I will always remember this as the summer I discovered Paul Celan. I was familiar with the name. If you spend much time at all in the precincts of contemporary poetry you stand a very good chance of hearing, seeing, reading, stumbling upon the name Paul Celan. It is like hearing of an exotic country where a lot of painful and beautiful things have occurred, a place at once alluring and frightening, hellish and paradisiacal. A place where opposites are commingled in a blush of twilight air, where quivers of the ineffable glimmer among the debris of the literal.
I came to Celan by an indirect route. My wife Roberta had read an autobiographical account of meetings and talks with Paul Celan by the French poet Jean Daive intriguingly titled Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop and published by Burning Deck in 2009, and said that it was a beautiful and moving book. That Paul Celan was a haunted figure who wrote a remarkably intense and riddling poetry. That Paul Celan was from a Jewish family living in a remote part of Europe called Bukovina, which at the time of Celan’s birth in the 1920s was part of Romania and is now a part of the Ukraine. That Paul Celan’s parents had been interned in a concentration camp after the Nazis occupied Cernăuți. That Paul Celan had tried arguing his parents into leaving the country but that his parents had insisted on staying at home and that he’d gotten so angry that he went to spend the night at a family friend’s house and it had been on that very night that his parents were arrested and sent by train to an internment camp in Transnistria where his father died of typhus and his mother, exhausted by forced labor and no longer able to work, was shot dead. Paul, who had later been arrested and taken to a labor camp in the Romanian Old Kingdom, learned of their deaths during an exceedingly cold winter. That, partly as a result of immense survival guilt and the pain of these events, Celan had developed a highly ambivalent relationship with the German language. His mother had loved the German language and insisted on speaking it in the house. The language became imbued with conflicting emotions, conflicting values. German became a subject of joy and torture, a thing to bend and distort, a hell and an illuminating energy, a monstrous obstruction and an engine of deliverance.
Ultimately, the pain would prove too overwhelming, too enduring. Paul Celan ended his life by suicide, entering the Seine from Pont Mirabeau about April 20th, 1970, around Passover. A strong swimmer, he drowned unobserved.
Shortly after Roberta finished reading Under the Dome, another book appeared: Breathturn, poems by Paul Celan translated by Pierre Joris. This was a small book, published by Green Integer, on which Paul Celan’s face smiles amiably, his eyes peering out deep and dark and penetrating.
These books occupied the periphery of my consciousness for several years. Then, having decided one day to go to Paris rather than buy a car, I began reading them. I started with Jean Daive’s book, eager to get a view of Paris, acquaint myself with the names of some of the places we might visit. I did not know how powerfully the book would influence me, or how truly extraordinary Celan’s poems would turn out to be.
Under the Dome is presented in fragments. There is no narrative chronology beginning with their first meeting and continuing till his death in 1970. Paul Celan appears and disappears at different times on different occasions so that there is a feeling of a continuous present, a period of time roughly from 1965 to 1970, Paul Celan’s last, increasingly dark years, recollected from a distance of 20 years in a different part of the world, a Greek Island “amid the still green pears of a café set back from the sea…” Daive identifies the Aegean with an elusive, intangible pain. “The Aegean Sea is in front of me. Against my table and beyond my book, pines, waves breaking on the sand. The Aegean is a wound. I never talk of it. It is blue, transparent, I see it. I don’t see the wound.”
Always nearby is a donkey whose immobility serves to underline a spiritualistic distance of some testimonial, unconquerable mass of time. “He does not eat. He does not work…. The donkey is all I think about. He augments a distance…. In the solitude of the island, the donkey’s presence sometimes rends the air. He cries, he weeps, he brays. I hear him. And I hear within me a still living mass fall into the sea, into the Seine.”
The donkey is a medium, a meridian collapsing the barriers of time, the past from the future, the future from the past. The donkey is assertively there, occupying space, yet seems to be outside time, occupying a zone similar to that of a fundamental plane marking an imaginary sphere of the present (a café on a Greek island) to its counterpart in the past (Paris in the late 60s) and so creating the hemispheres of an imaginary zone where events in the past appear to be projected on the inside surface of a celestial sphere, lucid and phantasmal, like images in a camera obscura, as if the mind were a lens and the sky were the underside of a dome. Jean Daive peers across this horizon at events that continue to occur in a living tableau of the past, in which chestnuts thud to the earth and he and Paul Celan “walk side by side, the Seine black on our right.”
We step over ladders, tables, chairs, cross bridges, walk along façades, railings, more façades, walls, more walls. Two voices. We are two voices. One low, the other toneless. Many juvenile gestures. Complicit looks. Smiles. Lots of complicity. We linger under the mass of a paulownia, then make for the chestnut trees farther on. Night. Moon. We talk. Jubilantly. The “Aufklärung.” “Hung up on the inner corpse,” Paul Celan quotes Artaud. “There are two ideal states for man: extreme simplicity and extreme culture.” A remembered poster: “The One Alone exists.” We look down on the moist leaves. Rustlings that we interpret. We advance into the swinging night. The invisible.
“Syntax torments the narrative that words cannot untangle,” writes Daive . “A story means progression, means torment.” Daive’s fragments oppose progression. Each is a dreamscape, a dream place, phantasmal and outside the limits and torments of time. “The poet’s room is full of words,” observes Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Reverie,
words which move about in the shadows. Sometimes the words are unfaithful to the things. They try to establish oneiric synonymies between things. The phantomalization of objects is always expressed in the language of visual hallucinations. But for a word dreamer there are phantomalizations through language. In order to go to those oneiric depths words must be given time to dream.
The news of Celan’s death is trauma. It leaves a scar, a tear in the membrane of time, and causes a break with the grounded and literal, with everything in fact. Even language: “My distress afterwards. Lasts and lasts. A month of emptiness, of anguish. Of no solid ground. Days absolutely empty. I feel his death in me as a break with the human world. With language.”
The incidents related in fragment are marked by the kind of vividness, the kind of lucidity that accompanies a heightened sense of the transitory. “I may know that our travels on earth are a dream. They must be. Interrupted by the flash of an encounter.”
It is these sudden bursts, these éclats of lightning-bright insight, the rush of lucidity into the shadows and vague apprehensions of our consciousness, these profound experiences of the unsayable, the ineffable, the that take our breath away. That give a start. We pause. We reflect. We resume our breathing. But with an augmentation. With an inhalation of fumes from an abyss, which we call inspiration, a magnitude of excitement characterized by an acute sense of otherness, particularly the inaccessible other in oneself. It is a species of awakening that Celan termed “Atemwende,” or “Breathturn,” and provided as title to a collection of poetry published in 1967. “Poetry… holds its breath before the problematic legitimacy of submitting the question of life to the Question of Being, of life to Being,” observed Jacques Derrida in his book on the poetics of Paul Celan, titled Sovereignties in Question in English, Schibboleth in French.
One imagines the color red as a whisper emanating from jagged tear in the canvas of time. Followed by silence. A deep, impenetrable silence, aphorisms of frost on the bump of being. Furrows imprinted with the hooves of deer, which may also be the dance of stars.
“Moderation is never obscure, and excess is always captive of knowing,” Celan tells Daive on one of their walks in Paris’s Contrescarpe. The Place de la Contrescarpe is in the ancient Faubourg Saint-Médard and is the axis of a large, formerly working class district, that spreads to the south on both sides of the market street Rue Mouffetard. It is legendary for being a haven for outsiders. It is said that François Villon and Rabelais frequented this neighborhood. The wine was cheap and untaxed.
“By his side,” writes Daive, “I feel enclosed in a dark knowing without unease, without irritation. He is aware of it: no stranger to anything in the world.” “A world,” Daive continues,
as in a dream, nocturnal, unraveling around the paulownias of the Contrescarpe. Crates stained with peach juice, crates full of half rotten tomatoes, black hands eating almost liquid pears and bluish hearts of lettuce…. We walk down Rue Mouffetard… The clouds scatter in the distant sky and beyond the sky.
“There are two worlds,” Celan tells Daive, “the world and the world of the star. And I haven’t yet mentioned the world of the shoelace.”
There is also the world of the shell.
“Toward the end of winter,” Daive writes, “Paul visits me on Rue Coquillière.”
He crosses the footbridge and notices the three leaves carved in lead. He comes in, charmed by the place. “Your place is a place of poetry. A poet’s place.” Too taken aback to reply, I wait for him to finish his praise to announce: “You know, the meal will be just as simple.” “Ah.” “Tomatoes with shrimp.” “Ah.” “Tomatoes with shrimp, the shrimp have been shelled one by one by…” “Like my poetry, in short: every verse has been shelled, every word.” “Yes.”
Daive is also a photographer, has the eye of a photographer. “A first portrait,” he writes midway into the book, “[Paul Celan] is waiting for me on the sidewalk of rue d’Ulm. Against the light, I surprise him with his head inclined, listening, his ear glued to an invisible wall: time. He is auscultating time.”
My intrigue mounts. I ask Roberta if I can see her book of Celan’s poetry. She brings me Breathturn, Celan at his densest, the poems published in 1967, translated into English by Pierre Joris, and published by Green Integer in 2006. I flip to one of the poems: “When I knead the lump / of air, our nourishment, / it is leavened by the / letters’ shimmer from / the lunatic-open / pore.”
The brevity, the multilayered density, the freakish syntax, the intensely metaphorical language carried to an extreme of imaginative wildness, is characteristic of Celan’s remarkable sensibility. This is the first time I have encountered a poetry of such startling originality and energy since my first discovery of Rimbaud in 1966, or Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont that same year. The poems are triumphs of the creative spirit over psychological pain. It is unfortunate for me that they are written in German, as I’ve spent the last several decades trying to learn French, and haven’t mastered that language sufficiently to move on and learn another language. Celan’s magnificent adventures in German, however, may tempt me to wade into the language just a little bit. I do know that one of German’s more droll and wonderful characteristics, and certainly a pull on my attention, is an openness to neologism, the creation of new words by welding two or more nouns together. The result is often a shiny amalgam of semantic juncture.
One of the more remarkable words I have encountered in Breathturn (German Atemwende) which is itself an amalgam of ‘breath’ and ‘turn,” is “wortdurchschwommenen” which Joris translates as “worddrenched.” Worddrenched is quite wonderful, which is how it came to catch my attention, for one can imagine a being - a poet - dripping with words, or envision the work itself sodden with linguistic possibility. I do have a pocketbook German dictionary, and access to any number of online dictionaries and translation services, and so I did a little more research into this word and arrived at a clunkier, more literal translation as “word thoroughly swum through.”
It is a concept which can be experienced, felt, perceived, explored as a pool of syllables, as a stream rippling with semantic possibility, as a medium to engage physically, bodily, and in which might also be found a deep silence. The poems do not move fluidly. Quite the contrary: they halt, they stumble, they collide. If there is swimming, it is that of the person who has waded into a rough stream, balancing themselves very carefully over a series of jagged, slippery rocks until coming to a deep interruption in the stream, a tranquil depth in which to immerse themselves.
The word for ‘swim’ in German, ‘schwimm,’ is very close to English. Water, in German, is wasser. To drink, trinken. One can hear glass in that word, a toast being made, glasses clinked. Reading Celan one almost immediately begins sewing associations. One could also say sowing associations. Scattering seed. In German, samen. Almost the same as English semen. Because of his conflicted feelings about the German language, Celan’s poetry imparts a visible agitation, a struggle that stresses and strains his language as much as he plays with and inseminates it, impregnates it with the capacity to dream, imagine, set oneself adrift in reverie. As soon as we seem to connect with the sense of otherness the poem incarnates, it slips away, disappears with a flick of its vowels. And we must plunge deeper into that sea to find it again.