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:
- 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.