Paul Celan's Sewing

The title above may seem a poor attempt at humour but I've been reading (em)WHAT SEWS (WAS NAHT) from Celan's Schneepart collection. This is one of the few longer poems in Celan's later period and it starts with these two questions:

at this voice? On what
does this 
hither, beyond?

Before we get any further into these various and eclectic ambiguities, it may be as well to confess my own prejudices. Celan's major focus was on the Holocaust and bearing witness to it. Some critics and readers would see Heidegger as the chief intellectual influence on Celan's thought and therefore the work should be thought of as having an existential flavour. There are others who, certainly during the last decade of the poet's life, who would instead prioritise the work of Martin Buber and most things Jewish and mystical. A much smaller group (me) would wish that both these camps would pay more attention to the fact of Celan's mental illness and the treatment that he received for it. I'd also want more of a focus on Celan's politics and how this dimension can be traced through his work.

I'm against the idea of overarching readings of the poems because I think that the inherent ambiguities require multiple focal points at once. Modernity struggles with this because it gets in the way of our conditioned need for meaning- hence the initially negative reaction to Celan's later work- a strand which persists even now in some academic factions.

I think it's fair to suggest that one of Celan's main interests was the relationship between breathing, speaking and naming and these few lines would suggest that this is the kind of territory (technical term) that we're getting into. What I want to do first is to have a think about sewing and this 'hither, beyond' conundrum. In everyday parlance, to sew is to either to decorate a piece of cloth or to join two things together by closing the gap between them as in when doctors stitch two sides of a wound together in order for it to heal. These two seem to be a little skewed here in that some unknown entity is sewing at this voice which, in turn, sews on something unknown. The sewing at the voice would suggest that something is aiming or impelling this action towards this voice even though a voice isn't a solid object but a modified exhalation of breath.

In the normal world voices don't sew but a voice can join letters together when it speaks, notes together when it sings. By speaking it can also express a relationship between two objects. Sewing somebody's lips together, sewing their eyelids together deprives them of sight.

It's probably also important to notice that the voice is this voice which might refer to the poet's voice or at least a specific voice. There's also hither which denotes proximity, close at hand.

This is inevitably tentative and provisional but it could be that it is the collective German consciousness which was still trying to forget the recent multiple genocide that is trying to silence Celan's voice whose life was devoted to keeping the memory of the Shoah very much alive as a way to attempt rejoin / mend / fix / heal the incalculable damage done. Hither and beyond may not refer to proximity and distance but to this side and the opposite side of something. All of this would seem to gesture towards the Shoah but one of the other options could (even more tentatively) be mental illness and the experience of severe depression and the inability, I speak from personal experience, to speak anything other than one very simple phrase. The sides could be being ill juxtaposed with recovery. Celan had been treated with electroconvulsive therapy which causes short-term damage to the mental faculties but usually fixes the worst of the depression.

From now on things start to get tricky:

The chasms are
sworn in on White, from them
the snowneedle,

swallow it,

you order the world,
that counts
so much as nine names
named on knees,

tumuli, tumuli,
hill away, 
into the kiss,

Disclaimer: I have very little idea as to what this might be about but I think it's an absolutely brilliant example of what the best poetry can do. This isn't to say that meaning doesn't matter but, equally, it's quite okay to be baffled and impressed at the same time.

What follows is a narrow cluster of features that 'speak' to me and my readerly attention, Snow has a couple of significant features, it's cold, it can cover things up quite quickly and too much exposure to it can bring about frostbite. White is traditionally a symbol of innocence but also of absence. In other poems Celan has made use of all these qualities to recall the dead of the labour camps, both of Celan's parents were incarcerated in these and died as slaves for the National Socialist regime.

We use the verb to 'freeze' as to deaden the pain of an injury or having a wound sewn up or a tooth extracted so this snowneedle may be a device that deadens something perhaps prior to treatment. To my untutored ear, chasms are deep and dangerous cracks or fissures in the surface of the earth and to be sworn in is either to be initiated or taking the oath prior to giving evidence in a court case or bearing witness. a chasm also carries connotations of the abyss and all the Bad Things that accompany it.

To order the world may be to bring about some kind of social/cultural/political stability or to impose order by means of conquest and domination or to organise a taxonomy for the things and phenomena of the world. It also is to give a command, usually (but not always) in a military context. To count is to add or subtract eg counting up to a hundred or back from hundred in threes. It is also to matter, to be of significance and to include someone as in "count me in".

I have no idea at all what the next two lines might imply, I thought originally that the nine names may be from some aspect of Jewish mysticism but a brief look at the work of Gershom Scholem doesn't bear this out, nor does there seem to be a parallel in more orthodox Judaism. Neither is any help obtained from the briefest of skims through Heidegger. None of the usual poetry suspects (Holderlin, Mandelstam, Rilke) yield anything helpful. The only thing that my small brain can come up with is the nine muses of Greek mythology, several of which were associated with the making of poetry. This is, of course, clutching at the flimsiest of straws and I still have no idea how it may fit with the next line. I'm associating 'on' knees with kneeling at some kind of ceremony and receiving a name as part of an initiation ceremony. As a brief aside, some of the more recent scholarship suggests that in Archaic Greece the recitation of poetry was an important part of being initiated into one of the many cults.

The last stanza of this extract yields a little more, a tumulus is a large mound of earth covering one or more burials, 'hill' as a verb is either "to cover, cover up; protect" or "To form into a hill or heap; to heap up; spec. to throw up (soil) into a mound or ridge for planting purposes" (OED). So we seem here to be concerned with the burial of bodies and the making of hills or mounds. Both of these imply covering something up with a view to planting something new. The growth of this vegetation may serve to hide or disguise what's beneath it. Therefore might this not be pointing towards the German reaction after 1945 to the fact of the Holocaust? Celan and many others felt that this was a determined and deliberate attempt to 'gloss over' the nation as conscious perpetrators of genocide.

The kiss is also open to more than a few readings and the next line doesn't help (a dip of the fin) but I'll make some attempt. There are some oblique references to various kinds of meetings of which a few seem to gesture towards the hope of a reunion with the poet's parents and this kiss which both parties enter into could be seen as a token of filial attention but on a more abstract level could stand for an encounter which is a major theme of the later work. This essentially relates to the poem encountering a potential reader but there's also something about the poem being in the world and 'underway'. If the kiss is the sign of this kind of encounter, as well as the one about his parents, then there does seem to be some connection with what's gone before- I may of course be clutching at straws.

This passage is brilliant because of the word-choice, the ability to compress so much into a v small space and its essentially lyrical tone. I'm biased in this regard but these are the components which first attracted me as a callow youth in the early seventies and have stayed with me ever since.

Before we proceed, there now follows a reiteration of the arduity position on meaning, best summarised by the 'it's okay to be baffled' maxim. For many years, with the exception of Celan, I was hung up on digging out the underlying meaning of any poem, this kind of activity seemed to be the most important feature of reading. This changed gradually as I paid more detailed attention to Hill, Prynne and David Jones. With these poets I recognised and took pleasure from the brilliance of the work in how it spoke rather than what it might mean. Some idea of authorial intent has become clearer with re-reading and paying more detailed attention but my previous questing seems less and less important. This isn't a version of the reader response faction, nor is it viewing these works as open texts. Difficult work in the UK does have a specific intention and there is a specific position or point of view being expressed, it just seems, as Prynne suggests, that this particular aspect seems less essential in paying attention to this end of the spectrum.

Having got that out of the way, these are the subsequent lines:

a flip of the fin,
lights up the bays,
you drop
anchor, your shadow 
strips you off on the bush,


a chafer recognizes you,
you approach
each other,
spin you in,

The first four and a bit lines appear to reflect an actual event and then we get into the mysterious and tricky. I can't pretend to be able to elucidate the rest of the above except that moth caterpillars spin silk and in ERBLIND Celan steals this from Mandelstam "autumn and silk and nothingness" as his last line. The other piece of desperate guesswork stems from the Nazi habit of referring to Jews as pestilential insects and the chafer is a destructive little creature. So, it might be that this particular beetle is a Jew, there is then an encounter which is held together by the flimsiest of ropes. I'm also tempted to suggest that the shadow is the Other as described by Martin Buber and elaborated on by Emmanuel Levinas but that would because this is what I want it to be. It could also be the dead of the Holocaust and / our Celan's parents. A quick trawl (intentional) of the interweb tells me that the fin of the fish can serve many different purposes in aiding swimming but it isn't at all clear how this dip can illuminate the bays. Another straw suggests that this fin may instead refer to the parts of a propellor or of a jet engine and that these bays might be those three-sided compartments used for storage- cargo bays, loading bays, parking bays etc etc. So this would perhaps make more sense but it isn't at all clear what this passage has to do with the rest of the poem. The other straw is that a plan has to descend from the sky before arriving at an airport.

The concluding lines are even more oblique:

the Great
grants you passage through,

the leaf buttons its vein to yours,
have to cross through
for the length of a breatdistress,

you are entitled to a tree, a day,
it decodes the number,

a word with all its green
enters itself, transplants itself,

follow it

This may seem more digressive than usual but last year I went along to the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy and was surprised at how many paintings referring to Paul Celan that Kiefer had elected to show. one of these in particular that made an impression was For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night which is dated 1998-2013:

I'll readily confess to be a huge fan of Kiefer but can make no claims whatsoever to any detailed knowledge of All Things Art. I do know however that one of this painter's major concerns has been Germany's conflicted and troubled relationship with the Holocaust whilst another has been exploring various aspects of mysticism and the cosmos. A cursory glance at Wikipedia and Scholem would appear to suggest, in Kabbalah, that the baseline structure of the route to the godhead (this is a gross simplification) consists of ten spheres or sefiroth, Scholem has this:

Jewish mysticism in its various forms represents an attempt to interpret the religious values of Judaism in terms of mystical values. It concentrates on the idea of the living God who manifests himself in the acts of Creation, Revelation and Redemption. Pushed to its extreme, the mystical meditation on this idea gives birth to the conception of a sphere, a whole realm of divinity, which underlies the world of our sense-data and which is present and active in all that exists. This is the meaning of what the Kabbalists call the world of the 'Sefiroth'.....

I don't want to jump to conclusions but would suggest that at least one straw might be about passage / ascent through these spheres, even though this appears to be of no help with the leaf, tree and greenery that follow. Slightly firmer ground might be provided by breathdistress and a word. In the Breath section of his preparatory notes for the Meridian address, Celan seems insistent that an important component of a poem is the 'breath-unit' and this particular compound might suggest a/the poem under some kind of pressure or danger.

The tree is a recurring feature throughout both Christian and Jewish thought but I have now idea how this is coupled with a day in terms of entitlement for the addressee, nor is it by all means clear what it is that is doing the decoding other than to note that various forms of mysticism attach significance to certain numbers and combination of numbers. The number might also be the number of those murdered during the Holocaust and decoding may be identifying and naming individual victims as a way of bearing witness.

The last two lines are wonderfully enigmatic and allusive and I'm going to resist the temptation to guess my way through them mostly because their various ambiguities and uncertainties seem to rest on the many variations of what has gone on before.

So, I hope I've shown again that the later Celan must be attended to by all those with an interest in Serious Work and why we must all be grateful for Pierre Joris' ongoing work to bring this material to the anglophone world.