Category Archives: covid-19

Paul Celan’s poetic voice.

I start this with some trepidation, I enjoyed making the previous piece on Jones and Hill because it clarified a few things for me that had been lurking at the back of my head. Applying a similar filter to Celan seems fraught with a higher level of difficulty because of his subject matters and the sparse ways in which these are addressed.

In his comment on the Hill and Jones meandering, Confiteor observes;

It would seem likely that Celan’s extreme paranoia made empathy and compassion for others difficult for him. If it is present in the work, it goes without saying that it’s not ‘clearly and unambiguously expressed’. How then do we assess voice — raw, human, and personal — in Celan?

It apears to me that there are elements of this humanness in some of the work and I’ll try and attend to some of the ambiguities in these below. As ever, these observations are both tenuous and provisional.

The poems that immediately spring to mind are those addressed to Gisele, his estranged wife, and those that are to do with the victims of the Holocaust.

This, Joris’ notes tell me, was written a week after seeing Gisele for the first time in a year;

WHY THIS SUDDEN AT HOMENESS, all-out, all in?
I can, look, sink myself into you, glacierlike,
you yourself slay your brothers:
earlier than they
I was with you, Snowed One.

Throw your tropes in with the rest:
Someone wants to know,
why with God I
was no different than with you,

someone
wants to drown in that,
two books instead of lungs,

someone who stabbed himself into
you, bebreathes the cut,

someone, he was the one closest to you,
gets lost to himself,

someone adorns your sex
with your and his betrayal,

maybe
I was both

The notes also tell me that Celan had made an attempt on his life by stabbing himself in his chest but had only succeeded in injuring his lung.

As someone who has spent more time than most planning to do away with myself, the above makes me feel a bit queasy. I’m of the view that suicide is such an intensely raw and personal thing that it should be dealt with creatively with extreme care and discretion.

I experience this as very raw indeed because of how it intertwines these mental agonies with lust and mutual transgression. For late Celan, it’s also quite direct.

In terms of ‘voice’ I think the repetition of ‘someone/einer’ contrasted with the ‘I’ at the beginning and end of the poem gives it quite an angrily sarcastic effect which feels more than a little self-indulgent. It may also be the trope that Celan refers to as belonging to Gisele.

It’s important not to ignore the adornment and betrayal couplet which hints at mutual infidelities yet this ‘adorning’ is set in the present tense, The poem was written in response the couple’s first meeting in a year. The notes helpfully point out that ‘sex’ here can mean both the sexual organ and progeny/family/lineage.

I’m not denying the essential honesty of what’s been expressed, it’s just that I detect some cruelty that isn’t particularly pleasant.

Turning to something much more public, this demonstrates a heartfelt concern for the victims of the Holocaust;

THE INDUSTRIOUS
mineral resources, homey,

the heated syncope,

The not-to-be deciphered
jubilee,

The completely glassed-in
spider-altars in the all-
overtowering low-building,

the intermediate sounds
(even yet?),
the shadowpalavers,

the anxieties, icetrue,
flightclear,

the baroquely cloaked,
language-swallowing showerroom
semantically floodlit,

the uninscribed wall
of a standing-cell;

here

live yourself
straightthrough, without clock.

Here we appear to have have another unusually clear and direct poem, on this occasion addressing the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. The notes tell me that Celan had retained a newspaper clipping that stated “In the standing-cells of Bloc 11 at Auschwitz, many detainees starved to death”.

I’m not going to do a line by line reading, instead I want to concentrate on the poem’s underlying humanity in its understanding of and compassion for millions of victims of Nazi savagery. The last three lines would seem to indicate that, in the present/now of 1967, it is still possible to live a life provided that it is removed from time. By ‘straightthrough’ I’m taking it that Celan intends something like directly and without encumbrance. This is reinforced by the fact that we are still, as in ‘even yet?’ held in by these ‘shadowpalavers’ which might relate to the kind of post- war special pleading done by ‘ordinary’ Germans regarding their culpability for the Holocaust.

As with much of Celan, the phrasing is both startling and accurate. The fact of the industrialised gassing of 6 million people does obliterate and trivialise language, does call into question all the achievements of Western culture and may still be fatal to all kinds of artistic expression within that tradition.

The instruction to ‘live yourself’ is telling, especially as it comes from a man who was making attempts to do away with himself and who succeeded three and a half years later. The compassion here, I think is about Celan’s ongoing sense of involvement with the dead and with his absolute need to do something positive in response to their destruction. This might not be the kind of humanness that many of my generation can readily relate to but we need to recognise it as one of the nobler/honourable kinds of response.

Of course, I don’t have any direct experience of genocide, nor of occupation by a foreign power so I don’t know how these things might feel with any kind of accuracy. What I can say is that, throughout my adult life, I have relied on the work of Celan to provide a framework for knowing how to feel about this especially terrible event and thinking about what it signify for living humans in the present.

Paul Muldoon does Covid-19

The WordPress control gizmo tells me that I wrote about my Paul Muldoon Problem on here nearly 10 years ago when I was a blog newbie. The problem is what I read as an almost permanent tendency in the work to veer from the very good to the quite bad. This was quite infuriating at the time and remains so today.

I was reminded of this last week when the Times Literary Supplement published Plaguey Hill which is a fifteen part consideration of all things coronavirus. I’ve written recently about my attempts to make poems in these tricky times and confess to still being daunted by the challenge to produce appropriate and useful work. It is, to my mind least, crucial to produce work whilst the virus is still ravaging large parts of the world because viewing this thing from the inside at least captures what things might be like in the now. I’m trying to write something now as well as completing side two of the multi vocal audio piece and I’m having to try really hard to keep my many and various outrages at bay- every day there seems to be another thing to be appalled by and the political beast in me is tempted simply to list these so that we don’t forget just how criminally negligent our leaders have been. Then there is the ‘following the science’ problem which, given its various provisional and contradictory findings’ makes life more bewildering for all of us. I could go on.

As a hapless flounderer, it is of special interest to see what a very skilled practitioner makes of this and the aspects he chooses to mention.

Each of the 15 parts is a 14 line poem (4, 4, 3, 3) and seems, in part, more conversational than poetic. There are a few rhymes and a couple of gestures towards the sonnet form but not many flashes of dazzle that occur in some of his longer poems.

Before we get to content, Mudoon’s poetic voice appeals to this reader most when it adopts a kind of keenly felt wryness This is the beginning of The Humors of Hakone, a nine part poem from the Maggot collection which was published in 2010;

A corduroy road over a quag had kept me on the straight and narrow.

Now something was raising a stink.

A poem decomposing around what looked like an arrow

Her stomach contents ink.

Too late to cast about for clues

either at the purikura or ‘sticker photo-booth’ or back at the Pagoda.

Too late to establish by autolysis, not to speak of heat loss,

the precise time of death on the road to Edo.

I hope this demonstrates what I mean by the above adjectives, I read in this example formal skill and intelligence that is way above what passes for the mainstream. It was therefore to be hoped that Muldoon’s current offering maintained that kind of standard. I don’t think it does although I share much of his perspective. This is the second poem in the sequence;

It’s not so long ago the future
held out the promise of travel to another antique land
unknown as yet to Frommer or Fodor.
I spent yesterday ignorant of the fact the valiant

Adam Schlesinger has gone the way of all dust.
Together with Chris Collingwood, Adam made Fountains of Wayne
a band whose songs combined the height of literary taste
with low-blow hooks. Ai Fen, a doctor from Wuhan

who blew the whistle on the Chinese Politburo
seems to have been “disappeared” by those sons of bitches.
No motion hath she now? As for our homegrown kingpin,

he’s warning us against narcos on burros.
The Pentagon has ordered 100,000 “Human Remains Pouches.”
Once we subscribed to the idea of boxes made of pine.

In this we have a mix of the documentary, the personal, polemic and elegy which in fourteen lines is ambitious to say the least All of these are ‘about’ the impact of the virus. My initial reaction was that there are too many and none of them are given enough space. On a third and more attentive reading it appears to evoke the bewildering distraction that we’re experiencing at the hands of the infodemic that accompanies this calamity. I also felt that the whole sequence wasn’t sufficiently poetic until I realised the pandemic demands a degree of artlessness. In fact, thinking this through, Covid-19 may well prove to be yet another nail in the lid for the lyric poem Which is a good thing.

I had heard of the Fountains of Wayne but have never knowingly listened to their music but Wikipedia informs me that, in addition to this band, Adam Schlesinger was a prolific and successful writer and producer. Muldoon’s liking for elements of the music scene is well know and it would seem to be fitting that he should mention Scheslinger who died from Covid-19 complications at the age of 53. Another poem in the sequence bemoans the cancellation of an Elton John gig that our poet and his partner were planning to attend.

For those, like me, the quote is from Wordsworth and might refer to the power of nature as in;

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees

One of the many lessons that we may learn from this is the destructive power of the natural world and that our post-Enlightenment confidence in man’s ability to control this is a sham. Being a reluctant cynic I think we may learn the lesson but fail to apply it en route to planetary death. My only argument with theuse of this kind of quote is that it is unlikely to be familiar to those readers who aren’t fans of Wordsworth and is thus a Bit Obscure.

With regard to Ai Fen, Radio Free Asia tells me that, as of April 14th, she is ‘safe and well’ but has been muzzled by those sons of bitches. The description is unarguably typical of the Chinese state and its readiness to crush any kind of objective expression with ruthless violence,

I’m guessing that many of us, me included, have been let down by “the promise of travel to another antique land” which in my case was Iquitos in the Peruvian rainforest. I freely confess to being a little flummoxed by the Trump reference and need to ask the reason for it being placed here unless it’s to demonstrate that the kingpin’s mind is Truly Elsewhere.

The pine boxes riff continues on to the next poem with reference to their first use after the American Civil War. There are also references elsewhere to burial mounds and to the mass burial of Covid-19 victims on New York’s Hart Island.

I was going to reproduce another complete poem from the sequence but I’ve decided instead to focus on a few excerpts from different poems in an attempt to give a more comprehensive view of the whole.

One of the political observations seems a little off-point;

With the power of the European
Union seriously under threat, Hungarian “voters”

have given free rein
to President Viktor Orbán,
who knows only too well the people make perfect cannon fodder.

Orban is one of those ‘strongman’ populists that are beginning to dominate the world stage and he and his cronies throughout Europe have weakened the EU and will probably destroy it. It would appear that this refers to the ‘Enabling’ powers that Orban gave himself as a response to the Covid-19 crisis which are seen as setting him on the path to a Putin-style dictatorship. It would therefore seem sensible to read “voters” as Orban’s political supporters in Hungary’s National Assembly.

A few more political points are much closer to the calamity;

Continue to hold your hands for as long
as twenty seconds under the hot water faucet.

“The virus has but one ambition,”
says a sickle-bearing Doctor Fauci, “and that’s getting into our lungs.
To that end it’s working hand over fist.”

I’m not completely sure that Fauci deserves the sickle bearer quip. At the time of writing this, he’s been briefed against by what appears to be every member of the White House staff. This appears to be an attempt to distant the kingpin from his own disastrous decisions and insane posturings along the way. Consequently the good doctor is enjoying a very positive press in the UK media at the moment. Given that the USA has now had over 3.5 million cases and 139,000 deaths it would appear that Fauci’s sickle wasn’t prominent enough.

The kingpin himself comes in for some criticism;

Our kingpin is himself recognized as being not only tawdry but negligently tatrdy
in making preparations to treat the victims of coronavirus.

As I write, about three months later than this, Fauci is seen as the realist ‘expert’ is distancing himself from the kingpin’s pronouncements and being fervently briefed against by the White House staff.

Trump’s culpability is now further compounded by his encouragement of states to lift their lockdowns, his refusal to wear a mask and his bonkers pronouncements on possible cures, to name but a few. I use these as examples of how much things have changed in the past few months and how much they are likely to change in the immediate future.

Then there’s this;

A genuine topic of interest to the serious mind
is the firing of Captain Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt
for expressing concern for those under his command.

and;

The firing of Captain Crozier will be a defining moment of this episode
when the names of the bigwigs
in the West Wing are forgotten. Murrain, or rinderpest,

H’mm, in July of 2020, from this side of the pond, the outrageous treatment of this honourable man seems to have faded almost from view. I’m not in any way trying to either denigrate or minimise his actions but history is fickle and the ever lengthening list of bigwig outrages may overshadow Crozier’s noble deed, even by the serious minded.

The reference to murrain/to murrai/rinderpest is further developed because it’s a virus with similar symptoms that affects cattle. There also mentions of the effect of this on Muldoon’s adult children and this;

I’ve not made much of it, since I don’t want to be seen to garner
attention, but after two weeks of a dry cough
and general aches and pains, I now seem to have turned a corner.

I have to tactfully point out that having these particular published in a prestigious and widely read literary weekly is a fairly clear way of garnering attention and comment. I’ll leave my reaction there, for the moment.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least a flavour of Plaguey Hill and a reasonably coherent, if provisional and tenuous response to it. I’ll now be interested to see if Muldoon provides an update in the near future.