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Paul Celan's Meetings in the Later Work.

One of the most moving parts of the Meridian Address (the most detailed of two statements about his poetics) is the one where he describes the poem as 'underway' and in search of an encounter with a/the reader. So a poem may be said to embody the potential for such a meeting- in the Address Celan likens the Poem to a 'message in a bottle'.

In my previous piece on the 'encounter' section in the preparatory notes for the Meridian, I quote this:

Even for the one,- and beyond all for the one, for whom the encounter with the poem begins 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.

(I had to check but the OED gives 'aisthesis' as: "The perception of the external world by the senses" and 'noesis' as " In phenomenology: 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", neither of which are particularly helpful for my small brain.

This definition goes some way to explaining the nature of the difficulty in the work. Thinking this one through with the aid of Pierre Joris' a href="http://us.macmillan.com/breathturnintotimestead/paulcelan"> translations of Celan's later work, I've noticed several references to meetings and think it might be useful to pay attention to some of these.

From my readerly experience I think I have some inkling as to what an encounter might be about. Once in a while I have an immediate and almost physical reaction to a piece of work. I think is usually based on something reflecting my own view of how the world might work- Edmund Spenser and Geoffrey Hill are exceptions- and do this in an accomplished and satisfying way. I like to think that I form a personal relationship with these poems which feels like it's reciprocated. I don't think that this necessarily has anything to do with understanding the work but it does seem to be 'about' the use of a range of devices to create an effect.

My intention here is to attend to references to meetings in the context of the 'You' and try to think about these in the context of the Encounter section of the notes to the Meridian. I've decided to exclude Todtnauberg because it's about a an actual meeting between Celan and Heidegger rather than saying something about the poem and the reader. Most of this stuff falls at the extreme end of difficulty so I'm not looking for the meaning of the work but at the ways in which these particular addresses ar5e used.

This is Aus engelsmaterie from the Fadensonnen (Threadsuns) collection:


OUT OF 
ANGEL-MATTER, on the day
of the ensouling, phallically
united in the One
-He the Enlivening Just, slept you toward me,
sister-, upward
streaming through the channels, up
into the rootcrown:
parted
she hoists us up, equal, eternal
with standing brain, a bolt of lightning
sews our skulls aright, the pans
and all
the still-to-be dissemened bones:

strewn from the East, to be harvested in the West, equal-eternal-

where this script burns, after the
threequarter death, before
the rolling around remainder-
soul, which 
writhes in crown fear,
since ur-ever.

The meeting here is 'slept you toward me' which seems to have been carried out by the One which may be God (Celan's interest in Jewish mysticism is more apparent in the later work). I'm never clear on who the sister-figure is in the work so I'll leave that open. Then these two would seem to be separated and then lifted up in order to have their skulls (minds, brains) fixed by means of this bolt of lightning.

So, this particular 'you' may not be the reader but instead might be the poet himself and/or a figure standing for the millions of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, especially given the tone of the rest of the poem. On the other, hand this is from the notes:

                                                     To self-encounter?

The poem, no matter how fragile, is something that hardly exists today: it is solidary. It stands toward you. And with it stands, where the near fails with distant -the human-distant too, toward you, to and for whom it speaks itself. It is, the second at the core and the casing of your desperation.
     It stands with you against infamy. It stands against Goebbels and Goll.

So, the poem as a kind of solidarity. 'Goll' refers to Sophie Goll who made attack after attack on Celan for what she wrongly saw as the plagiarization of her husband's work. This is likely to have further damaged Celan's already fragile mental health. Turning back to the poem, there's also this remedy achieved by a sudden emanation of light- an event in the mystical aspects of the Jewish faith that usually signals (marks) a coming closer to or a unity with the Godhead.

It seems to me, tentatively and provisionally, that this meeting and parting may be any or all of these:

The last seven lines would suggest that the Holocaust is the main theme but it is likely, given Celan's use of 'extreme' ambiguity, that there's a lot more going on as well.

Moving on to Tau which is also from Fadensonnen:


DEW. And I lay with you, thee, in the rubble,
a mushy moon
pelted us with answer,

we crumbled apart,
we brittled back together:

the Lord broke the bread,
the bread broke the Lord.

Now, I'm not at all convinced that this meeting is any way in about the potential for a meeting with the reader. Instead I feel it's a very personal address to Celan's wife, Giselle, from whom he was frequently estranged, they separated in 1967, the year before Fadensonnen was published. The sexual connotations of 'I lay with you' together with the emotional difficulties conveyed by 'crumbled' and 'brittled' may well be an accurate and straightforward depiction of separation and reconciliation. The breaking of bread in Jewish households is done by the head of the house prior to meals, a practice that pre-dates the Christianity. During the European middle ages, Jews were often accused of 'profaning' the Christian communion wafer, an accusation that was sometimes accompanied by the massacre of Jewish communities.

I readily admit that I'm entirely biased in this reading in that the first part at least accurately describes my experience of the effects of mental illness in a marriage. I'm bipolar and have been hospitalised for extended periods on three occasions so I know how difficult and distressing it is to live with someone who is gradually mving from being 'well' to being suicidally depressed. As well as the mental deterioration the relationship becomes increasingly difficult (crumbles) and the post-hospital reconciliation can be very brittle indeed, being ready to break under pressure.

I'm trying not to leap to hasty conclusions but the cities and towns of Europe in the post-war period were scarred by piles of rubble caused by shelling and bombing. Celan met Giselle in 1951, years before many of these sites were cleared. The other aspect that might need to be thought about is the brittleness and the crumbs of the communion wafer.

Here we might have two meetings, the first a coming together of a man and a woman and the second the side by side existence of Jewish and Christian communities during the medieval period. Both of these are punctuated by trauma, the first leading to separation and the second leading to the Holocaust.

I'm going to finish with something that may be a direct address to the reader. This is KOMM from the Zeitgehoft (Timestead) collection which was published posthumously in 1976:


COME, lay out the world with yourself,
come, let me fill you all up with
all that's mine,

one with you I am,
to capture us,

even now.

This reads like a love poem but it might also be an an expression of openness towards the reader. There's the fourth line's expression of solidarity and a sense of unity that runs throughout the poem as a whole. There's also two very brief notes in the Encounter section: "Poem as two-way cathexis" and "reciprocal cathexis". The OED tells me that this particular noun is a term used primarily in psychology to denote "The concentration or accumulation of mental energy in a particular channel". This quite intense reciprocity would seem to be what is expressed in the first three lines- 'lay out the world with yourself' and allowing the poet to pour into the reader all that he has. We would then have an invitation to the reader to participate in or emit his/her mental energy along the same channel, an idea about readerly activity/receptivity that I hadn't previously considered in over forty years of attending to poetry.

With regard to this being a poem address to a lover rather than a reader, the notes also have this:

Not a communication addressing this or that "erogenous zone" of the other - shouldn't one say here "message" = but that which, shapely, steps up to the shape of the other; it is an encounter accompanied by the secret of friendship and love.

Four or five years ago I'd have considered this to be hopelessly sentimental and too poetic for its own good, I would have wanted to know how the creation and transmission of this secret might work but now, having started reading in public again, this intention seems much more concrete and objective in that I hope that my work will be well-received and open up the possibilities for friendship with at least one or two members of the audience. Of course I'm not comparing in any way my work to that of Celan's but I must admit that I'm exceptionally gratified when this kind of friendship develops from a reading.

As for reading to myself, as I've already said, there are flashes of recognition and a personal identification with what's been said and I've tried to write about/describe these on both arduity and the bebrowed blog- which I'm vain enough to think of as a kind of reciprocity in that my reciprocal channel might be experienced by others. Of course this is an essentially subjective exercise and I have the luxury of writing about whatever I want but part of what I want to do, I now realise, is to examine and communicate my own experience of these complex events with others.

This doesn't have to be ignited by a whole poem, there's one particular brief passage on the basis of evil in Paradise Lost that set one of these reactions off because I agree with it and because it expresses something really complicated in a very succinct and accomplished way and deepens what I feel to be my relationship with the poet. There's one particular line in Elizabeth Bishop's In the Waiting Room that has the same effect.

It now occurs to me that this two-way mental channel, may spring from the readerly attention that is required by serious work. I recognise that this is an abstraction and not about esp but it does seem to fit with the priority Celan seems to give to attentiveness in the Address itself:

"Attention" - permit me here to quote from a phrase by Malebranche, via Walter Benjamin's essay on Kafka - "Attention" is the natural prayer of the soul".

I'm of the view that paying attention, being alive to the possibilities of the poem, is central to engaging and negotiating difficult work. This involves reading the words, thinking about the words and then reading the words again which will set off more thoughts and responses that need to be thought about. This process doesn't need to be intense and can go on for many years but it is very rewarding indeed. Of course, I may be reading my biases into this and might be missing the 'point' entirely.

To finish, there's this bit of elaboration from the Address.

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

It's the m-word that throws me a bit here because I don't see the encounter as all that mysterious, I'm reading 'in the encounter' as carrying from the start this potential for a meeting so it doesn't seem that mysterious to me- as the above might demonstrate.