Paul Celan, Breathturn into Timestead, an Initial Reconnoitre.

Regular readers will know that I can happily bore for the nation on just how good, important, brilliant the later work of Paul Celan is. With the recent publication of Pierre Joris' translation of all this material, I'll probably spend the next year or so doing that very thing. However, what follows is very much an early response to the pages of jaw-dropping genius contained within.

An Early Digression on Trust and Translation.

I started with Celan by means of Michael Hamburger's translations in the seventies and these have informed (for the want of a better verb) my grasp of the work until the last five years or so when I've become familiar with Pierre's work. Inevitably this has led to some internal clashes between the poems that have been in my head for more than forty years and these newer versions. Now, I know that every translation produces a new poem and it would be a truly terrible world if all translations were identical or even nearly identical but I'm still umbilically attached to the Hamburger versions of my favourite Celan poems. I'm also of the view that Pierre's translations are more faithful to the original phrasing but this is a conundrum that I'm prepared, in most cases, to ignore because I trust both men as writers and as poets in their own right. I can't say this of other translators because their commentaries and other prose works are either so variable or inaccurate on the stuff that I know something about that I can't trust their abilities as translators.

The Poems.

This collection starts with the Atemwende collection published in 1967 and ends with the posthumous Zeitgehöf, the only collection that Celan didn't compile himself, of 1976. I've written elsewhere on Atemwende so I'll pay attention to some of the later poems in this early 'foray'.


This is from the Fadensonnen (Threadsuns) collection which was published in 1968:

THE ONE self-

Threaded through by ashes,
hour-hither, hour-yonder,
by the lidshadows of shut-
down eyes,

ground down
to arrowthin
silenced in conversation
with airalgae bearded
crawling quivers.

A fulfilled
lightconch drives
through a conscience.

There's a lot of familiar gestures and phrasings going on here. There seems to be a concern with seeing and hearing and a subtler focus on darkness or the dark. There's also, perhaps more so than usual, the deployment of compound words and hyphenated words that demand some attention. Celan's Big Themes (Holocaust, Existentialism, Jewish mysticism, mental illness) seem to be hovering about or over a brilliant but tricky distillation. I'll start with the dark (which I've written about elsewhere on arduity) because it's a section in the Meridian notebooks and seems quite important. The main 'point' is that the 'poem qua poem' has its origins in primordial, congenital darkness, from some primal place before there was any kind of light. The poem also carries its darkness with it as it moves (progresses?) through the world. Ashes carries with it the fate of the Jews at the hands of Germany and it is these that are said to do the threading which effects a joining and/or closure. Celan began his untitled poems with a word or two in block capitals so there may not be as much significance in THE ONE as we might think.

So, we start with a night that stars itself, which may or may not mean that it places the star in the sky, and we end with this conch that's somehow related to light going through one particular conscience. I'm happy to admit to a high level of bafflement at this stage but one of the many rewards of paying attedntion to Celan is that you are required to think in different ways. One of the many charges made against the later work is that it is too ambiguous and open to far too many interpretations. I'm not of that view and would argue instead that work like this forces us to confront the nuanced ambiguities that confront our own everyday lives. The two hyphenated words that give rise to some puzzlement are 'hour-hither' and 'hour-yonder' which I'm tentatively taking to be time that is near at hand and time which is distant, the present and the past or the present. It would also appear that t is these 'ash threads' that do the shuttering of the eyes and thus causing blindness.

The crawling quivers don't appear to make any kind of sense but a few minutes with the OED has led me to 'cocker' which is derived from the German 'köcher' (Celan uses 'Köchern') and has this secondary definition: "a casing for the leg; applied, at various times, to a kind of legging, a high laced boot, or a combination of boot and legging, worn by husbandmen, hunters, fishers, etc., to protect the legs". Things thus become a little more graspable. I'm scientifically ignorant on almost every level, there are many basic terms and processes that I don't understand so I've made use of Wikipedia to get some help with 'airalgae'. I've got as far as discovering that algae grow/develop by means of photosynthesis and that oxygen is a by-product of photosynthesis. I think I knew some of this at the age of 12 but that was a long time ago.

I'm going to leave things there for the time being but I hope I've shown how fascinating and rewarding Celan's later work is.


This is from the Lichtzwang (Lightduress) collection which was published in 1970:

THE WILDHEART, dishoused
by the halfblind stab

in the lung,

disbreathed bubbles,

slowly, bloodunderwashed
the rarely promised
configures itself.

Breath is a major term in Celan's work, I've written at some length about its presence in the notes for the Meridian address as to its glorious complexity and centrality to the work. Here however it seems fitting to give just one extract:

Artistry and word-art - that may have the feeling of something occidental, evening-filling. Poetry is heart-grey, breath-clouded, breath-marbled .. language in time.

Celan was a Romanian holocaust survivor who lived in Paris after the Second World War but wrote in German, his mother-tongue, explaining this by quoting his mother: "What's on the lung, put on the tongue". My small brain leads me to believe that the above is less baffling than THE ONE but still requires, at this early stage, careful examination. Our poet was an admirer of the work of Martin Heidegger and they shared an interest in mysticism, "dishoused" may echo the thrust of Heidegger's argument in Building, Dwelling, Thinking which stresses the importance of having a place, of being at home.

Celan saw one of his personal tasks as a poet was to bear witness to the Holocaust in all its horror and this poem 'feels' like a kind of lament- the first act of genocide is the removal of people from their homes and, in the case of the Final Solution, the placement of these people in 'camps' where they would be murdered by means of poison gas which would stop their breathing. So, the fact that we breath is also the means of our death and a central component of the poem. So, 'dishoused' and then 'disbreathed' would seem to be a quite direct reference to the German slaughter of more than 6 million people.

For the moment I'm giving two possibilities to 'configure': giving shape to something and the process whereby astrologers put together a number of components to produce a horoscope. An initial working through leads me to prefer the second option but both may be intended.

In conclusion, I hope that I've begun to show the brilliance of Celan's work and his ability to bring the reader to new ways of reading and thinking. This is serious, hardcore work, dealing with essential matters and dealing with them in the most precise way.

As a final but important aside, some critics continue to denigrate the late work, ascribing it to Celan's worsening mental health. As a fully paid-up mad person I can vouch for the fact that this is both stupid and offensive. It is true that Celan wrote about his difficulties but most poets do and I see no evidence whatsoever that this somehow lowered the quality of his work. I could go on about this for a very long time.