can think of the grass, the plant, the wall, the temple and the star as entities in their own right before they lapse into summary and symbolism. Thoughts of Ruskin revive at this refusal of the pathetic fallacy; and Susan Sontag’s arguments against metaphor find a friend.
This poem is the last piece in a volume called Sprachgitter, and that name helps us quite a bit, even if it does contain a metaphor. A Gitter is a grid or grating or lattice or mesh; a street gutter, railings, a cooking grill, the bars of a cage. It is what we see language through, or perhaps it simply is language. Celan himself says that at this point in his career (it was 1957) ‘the difficulty of all speaking (to one another) and at the same time the structure of that speaking is what counts’.
Slanted, in the iron socket
the smouldering splinter.
By its light-sense
You guess the soul.
‘We are strangers’, the short poem called ‘Sprachgitter’ asserts. We are ‘mouthfuls of silence’ even when we speak, especially when we speak. But there is that light between the bars, and there is that guess. If we start as modestly, as unfiguratively, as possible, we may after all get somewhere, find some snowy connection between ourselves and others.