Tag Archives: paul celan

Making poetry in these slurred times

This may not be the most coherent piece I’ve written but it might be the most heartfelt and urgent. We’ll start with some context. It’s now April 19th 2020 and I’m living with my lover, for the first time, in Ventnor in the UK and we’re in lockdown.

I don’t know about others but I write verse in order to work out about how I feel about something. The previous blog was a poem I made in response to the current and ongoing disaster, I’ve also made a v short performance piece (see below) in response to how this thing seems to be unfolding.

The shock for me is how hard this is. It should be ideal because I use documentary material, I’m a vaguely anarcho-lefty policy wonk with specific interests in health and social care and I hover on one of the main ‘vulnerable’ groups. This should therefore be the ideal opportunity, in a spacious property overlooking the Channel, to write at least one epic of Spenserian length and probably two.

In fact, there is an argument that gently points out that we creative types have a duty to spend this time documenting the disaster and how we feel about it from the inside in, more or less, ‘real’ time. To go further, I would hold up Celan’s Todesfugue as one of the greatest poems we have that did exactly that.

I’m under no illusions, I am at best an interested amateur who writes in order to perform rather than to be read. I’ve written and had performed lengthy pieces on Bloody Sunday, Ferguson and the Newtown shootings, I’m thus not averse to dealing with challenging subjects and am drawn to the complicated.

Covid-19 has, however, from nowhere on my horizon, has scrambled any feelings and thoughts that I might have.

We’ll start with bigness. In terms of a single Whiteheadian event, this particular virus is huge. A glance at one of those fucking dashboards reveals that it is infecting and killing everywhere and our collective response is hugely passive. As I type the global economy is continuing to collapse and a return to any kind of normal is looking increasingly unlikely for any of us. From this viewpoint, the making of art in itself can appear to be trivial and poetry making then becomes even more self-indulgent and vain than normal.

I’m not suggesting that all art is of little import but that big events and themes require a degree of brilliance that few of us have. In fact the bebrowed rule is that the quality of material required increases in step with the importance of the subject matter. The most obvious examples to me are Dante on the afterlife, Milton on the Fall, David Jones on World War One and Celan on the Holocaust. There are quite a few others.

Those of us who aren’t brilliant then have to try and avoid irrelevance by saying something that might be useful to the reader by presenting a different perspective and providing a consequent moment or two of reflection..

Moving on to plenitude, this catastrophe is producing too many aspects and too much data as it scythes through us. All of the media, quality and otherwise, is feasting on this stuff and putting forth opinions on everything from the plight of those locked in with their abusers to the chemistry of enzymes and proteins. None of these very many concerns are minor issues and they will all be struggled over in the years to come.

In the face of this poetry can become:

a ranting thorn in the side of the powers that be;

a record of the disaster and its effects;

a memorialisation of the dead;

a blueprint for the future;

an interrogation of the nature of science and expertise

a personal response providing one possible way feeling about this stuff.

My problem is that I want to do all of these (except perhaps the blueprint), and they all keep crowding on to my page and all of them seem really important which results in either clever-clever rantery or a major wallow.

As well as complexity, I’m also struggling creatively with adjusting to the disaster as it reveals different aspects of itself. This weekend the British media have discovered that residents of care and nursing homes may be dying in their thousands in addition to those currently recorded. As an ex-manager of the inspection and regulation of such homes I know that these figures are readily and easily available and national collation should have begun in February at the very latest. I’m also disgusted that politicians failed to act upon the bleeding obvious fact that these homes are by far the most vulnerable part of society. I’ve ranted about this on social media this morning but now feel that I need to add this specific negligence into the creative mix.

The other problem that I have is that of sudden isolation. We’re living in a small town that,for all its many faults, has a strong sense of community and collective endeavour, these things have, literally, kept me sane over the last ten years and now going out on our daily walks reveals a blank page.

Both Megan and I want/need to talk to others face to face about the weight and complexity of what’s going on and that is the activity that is most Against The Rules. Incidentally, we now have a society that’s governed by rules rather than laws and nobody seems to have noticed.

I’ve just realised that this may have turned into an extended whinge, the kind of semi-ranting self indulgence that I’m wary of. My only excuse is that at least it’s an honest exploration of the bewilderment and angst that I feel in the gripof Covid 19.

Within Minutes, read by John Armstrong (writer) and Megan Mackney (actor)

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

Paul Celan: some wordwords from Timestead

For those who don’t already know, the bebrowed view is that Paul Celan is the greatest poet of the twentieth century and his later work stands far above that of any other poet since 1900. I’m not going to expand or justify this point as I’ve already done this elsewhere. What I am going to do is hopefully illustrate this brilliance by attending to his abiding interest in language as shown in Timestead, his final collection which was published posthumously in 1976, six years after he took his own life.

Before we get on to the poems, a few points might be useful:

Before proceeding, it’s probably as well to throw into the mix some of what the Address and the notes for it have to say about language. I’m going to select a few that I find most helpful in my ongoing involvement with the work. So this is entirely subjective, my only defence is that I don’t have space to attend all of those that might be pertinent.

As with the poems, I’m using the English translations of Pierre Joris simply because I find his to be the most reliable. This is a key passage from the Address:

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation, that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the language draws and of the possibilities that language opens up for it.

The 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.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape, and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

These are from the Poem and Language section of the notes:

This pictorial is by no means something visible, it is, like everything else connected with language, a mental phenomenon. Language is not that an encounter with an invisible. It is, even in what is furthest from the voice a question of the accent; in the poem the perception of its sound pattern also belongs to the perceived image. By the breath-steads in which it stands. you recognize it by the crest-times. That is by no means the same as this or that cheap impressionistic tone painting, timbre etc. It is, here too, a manifestation of language, a speech-art that has to be hear in the written, i.e. the silent, ( the language-grille which is also the speechgrille, makes this visible.)

and:

The poem is inscribed as the figure of the complete language but language remains invisible; that which actualizes itself – language – takes steps, as soon as that has happened, back into the realm of the possible. “Le Poeme”, writes Valery est du a l’état naissant; language in statu nascendi, thus language in the process of liberation.

As with any great work, Celan’s output has been the subject of fierce critical debate, most of which is sufficiently obfuscatory to deter even the most attentive of fans (me). So I’m going to leave these kerfuffles to one side and present my view of the deployment of language in one particular late poem that hopefully will demonstrate the sense of involvement and fascination that this stuff triggers in the soul.

 The whisperhouse,
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 restheaven, deathproud, the
starthrong
takes the hurdle.

We’ll get the trickier words out of the way with the help of the OED-

Fricative= “Of a consonant-sound: Produced by the friction of the breath through a narrow opening between two of the mouth-organs”, English examples include ‘v’ and ‘f’

Lallation = ” An imperfect pronunciation of r, by which the sound of that letter is confused with that of l” or “childish utterance”.

The definition for firnice comes from Wikipedia- ” is partially compacted névé, a type of snow that has been left over from past seasons and has been recrystallized into a substance denser than névé. It is ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice. Firn has the appearance of wet sugar, but has a hardness that makes it extremely resistant to shovelling. Its density generally ranges from 550 kg/m3-830 kg/m3, and it can often be found underneath the snow that accumulates at the head of a glacier.”

The first line is close to my heart in that I’ve just incorporated the Loud Whisper into my own performance work. What I’ve found fascinating is this activity as halfway, or thereabouts, between speaking and breathing. Whispering loudly also involves a conscious effort to empty the voice of all its sonority which is really difficult to sustain over a long period.

Four occasions when we whisper come to mind:

  • when we are in a religious building, as a mark of reverence;
  • in libraries, museums and arts venues where we don’t want to disturb the concentration or enjoyment of others;
  • when we want to keep something secret and we don’t want to be overheard;
  • when we are in hiding and in danger of being discovered.

So, the ‘house’ suffix may be a place of worship, study, entertainment, display, secrecy or hiding or a mixture of any of these.

Whispers are also nouns, the sound we make when we whisper or a sound made by something else that sounds like a whisper. Bearing mind how the poem proceeds, the escape of gas can sound like a whisper which might have us leaping to the idea of the whisperhouse as a gas chamber, a place of industrialised slaughter. This may or may not be conjoined with any of the above, ambiguity being a recurring device in Celan’s work. Here I’m going to make use of J H Prynne on the poetically ambiguous:

In very summary form we may describe the effect like this. In strictly local context the surrounding sense may point strongly to one word-meaning rather than to another, different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less “probable” meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that often a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.

Of course, outside the field of contemporary cultural endeavour, this quality is frowned upon precisely because it is inexact, imprecise and generally wooly in a world in which clear answers and meanings ‘matter’ more than anything else. The ambiguous, an expression that might point in two or three ways at once, is not tolerated even though the quantum world appears to be characterised by this kind of uncertainty.

It might be worthwhile to give some attention to the less likely meanings which in order to see whether any of them do provided these additional aspects. There are a few that spring to mind:

  • a house is also, in English at least, a place of government (Houses of Parliament, House of Representatives etc.) and thus might point towards the way in which the political elite in Germany acquiesced in the political ascendancy of the Nazis, who made no secret of their virulent hatred of the Jews;
  • a whisper, in this sense, could also signify the way the Holocaust was accepted but not discussed by the German people during the war, the extent of this knowledge is still an issue of quite fierce scholarly debate but I think Celan’s body of work shows that he felt that the German people were at the very least complicit in this calculated genocide;
  • this whisper may also about the fact that the Nazi regime was intent on keeping the fact of mechanised slaughter a secret from the allies as a way of avoiding blame for their deeds;
  • a whisperhouse may also be a house where Jews were hidden during the war and needed to remain quiet in order to evade discovery.
  • the house may carry some of whatever it was that Heidegger may have meant in his Building, Dwelling, Thinking.

All of these might be completely wrong, they may well reflect what I want them to signify rather than Celan’s intentions. However I feel that the above possibilities demonstrate Prynne’s ‘richer sense’.

It appears to me that much firmer ground is reached when we get to the fricatives and the lallations. Fricatives involve the lips, lip pegs may suggest an impairment of the lips thus making speech very difficult indeed, perhaps reducing it to a ‘childish utterance’. The main stumbling block to this set of tentative assumptions is the gas chambers ‘naturalising’ the fricatives. In its wider sense, this verb relates to the turning of something or person foreign or alien into something native. In a secondary sense, the OED has ” To introduce or adopt (a word, phrase, etc.) into a language or into common use; also in extended use”.

Plants are one of the things that can be made native in a number of different senses.

This, as might be expected, sets your humble servant on a whole new round of re-ambiguation, starting with the fact that Celan was born in Romania but his mother tongue was German, he became a translator in Paris after the war, working across many different languages. One of the aspects noted by many critics is that he wrote his poems in German, the language of those responsible for the Holocaust and the death of his parents. I’m of the view that this facet is given too much prominence but I can’t deny that translation has something to do with putting things foreign into a more usable form. I also have to recognise that Celan was a keen amateur botanist.

These pegs may be used to hold the lips together thus denying/preventing speech except for humming. So, is this a confirmation of the then widely held view that the fact of the Holocaust renders all creative expression impossible? Todesfuge, an early and most famous poem was heralded as demonstrating how such expression is possible. His later work suggests that this process of bearing witness to the unspeakable proved exceptionally difficult and emotionally destructive as the years went by.

This noise made by the glacier is also a sound without meaning, a sound of fear and pain but one that doesn’t speak with words, in language. I would thus, provisionally and tentatively, that one of the ‘threads’ running through this brilliant poem relates to the destructive effect of the gas chambers on our ability to put anything into language.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least some indication of the fruits that close attention to Celan can bring and that some readers may feel encouraged to have a look for themselves. Breathturn into Timestead is available from Amazon at fifteen and a half of your finest English pounds and for free from a number of those criminal free books sites. For new readers, the second option is probably preferable to the first.

Paul Celan, notes on the encounter

The notion of encounter is a key part of the Meridian address and a major theme in Celan’s later work. It’s also quite complex so I’ll start with its use in the Meridian speech and then proceed to the notes.

This seems to be talking about an encounter between the poem and the other:

Perhaps, I have to tell myself now- perhaps an encounter of this “totally other” kind with a not all too distant, with a very close “other” is – I am using here a familiar auxillary verb- is thinkable- thinkable again and again.

This elaborates on how the poem proceeds:

The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author remains added to it.

But doesn’t the poem already at its inception stand in the encounter- in the mystery of the encounter?

The poem wants to head toward some other, it needs this other, it needs an opposite. It seeks it out, it bespeaks itself to it.

Each thing, each human is, for the poem heading towards this other, a figure of this.

The attention the poem tries to pay to everything it encounters, its sharper sense of detail, outline, sturcture, colour but also of the “tremors” and “hints,” all this is not, I believe, the acheivement of an eye competing with (or emulating) ever more precise instruments, but rather is a concentration that remains mindful off all our dates.

So, the poem is not an inert object, it goes out into the world and moves towards this encounter a meeting that have been brought into existence at the point when the poem was made/written. This is the kind of stuff that gives Celan his reputation for difficulty and has allowed his detractors more fuel than they deserve. I’ve always understood that the encounter occurs between the poem and the reader but the notes show that this is hopelssly simplistic.

The ‘Encounter’ section of the notes is made up of three parts:

  1. Encounter with the Poem;
  2. The Dialogical Poem;
  3. The Conversation with Things.

I’ll try to deal with each part in turn although there may be some overlaps along the way.

Encounter with the poem.

It’s important to recognise that the poem, for Celan, has agency- it is underway and it is attentive as it heads towards this other. This may seem odd but any writer produces work with a specific audience in mind even if this is a fairly broad group. Some of the more serious writers may have a specific aim in touching or influencing readers in a certain way and this points to a slightly more grounded rationale. I encounter books and poems and other texts all the time, some of these are first encounters and others are with old friends or aquaintances and I give them attention. Does Celan’s idea of the attention that the poem tries to pay allude to the elements placed by the poet to enable a reciprocal encounter to take place?

I’d like to report that the notes add weight to this incisive line of reasoning but instead we get:

The poem as poem is dark, it is dark because it is the poem. Under|with this congenital darkness I do not mean those Lichtenbergian clashes of books and readers’ heads, where the hollow sound does not always come from the book; to the contrary, the poem wants to be understood it is exactly because it is dark that it wants to be understood-: as poem, as ‘poem’s dark‘.Each poem thus demands understanding, will to understand, learning to understand (that is, but let this secondary phenomenon be mentioned here for the last time, a true understanding and in no way some “To enter into the co- or re-production, as fastidiously suggested these days on the federal and other levels. The poem, as I said, wants to be understood, it offers itself up to an interlinear version, even demands it; not that the poem is written in view of this or that interlienear version, rather the poem carries, as poem, the possibility of the interlinear version both real and virtual; in other words, the poem is in its own way occupiable. I want to insist on the fact that here I am using the term interlinear version as an auxilliary word; more specifically I do not mean the empty lines between verse and verse; I beg you to imagine those empty lines as spatial, as spatial – and – temporal. Thus temporal and spatial, and, for this too I beg you, always in relation to the poem.

There exists, I return to this here already, because nothing can be lost sight of, no co- no re-production, the poem is because it is the poem, unique, unrepeatable. (Unique too for the one who writes it and from you and I who are reading it may not expect anything other than this unique shared knowledge.) Unique and unrepeatable, irreversible on the other or on this side of any esotericism, hermeticism, etc – –

The arduity page on the darkness of the poem deals with the idea of primordial darkness (eqated with mortality) as where the poem comes from. We appear to have here this darkness as almost indistinguishable from the poem and that it is this darkness that leads to the poem’s desire to be understood. So, the encounter with the reader carries the potential for being understood but the poem in this encounter demands that the reader has the will (a very loaded noun) to understand and is prepared to learn how to understand.

The poem can also have this interlinear quality which is said to be both spatial and temporal and is differentiated from the ’empty lines between verse and verse’. This opens up a heap of possibilities:

  • Does this mean that we should pay attention to the significance of the placing of the line breaks?
  • Sould we be looking for each line break as indicating a shift in time and/or place?
  • Can we consider these qualities in the same way as the dark of the poem?
  • Does this interlinearity have the English sense of ‘reading between the lines’ – i.e. looking for the things that aren’t said or are occluded?
  • What exactly might have been meant by virtual in 1960, in this sense does it mean ‘nearly’ or ‘almost’ real?

The notes to ‘breathturn’ make use of Plotinus to make clear that ‘ Original and reproduction are the same / the yearning to become world-free’ which seems at odds with the apparent distinction made here although the second paragraph seems to insist that attention must be paid to those versions even though the poem, as poem, is unique

Celan denied the charge of hermeticism- something that was increasingly levelled at him during the last ten years of his life, he did however acknowledge that his work carried more than a degree of ambiguity. This denial seems to be undermined by the referal to the ‘other on this’ side of hermeticism.

These two paragraphs contain one of the most explicit statements of Celan’s poetics and it is again fascinating to see this insistence on the agency of the poem, as if it is a conscious and acting thing- it is the poem that ‘demands’ that ‘offers itself up’ that carries its darkness with it. The ‘giviing itself up’ can refer to surrender but also to scarifice for the sake of this interlinear version.

Christoph Lichtenberg was an eighteenth century scientist who apparently (according to the editors) asked the rehtorical question about the head and the book.

The other ‘significant’ extended passage is more explicit about the encounter:

Even for the one,- and beyond all for the one, for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, this encounter has to begin with the darkness – of the self-evident what makes every encounter with a stranger strange. “Camarado, who this is no book, who touches this, touches a human

Only from by this touch – that is not a “making contact” – comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium; it is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language (noesis does not suffice; it is the question of the angle of inclination under which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the here and Now. the place and the hour

(The text after ‘suffice’ is a later addition)

To get the obvious barriers out of the way first, the “Camarado” quote is from Walt Whitman’s “So Long”:

     Camerado, this is no book,
     Who touches this touches a man,
     (Is it night? are we here together alone?)
     It is I you hold and who holds you,
     I spring from the pages into your arms--decease calls me forth.

This might suggest an additional intimate and deeply personal element to the poem/reader encounter.

The OED defines aisthesis as ” The perception of the external world by the senses” and sensorium is ” The seat of sensation in the brain of man and other animals; the percipient centre to which sense-impressions are transmitted by the nerves”. .

Apparently ‘noesis’ is used in phenomenology to mean “a process or an act of perceiving or thinking, as opposed to an object of perception or thought; (also) the subjective aspect of an intentional experience”. All of this would seem to suggest that what we normally consider as our way of apprehending things will not suffice, that there needs to be a conversation and this needs to be under this enigmatic ‘angle of inclination’- an idea which is in the Meridian speech and which I’m still puzzling over:

This strange encounter with the stranger, in order to be real, needs to be focused on a conversation between the poet and the reader. This more than resonates with me because I’m only really keen on those poems and those bodies of work that give something in return for my readerly attention. As a very amateur and inept practitioner, I’m most pleased when a poem of mine develops in response to how audience members react. It’s when Celan goes beyond the ordinary workings of perception that I begin to struggle. The process works for me by explicable exchanges. I read a poem and then think about it. If I’m sufficiently intrigued and impressed by it then I will return to the text in the hope of finding things that weren’t initially apparent and which may give an entry point to what might be going on. I find this ongoing relationship to be both satisfying and involving.

Another brief note in this section appears to make my case for me;

The one writing and the one understanding poems remain complimentary to each other.

This is from the Meridian Address itself;</p.

This always-still of the poem can only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, of the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

I’ve puzzled over this particular angle of inclination for a Very Long Time and keep coming back to a kind of attentive leaning forwards as an expression of care for the Other but I may (again) be entirely wrong…. but I’d like it to infer that our existence (Being) is intertwined with this concern and concentrated attention. i recognise that I’m ignoring the Heideggerian usage of both ‘being’ and ‘creatureliness’ because this particular emphasis seems in Europe in 2019 to be less than helpful.

The Dialogical Poem.

Many of Celan’s poems are addressed to a ‘You’ and this part of the notes deals with this and also expands further on what the encounter between poem and reader might be about. I’ve thought of the ‘you’ in Celan’s work as being either God or his parents or the Jews who were murdered or a lover or himself and I can produce examples where this appears to be the case. What I hadn’t given too much thought to is the ways in which may be addressed to the reader and these brief notes have caused me to reconsider.

I’ll start with something reasonably explicit-

I speak, in that I as I write my poems, in my own and most own matter. With that I hope, and that seems to me to belong to the last, because oldest, and still to be defended hopes of the poem, to promise also in strange matters. In the strangest matter; in the You-distance. At the perihelion of poetry. -The poem has, I am afraid . entered the phase of total You-darkness: it speaks in the strangest matter!-.

I speak alternately in the first and second person; by naming at times the one at times the other, I mean the same.the possi In the You-Darkness the possibility of the selfencounter x/ remains.

I have to document this I quote (Buchner): “…”

This is followed by a shortish horizontal line and beneath that this has been added later “x/ mystical motive-“.

So, this ‘you’ could be both the particular addressee of the poem and, at the same time, the reader of the poem. I’ve already described what Celan has to say on the darkness of the poem so I won’t dwell on this here but the Poem-darkness is a primordial darkness that is congenital/inherent in the poem and moves with it as it is underway towards the encounter. The reference to a ‘phase of total You-darkness’ suggests that there may be other phases that may not be You-dark or may not be totally You-dark. What is more important to me at least is this reiteration of ambiguity as in ‘I mean the same’ which isn’t quite the same as ‘I mean both at the same time’ but it’s close enough for my small brain at the moment. The other intriguing element is this business of the poem as a way to encounter the self or there is the chance of encountering the self in the You-darkness phase of the poem. Both of these do help with my encounter with the work. This is ‘Soviel Gestirne’ form the ‘Die Niemandsrose’ collection in 1963- I’m using the Michael Hamburger translation-

      SO MANY CONSTELLATIONS that
      are held out to us. I was,
      when I looked at you- when? -
      outside by
      the other worlds

      O these ways, galactic,
      O this hour, that weighed
      nights for us over into
      the burden of our names. It is,
      I know, not true
      that we lived, there moved,
      blindly, no more than a breath between
      there and not-there, and at times
      our eyes whirred comet-like
      towards things extinguished, in chasms,
      and where they had burnt out,
      splendid with teats stood Time
      on which already grew up
      and down and away all that
      on which already grew up
      is or was or will be-,

      I know,
      I know and you know, we knew,
      we did not know, we
      were there, after all, and not there
      and at times when 
      only the void stood between us we got
      all the way to each other.

This can be read as being addressed to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the proximity to the ‘you’ may refer to Celan’s near-death experiences in the German work camps. This would ‘fit’ with “the burden of our names” as having a recognisably Jewish name invariably meant death. I’m not going to dwell too long on capitalised time being splendid with teats only to note that teats are sources of sustenance and that the capital t usually denotes Heideggerian notions of existence. What I think is important here is that darkness or blindness seems to be an essential part or precondition of the encounter. The play on knowing and not knowing and presence and absence can be read as the paradoxical nature of the encounter, that it occurs in the dark and at the edge(s) of experience. Elsewhere Celan seems to be talking about the poem as containing the potential for an encounter with a reader who is able to fully apprehend it.

We now come to ‘cathexability’:

In the poem something is said, but in effect so that the said remains unsaid as long as the one who reads it will not let it be said to him. In other words: the poem is not topical, but can be made topical. That too is, temporarily, the ‘cathexability’ of the poem: the You, to whom it is addressed, is given to it on the way to this You. The You is there, comma even before it has come. (That too is a sketch-for-being \Daseinsentwurf\.)

(The german word at the end has been inseterted by the translator, Pierre Joris, to indicate that there isn’t an appropriate equivalent for this in English).

‘Cathexability’ is given in the preceding note as ‘occupiability’ and it is here that Celan insists that the reader must allow the poem to say what it needs to say. In a previous note however we have this;

The addressee of the poem is no one. No one is there when the poem becomes poem. to take the fate of that no one upon oneself is what leads to the poem –

This is where things begin to get tricky in that I’m not sure whether ‘oneself’ here refers to the reader or the poet. It may be that the poem can only be made when the poet assumes the ‘fate’ or potential for encounter upon himself. It could also be that the encounter only occurs when the reader accepts the same thing. Incidentally there are more than a few of the poems where the addressee is quite clearly identifiable as a real person.

The Conversation with Things

I’d like to report that this part of the notes provides further clear and unambiguous insights into the work but they don’t. The name of Osip Mandelstam occurs more than any other poet and it’s clear that his work is a presence in Celan’s poetry. Now, there is a long and convoluted debate to be had about the nature of this influence but here we have Celan’s personal take:

A word about the poems: By nearly none of his As for only a few of his contemporaries, and with that not only those writing not only those writing in the Russian language, are meant? for Osip Mandelstam born in 1891 the word in the poem are sign and signified the poem is the place. where what can be reached through language by the individual seems gathered is gathered; to make the perceived in the word “thing-fast” enters into an indissoluble connection with the what his (the individual’s) speechlessness with WHERE it thingfast its (indecipherable word meets the question after the whereto and the wherefrom of the one who speaks, voiced \stimmbegabt\ and voiceless at the same time, meets the wish to gain world and the wish, the original wish of the poet, thus, in the poem, to become free of the world.

For the things in the poem have a relationship with are related to those things that one calls the last ones.

I think we have here this important point, all of the following are the same;

  • the poem and the thing it writes about;
  • the poet who is voiced and the poet who is voiceless;
  • the wish to ‘gain’ the world and the wish to be free of it.

These kind of paradoxes will be familiar to readers of Celan’s work but I wasn’t aware that. in this, he saw himself as walking in Mandelstam’s footsteps. I’m not going to go over the arguments about the relationship between language and things because others do it much better but I do want to note this relationship which Celan contrasts favourably with the use of metaphor:

The reification, the becoming-object dialogue of the poem: in the vocabulary too (as indeed it has to is everywhere a question of self incarnation). A naming, that is before it is something else, always still an invocation (there too where it is a silent gaze): hence, from this naming the poem according to its Being is anti-metaphorical; what is transferred to the objects is at best the I: it is, from the naming of the silent consonant of the name

Why not give an extreme formulation? The poem is the unique, the untransferable real the present \Gegenwartige\

Asthe objective \Gegenstandliche\ it can also have the object’s muteness and opacity; it only wakes up thro in the true encounter, which it has as its secret. Therefore every real encounter is also remembrance of the poem’s secret.

(The last two paragraphs were added at a later date).

I think I can now be forgiven for being more than a little confused. What (exactly) might the ‘silent consonant of the name’ be? Is the self who incarnates itself the poem, the reader, the poet or the subject of the poem or any combination of these. Is the capitalised ‘Being’ a reference here to the wilder shores of Heidegger’s mystic streak? Is this secrecy that belongs to the poem in any significant way different from the charge of obscurity that so many have levelled at the work?

I’m reasonably okay with naming as invocation but I can’t make the leap to the silent gaze especially as we go straight back to the authentic name according to its Being or essence as being in opposition to metaphor. A brief galnce at the possible meanings of ‘gegenstandliche’ (objective, representational, concrete, graphical) leads me to believe that this could be a combination of any of these?

So, this last part of the encounter notes throws up much more debate than it resolves but parts can also act as an important marker for further reading of the work.

Thinking about the encounter in a wider frame leads me to consider whether the same term or idea can be applied to work by other poets. I think of myself as being in a relationship with the work of four or five poets and a component of that is attending to particular poems. For example, I have a complex but rewarding relationship with the work of Edmund Spenser and can chart in my head how my reading of the Faerie Queene has evolved over the last 20 years. In my head I think an encounter is more of s single short event rather than an evolving and involving relationship.

My initial experience of Celan’s work was almost 50 years ago and has much more of an immediate impact in that the poems were terse, mysterious and very powerful and the development of that relationship has been more of a series of a working through of what that initial encounter may have been about.

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.

Paul Celan’s Testimonies

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:

  • God;
  • 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.