Tag Archives: atemwende

Testifying with Paul Celan. Again.

Before moving on with the above, I need to add a personal note about mental illness. I’m type 2 bipolar and was in a relationship with my wife from the age of 14 until 61 when she died. Between 2006 and 2008 I had three particularly severe episodes of depression that required admissions to hospital. The second and third of these came very close to ending our marriage. I therefore probably over identify with this that Celan wrote for Giselle, his wife in 1963.

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You - all, all real. I - all delusional.)

I’m not claiming a precise parallel here but I do find these four lines to be packed with stuff that speaks to me. Our relationship was healed by means of counseling as a couple in conjunction with psychotherapy for me. Because of our professional backgrounds we were very good at obtaining NHS services so both of these went on for years rather than months. It may not seem apparent but both of these processes involve the subjects in providing testimony and bearing witness of themselves in the hope of some kind of redemption or expiation.

Apparently this poem has been written about many times by critics concerned with meaning. I think I’m more concerned with effect, whilst acknowledging that there may be many different levels of ambiguity and portent. I have always recognised that these line speak of mental health and the resultant dynamic between ‘us both’. This is because of Celan’s self-identification as both ‘the transpierced’ and delusional.

For me, Giselle is bowed down because of the behavioural difficulties that come along with this kind of illness whereas Celan is stabbed across his body, in a way that damages both his lungs and his heart. I’ve never been entirely clear as to the inclusion of ‘am subject to you’ unless it refers to the fact that, when ill, we’re incapable of making decisions and these have to be made by our partner, we’re also very, very withdrawn.

This flaming also presents a few problems because of the many ambiguities. What we know is that, by this stage, Celan’s work was becoming increasingly sparse with each word and phrase carrying a great deal of significance. The question could therefore be strictly one of poetics as in where would a single word come from that could ‘do justice’ to all the nuances of this crisis. This requires reading ‘flame’ as something springing to life although this isn’t to ignore the Old Testament speaking from the burning bush.

I therefore think that this kind of testimony is very different from the one used in WORDACCRETIONS that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Most of the work is read as bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. In this instance it does appear that something more intimate is going on. One of the indicators for this is the fact that the entire poem is in brackets as if cordoning it off from all the rest of the poems in the Atemwende collection. Writing about another poem (ASHGLORY), Derrida makes the slightly convoluted point that as soon testimony is made available then it ceases to be testimony. This is because, by its nature, testimony contains information that is only known by that individual. I like this particular convolution because it gives some emphasis to the essentially personal and intimate nature of providing this kind of material. It also points to the flaming as something destructive as well as creative.

There’s also some distancing going on in this line, it is a word that is testifying on behalf of the couple rather than they themselves. Without getting too lit crit, this is different from the final anguished three lines of ASHGLORY;

No one
bears witness for the
witness.

Here, there is no individual that bears witness of behalf of the witness instead of an element of language.

My own experience indicates just how hard it is for someone with this kind of illness to ‘open up’ about anything and how especially difficult it is for couples to collectively to disclose the very private and personal details of their lives together, particularly when these are in crisis.. In this respect the first statement is quite revealing perhaps saying that “I may be delusional, inferior to you and in all kinds of emotional and mental pain but I do know you like nobody else does”.

There is as well the ambiguity of the last line, if the poet is completely delusional then how is it possible for us to pay attention to his work and this poem in particular? This apparent self-abnegation might also be an angry retort to Giselle. One of the difficulties for the ‘sane’ partner is to know when the other is being delusional and when he/she is both rational and lucid. It is extremely unlikely that Celan, who may well have been very ill, was ‘all delusional’ all of the time but it is a barb that can be thrown by a partner as an expression of their exasperation and consequent anger.

To conclude, these four lines speak of a different kind of witnessing and testimony but make the same ‘point’ about how difficult and yet crucial it is that we perform this act.

Moving on, this is the last of the ‘testimony’ poems;

ERODED by
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
experienced - the hundred-
tongued perjury-
poem, the noem.

Evorsion-
ed,
free
the path through the men-
shaped snow.
the penitent’s snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlors and -tables.

Deep
in the timecrevasse
in the
honeycomb-ice
waits, a breathcrystal,
your unalterble
testimony.

As with WORDACCRETIONS, we appear to be dealing with geology and its processes but here there seems to be more about human activity. The poem’s addressee appears in the second line in terms of speaking and of language which wears away this false poetry. This ‘noem’ is said to be produced by many people or by many languages. In either respect this perjury could arise from the simple fact that no two eye-witnesses will give an identical account of the same event and a hundred people will contradict each other so much that it is difficult to establish what actually occurred. The same can be said for languages, one of the main skills of the translator of poetry is to tease out the intended meanings with all there nuances and put them into another language where a ‘like for like’ substitution may fail completely in conveying the full weight of what’s been said.

This ‘gaudy chatter’ indicates more than a degree of contempt for those who are chatting. Gaudy, for me implies something bright and colourful but at the same time tasteless and banal. To chatter is to spend time in trivial, unthinking conversation. I’m a cultural snob of the first order and have no time for either of these but I’m also well aware that part of this is a class foible, my bourgeois fear of and distaste for the crowd.

Perjury, however, is a deliberate act. It involves giving evidence, providing testimony, that you know to be untrue which it is why it is a criminal offence. This poem then is deliberately untrue rather than simply being the product of too many tongues.

We now return to geology. I was surprised to find that ‘evorsion’ isn’t in the OED but two minutes with the interweb tells me that it’s a geological term referring to “The formation of niches or potholes by erosion due to vortices of water”. We now have three different kinds of erosion: by sunlight; by wind and by water. Each of these reshape the landscape in a gradual and destructive way.

Snow and ice are recurring images in Celan’s work and ‘men’ is a loaded term in its angrily ironic reference to what the Nazi’s saw as the difference between the men of the Aryan race and the sub-human Jews. The penitent’s snow is completely new to me but another 20 seconds with the interweb tells me that it’s;

“Penitentes, or nieves penitentes (Spanish for “penitent-shaped snows”), are snow formations found at high altitudes. They take the form of elongated, thin blades of hardened snow or ice, closely spaced and pointing towards the general direction of the sun.

The name comes from the resemblance of a field of penitentes to a crowd of kneeling people doing penance. The formation evokes the tall, pointed habits and hoods worn by brothers of religious orders in the Processions of Penance during Spanish Holy Week. In particular the brothers’ hats are tall, narrow, and white, with a pointed top.

These spires of snow and ice grow over all glaciated and snow-covered areas in the Dry Andes above 4,000 metres or 13,120 feet. They range in length from a few centimetres to over 5 metres or 16 feet.

There is thus a path, big enough for a man to walk through, across a field of these strange structures which reaches these welcoming rooms. I am reasonably flummoxed ( lit crit term) by the hyphen or dash in front of ‘table’ because it’s unusual in Celan’s and suggests that the first part of a compound word is missing. Of course, that’s the only explanation that I can think of and I readily accept that there may be many others. It may be that the gaps there to indicate the repetition of ‘glacier’ from the beginning of the line but, in English at least, we understand that an adjective can refer to more than one noun.

Ice and snow have been taken to refer primarily to the harsh winters that his parents endured in labour camps in Ukraine. Ice also brings stasis, it prevents things from moving and causes pliable objects to become brittle. Glaciers, on the other hand, are mobile and transform the landscape significantly by means of erosion. A Crevasse in this instance is a deep and dangerous cleft in the ice which can move without any prior warning. Things temporal always disturb me a bit because the mention of time is likely to refer to the work of Martin Heidegger who I now see as both a vile anti-Semite and a charlatan.

However, on a reasonably superficial level, this crevasse could mark a split in time. Many victims of the Holocaust reported that they felt that history had simply stopped because of the unimaginable violence of what they were suddenly experiencing. The split, on this tentative and provisional reading could (might) indicate the temporal chasm opened up by the Holocaust.

Atemwende, the title of this collection translates as ‘Breathturn’ and this was of great importance to Celan. This is a note from 1960-

‘What’s on the lung, put on the tongue,’ my mother used to say. Which has to do with breath. One should finally learn also to how to read this breath, this breath-unit in the poem. In the cola meaning is often more truthfully joined and fugued than in the rhyme; shape of the poem: that is presence of the single, breathing one-

And this perhaps adds some context to the geological themes;

The stone is older than we are, it stands in another time; in the together conversation with it, the one facing us in silence, we set ourselves in relation to the space from which it stands towards us; from this direction, the direction of our speaking, our words are given their share of colour and reach (magnitude).

As the stone, as the other, the inorganic will

    resemble

that which in us is not plant and animal-like: it becomes the spiritual principle, it reaches down into the depths, it rises up.

So, if we take these into account, the rocks of the planet are like our spiritiual component and it is breath that carries the truth. Elsewhere in his notes Celan refers to ‘breath units’ as the essential components of the poem. It is possible here to see the breathcrystal as such a unit that has been turned to crystal by the cold. The last two lines make it clear that this particular formation is now set and cannot be changed.

I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this assertion. Bearing witness to even the most horrific event in our history is obviously essential but testimony, once it becomes evidence comes into a very fluid realm whereby the facts of any event can begin to shift and blend into something quite different.
I’m not suggesting that Holocaust deniers shouldn’t be stringently challenged but I’m not entirely convinced that criminal prosecution is the most helpful response.

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown some of the main ways that Celan writes about the different types of witnessing and testimonies and how these ‘fit’ with the rest of his hearbtreakingly brilliant work.

Paul Celan’s Testimonies

Since all my recent attempts of re-enchantment with poetry have fallen flat on their face, the only book I took with me on a recent trip to Bolivia was the Pierre Joris translation of Celan’s Atemwende and was thus able to give some unfettered attention to the themes and issues raised in that collection. As with Prynne, Celan’s later work has an ability to completely absorb me and, on this occasion, for the first time in 30 months, I became well and truly hooked.

Amongst many things, my eye was caught by the references to testimony and testifying in three successive poems at the end of the first section of the collection. I’ve written before about what Derrida has to say about witnesses and evidence with regard to Ashglory from the first collection but I noticed other aspects with these three that I’d like to expand upon here.

The first poem of the three is Wortaufschuttung which begins with;


    WORDACCRETION, volcanic,
    drowned out by searoar.

Celan worked as a translator and one of his main creative concerns was language and its many uses. Here, accretion seems to point towards some kind of organic or natural accumulation and ‘volcanic’ could point to either an eruption or to lava flows Initially I took ‘word’ literally, as the collection of nouns, verbs and other parts that go to make up a single language but I’ve now more or less come round to the noun referring to individual languages with the image of the Tower of Babel at the back of my head.

The second line is slightly more awkward, to drown something out is to make a noise that prevents the original thing from being heard (although it is still making a noise. However, to drown someone is to immerse her in water until she dies. The last compound word would seem to point both these possibilities.

The other point that I’d like to make is Celan’s view that The Poem has its roots in the absolute blackness, in a kind of enveloping dark. In an unusually lit crit moment, I’ve had a glance at Celan’s notes for the Meridian Address and now want to throw this into the mix as a way of making a little more sense of what might be going on;

Thickness to be understood from the geological, and thus from the slow catastrophes and the dreadful fault lines of language – – –

This is from a section entitled Opacity of the Poem and may indicate that ‘accretion’ may be exclusively geological rather than everything organic or natural. Sadly things aren’t made any easier with the next part of the poem;


    Above,
    the flooding mob
    of contra-creatures: it
    flew a flag - portrait and replica
    cruise vainly timeward.

These are the kind of lines that have given Celan a reputation for Extreme Difficulty but I would maintain that paying some focused attention can reap rewards. It’s usually helpful to work out what is apparently being said. In this instance, there’s a flooding group of opposing creatures that may or may not be above the accretions. This mob raised a flag or standard as it proceeded. An unspecified portrait and replica move without success towards time. The flying of flags is a symbol of territorial identity and pride, the raising of a national flag can be the prelude to a military flag. The lose the flag in battle is a sign of defeat. On the other hand, ‘mob’ usually denotes an unruly and violent group intent on violence and destruction. The adjective may describe the way in which a large mob can suddenly occupy city streets and squares, as in the French and Russian revolutions.

The quality of being a creature appears at a crucial point in the Meridian Address;

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders that language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

I’m reading, provisionally and tentatively, ‘contra creatures’ as those things which are against creatures and its quality which seems to be bound together with the business of poetry making. Being with a capital b is always a worry for me as, in this instance, is ‘timeward’ because they are both likely to refer to the work of Martin Heidegger and I don’t want to think too hard in that direction. Suffice it to say that Celan was a keen reader of Heidegger and his work also drew on various strands of mysticism. The two cruising objects are much more promising. We refer to a figurative portrait as a likeness and replicas are, by definition, perfect likenesses of their original. The questions here seem to be; what exactly are the originals of these two objects and why are they cruising in vain?

I now have a further confession to make, as well as being a Heidegger sceptic, I get a little bit irritated by Celan’s use of the dash which would appear to indicate different things in different places. In this particular stanza there is also a colon that should probably be a semi-colon. This is less than helpful.

The final stanza offers some clarifications of the above but also adds its own challenges;


    Till you hurl forth the word-
    moon, out of which
    the wonder ebb occurs
    and the heart-
    shaped crater
    testifies naked for the beginnings,
    the kings-
    births.

We’re now dealing with big things and with Celan’s never-specified yous. The word-moon is said to somehow produce this special ebb in conjunction with an unusual crater. This particular kind of moon has similarities with the accretion in line one but also has the ‘normal’ lunar ability to create tidal movement. The crater bears witness for the birth of kings. This would seem to indicate some parallels with the birth of Christ and perhaps other sagas and myths relating to royal babies. The ‘you’ addressed here could be:

  • God;
  • his parents who died in the Holocaust;
  • all the victims of the Holocaust;
  • a lover;
  • Giselle, his wife;
  • the reader.

It’s reasonable to suggest that testifying is a key concern in the last decade of Celan’s life. I’ve written before about the judicial and historical aspects of this act and its crucial role with regard to the Holocaust but here I’d like to think about other connotations. The first is religious, the OED informs me that ‘testimony’ also used in the Old Testament to denote “the chest containing the tables of the law and other sacred memorials” which I will return to shortly. The other straw to be clutched is geological in that the accretion of material is how rocks are formed and how strate can contain fossils and other indications of past events. Craters are formed by and thus testify either to the impact of meteorites on the earth or the eruption of volcanoes.

I must stress that I’m not trying to minimise the place of the Holocaust in Celan’s work, I just think that there are equally brilliant poems that attend to other matters. For WORDACCRETION I now seem to have a satchel’s worth of ideas and potential links. In assessing these it’s usually as well to bear in mind Celan’s self-confessed penchant for ambiguity.

The most apparent ideas seem to relate to beginnings and violence. There are several references to geological and cosmological processes and these are set alongside hurlings, drownings and floodings as well as volcanoes and a turbulent sea. When I was in primary school I was shown illustrations of what our early world might have looked like. This quite frightening image has stayed with me and is again evoked in this poem. Reluctantly I have to ask whether cruising ‘timeward’ is an indication of a period before time was created by the big bang or whether it relates to the more esoteric state of timelessness.

We then come to signs: words; replicas; portraits and heart-shaped craters all ‘stand’ for something else. perhaps the replica is the exception because they can be dismissed as fakes or used by forgers for financial gain. A volcanic eruption is a sign of a break or rupture in the earth’s crust. If ‘volcanic’ refers to the accretion of words then we would appear to have something violent and dangerous emerging in the form of language. These contra creatures could be those things that are not creatures, ie don’t have creatureliness, rather than things that are simply opposed to creatures. As I understand it, the idea of things having creaturely qualities is tied in Heidegger’s demarcation of those things which have Being and those that don’t.

The crater is in the shape of a heart and heart shapes generally stand for and relate to love which leads me tentatively and provisionally to suggest that some kind of redemption is going on. It is just about possible to read the first two lines as being about the Tower of Babel and the punitive creation of different languages so that people (beings) would lose their arrogant claims to be equivalent to God. I’d point to the portraits and replicas as being religious works of art depicting Christ and gracefully skim over both the word moon and the wonder ebb.

In addition, I’d also like to point out that secondary meaning of testimony and its role as the ‘keeper’ of the Mosaic laws and traditions. There’s also the practice of testifying your faith in some evangelical churches.

Of course, this is my subjective evaluation and should never be thought of as definitive. Hopefully it does offer a way of thinking about this material in a way that is helpful and rewarding. From my perspective, being able to become absorbed in this level of obduracy is a major indication that the process of re-enchantment has begun.

Projective verse and breath-units, the Olson/Celan mix.

This might take some time, I’ve been adding some stuff to the Celan section of arduity with regard to the notes and drafts to the Meridian, a book which was published in 2011. In the course of looking through the notes I came across a reference to the “breath-units” and “(Buber)”. Now, I’d normally see this as vindication of the view (nearly wrote ‘fact’) that the thought of Buber was more influential in Celan’s poetry than Martin Heidegger ever was. To some this may seem a small and trivial point but it’s one of the view bits of lit crit that are important to me simply because putting, as many still do, the poetry within distinctly German brackets (Heidegger, Rilke, Holderlin etc) is missing the point.

We now come to the Charles Olson element in this revelation. Aficionados of all things Cambridge will know that Charles Olson produced in 1950 a statement of poetics, ‘Prospective Verse’ which contained this:

And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.

Here is Maurice S Friedman’s (1955) description of the Bible translation into German undertaken by Buber and Rosenzweig:

The translation is set in the form of cola (Atemzüge) rhythmic units based on natural breathing pauses. These serve the purpose of recapturing the original spoken quality of the Bible.

Given that Celan gave his speech in 1960 it is likely, according to my small brain, that (as a literary translator) he would have been aware of the Olson manifesto but it is Buber’s name that appears in the notes. Given that Olson was fairly ploymathic, it may be equally reasonable to suppose that he was aware of the rationale behind Buber’s translation.

The reason that this apparent similarity struck me is that I’m an undiluted fan of both and really want them to be singing from the same song sheet if only because the breath principle undermines many centuries of syllable and rhyme-based notions of form and structure.

The only problem that I have as a reader is that I don’t see this breath-unit mularkey reflected in the subsequent work of either poet but this may be because I haven’t been looking. In my head, Olson has always been more about what the line does rather than what it is. With Celan, the vast majority of lines seem to be too short to be ‘breath-units’.

I can however see how both poets were attempting to struggle free from the traditional constraints of verse and produce work that was a conscious challenge to what had gone before. There’s also the fact that poems were spoken before they were ever written down and that the breath is probably a more authentic unit in this regard than the metre.

Olson’s ongoing concern with the line is much more in evidence in ‘Maximus’ and this goes back at least as far as his time at Black Mountain College in the early fifties, in a letter to Robert Creeley he remarks what a pleasure it is to talk with Cy Twombly about the line because they both had the same view. Obviously this is not the place to juxtapose the Twombly line(s) against those of Olson but it is to suggest that Olson might be more concerned more about what the line can do rather than as a measurement of breath.

I’m going to try and illustrate this with Olson’s poem about his dad which starts of in fairly conventional fashion:

      I have been an ability - a machine - up to 
    now. An act of "history", my own, and my father's
    together a queer (Gloucester-sense) combination
    of completing something both visionary - or illusions (projection? literally
    lantern slides, on the sheet in front-room Worcester,
    on the wall and the lantern always getting too hot

The minor breaks with tradition consist of double spaces between words and lines starting in the middle of the page and some passages with bigger indents than the rest.

The end of the poem has lines which are impossible to put into HTML, some slant upwards forming a curve which is followed by a circle of text which starts with two upwardly slanting lines in the middle, the words then go anti-clockwise in a circle. After the circle is more or less complete, there is a way line that is upside down before we conclude with lines that slant down / up / down / up ending with ‘Forever Amen […]’

I would argue that the very variable line length in ‘Maximus’ does not relate to the exhalation of breath but is more concerned with what that physical length achieves as well as the occasional use of block capitals and lines from one word to another and the use of single and double underlines. I am however more than prepared to be proved wrong, I’ll readily confess to having only a superficial knowledge of the Projective manifesto but it does seem to be contradicted in the work.

Olson is much more accessible than Celan but both of them have a clear interest in line length and the shape of the poem- this ‘Vom Grossen’ from the Atemwende collection:

    BY THE GREAT
    Eye-
    less
    scooped from your eyes:

    The six-
    edged, denialwhite
    erratic.

    A blind man's hand, it also starhard
    from name-wandering,
    rests on him, as
    long as on you,
    Esther.

Any attempt to pay attention to the above must, I would argue, delve around the Eye- / less line break and have a look at six- / edged as well to try and get an idea of what’s going on with line length and whether this is just about structure and shape or whether these breaks place a different kind of emphasis on the sense. What I think is reasonably clear is that single syllable lines can’t be counted as ‘breath-units’ unless each line break is meant to signify a pause for breath but this seems to spoil the run of ‘starhard / from name-wandering’ which is a completely brilliant phrase in itself but which would be marred with a pause.

Incidentally, Pierre Joris has recently posted Two uncollected Celan poems on his blog from 1968.

Using Celan to read Celan

I’ve used ‘I know you’ as an example of what a short poem can do and now I want to try and use Celan’s notes for ‘The Meridian’ to think bit more about this remarkable poem.

I’m going to use the Pierre Joris translation of the poem because it makes ‘sense’ and the Felstiner doesn’t. This is the German followed by the Joris-

(ICH KENNE DICH, du bist die tief Gebeugte
ich, der Durchbohrte, bin dir untertan.
Wo flammt ein Wort, das fur uns beide zeugte?
Du-ganz, ganz wirklich. Ich - ganz Wahn.)

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You - all, all real. I - all delusion.)

Joris’ note to the poem states that it was written in 1965 for Gisele, Celan’s wife and that it has been the subject of much critical attention and analysis. I haven’t read any of this so I may be about to unwittingly say what has already been said.

If we take the poem as an address to Gisele then the above can be read as referring to Celan’s mental illness and the effect that this has had on their relationship. Closer examination however reveals several other elements that need to be thought about but I’d like to start with the obvious first.

By 1965 Celan’s mental illness was reasonably well-established and he was receiving electro-shock treatment as a way of reducing the severity of the episodes. Since about 1960 Celan and Giselle had periods of living apart primarily because of his ‘difficult’ behaviour which included bouts of paranoia.

So, Gisele is the one who is deeply bowed or weighed down by the poet’s illness and behaviour, he is the one who is fixed and defined by his condition whilst remaining devoted to Giselle. There is a problem about acting as witness to the difficulties that exist between them. In the final line Celan contrasts his own symptoms with his wife’s sanity and groundedness.

I’ve already said that this superficial reading speaks to me because of my bipolarness and the effect that this has had on my marriage so I think (or I like to think) that I can identify with the tone of the address and with the circumstances that these things may have been said. I also think that the poem strikes another blow for those of us who wish to see Celan taken out of the Holocaust and Heidegger boxes beloved of so many critics. In fact I’d like to claim Celan for madness and Kropotkin in thinking about the later work.

Of course, as with all things Celan, things are rarely straightforward. There is the brackets problem, the choice of adjectives, the ‘you’ problem and the incredible complexity of the third line. Some of these are helped, but not resolved, by the Meridian notes and we’ll need to start with the notion of the encounter.

The Brackets.

We know from the notes and the address itself that Celan thought of the poem as the opportunity for an encounter and that this encounter is both personal and tactile (conversation and handshake). A poem written by husband to wife at a time of marital stress carries more than a degree of intimacy and this may explain the brackets within which the entire poem is placed- as if these four lines are marked off or in some way removed from the rest of the collection. If this is the case, and it may very well not be, then there is the decision to publish problem. If we are to read this as a quiet cry of desperation which acknowledges the pain caused by madness and the brackets as a sign of privacy then publication does seem a bit odd.

Brackets are also used to enclose information that isn’t essential to what surrounds it but serves to add additional context or clarification. In the above paragraph I could have let ‘personal and tactile’ stand without further qualification but chose to add two of the specific examples that Celan provides to make his point. I think I did this for two reasons- the first being to justify my paraphrase, especially my use of ‘tactile’ and the second was to clarify that by ‘intimate’ I was not intending any kind of sexual connotation. I think that I chose brackets rather than commas to indicate that this element wasn’t essential to my argument or train of thought and should be seen as additional or supplementary.

With regard to this poem, it may be that the brackets here also denote information which is not essential for reading the rest of ‘Atemwende’ but which nevertheless ‘informs’ elements of the other poems. It could be that Celan was trying to indicate that his mental anguish and the difficult relationship with Gisele underlay the other poems in the volume or that he was trying to amplify one particular theme that occurs in other poems.

Some people may feel that I’m paying too much attention to something that may simply be a rather mannered device but Celan never did things without giving them careful consideration and it is very unlikely that the brackets are where they are just for ‘effect’.

The You Problem

There are many yous in Celan’s work and the addressee can be God, his parents, a lover, other victims of the Holocaust or a combination of these. You can also refer to friends and acquaintances. The yous are rarely identified in the poems and their identity has to be worked out by the rest of the poem and this isn’t always possible. In this instance things make a lot more ‘sense’ if we identify all four yous as referring to Giselle although this might not be the case with the you that Celan is subject to. As with most of Celan’s later work, things may only become a little clearer if the rest of the poem is placed under the closest scrutiny.

I Know You.

The seems like a very direct and unambiguous statement until we ask whether a wife would need to be told that her husband (for the previous twelve years) knew her. So perhaps we need to consider what kind of knowledge this might be and the reasons for placing it at the start of the poem. The phrase could signify that the poet knows all there is to know about Gisele and this could then be seen as some kind of threat- I know all of your secrets and I’m now going to divulge these to the world. The phrase may also indicate the start of an encounter triggered by this recognition. If we recognise a friend that we haven’t seen for a long time then we may start this encounter with a handshake so Celan may also be indicating that this is the start of a specific and real encounter rather than the idealised one that his poetry usually aims for (the message in a bottle motif from the Bremen Prize speech).

The other intention may be to announce the poet’s credentials in saying what he is about to say- I know you and my knowledge of you leads me to say these things. Of course, some of these things appear to be contradictory.

The Bowed Subject problem.

If this poem is in part ‘about’ mental illness then the description of Gisele as ‘deeply bowed’ may refer to the pressure that Celan’s condition has placed upon her and weighed her down. At the beginning we therefore have an acknowledgement of the damage that Celan’s behaviour and irrationality has caused- in the early sixties Celan had to move away from the family home because of fears for the safety of Gisele and Eric, their son. Ths seems to be contradicted a little by the second line where the poet declares himself to be ‘subject’ to Gisele. So, if this second ‘you’ is his wife then there is some kind of paradox- my behaviour oppresses you and wears you down yet I (who am mad) remain your subject and will therefore do your bidding. Of course ‘subject’ has many other connotations and meanings but it does seem that at a primary level this apparent paradox is being expressed.

Transpierced

I’ve said before that this describes for me the experience of mental illness, the feeling of being both wounded and immobilised at the same time, the sense of being slowly robbed as the episode intensifies until I arrive at the point where nothing can be done/thought/said. Because I’ve received a lot of attention from mental health professionals over the last five years, I’ve had many attempts at summing up the experience of being severely depressed but I’ve never come close to anything as accurate and telling as this.

The Witness Problem.

Jacques Derrida has written at length about the meaning of Celan’s question about witnessing for the witness at the end of ‘Aschenglorie’ and the third line seems to take us in the same direction but closer examination reveals that the question here is of a completely different order. ‘Where flames a word’ isn’t asking about who will witness or how this will be done but about the place in which a word/language will be born that will testify for them both which is asking something much more specific and personal. Is it this word that Celan the poet is searching/questing for? Is this why the poem is published?

I’m taking the last line at face value, referring to the difference between the afflicted poet and his mentally healthy and grounded wife but I do have to ask if the last two lines are in the right order. It does seem that the there are a series of statements in lines one, two and four but that line three poses the question that arises from these statements. As I said at the beginning, line three is wonderfully complex and brilliantly crafted and (with my fondness for great endings) I’m puzzled as to why Celan should order thing in this way.

The Notes to the Meridian are published by Stanford University Press and are widely available.

Paul Celan and Breathturn (Atemwende)

I was going to plunge straight into another enthusiastic and starry-eyed account of the Meridian notes and then cleverly attempt to tie this into what Prynne says about startling verse and end by having another look at the various solutions to the above problem by Geoffrey Hill. This seemed to be fairly well thought through until I realised that there may be some readers who have never read any of Celan and another group who do not share my enthusiasm.

I’m therefore going to begin this by providing some background and som e indication of why I think the work is vitally important. Celan was born a German speaking Jew in Romania in 1920, his parents died during the holocaust, Celan was in a labour camp but survived and after 1945 made his way to Vienna and then to Paris where he worked as a translator. Celan s probably still best known for ‘Death Fugue’ a poem that many saw as a fitting riposte to Adorno’s quip about any form of poetry being impossible after Auschwitz. The poem received universal acclaim and was taught throughout Germany. Although Celan lived and worked in Paris, his poetry was written in German.

All of Celan’s output can be seen as a response to the Holocaust but it increasingly becomes a challenge to the poetic and to language. This became increasingly radical and the work after 1960 became increasingly austere, focusing almost exclusively on ‘fundamental’ issues. This later work was rejected by many of Celan’s earlier admirers although a few did see it as the emergence of a crucially important voice in European literature. Celan experienced severe bouts of depression during most of his adult life and killed himself by throwing himself into the Seine in 1970 at the age of 50.

Celan is a poet of extremes, the later work confronts poetic form and convention and tackles issues that most of us would rather not think about. Celan’s admiration of the works of Martin Heidegger have led a swathe of critics to write about Celan purely in terms of German existentialism which conveniently overlooks his enthusiasm for Martin Buber and ongoing interest in Jewish mysticism.

I think I need at this stage to try and give some illustration of the development of Celan’s work. This is from ‘Death Fugue’ which was published in 1952 but was probably written towards the end of the Second World War:

He calls out more sweetly death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
there a grave you will have in the clouds the one lies unconfined

(This is the Michael Hamburger translation)

And this is the entire text of ‘Eroded’ which was published in ‘Atemwende’ in 1967. This is the Pierre Joris translation:

ERODED by
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
experienced-my hundred-
tongued perjury-
poem, the noem

Hollow-
whirled.
free the path through the men-
shaped snow,
the penitent's snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlours and -tables

Deep
in the timecrevasse,
in the
honeycomb-ice
waits a breathcrystal,
your unalterable
testimony.

This, it has to be said, is one of the more ‘accessible’ poems in ‘Atemwend’ but I’ve used it to denote the change in ‘register’ and because it has the breath word, the importance of which will become apparent.

One of the things that JH Prynne and Geoffrey Hill have in common is that they have both written overtly Celan-related poetry. Prynne’s ground-breaking ‘Brass’ collection contains ‘Es Leber der Konig’ which is subtitled ‘For Paul Celan 1920-1970’. This is how the poem ends:

                                     Only
the alder thrown over the cranial push, the
waged in completeness, comes with the animals
and their watchful calm. The long-tailed bird
is total awareness, a forced lust, it is that
absolutely. Give us this love of murder and
sacred boredom, you walk in the shade of
the technical house. Take it away and set up
the table ready for white honey, choking the
white cloth spread openly for the most worthless
accident. The whiteness is a patchwork of
revenge too, open the window and white fleecy
clouds sail over the azure;

it is true. over and
over it is so, calm or vehement. You know
the plum is a nick of pain, is so and is also
certainly loved. Forbearance comes into the
stormy sky and the water is not quiet.

Hill’s ‘Tenebrae’ collection contains ‘Two Chorale-Preludes on Melodies by Paul Celan’ This is the second poem (entitled Te Lucis Ante Terminum’ and subtitled ‘Wir gehen dir, Heimat, ins Garn…..) in its entirey:

Centaury with your staunch bloom
you there alder beech you fern,
midsummer closeness my far home,
fresh traces of lost origin.

Silvery the black cherries hang,
the plum-tree oozes through each cleft
and horse-flies syphon the green dung,
glued to the sweetness of their graft:

immortal transience, a 'kind
of otherness', self-understood,
BE FAITHFUL grows upon the mind
as lichen glimmers on the wood.

I’m going to resist the temptation to do a ‘compare and contrast exercise’ because that would be yet further digression. I’ve included the above simply to demonstrate that both of our finest poets have paid close and respectful attention to Celan. In his essay ‘Tacit Pledges’, Hill makes this observation:

Take as our correlative an entry in Wittgenstein’s ‘Notebooks 1914-1916’ which became formulation 5.64 of ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ of 1922, the year in which Housman brought out ‘Last Poems’ and Eliot published ‘The Waste Land:

“Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism.”

“The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.”

The grammar of modernism in its closest matching of Wittgenstein’s statement appears as the semantic and syntactical catalepsis of the last poems of Paul Celan and the final plays of Samuel Beckett.

Now we can move on to the aforementioned ‘breathturn’- in 1960 Celan was awarded the Georg Buchner Prize for literature and the Meridian is his acceptance speech. It is the most detailed description of Celan’s poetics and has been discussed and argued over ever since.One of the more crucial paragraphs is this-

Poetry: that can mean an Atamwende, a breathturn. Who knows, perhaps poetry travels this route – also the route of art – for the sake of such a breathturn? Perhaps it will succeed, as the strange. I mean the abyss and the Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automatons, seem to lie in one direction- perhaps it is exactly here that the Medusa’s head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the autonomous break down – for this single short moment? Perhaps here, with the I – with the estranged I set free here and in this manner – perhaps a further other is set free?

So it would appear that this breathturn is linked with the process of making poetry and poetry itself. It will also be noted that the reference is sufficiently ambiguous to put a whole range of explanations on it.

The recently published notes that were made in preparation for the speech however cast a surprisingly different light on the issue. There is a section entitled ‘breathturn’ which is divided into four subsections (‘breathturn’, involution’, ‘leap’ and ‘reversal – the foreign as the most own – Jewishness’), the first of which contains this:

I had survived some things – but survival \Uberstehn\ hopefully isn’t “everything” -, I had a bad conscience: I was searching for – maybe I can call it that? – a my breathtuurn …

This may introduce a more specifically biographical dimension nto things. It is thought that Celan felt guilty that (on the night that they were rounded up) he had been unable to persuade his parents to go into hiding. Given the reference to his own survival, his ‘bad conscience’ may well refer to this event.

Hill also addresses the breathturn problem with several different attempts at interpretation during ‘The Orchards of Syon’ together with an odd address to the dead Ingeborg Bachman, Celan’s lover when he was living in Vienna, speculating on Celan’s taste in women.

So, for those of us convinced of Celan’s centrality to modernist verse, ‘breathturn’ is a keyword and this latest revelation should cause most of us to go back to the drawing board. I think it’s fair to say that most readers have centred on the poem as a result of something called a turn of breath. In my head, I’ve combined this with the ‘breathcrystal’ to arrive with a definition that’s about the transformational aspect of doing poetry.

Waiting for a breathturn as a means of resolving or dealing with or coming to terms with a bad conscience moves us into much more personal territory. If ‘Eroded’ is in part about how Celan felt about the success and reputation of ‘Death Fugue’ then ‘breathcrystal’ can be seen as the product of bearing witness to the Holocaust. I’m not sure how far this gets me but there are two further references to ‘breathturn’ in this sub-section of the notes.

I’m now stumbling reluctantly into the ‘voyeur’ problem which in this instance combines with the reliability problem. I’ve decided that I don’t have a problem reading stuff that wasn’t intended for publication and any queasiness I might have had was swept away by the publication of some of Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts in that the only reason these hadn’t been published was the fact that she set herself such stupidly high standards. Celan’s notes are a little different, what we know of him leads me to believe that he wouldn’t have been comfortable with this level of exposure and he made a deliberate choice to litter the speech with ambiguities and loaded terms that he was probably happy to let stand. On the other hand, he did keep the notes and he kept them in a way that could be followed- there are dates and there are headings so it can be argued that he is putting his thought processes on display for the benefit of some future reader(s).

On balance I’m reasonably okay with paying some attention to the notes which contrasts with the extreme queasiness I feel when trying to read the Lyons book which is based on Celan’s marginalia in the Heidegger books that he possessed. I’ve written about this before, suffice it to say here that I don’t think that this is an appropriate or helpful exercise. So, having drawn my personal line in the sand (drafts and notes good, marginalia unutterably bad) I can now address the reliability problem. The next section in the notes also contains the ‘b’ word but three quarters of the section has been crossed out (this includes the ‘b’ word). Given that these notes shed additional and very helpful light on our quest for a definition, this does throw up some interesting questions:
1. What it mean to draw a single diagonal line over two lines of text?
2. How much weight can we give to anything in these two lines when compared with text that hasn’t been crossed out?
3. Wouldn’t it be easier to ignore everything that’s been crossed out?
4. Didn’t Derrida once say something quite deep about this crossing out business?

You will be delighted to know that I don’t intend to dwell at all on the last of these. Sorting out the first three will be best achieved by looking at the notes in question.

The first two lines are underlined and set out like this-

there too it still gives you a chance
to it faces you with silence

The next two lines are struck through with a single line going from bottom left to top right:

maybe we can remember the the medusa-likeness of poetry remember it faces you 
with silence it takes your breath away: you have come to a breathturn

So, given that we can’t ever know why this was crossed out, we have some further context to work with. The ‘b’ word is also a manifestation (effect) of our encounter (another key word) with poetry (the poem). These four definitions- poem, catharsis, doing poetry, effect of poetry aren’t easy to reconcile but I’m happy to have more definitions/ambiguities to think about than a single ‘clean’ resolution. Life and poetry don’t work like that.

Paul Celan in translation

As I’ve said before, Paul Celan’s work has been an important part of my life since adolescence. His later poems have buried their way deep under my skin and have enriched my life. I don’t care what his detractors may have to say, everything after ‘Atemwende’ is both important and inspiring to me.

Given the nature of Celan’s work, for those of us that don’t have any German, translation is crucial. I recognise that each translation produces a new poem and can accept this with most of Celan’s work (even when those ‘new’ poems aren’t very good).

There is one poem from ‘Atemwende’ that is particularly close to my heart. I first read ‘Erblinde’ at the age of 14 or 15 in Michael Hamburger’s translation for the Penguin Modern European Poets series and it has remained with me ever since as an indication of the possibilities of what a poem can do. I don’t intend to offer a detailed interpretation – what I want to do is set out the problems that can be caused when a new poem comes along.

The new poem in question is the one produced by Pierre Joris, an excellent translator, critic and poet whose judgement I trust.  I set out below both versions of the poem and then try and explain my dilemma.

Hamburger’s version reads:

Go blind now today:

eternity is also full of eyes –

in them

drowns what helped images down

the way they came,

in them

fades what took you out of language,

lifted you out with a gesture

which you allowed to happen like

the dance of words made of

autumn and silk and nothingness.

The Joris version is –

Go blind today already:

eternity too is full of eyes-

wherein

drowns, what helped the images

over the path they came,

wherein

expires, who took you out of

language with a gesture

that you let happen like

the dance of two words of just

autumn and silk and nothingness.

This isn’t a new poem, it’s radically different poem that walks all over the poem that I’ve lived with for the past forty years. If this was a Felstiner version then I wouldn’t really care because I don’t trust his work generally. Joris, on the other hand, has clearly thought long and hard about his engagement with Celan and has also produced some of the clearest prose on the poet that I’ve read. So, I clearly can’t (won’t) give up on Hamburger but I am forced to consider that my version may be flawed and this is disconcerting to say the least. It isn’t just the words but also the placing of the commas which transforms the poem into something else- something much less lyrical and poetic. I’ve done the dictionary thing and I’ve looked at the original punctuation and it does seem to me that the Joris version is more faithful to the original- but I’m not sure that I want a ‘faithful’ poem. I want my poem back.

Celan, Derrida, Joris and the witness business

A while ago I wrote about Celan’s poem which begins “Aschenglorie hinter” with specific reference to what Derrida wrote about the complexities involved in bearing witness. I’ve now read Pierre Joris’ excellent essay on the same poem and have come to the conclusion that those complexities are more important than I first thought.

Joris is a poet and translator of poetry. Along with Michael Hamburger he has produced the best translations of Celan’s work. When I say “best’ I acknowledge that I don’t speak a word of German and therefore cannot attest to the veracity of any translation but I do recognise a poem that ‘works’ well in English.

Hamburger didn’t translate ‘Ashenglorie hinter’ – it doesn’t appear in any of the three editions that I’m aware of. He took the view that some of the poems were/are untranslatable and left them alone. Joris does not share these qualms, his  translation of the ‘breathturn’ collection contains a sensitive and honest rendition of the poem whilst the essay explains how he got there. Whilst Derrida provides a very detailed analysis of the witness problem per se, Joris focuses more on the biography of the poet and rightly calls our attention to the problems posed for Celan by the success of ‘Todesfugue’ which did attempt to bear witness to those who died in the Holocaust and to Germany to account.

Despite the success of this poem Celan refused to have it anthologized throughout the sixties because of his view that its message had been hijacked by those striving to rehabilitate Germany on the world stage. The enigmatic final phrase from ‘Aschenglorie’ reads:

Nobody
bears witness

for the witness.

Joris points out that this can be read in a number of different ways, reflecting survivor guilt, self-pity and the desperate compulsion to testify with all its (English) connotations even though the act of bearing witness in itself may be fundamentally flawed. Derrida goes one step further by pointing out that witnessing is an impossible task (This is a crass paraphrase of a much longer argument) and both ponder out loud on ‘testis’ which is both the latin root of testify and of testicle, throwing this generative quality into the mix of possible allusions.
What I like about the Joris essay is that it lets us readers in on the mind of the translator and the absolutely honest way that a ‘difficult’ poem can be addressed, he is describing his task without showing off and displaying complete respect for the text. Celan, like all great poets, was concerned with the choice of words in a very considered and deliberate way, Joris works with the poem in the same way and does not try to score his own points (a common fault amongst many translators) but his focused solely on rendering the depth and truth of Celan’s work.
With regard to Celan, both Derrida and Celan ask themselves if they are over-reading, if they are seeing things that aren’t really there. With most poets this could be a problem but I don’t think it is with Celan because the later work becomes more and more densely compressed to such an extent that I don’t think we’ll ever grasp the full meaning.
It’s also immensely refreshing to read two experts write on Celan without dwelling on the Heidegger connection.
Joris’ Breathturn collection is available from a variety of second hand booksellers online and his essays ‘Justifying the Margin‘ (which also contains an excellent piece on the ‘Todnauberg’) poem is available from Salt. Derrida on Celan (Sovereignties in Question) is available from the AAAARG.ORG site free of charge.