Tag Archives: i know you

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.


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.


What short poems do

When I was 15ish, I was of the view that poetry was about compression, that it’s primary purpose was to condense and intensify life as it is lived. I hadn’t arrived at this conclusion from any deep knowledge or understanding but I did know that Paul Celan had written the most obviously important poetry that I had come across and that the more austere later works were staggeringly good. This view was solidified by Samuel Beckett’s ‘Lessness’ which seemd intent on paring things down in a similar way.

Over the last forty years I’ve weaned myself off this early certainty and discovered the many joys of the longer poem and the pleasure to be gained in losing myself for page after page. The problem with having Celan for a template has meant that very few poems have met my early standards and those that do tend to be part of a sequence rather than a ‘stand alone’ poem. I was thinking about this the other day when writing about Andrew Marvell’s ‘Garden’ sequence and found myself trying to work out what I look for in short poems.

The first and most obvious quality is brevity but the kind of brevity that says a lot without appearing to try whilst the second is about depth or perhaps profundity but a depth that is worn lightly and thus avoids ramming the ‘point’ down my throat. The third is about a good start but a better finish in that the opening should attract my attention and hold my interest whilst the end should be both sharp and accomplished.

I want to use four short poems to try and demonstrate what I mean, I’ve chosen these because I think that they are successful in their own right (although three do belong to a sequence) and because they all manage to kick off a series of related thoughts which may or may not have been part of the original intention.

Reitha Pattison’s Fable I

I’ve written about this recently but I want to use to show just how much a few lines can hold:

A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.

The first element relates to fables and various other forms of the same kind of thing. Emblem books during the 16th and 17th centuries made great use of these stories so I’ve been led back to Whitney and the popularity of the emblem form and the conscious use that Spenser and others made of emblems. The illustration in Whitney’s great collection of the dog and his reflection is remarkable in its directness.

I’ve also been reading Alistair Fowler on the impact of the epigram on what is referred to as the English Renaissance and beyond and Pattison’s Fables do share many epigrammatic features which has brought me to think again about the use of such forms as life lessons and their equivalents in the popular culture of today.

The mix of Providence and an agrarian work ethic is startling because the two are not obviously related and it’s taken me a while to think this through. Providence is defined by Alexandra Walsham as a the “sovereignty of God and His unceasing supervision of and intervention in the earthly realm” whereas ‘work ethic’ is a term used by Weber to ‘explain’ the relative economic success of Protestant northern Europe when compared with the Catholic south. The story of the ant and the grasshopper tells of a grasshopper who does little during the warm summer months and an ant who puts stores food for the winter. Of course, the grasshopper has no food and starves having been rebuked by the ant for his idleness. The original point is reasonably straightforward but Pattison plays with it to bring other dimensions to bear.

Geoffrey Hill’s poem LI from ‘The Triumph of Love’

I am aware that the above sequence really needs to be read in its entirety in order to be fully appreciated but this particular poem meets all of the above criteria and succeeds in its own right. It also provides what is perhaps the central point of the work as a whole:

Whatever may be meant by moral landscape
is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in crass section: igneous, sedimentary,
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,
individual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.

This is particularly satisfying because it’s a quite statement in the middle of some quite dramatic flourishes which attempt to encapsulate some of the worst aspects of the 20th century and provides the key as to why we have come through those appalling experiences. So it’s a kind of riposte to those who see only brutality and mindless slaughter but it’s also a self-contained statement of faith in a ‘particular grace’ and the finer qualities that each of us possess and which run across and outweigh our many and various ‘faults’. It is a remarkable statement and one that continues to provoke a number of questions- as a more or less committed atheist, the notion of grace means little to me but I would argue that the other three qualities do play a huge part in getting us through although I’m not entirely sure that the geological analogy works for me it is still remarkably accomplished, keenly felt and a brilliant statement of quite a complex and nuanced position.

Andrew Marvell’s Poem VI from ‘The Garden’

I’ve written recently about another poem in this sequence so I don’t intend to repeat myself here. This particular poem stands out from the others both for its tone and for the things that it appears to be saying which ‘work’ on a number of different levels:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I’m firmly of the view that Marvell has never been given his due and I think the above is an example of both masterful control and an ability to say complex things in startling ways. Nigel Smith’s commentary tells me that the above continues to give critics fertile ground for controversy and debate but I just think that it’s very, very well put together and contains a satisfyingly high level of ambiguity. ‘Green’ had a number of connotations apart from those relating to the environment in the 17th century, as did ‘shade’ and the contrast of these thoughts with the more psychological description is at odds with the rest of the sequence but also indicates just how different this period was from our own- something we tend to overlook especially when thinking about the English Civil War. I’m currently pursuing the role of green in the period and it is fascinating.

Paul Celan’s ‘I know you’

I want to finish with this because I started with Celan and he is the best and what follows demonstrates this. We often think of Celan primarily as Jew and in relation to the Holocaust but the four lines below were written to/for his wife, Giselle. By the early sixties the marriage had become strained primarily because of Celan’s ‘difficult’ behaviour which was due to his mental health problems. As someone who has similar problems, I read it as an exposition of the kind of tensions and pain that such issues can cause:

(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.)

This has also generated swathes of critical attention and debate but for me it’s heartbreakingly accurate, the use of ‘transpierced’ speaks to me at a very deep and personal level and the third line encapsulates so much of the desperation that many of us go through. It is also fitting that the entire poem should exist in a bracket.

There are very few poems (of any length) that manage to speak to me in this way and I remain awed by Celan’s incredible ability to make difficult things very solid. I’ve been thinking about the Meridian notes a lot recently and this for me embodies what Celan says about the poem as creating an opportunity for the encounter with the reader that is almost tactile. This does that for me.