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Paul Celan's WITH DREAMPROPULSION and FOR THE LARKSHADOW.

I'm going to try and make a detailed examination of both of the above which were written in October 1967 and published in the Lichtzwang/Light duress collection in 1970. I'm using Pierre Joris' magnificent translations and notes from his recently published Breathturn to Timestead because these are the most reliable and useful.

The notes tell me that the first of these was written on October 20th, the day when the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a report on the recent Soviet and American probes that were sent to Venus and that the poem makes use of some of the same vocabulary. I don't have access to this report but the poem does seem to 'point' in this particular direction:



WITH DREAMPROPULSION in orbit,
smoulder-
singed,

two masks instead of one,
planetdust in the caved
eyes,

nightblind, dayblind,
worldblind,

the poppy head in you
lands somewhere,
besilences
an also-star

the swimming-mourning domain
records a further shadow,

they all help you,
the heartstone pierces its fan,
no kind of
coolness,

they all help you,

you sail, smoulder and die down,

eyewarms pass the narrows
a bloodclump swings into the orbit,
earthwarms encourage you,
the weather in outer space
begins to harvest.

I was twelve in 1967 and recall clearly the feelings of wonder and pride that filled the soul of this early adolescent. To begin with there was this sense that advanced technology was enabling 'us' to explore the solar system in a way that seemed quite magical to my youthful brain. The space race between the US and the USSR was also portrayed as a proxy for the Cold War and we took some delight every time the Americans seemed to be outdoing those nasty Russians. So, there's technology and war going hand in hand millions of miles away at this distant planet that appears as a star in the night sky.

According to Nasa, Mariner 5 reached Venus on October 19th and began transmitting data. There had been a previous Russian probe to Venus (Venera 4) but this had broken up in its descent to the surface.

The poem is difficult to get to grips with unless the reader has this context, there are a plethora of compound words, either pressed together or hyphenated and these seem to add further obstacles to meaning and intent. The other bit of context that might be helpful is the mythological symbolic importance of Venus, especially in poetry through the ages. The poem consists of a series of clauses and I'll take each of these in turn. As usual, what follows is tentative and provision and I reserve the right to change my mind at any time.

The first line seems straightforward, as far as I can work out from the technical spec, Mariner 5 was powered by solar cells so we'll have to look elsewhere. To dream can be to aspire to something and I seem to recall Kennedy using this verb when initiating the moon landings project in the early sixties. So this 'propulsion' is fuelled by our aspirations but these also carry a connotation of fantasy and wonder.

Mariner 5 found that the surface temperature of Venus is the hottest in the solar system. Wikipedia tells me that the previous Venera probes had failed due, in part, to the heat and this was redressed by the fitting of an enhanced heat shield which could withstand temperatures of 11,000 degrees C. smoulder- / singed is probably an allusion to the effects of the increasing temperature as Venera descended to the surface.

We now come to the masks and here I find myself on less certain ground. There were two probes sent to Venus, one from each side of the Cold War, and this pair of masks may 'stand' for these two superpowers and their competition for scientific and technological glory. Or that these two powers had donned similar masks of scientific progress to hide the fact that the space race was war by other means. The phrase instead of one

may in this vein refer to the fact that it would have been much more appropriate for the two states to join forces than to indulge in very, very expensive competition. There's a further degree of nuance because 'instead of' isn't the same as 'when there should have been one'- it doesn't carry that sense of criticism but simply states the fact that two craft are deployed with only implied rather than outright criticism.

The planetdust in these eyes that are hollowed out seems to anticipate the three types of blindness in the next two lines. As far as I can tell, neither of the robes carried cameras and this could explain the types of blindness described. However, both were fitted with an array of equipment that recorded data and sent these back to earth. There's also the echo of Celan's GO BLIND, which begins with - "GO BLIND today already: / eternity too is full of eyes - ". It transpires that there is dust blowing about Venus and that we can't see through the thick clouds that envelop the planet. It would seem that here the eyes are already hollowed out and that the dust from Venus' surface is just aggravating things rather than causing the blindness. Of course, the eyes may not be hollowed out, 'caved' may also mean to give up or surrender and it might mean exploring and underground space of chamber.

Poppyheads are both sleep-inducing and the source of opium, a substance that induces vivid hallucinations. It maybe the soporific effect that makes the planet silent but I don't know who the 'you' is- in Celan's work there are many different types of you from holocaust victims to God and to the poet himself with variations in between. It may be here that the reader is being addressed, especially if we take the repeated "they all help you" into account. The 'also-star' may be used because Venus is a planet but is also known as the evening star, hence, perhaps, the 'also'.

For the moment, I'm completely but pleasantly baffled by the next two lines. The morning-domain suggests a place where people can mourn, a graveside, a cemetery, a church etc but I have no idea at all why this should be said to be swimming (schwimmende in German). To record a further shadow might be to record or memorialise another death. The main concern throughout Celan's work was to bear witness to the fate of the Jews who were slaughtered by the Germans in World War II and this would therefore fit with this recording even though I fail to see what the Holocaust might have to do with trips to Venus.

I'm struggling with the rest of the poem- I don't know who will be helping who, I'm guessing that the heartstone is Venus at the centre of dense and swirling clouds and intense temperatures (no kind of coolness). The repeated and again isolated line is obviously important but completely baffling in this particular context. It may be Ventura 4 that is doing the dying down on its descent to the surface but this 'you' is unlikely to be the 'you' of the previous line.

The last five lines appearto be very tricky but the OED tells me that bees swarm when they "fly off together in search of a new dwelling place" and that the term is also used as a collective noun for asteroids and meteors. So, these two compounds may be about the hope of being able one day to colonise other planets. With regard to the first swarm, both sides had to wait for the right astronomical 'window' of planetary alignment to reduce the distance to be travelled as much as possible.

So, I hope I've showed that Celan's poems are not that obdurate or resistant to engagement if you know some of the context. The above may not be in any way accurate but it does at least give me many things to think about before I read it again.

By way of contrast we don't have any context for FOR THE LARKSHADOW which was written a couple of days later:


FOR THE LARKSHADOW
laid fallow: the hidden

un-
hardened,
brought in: the experienced
stillness, a field, islandy,
in the fire,

after the 
saturated hope,
after all
branched off fate:

the unrepentant, sung up
moss-victims, where you

search for me, blindly.

The lark is, traditionally, the bringer of morning and has been used as such by many poets throughout history. Renaissance painters have also deployed it to represent Christ. Of course, the arrival of morning is in itself an event freighted with other meanings. A shadow however signifies Bad Things so we have this compound word pointing at both light and dark, both good and bad. To be 'laid fallow' is an agricultural term meaning to be put out of use for a year as in a system of crop rotation to replete nitrogen levels and to prevent (wikipedia tells me) the build-up of "pests and pathogens. There isn't a comma between the first line and the second so it may be reasonable to assume that it is this enigmatic larkshadow that is being put out of use. Celan is known for his use of 'radical' ambiguity and has explained this as his own inability to see / apprehend things from just one perspective. Here however it would appear that this is being deliberately put to one side.

Before we get to 'hidden' it might be better to think about un-hardened about something soft or pliable that is left in that state rather than following its normal route into something quite rigid and resistant to change. So this soft thing might be ambivalence, light and dark, left alone rather than hardening into one particular point of view. This allowed ambivalence may be hidden or made secret in some way. To be 'brought in' can refer to the harvesting of crops but can also indicate the moving of livestock to either lower ground or shelter. In a more general sense, it may indicate moving anything from an exterior setting to an interior one..

There is now the poem's second colon, I've always found these particular punctuation marks to be a little tricky I understand that they mark off clauses in sentences in a way that is more of a break than the semi-colon but less than a full stop and that they are also used to mark the beginning of a list. It could be that the three things following the colon are therefore a list of items that are in this fire. I'm going to ignore the fact that none of these colons are in the original German because that is currently a complication too far. Instead, the field seems go along with the agricultural terms noted above but the 'experienced stillness' is a bit of a mystery. It might refer to a stillness that is accustomed to being still or, much more likely, it could refer to a stillness that is expreienced by someone. I'm trying not to get ahead of myself here but Celan had a strong interest in Jewish mysticism and one of the central images of most mystic practice is the idea of a still point at the centre of all things.. It also may refer to Heidegger's notion of 'felt strangeness' those moments when we feel transposed from everyday life. I'm taking 'islandy' as descriptive of something cut off, remote from land with all the possible qualities that this may hold but I have no idea how to relate it to either of the other two items.

Celan was a Holocaust survivor, his parents and many of his relatives were murdered by the Germans. Much of his work is about bearing witness to this industrialised slaughter and about memorialising the victims. The word 'Holocaust' comes from the Greek and denotes a sacrifice that is "wholly consumed by fire" (OED) so I don't think it is entirely speculative to assume that this is one of the possible types of fire denoted here. This does add a slightly different 'twist' to the preceding list. Throughout Europe the Jewish inhabitants of many cities were required to live in specific areas (ghettos) and the 'islandy' may refer to these. As to 'fallow' the OED tells me that it can also be a colour, similar in hue to withered grass or leaves. To be 'brought in' may be the placement of the Jews in concentration and labour camps.

If we take 'field' out of the agricultural, there are many more possibilities, these seem the most relevant:

Most of Europe during World War II can be thought of as a battlefield but the second possibility might point to the centuries of Jewish learning, both religious and secular, that were eradicated by the Germans.

A hope that is saturated also points two ways, the OED tells me that a hope can also be "a piece of enclosed land e.g. in the midst of fens or marshes or waste land generally" and reminds me that to saturate can also be to overwhelm an enemy by bombing. So this hope could be an island which is surrounded and frequently inundated by water from the surrounding marshes but it can also be hope in the ordinary sense which is destroyed by military action. The branching-off of fate suggests taking another route than the expected one. The life of Jews in Eastern Europe was always precarious, at any time a community could be wiped out by one of the frequent progroms or by more local persecution. However, by 1939 many cities had substantial Jewish populations, Celan was from Czernowitz, a city where Jews made up the largest ethnic or national grouping. So, this might refer to an expectation that the growth and prosperity of the urban Jewish community would continue but that this 'fate' was forced to move in the direction of annihilation instead.

'Moss' has its roots in various European languages but shares a particular definition with Old High German- a bog or a swamp which would seem to fit with the 'inundation' thread. The dead of the Holocaust are often addressed directly and this may be the case here or these specific victims may be Celan's parents who are said to be looking for him but without the power of sight. Some have claimed that Celan was wracked by guilt because of his failure to persuade his parents to flee on the night that the Jews of Czernowitz were rounded up and transported to the camps. This may or may not be the case but it's worth bearing in mind as the likeliest of the 'yous'. The other possibility is that this you may be searching instead or on behalf of the poet. Of course, being blind is not a complete hindrance, it is still possible to locate things by touch although this usually takes much longer.

So, some of the bafflement has been overcome and I hope I've demonstrated that this work is both brilliant and involving. Celan talked about his poems as carrying the potential for an encounter with the reader. I'm not sure that I've achieved this but it certainly seems much closer with both of the above.