Tag Archives: holocaust

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 Celan, Timestead and suicide.

Celan’s work is the finest poetry of the 20th century. I know of no other poet who can match his ability to delve into the far reaches of the human soul, nor has any modern writer faced up to himself with such searing honesty. I accept that this is a subjective view and one that goes back to my adolescence but it’s one that I’m more than happy to stand by.

Timestead / Zeitgehoft was first published after Celan’s suicide and contains work from the last eighteen months of his life. I have a whole range of issues with posthumous publication because we will never be sure what the writer intententions were with the poems that were left behind and are thus uncertain as to whether the poems are actually complete.

Celan is perhaps best known as a Holocaust survivor who was also a follower of the writings of Martin Heidegger, a card carrying Nazi and anti-Semite. What tends to get overlooked is his recurring struggle with mental ill health and his abiding interest in Jewish mysticism. He was plagued by severe depression and bouts of paranoia which required electro shock treatment. He died in 1970 by throwing himself into the Seine.

For the last fifty years I’ve avoided thinking about Celan’s final act for a number of reasons. Initially, as a callow youth, I saw the suicide of talented artists as an almost natural manifestation of the tortured genius, later on I read Celan’s suicide as an equally rational response to the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish race. Much later, in middle age, I became severely depressed myself and, during three separate episodes, I made active plans to do away with myself and required both periods of incarceration and consequent shock treatment. These coincided, more or less with the start of this blog in the late noughties. I’ve been writing about Celan throughout the last 12 years but have never felt able to confront this specific aspect of his work.

In my experience, suicide wasn’t a cry for help. I knew that I was, once again, en route to a severe depression and felt completely unable to prevent this. The only way that I felt I could get some resolution was by killing myself, thus depriving the depression of its victory.

Now that I’ve been well for about 10 years, I’ve felt able to look at Timestead with a bit more dispassionate attention and have been taken aback by the brutal strength of some of the poems. This is The whisperhouse / Das Flusterhaus;

The whiseprhouse,
open on leapday,

handed on
on jute, surface-
deep

it naturalizes
the fricatives,

the lallation-stage
is taken care of
by the lip-
pegs,

-does the
other snap in,
on time? -

this, yes this
glacierscreaming
of your hands,

the network of the dead
helps to carry the firnice,

the moon,
poles reversed,
rejects you, second 
earth,

at the resthaven, deathproud, the
start throng
takes the hurdle.



I recognise that there may well be a lot of over identification going on but the above does ‘speak’ to me at a very deep level. I’m taking it that the ‘you’ here is the poet himself and that it’s written in the certain knowledge that he will kill himself. This is a big claim but things do seem to build slowly towards that bitter conclusion. In earlier work glaciers and ice fields are places of death where life seems to be extinguished. The compound here suggests to me somebody in agony at that place as well as the noise of the ice moving slowly forwards.

I’m taking ‘firnice’ to be a compound of ‘firn ice’ whch Wikipedia describes as “ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice” which may or may not point towards the way in which death proceeds. I was initially puzzled by this ‘network of the dead’ but things became a bit clearer when I realised that the network is helping something else with moving this load along.

Celan wrote a lot about the death of his parents, both of whom perished in the camps and about meeting them in the after-life. This network could thus refer to those who have previously died helping the living through to the same state. From a personal perspective I know that this kind of psychosis is common among the severely depressed, as is the notion of death as a welcome relief. It may seem odd but a serious depressive episode is, as it progresses, exhausting. Your brain is working really hard to keep what you know to be dangerous thoughts and feelings in check whilst your emotions are clamouring for your attention. Even though I’m not in any way religious I can identify with viewing a place to get some respite from this incredibly taxing onslaught as akin to heaven.

I viewed my planned suicides as victories over the depression which was making me feel so distraught and vulnerable. I was also convinced that my illness was contagious and that I was infecting those that I loved simply by remaining alive. Planning my imminent death felt like I was at least doing something rather than allowing ‘it’ to pull me further down to the depths. In retrospect, this gave me a kind of pride which I think is what Celan might be referring to here, especially if we understand ‘takes the hurdle’ as crossing the line between life and death.

I realise that I’ve ignored the first half of the poem, this is mainly because it doesn’t speak to me with the same direct intensity that the last four stanzas do and because there isn’t space here for an extensive discussion of fricatives, jute and the whisper house although this may occur in the coming weeks.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve shown at least one possible way of responding to The Whisperhouse and have been able to demonstrate why it is so very important to me.

I’ve used Pierre Joris’ translation taken from his Breathturn into Timestead which was published in 2014 and is highly recommended

Attending to Pierre Joris on Celan’s Threadsuns

I’ve spent some time writing about Paul Celan’s later poems since Pierre Joris’ translations of these were published in 2014. Up until this week, however, I hadn’t read any part of his introduction.

I rarely read literary criticism because I find most of it overly dense and at variance with my experiences as an ‘ordinary’ reader. The honourable exceptions are Jacques Derrida and Joris on Celan, J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and Ezra Pound on Most Things Poetic. I don’t agree with any of them but I like the way they think and, in turn, make me think. This is an example of that process.

There is a brief section on Threadsuns which is the title of a poem from the Breathturn collection and also the title of the following collection. This is the poem;

THREADSUNS
above the grayblack wastes.  
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
mankind.

This has always struck me as bleak and despairing. The last couple of lines seem to indicate that the human race has finished rather than referring to somewhere other than earth. The ‘gray-black’ wastes’ may indicate those lands torn apart by the many slaughter of the second world war but also our world in the present.

Joris makes a couple of points that I’d like to attend to first:

For indeed, we no longer live, as the pural of the poem’s title immediately makes clear, under the cosy reassurance of a world held in place, centred around a or the sun, Helios, as it was called under the old dispensation.

and;

Ezra Pound lamented in the Cantos that “the center does not hold” – Celan knows that this is so because there is no single center, no single sun that can hold it all up, that, in fact, there has always been only a decentered multiplicity of centers.

I’m not entirely sure that this holds up, it is a position and a perspective that I (mostly) agree with but it’s not one that seems to be present in Celan’s work. I readily admit that I have no formal training whatsoever in either philosophy or literary criticisms but I am reasonably familiar with the work of the French post-Structuralists and would expect many more instances of this perspective if this was the case. This is a pity because Joris, as well as being the best translator of the work, one of Celan’s most astute readers.

My own tentative and provisional view would be that this is either or both a sun that emits different kinds of light and other stars in other parts of the galaxy / universe . In the same part of the introduction Joris points out that; “Celan insisted, and rightly so, I believe, on the fact that his poetry was directly linked to, and arose from, the real.” This would seem to indicate that the earth still revolves in a solar system with a single sun at its centre.

The Pound quote seems to be apt in this context. I’m not one of those that rejects all of Pound’s work because of his repellent anti-semitism and fervent support of Italian Fascism. I love his earlier work but am both bored and underwhelmed by large swathes of The Cantos which seems to me a very inconsistent piece of work indeed. The fuller quote is “things fall apart, the center cannot hold” which seems to point to a real 20th century phenomenon rather than something more abstract. As a retired anarcho-nihilist, I can readily identify with the last 120 years as a period of ongoing disintegration whereby things do break up and lose their grip but I think this is a real and material product of our times.

If we imagine these threads or beams bringing different qualities of light then it seems reasonable to suppose that these may lead to all of us having different perspectives on things.

I’ve found this poem so very bleak because it seems to hold a lament for the death of mankind and the planet on which we live. The final phrase can be qualified by ‘but they won’t be because it’s too late’.

Joris takes a different tack;

-then the title of the next volume spoke of a new measure, of new measures, to be accurate: of those new measures needed in a world seen as “grayblack wastes” to link the above and the below, the inside and the outside, the tree-high thought ann the wastes, because, Celan goes on, “there are / still songs to be sung” poems to be written under the duress – Lightduress will be the title of the next collection – of the present condition.

Again, I’m not convinced by this, the Breathturn collection contains more than a few references to poems and poets bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. Leaving aside those tall thoughts for a moment, the wastes of the world may have been created by this catastrophic event which left nothing at all behind. The industrialised murder of many millions by ‘ordinary’ men was so destructive that nothing was left except these songs that must but can’t be sung.

Regular readers will now that I don’t think enough attention is paid by critics to Celan’s experience of mental illness and how this is reflected in some of his work. Because of my own struggles with severe depression, I may over-identify with this aspect but I still maintain that it is very present in the later work. I’m not of the once prevalent view that this work is inferior to the previous material and this decline was related to increasingly severe ‘episodes’ . Instead, I think the bouts of mental anguish, in this instance, enrich the work with a purity of tone which is devoid of all comfort and pretence. Here, might it be that these ‘grayblack wastes’ are also the result of mental as well as physical damage? That all human beings are emotionally traumatised by having to live the barbarities of modern life?

I’ll therefore read into these tall thoughts as being the product of mental distress and disturbance and the gripped ‘light-tone’ as being the, now lost, normal and the real. It also occurs to me that these thoughts could also be the kind of ‘refined’ thinking that came along with the European Enlightenment and, some would argue, led to the atrocities of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust.

This ‘light-tone’ is annotated by Joris;

“Light-tone” and “light-pitch” are literal trabslations of Lichton. if one considers the word as a Celanian composite. The German word, however, is also a German word in filmography, where it refers to the process of “sound-on-film” in which sound is inscribed as variations of light values on film.

Whilst this is helpful and intriguing, I’m more in favour of a gesture towards these tall thoughts trying in vain to lighten the ‘grayblack wastes’

In conclusion, I hope I’ve shown how thoughtful and clearly expressed criticism can provoke readers into re-thinking their own assumptions and feelings about this kind of work. I also need to express again the debt of gratitude that we all owe to Pierre Joris for his astute and intelligent translations of this brilliant but demanding work.

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.

Celan, Derrida and bearing witness

This might take some time as I have a number of things that I need to say and a number of other things that I need to throw up in the air to see how they land. Whilst this piece is prompted by Derrida’s essay “Poetics and Politics of Witnessing” which focuses on a poem by Paul Celan, I also want to talk about the creative possibilities that the process of bearing witness offers.

I’m one of those sad obsessives who take an interest in public inquiries. I’m fascinated by the way that the State seeks to exonerate itself when bad things happen and by the way that the State will use inquiry findings as an excuse to act in a draconian manner. I have been tangentially involved in one such inquiry (into the Cleveland child abuse fiasco) and the final report did not tally with what actually occurred during the crisis. At the time, I put this down to the State having its own agenda which was to introduce new legislation but, having now read primary material on the BSE inquiry and the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, I can see that it is the process of giving evidence (bearing witness) that is flawed.

The last lines of Celan’s poem are “No one / bears witness for the / witness.” Paul Celan was a Holocaust survivor and both his parents died at the hands of the Germans. Throughout his life Celan felt compelled to act as a poetic witness to the Holocaust and Derrida rightly points out this task is in itself impossible. He substantiates this with- “That comes down to saying – always the same paradox, the same paradoxopoetic matrix – that as soon as it is guaranteed, certain as a theoretical proof , a testimony can no longer be guaranteed as testimony.”

I’ve said before that Derrida is the finest reader of Celan that we have and his reading here of ‘Aschenglorie hinter’ underlines his honesty and intelligence in stating within the text and confronting its challenges head on. Before I get on to discussing these issues I do want to expand a bit on the witness/testimony problem. There are a number of stages in the ‘official/judicial’ bearing witness process. The first is the point at which the witness becomes aware of the bad thing that has happened. We all perceive and make sense of things differently so witnesses to the same event can produce materially different accounts of the same event, neither of which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The second part of the process is the making of the statement which is usually done in the presence of a friendly/sympathetic official and provides the witness with an opportunity to recount what they have witnessed. The third part of this phase consists of repeating this as part of a judicial process and the fourth occurs when the witness is cross-examined by lawyers for other interested parties.

My personal experience of both civil and criminal cases bears this out and also underlines the deterioration that occurs along every step of the way as outlined above. I once spent three days being cross-examined in a child abuse case and all of this consisted of having to defend my personal and professional integrity rather than on the veracity of what I had witnessed. In this particular instance, what convinced me that a very bad thing had occurred arose from a chance conversation with a young person with quite profound learning difficulties who was trying, as bet he could, to communicate to me that he was the victim of sexual assault perpetrated by a colleague of mine. Professionally I knew that this witness could not actually bear witness but the truth of what he said remains with me to this day (there were 22 other victims and my colleague was jailed for seven years).

Contrasting the witness statements with Lord Phillips’ final report into BSE is a further illustration of how veracities get lost along the way. There is one veterinary pathologist who is convinced that BSE (‘scrapie in a cow’) was first identified 12 months before the ‘official’ date, she knows this because she carried out the autopsy. The final report flatly contradicts this without introducing any meaningful evidence and does this (as Phillips admits) in order to dispel media speculation that the British state had known about BSE for a year without taking any action.

We now come to Bloody Sunday and I’m aware that I’m writing this prior to publication of Saville’s findings. There are however some aspects of witness testimony that won’t find their way into the final report. A teacher who was on the march recalls seeing a soldier crouched down on one knee with his rifle sight to one eye and realising that very similar poses are struck in army recruitment brochures. The report will ignore this and in doing so will occlude one person’s ‘truth’ of the moment. Bernard Mcguigan was shot in the head by soldier ‘F’ who happened to be crouched on one knee- this will be in the report but will be missing was that Barney (as he was known) was seen having a ‘crafty’ smoke as the march began and that his wife didn ‘t like him smoking. Other details will also be missing, that his wife had soaked an orange cloth in vinegar to ward off the effects of tear gas, that she was cooking bacon and/or sausages when her brother called to tell her that Barney was dead. These are all truths taken from just two of the hundreds of witness statements that were made.

The point that I’m trying to make is that bearing witness is a complex and tricky business and that Derrida is absolutely correct about the damage that is done once witnesses encounter an official domain.

Poetry has the potential to act as witness in a way that is less mediated/corrupt. Our finest poets (Prynne, Hill and Sutherland) have all produced work which stands as witness to bad things that have occurred. Prynne has done this brilliantly with the multiple viewpoints of ‘Refuse Collection’ whereas ‘Triumph of Love’ is Hill’s magisterial take on the various excesses of the twentieth century. Finally ‘Stress Position’ manages to be both a searing indictment of Western atrocities in Iraq and a technical exercise in perspective. All of these poets are compelled (creatively and morally) to bear witness and do so in a way that should jolt us out of our complacency.

Celan really struggled with his compulsion, he saw the Holocaust as such a terrible scar, such an omniscient tragedy, that putting it into language of any kind gave him enormous difficulty. This poem is a truly terrible poem to read and must have been agony to write but it stands today as the finest example we have of bearing witness.

The other point of writing this is to think aloud about my latest creative ‘project’ which will probably be a long and fairly dense conflation of Bloody Sunday and BSE as expressed in witness statements and expert evidence. For the first time ever I’ve done research, I’ve learned about proteins that misfold and about the difference between an entry and exit wound.  I’ve also tried to work out in detail the motives of the British state in both of these events.

I’m trying out different forms and different voices (primarily because I’m bored with writing/sounding like RS Thomas) and have thus taken note of how the best do it (bear witness). I have to say that the early results have pleased me and, as I write to please myself, that’s all that really matters. I’m thinking of calling it “The Ballad of Barney and Beast 142” which has a bit of and echo of Sutherland’s “honest account of Ali whoever’ from Stress Position.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to have a bit of a rant about John Felstiner who chooses to translate ‘glorie’ as ‘aureole’. This is perverse in the extreme- ‘aureole’ may be a subsidiary definition but there is nothing to suggest that this was Celan’s intention- every other translator into French and English gives ‘glory’ as does Derrida. Given the status of the Felstiner collection shouldn’t more of us be pointing out that there are far better translations out there? I’m thinking in particular of Hamburger and Joris both of whom have published their own poems whereas Felstiner hasn’t.

Finally, in a 1994 discussion Derrida defined the ideological difference between Heidegger and himself. He said that Heidegger was concerned in gathering things together whilst he was concerned with scattering them. Inquiries are concerned with the gather whilst the truth lies in the scatter.