PART I – STANDING AMIDST
Densities of Presence and Absence
“Everything holds within itself so as not to be submerged by the multitude of forms dreaming to appear.” This sentence—or rather, its incarnation today—is one I have been translating for several years. The words are mine, and are not, just as their “real” writer, the French poet Jean-Louis Giovannoni, was inspired by Friedrich Hölderlin; the long poem this sentence sets en route is called Variations à partir d’une phrase de Friedrich Hölderlin. The “phrase” or sentence in question I never did locate in Hölderlin’s German, but Giovannoni’s French reads as follows: “Tout est un intérieur / Et pourtant sépare.” Thus, through the French, Hölderlin says in the epigraph of my translation, for now: “Everything is an interior / And yet separates.” This displeases me, in that I don’t quite hear the grace of Giovannoni’s Hölderlin, which lies in the near-perfect aural symmetry of this enigmatic paradox, linking the inmost with—not so much the outmost, but rather with the separation brought about by the many—by which, in turn, the inmost becomes the stance of the one.
To some degree, this is an example of the sort of thing literary translators ponder to the confoundment of others, such as technical translators, of which I am one (while feeling my true calling to be literary translation, which I understand as a sort of poetic conjuncture between a broadening and a narrowing into focus). In any event, one of the reasons Giovannoni’s poem keeps calling me back is because I have come to identify more with the dreaming, formless multitude of self, than with its holding-into structure and form. In other words, and rather to my dismay, I am the nothing-as-everything-else sort, rather than the single point of precise focus, or the crystalline arrangement between several points. Still, the latter touches me, moves me, even speaks to me; and I respond this way: could I, might I not be the dream of a crystal? This I doubt, but the (im)possibility secretly compels me. Which brings us to a stranger question still: Could I be the Other of a crystal? The Other for whom its intricate form exists, stands, comes into presence, if you will, the other for whom it breathes. You might ask, but does it breathe, and if so, how? But already I am wondering about the crystalline form of breath, about the secret enigma of what it moves through and what it might be trying to say…
I am not crystalline; I do not hold within as much as I drift, wander. Still, my questions take on their own dreamy form. In the poetry of Paul Celan, they meet a kind of foreign nearness, that is, poems which both stand and move, which are both a precise array of points and a sensing, thinking, feeling through those points. In this way, Celan’s poems have called me into the unheard of, which is to say, into “encounter”—the translation of Celan’s “begegnung”—toward which his Meridian speech reaches and turns, following the breath, but also its absence, and thus approaching the Strange, which Celan’s poems fearlessly address.
In the ground-breaking 1967 collection of poems entitled Atemwende—Breathturn in the translation of Pierre Joris, who has translated all of Celan’s later works—one finds crystalline precision, precision that literally and figuratively cuts: it etches into stone and ice, it injures the eye and mouth, leaving absence, nothing-itself, which I (try to) understand—in terms of breath, breath taken away… —as silence. Celan’s is a truly breathtaking precision: violent, wounding even, at times to the point of bodily experienced revelation. From my own reading experience of Breathturn, I might evoke such a moment as follows: I withstand the scar’s darkness by listening to it. Much of the time, I struggle to express the intensity I feel as a reader, while trying to remain focused on the signifier, on each dense word in Celan’s work, which is further densified by layers of allusion, of possible references.
Atemwende is a collection of 80 poems, organized into six cycles, which mostly follow the chronology of Celan’s composition. Celan wrote the poems between September 1963 and September 1965, a period that can be seen as an interval between episodes of acute psychic difficulty. According to another of Celan’s translators, John Felstiner (Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, 215), during the year prior to composing Atemwende, Celan wrote very little poetry, although he continued his prolific and richly varied work as a translator of eight languages. Felstiner, among others, focuses on Celan’s collaboration with his wife, the graphic artist Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, to situate the origin of Atemwende; indeed, the first cycle was published separately in 1965 under the title Atemkristall and featured eight etchings by Celan-Lestrange. “Atemkristall,” a neologism—“breathcrystal”—was to be the couple’s most significant collaborative work. Among many other things, it testifies to the couple’s intense personal efforts to maintain the bonds between them in the face of adverse external forces and stressors, which are manifest in their correspondence from the period (the couple spent a significant amount of time apart, due to their respective travels for work and rest as well as Celan’s hospitalizations for the psychic difficulties mentioned above).
Reading their letters, I was moved by their continual expressions of commitment and resolve, and by the underlying conflicts and tensions, sometimes extreme, which the letters only imply but which are documented in the editorial notes. In late 1965, having composed all of the poems that would later become Atemwende, Celan entered a period of violent instability, followed by a long hospitalization extending well into 1966; in 1967, he was again hospitalized for several months. By all biographical accounts, the effect on his marriage was devastating, and in his letters, he repeatedly mentions attention and memory problems that (by implication as well as editorial documentation, or speculation) one can associate with the treatment he received, including psychotropic medications and, it would appear, electroshock treatment. The paradox is that he continued to work during these hospitalizations, producing more work in less time—work that many translators and scholars consider his densest in form and significance. It was during his 1967 hospitalization that he prepared the Atemwende manuscript; in a March 8, 1967 letter to his wife, he wrote: “Yesterday and the day before I have been working on the manuscript of Atemwende. It is truly the most dense work I have written so far, also the most encompassing. At a number of turns in the text I have, I must admit, felt pride.—I finally divided the manuscript into cycles— it needed to be aerated— of unequal lengths, but ‘in sich geschlossen’ (self-contained) as they say in German. At the end, separated by an empty page, single poem and cycle simultaneously, the ‘Einmal’ (‘Once’)” (Joris, notes).
This last poem, “Once” standing as the one, single poem of the final cycle of Atemwende, is a poem I have been reading for longer than I have been able to formulate, in words, its intensity. It has always compelled me, but I am only beginning to understand the possible reasons for this. My experience as a reader of Celan in translation has shown me time and again that his poetic density can call out to us—and we can hear it, feel it, even before knowing what it might “mean.” I consider “Once” to be what Joris has come to call a “reading station,” borrowing from the expression “Lesestationen im Spätwort | reading stations in the late-word,” from a poem in Celan’s Lichtzwang | Lightduress collection (Joris, introduction). Joris has come to see the collection titles and certain poems of Celan’s later work, which Atemwende inaugurates, as “programmatic”; they tell us how we might read them, and Celan’s poetry overall (Joris, introduction). Metapoems, infrapoems, reading stations—Joris’s complex metaphorization/systematization reflects the four decades during which he has returned to his readings of Celan’s late work through what he refers to as a “flux” of translations and revisions (Joris, introduction). One aspect of his “reading station” poems is that they often contain or are points of difficulty, in and of themselves—or relative to the whole: the whole collection, the whole oeuvre. They call for a reader to slow or stop his/her reading. On the other hand, when the reader stands at these points, grapples with these knots, opening or loosening can occur. A poem can become an entryway; moreover, it can become refreshment, nourishment, or rest.
Reading and rereading Joris’s translations in Breathturn, I was able to identify certain poems as my own personal reading stations, at this point in my study of Celan’s work. By this I mean that these particular poems provided me some sense, some direction for how to read them. But perhaps more importantly at this early stage (one must bear in mind the decades’ scale of his translators’ readings), they give me insight into how I read, my own reading process. This, in turn, is how I have read Atemwende up to this point. That is, my process itself becomes the lens through which I see this work (try to hear it, really; but more about that later). There are other lenses, namely the fact of translation, which must not be forgotten. Because I approach Atemwende through various lenses—a prism perhaps, essentially the prism of myself as a reader of translations—what follows is at least as much about my process, or prism, as it is about the “meaning” of Celan’s poems.
This essay is also headed toward a reading space—something to encompass time and place as Celan’s poems quite literally create and re-create these dimensions, through their very dynamics and through their meridians—and moreover, a reading space for translations. For example, to enable reading across different translators’ English versions of one given poem, and to overcome the fact that I am only beginning to read Celan’s German, and cannot analyze a translation in the traditional sense of linguistic comparison. What I hope to find out: can I nonetheless read further into the universe of Celan by moving between different translations? In other words, provided I can compose a space with these translations—around, between, then reading to reach across—might this horizontal trans-dynamic, lead the way to another, more vertical trans-dynamic—that of beyond? Might the back-and-forth movement of simple comparison, if conducted in a specific multi-dimensional space, lead to translation readings that speak authentically about Celan’s work? That is, through translation itself, through what the translations are: the poems of Celan poetically re-spoken by their translators.
To move, here, now, closer to these poems, let us return to Joris’s idea of the “reading station,” adapted to my own situation. In “station,” I sense an activated stillness, of standing: verticality in the mostly horizontal dynamics of reading. This gives a sense of space to my attempts at understanding the work. In Being and Time, in his discussion of hearing and understanding in discourse, Heidegger states that one hears because one understands (206). Thus, hearing is not so much a means to understanding; rather, understanding forms the basis for hearing. In Old English, “understandan” is to “to comprehend, grasp the idea of,” but more literally, “to stand in the midst of,” since Old English “under” can mean “between, among” (http://www.etymonline.com). To stand in the midst of, or to actively exist in a space of others. To remain alert, which is a kind of waiting, perhaps of listening, at times a straining in the midst of silence, for whatever may come of it and in it. Here I am reminded of Joris’s translation of the verb “verhoffen,” in both the Atemwende poem “Das Stundenglas” | “The hourglass,” and in Celan’s seminal Meridian speech. Joris notes that “verhoffen” isa technical term “used in reference to deer and meaning ‘to stand quietly and scent the wind’”; this explains his stand-out translation in The Meridian. He renders poetic movement as “tarrying” and “testing the wind,” whereas Felstiner opts for “lingerings” and “longings” (Selected 408); and Rosmarie Waldrop, for “home” and “hope” (Paul Celan: Selections 153).
I would venture that all of Celan’s poems repay such attentive listening, such understanding. They may indeed demand it, and across multiple readings. I propose, as well, that each reader has his or her own arrangement of reading stations that may change over time. Translation is a complexifying and potentially enriching factor: versions in sub-/supra-/…voices of the poem’s own.
One of my key reading stations, a poem to which I have returned several times, is “Stehen” | “To stand.” Before I return to it once again, allow me to introduce what I call a conscious “witness point” (project management jargon that happens to fit Celan’s/Joris’s Breathturn quite well): the Celan poems I discuss below, both are and are not themselves.
"the poem is a version of itself" Paul Celan --> the translation is and is not the poem the poem as/in/makes a complex space of the not-there (in addition to what is in the space with the poem as manifested in its relatings (callings, refutings, etc.) to other poems and texts, to culture, to language) o the unsaid and the unsayable - silence, Silence, Silence! Silence? o other forms of the not-poem: the absolute poem (in Celan's The Meridian: "I am speaking about a poem that doesn't exist!") and the pure poem o a poem as its date, as once-only, as inscription; as annulment of what is commemorated: the singular, the unrepeatable, annulment as conjoining with the commemorating: the repeatable, the readable; as cipher, Shibboleth, what crosses the border between the unreadable and the readable; as what remains of what no longer remains, as what is generated by incineration; as ash (Derrida) o poem as “score” (Joris, introduction) - as template for the materializations or “performative transformations” of the before and after of the poem o drafts o unpublished versions o revisions o adaptations (music, dance, etc.) o translations o revisions of translations o a poem-in-the-reading, here, now, by me, by you; accreting to all previous readings of the poems (to everything ever read)
I hope this idea will become clearer in the readings that follow; at this juncture what matters is to testify, once again, to the nature of a translation as but one version of a dynamic multitude. For this reason, I will attempt to abide by this annotative rule: xCelan (mostly JCelan in Part I), where J refers to Joris. This essay thus strives for continual awareness that each translation, as a sort of hybrid speech act, must attempt to minimize its misrepresentation of the poet, and must not forget its translator.
TO STAND, in the shadow of the stigma in the air. Standing-for-no-one-and-nothing. Unrecognized, for you alone. With all that has room in it, even without language.
The following JCelan poem stands roughly in the middle of the first cycle of Breathturn, the 21 poems first published in 1965 as the livre d’artiste (livre singulier, livre d’objet, bibliophile edition), entitled Atemkristall (Breathcrystal).
A condensation into pulse-words and sign-images from “Shibboleth: For Paul Celan” by Jacques Derrida circumcision one-and-only, body, incision [etching, voice of poem], inscription, mark, sign, image, once, wound, writing, reading, date (place time signature name) singular, universal, unrepeatable/repeatable, unreadable/readable, border, Shibboleth, code, cipher, annulment, annulation, circle, selfmost, Other, heart, nothing, ash, trope, alliance, covenant, Shibboleth, unpronounceable, belonging, excluding, cross-border, translate, door, other, circumscription, dates
what one might call a mystery. But it is more, by being less. Let me at this point refer to Jacques Derrida, a great philosopher who met Celan near the end of the great poet’s life (I will take an existential risk here in homage to both and say, his great life.) Derrida has written extensively about Paul Celan’s work (e.g. the essays translated and collected in Sovereignties in Question). In his “Shibboleth: For Paul Celan,” Derrida speaks singularly and vitally of “the question of Nothing and the meaning of being in Celan, of a truth of being that passed through the experience of Nothing” (62). Drawing on Celan’s elucidations of his poetics in The Meridian, Derrida’s Shibboleth speech delivered in Seattle in 1984 explores Celan’s proposition that the poems of “today” remain “mindful of their dates” (trans. Felstiner, Selected, Meridian, 408). As a starting point, Derrida takes both the idea and the fact of circumcision: the circular, incising, once-only mark of belonging or alliance (and thereby, potentially, of exclusion).
For Derrida, a poem is a date, understood as its specific times and places, and as a poetic signature, and thus related to its names. (I relate his understanding of poems to the complex, multidimensional, dynamic translation reading space I refer to above.) As a date, a poem is the annulment, the effacement of the singular, the unreadable, by its very inscription within the codes and conventions of the repeatable, the readable; and by a sort of poetic encryption. But, the effacement occurs “in front of another date, the date to which [the poem] speaks, the date of an Other, masculine or feminine, strangely allied through the secret of an encounter, a chance secret, with the same date” (9). These words could be said to “date” from Derrida’s own encounter with the Meridian speech, and to draw on the formulation of Celan’s questions therein (“But don’t we all date from such dates? And what dates do we ascribe ourselves to?” ([trans. Felstiner, Selected, 408]). Perhaps more significantly, Derrida’s words evoke the poem’s movement toward the Other, at the heart of intention and address in Celan’s work.
From the Meridian speech again: “The poem is lonely. It is lonely and underway” (409). Reaching and breath motivate Celan’s poetic speech, in both its form and its tropes, but the above statements in the October 22, 1960 speech he delivered in Darmstadt, are followed by a subtle question: “But in just this way doesn’t the poem stand, right here, in an encounter—in the mystery of an encounter?” (409) To reach by standing; to inscribe by effacing; selfmost and wholly Other; coincidence of incommensurables. Related to all of this, and to the encounter of an encounter, is Derrida’s idea of the poem-as-its-dates: also as a cipher or shibboleth. A shibboleth is a ciphered word that distinguishes; it is a word to cross a border; it is a word that crosses a border, e.g. between the readable and unreadable.
Derrida’s conception of the poem as inscription by way of circumcision underlies his statement that “the wound, the very experience of reading, is universal” (54). This is also how he reads the final stanza of the poem that follows “To stand” (JCelan):
Your dream, butting from the watch.
With the wordspoor carved
helically into its
The last butt it delivers.
In the ver-
daygorge, the upward
sore readings over.
The polarity here between night and day, dreams and wakefulness seems evident enough, although the first stanza is much more complex in light of Joris’s indication of scholarly sources in which it is proposed that victims of terrorist regimes often mistrust dreams and the unconscious. Some scholars see this sort of wariness in “Your Dream,” among other poems, potentially setting Celan’s work at a remove from surrealistic interpretations. I thus leave the first stanza for now to focus on the “sore readings” in the final lines. Other translations of this poem may serve Derrida’s statement more precisely; in the written version of his speech in Sovereignties in Question, the poem’s final line is cited as: “it carries across / the wound-read” (54). What compels me is the ambiguity itself, how it allows us to see writing, perhaps the upward, day-bound poling of the ferry, as readings carried over (Celan as reader-writer is a fascinating area of the scholarship), or to see this effort made by the writer as what enables his wounds to “get across” to a reader, to speak readably in this way. To speak through the incision, the mark, the wound, to make it felt. And so, it can also be inferred that to hear this kind of speech, the reader must open him/herself to the same kind of intense bodily marking. Or, as Derrida at one point suggests, a kind of reading to the quick (54).
By which I come around again to where I was: “To stand,” with, in Joris’s translation, “the stigma in the air.” A mark, a wound, seemingly detached from any particular body, but perhaps more present, more pronounced, despite its situation “in the air.” In fact, because of its place there. Air—we breathe it, but how can we picture it? Perhaps by the counter-frame of a counter-word in this context: stigma. Wound, mark, scar… Perhaps in that “stigma” recalls an earlier Celan poem, calls us in the starker voice of “To stand” to these lines of “Todesfuge” (Paul Celan: Selections, trans. Rothenberg, 46):
…“we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie”…
To stand, in the shadow of the barely utterable, of what becomes in the late Celan more and more difficultly spoken, difficultly read. In this shadow, no-one-and-nothing take on an undeniable historical charge—that of persons, millions of persons, and of their worlds that are no more. And yet, as Joris points out in his introduction, the poetry of Celan speaks to and of the unspeakable of the Holocaust, and at the same time remains open for other readings (that perhaps inevitably always come back around to the Holocaust…).
Joris also indicates that this poem was written on November 11, 1963, Armistice Day, exactly three years after the publication in Die Welt of the malevolently outrageous plagiarism charges against Celan, whereby Claire Goll, widow of the poet Yvan Goll, accused Celan, among a slew of other preposterous things, to have stolen “Todesfuge” from Goll. The French poet Jean Daive, a friend and translator of Celan, suggests in his poetical evocation “La question du triangle,” that the Goll Affaire activated in Celan a sort of “destiny” (101). Already among the persecuted, Celan fell victim to a form of torment that seemed precisely designed to wound to the core, if not destroy completely: false witness. If for no other reason than the dastardy of Clair Goll, I bear witness here to her false witness. As Celan’s work itself does better than anything else, from Atemwende through to the posthumously published Schneepart and Zeitgehöft. Indeed, “witness,” “testimony,” “testify” recur in JCelan’s Breathturn; I would furthermore call them “sign-images,” or “pulse-words,” after Celan’s own “primers of pulse-sound” (Washburn xi). This is not to say that the dynamic configurations of density in Celan’s poems—of words, of possible references, of dates, of silences… is bound or over-determined by the Goll Affair. Far from it. In many ways, Celan’s poems catalyze the pain of his wounds, they break his very brokenness, they transmute. As in the Solve et Coagula diptych in Cycle III of Atemwende, Celan’s reinvention of a sort of alchemy—an alchemy of pain as much as language, or more generally, of language-as-reality—make his words, and his silences, the stuff of transcendence, activated (as much by chance as by choice) in the reading, by the reader.
For a long time, “To stand” spoke to me of loneliness, isolation, even alienation. Or, more precisely, that is how I heard it. And yet I say “spoke” because in my hearing, I felt addressed, as if by name. Like Mandelstam’s interlocutor, which influenced Celan’s “flaschenpost” (message in a bottle) in the Bremen speech (trans. Felstiner, Selected, 395); or as a party to the dynamic encounter in the Meridian speech, by which a poem becomes name-specific/othered-universal address. By the force of this address, I felt the need to copy “To stand” and hang it on the wall in my apartment, to see it in my own handwriting, in my own living space, and then to carry it on to the next apartment, and the next. “Unrecognized / for you alone.” I heard this as my own “youlessness,” and later through my own “youlessness,” frustrations of a life, frustrations as a writer trying to write out of the trap of herself. But in this very place, as in “To stand,” I have also experienced room. “With all that has room in it”—room. A personal pulse-word, and sign-image, of my own, perhaps. A way out, through the inwardness, the loneliness. To stand—not out, but in? At any rate, to stand up, to resist; to stand for; toremember. As such, this poem is itself an embodied, materializing monument, made of a scar that speaks in silence, of silence, in air, of smoke… and yet is somehow inscribed on a sort of invisible, physical, material stone—of which I feel the presence in many of Celan poems.
Metaphysical stone…? at any rate also the “real” stone in the geological, petrological, and crystallography terms Celan uses, elaborates, breaks, concentrates (in JCelan’s Breathturn we find “slickenslides,” “fold axes,” “evorsion-ed,” along with other such pulse-words). And by contrast with the tectonic, dynamic earthliness that these compoundings imply, one may also, perhaps, hear this: the stone behind the eye—what the “Open ones carry,” in what is documented as Celan’s last poem, “Vinegrowers” (trans. Felstiner, Selected, 373). Presence of the material, physical, literal—interpenetrated, as Felstiner suggests (Survivor, 73), with the figurative, metaphysical, the existential. Or: “With all that has room in it, / even without language.”
With room, even without language. What is it that has room (space, the spacious, the possible), and is at the same time without language—for a poet whose life literally and figuratively was language? That is: what, in language, or of language, extends beyond it? What is and is not language? I am tempted to say silence, between the words, and beyond them, into—Silence? But what, pray tell, is that? The absence of sound, a kind of negative, perhaps, but then how to hear it, bear witness to it? Or, what in truth can one say of it?
In the Meridian speech, Celan speaks of silence. The genius of his words is how they bear witness to his resisting of absence, negation, abstraction (isn’t it too simple to define No in terms of Yes?)—even as he rethinks, renews, breathes new life into these very concepts. Take the sign-image “atemwende,” a truly breathtaking neologism, which Celan’s speech comes around to organically; beyond the counter-word and its step toward freedom, there is a leap, or fall, that takes the breath itself, takes speech away for a moment, opening the way to freedom (the Other, the Open, and so forth) by means of a turning. A beautifully dynamic definition of silence/Silence. Speaking more to the formal aspects of language, Celan also says: “Certainly the poem, the poem today shows—and this I think has only indirectly to do with the not-to-be-underestimated difficulties of word choice, with the sharper fall of syntax or heightened sense of ellipsis—the poem unmistakably shows a strong bent toward falling silent” (409). A sharper fall of syntax, in how words are organized and structured between themselves, but necessarily between silence, andpossibly from or on silence as well. As we shall see exemplified in a moment, syntax in late Celan cuts (and, as Derrida would remind us, inscribes itself on the body: the living word). It is an organization that breaks down, perhaps to concatenate and densify anew, but such that the syntactical unit in Celan tends to be below the word, around the syllable (towards silence).
In his manifesto on projective verse, Charles Olson wrote:
“From the head to the ear to the syllable.
From the heart to the breath to the line” (4).
I understand the syllable to be relevant here in its smallness, its atomicity; that is, what requires and/or enables precision, whereas the breath (more readily associated with flow; toward melody, even harmony) is an indeterminate unit that allows the emergence of something like Denise Levertov’s “organic form” (312). Olson’s pairing of the ear to the syllable initially gave me the impression that in rhythm what we hear is the click and rock of syllables, but in fact a certain degree of flow is necessary around these “hard” bits of rhythm; in other words, the “soft” fluid breath is just as necessary to hear the rhythmic form.
A case of hard/soft differentials, perhaps, but here the obvious must be stated: this model doesn’t necessarily apply, or apply in the same way, to languages other than English. Enter, therefore, the significant complexity confronting the reader of a translation, especially when—as in my case, and for many readers in translation—the source language is not directly accessible. Since starting my reading of Atemwende in Joris’s translation, which I did because he is the only English-language translator to my knowledge to have translated the whole six-cycle collection as it was originally composed and published, I have tried to read the translations as a compositional whole, but withoutthe German on the facing page. I imagine that Joris chose to place the whole collection in German, after its translation in English, thus serially, as part of his subtle systematics of reading, and also to facilitate reading the translations. He could have placed the German on the facing page, as is often done, but this might have complicated the task facing many readers, i.e. the appreciation of the full collection as the significant compositional unit (and subunit, of the oeuvre) that it was to Celan. As Michael Hamburger has noted in the introductory writings for his translations of Celan (generally acknowledged as among the first in English): “Admittedly, Celan’s work becomes most rewarding when read in its entirety, but my own experience is that this reading calls for an application and effort so intense it may have to be broken off and resumed over the years” (40). I note here his atypical position in the broadest spectrum of Celan’s readership: as a translator, Hamburger of course read the German, so that, applied to readers like myself, his statement implies even greater reading effort. It also explains why he chose to translate only selections from the various German volumes, and it is an argument in favor of the selective approach in the translation of Celan’s poetry. Ultimately, this statement is also linked to Hamburger’s qualification of Celan’s art as a life-and-death struggle, and to Hamburger’s remembrance of Celan’s friend and interpreter, Peter Szondi, who made this singular art his raison d’être, as Hamburger could not, or would not. Szondi followed Celan into suicide in 1971 (19).
All of this brings me to the “reading stations” in JCelan where I feel the urgency and authenticity of the address, and/or the presence, but cannot quite hear it, cannot quite make sense of it. (Ear to head, reading as writing’s inverse?) More elusive, though equally instructive, are the poems-as-stations where I feel, for now at least, only intense perplexity. I am a reader who wants to hear, harmonics, primarily; the interplay of sounds is my key to structure, form, intention… to my making of meaning, as a writer and as a reader. But in a translation, one cannot expect aspects of form—rhythm, for example, and sound play even less so—to be equivalent. Lyn Hejinian, in her article “Forms in Alterity: On Translation,” speaks of a differential understanding of how forms mean in different languages. In her translations of poetry from the Russian, she often must find equivalents that, in fact, are not equivalents, to express the richness and vitality of traditional versification within the Russian literary and cultural context. That is, the poems must be re-spoken in English, in which rhyme and meter lack the currency, expressivity, and relevance they once had. Often her translations shift the intention of traditional Russian forms, onto syntax, to recreate the harmonics, tensions, (dis)continuities, but by different formal means.
Interestingly, Joris tends to stay quite close to the German syntax, relative to Celan’s other English-language translators, and the result, as might be expected, is sometimes strange. “Knotty” is an apt description; the syntactical knots are clusters of various inversions and especially, the effect of placing the grammatical subject at the end of a sentence, fragment, or line, after the verb, as is common in German but strange in English. Moreover, the resulting knots complexify with the insertion of clumps of prepositions as well as odd phrasal adjectives and adverbs between verb and subject, as in this fragment from “On the white philactery” (J Celan), in Cycle II of Atemwende:
the heavylipped own
on the by my
There are reasons for following the original syntax in translation: the rhythm may be most effectively echoed this way, (de)emphasis may be carried over with the least loss, ambiguity may be maintained, or avoided, etc. Of course, every choice a translator makes is part of a conscious/unconscious net of complexity, and chance—making his or her translation, like the poem it tries to re-create, hard to isolate in bits (especially for Celan, and paradoxically so, as his whole consists of bits, scraps, shards, threads, severed ears, an eye cut in strips…). In the fragment above, my impression is of hands inside the living body, the line breaks seemingly suggesting no way out, and perhaps a loss of agency, or creativity; all while the “by my / deadly accuracy” contradicts this impression and introduces ambiguity, even enigma. Once again: “deadly” | “living”: life/death struggle… tangle? This is the sort of knot that stops me in my tracks. Applying Joris’s reading station concept; I allow this to happen, I stop willingly. This means I try to wait, knowing I may have to start reading the poem over again, but heartened by the possibility of a loosening, or opening, the kind that comes to those who wait, as something given, as a gift. I know I can’t unknot JCelan, can’t impose linearity on this sort of complexity. Standing before the knot, simply standing, waiting, testing, listening—to silence, from silence, for silence?—attempting through a kind of attentional act of faith to do what my ear cannot. Still, my ear “grasps at” the knots of syntax in Joris’s translations… failing, but sometimes revealingly.
Joris does, in his introduction, discuss German syntax relative to English and the challenges Celan’s syntax, in particular, poses in translation. It is clear to me that his choice to generally follow the German syntax, into strangeness in English, is a way of allowing and working otherness into his translations. This alone doesn’t elucidate specific knots, such as the “by my / deadly accurate / hands” above, but it does provide a starting point. As does switching, for a moment, to another translation approach. That of Heather McHugh and her partner Nikolai Popov (“MP” below), for example, in Glottal Stop, their joint-effort selection from Celan’s later work. One of their introductory statements—“Celan’s word order in German is quite natural, but the same linear order in English can sometimes misleadingly suggest experiments in syntax where there are none, and so drown out other features of his formal daring” (xii)—almost seems to target Joris, who is conspicuously absent from the list of “creditable” translators acknowledged in a footnote. At any rate, returning to MP’s statement, “formal daring” is arguably so difficult to achieve in poetry translations that reproducing the original’s particular array of “features” may be more a question of identifying its intentions, which often call for reconfiguring the formal balance in and into the poem’s new space—the literary, linguistic, and cultural space in which it will be read. (And this of course leaves unsaid the negativities of said space…)
I cite MP because their point, though I see it differently, relates to what I found when I did in fact, faced with the difficulties of JCelan poems, step away from Breathturn to read—not specific translations (I cover “trans-reading” in Part II)—but rather a flux of Celan’s work in a different voice. “Different” was the operative word—i.e. what would jostle me toward some flow in my reading again. I chose MPCelan because the approach in question is at the other end of the spectrum from that of Joris. Although McHugh and Popov acknowledge the intense interactions between and across the poems of Celan’s oeuvre, particularly in the later poetry, they go one step beyond making a selection. It is, admittedly, a microstep; they simply make no reference useful to the majority of readers as to which volume each poem comes from. They do refer in their index to the German titles from the 1983 Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works), but in doing no more than this, they give volume and page numbers that don’t point a reader like myself toward the relevant collection! At first this miffed and puzzled me; I couldn’t easily determine which poems in their selection were from Atemwende; further, I couldn’t imagine the reason for this strange choice when all of the other Celan translators I’d read clearly indicated the original Celan volumes from which their selections came. But as I read through MP’s selection, cruised actually, carried as I was by formal structures seemingly aimed at making the journey smoother in English waters (nautical references abound in Atemwende), I wondered if MP had purposely committed this niggling omission to remove their translations just that much further from their German origins. An estranging, conceivably an othering, but one with the paradoxical effect of familiarity. That is, I read more effortlessly by hearing inMPCelan a more familiar play of sounds, as compared to JCelan.
Realizing this, I immediately rowed back to Breathturn; my aim had been to briefly switch paradigms to find new ways of reading JCelan. I had come to trust this “hybrid voice.” After all, as the first Celan translator I read, Joris had given me access to poems such as “Stehen” | “To stand.” What I’d gleaned from the ease of my reading movement through MPCelan was that it somehow worked at a bodily level. More specifically, it worked through my ear. I somehow had to shift my reading to other senses or spaces of my own body. I had to hear through—not Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses—but perhaps some kind of re-arrangement in sensing, feeling, thinking…
As JCelan says in a later poem, “The trumpet’s place,” in the posthumous volume Zeitgehöft/Timestead:
“listen your way in / with your mouth”
Here I could easily see the symmetry that I hear, but the question remains: how to hear with my mouth? Recalling Donald Hall’s Goatfoat, Milktongue, Twinbird, I began experimenting. I read aloud, I read walking around my apartment, and along the quieter streets of Avignon, where I live.I let my hands keep time, like a conductor; I moderated speeds of walking and reading. Contrary to my expectations that reading aloud would help me “listen in with the mouth,” the sound of my own voice distracted me. I tried speaking more softly, quietly, until I was no longer speaking aloud, though my lips sometimes formed the words. I was mostly focused on hearing the words, until I seemed to arrive at a threshold between the lowest level of audible speech, and the interior voice I hear somewhere “inside” my body. I have never really considered where this voice is, precisely, assuming per the cliché that it exists “inside my head.” Now, I felt it—inside my mouth; which is to say, that I concentrated intensely on hearing it precisely there. By this intensity, perhaps, I felt I was also holding it there, in this intimate space of myself, a space of opening as well as closing, a sensuous and sensual space, a primal space, a complex space. A place of speech, as well as food, water, and breath. Holding the words within this specific place of my body, to hear them there, I physically experienced the powerful implications of “re-speaking” the poem of an Other, and this has brought me closer to understanding “begegnung” | “encounter,” as Celan intends it in the Meridian speech and elsewhere. In other words, I feel closer to understanding where true or poetic reading might lie relative to poetic speech and poetic hearing.
ON THE WHITE PHILACTERY—the Lord of this hour was a wintercreature, for his sake happened what happened-- my climbing mouth bit in, once more, when it looked for you, smoketrace you, up there, in woman's shape, you on the journey to my firethoughts in the blackgravel beyond the cleftwords, through which I saw you walk, high- legged and the heavylipped own head on the by my deadly accurate hands living body. Tell your fingers accompanying you far in- side the crevasses, how I knew you, how far I pushed you into the deep, where my most bitter dream slept with you heart-fro, in the bed of my inextinguishable name.
My own listening-in with my mouth helped me to make a small step in my understanding of the JCelan poem mentioned above—“On the white philactery”—from which I excised the knot, if you will, of “by my / deadly accurate / hands.” I am not yet in a position to give a full reading of this poem, but I will try to at least situate the first stanza, in which the deadly accurate hands seem formally and semantically cut off and enclosed. As Joris indicates in his notes, the key word of the first line in the original is Gebetriemen, literally, “prayer belt.” It denotes a specific object in Judaism (called a phylactery in English), “where it refers to either of two small leather boxes, each containing strips of parchment inscribed with quotations from the Hebrew scriptures. One is strapped to the forehead, the other to the left arm by observant Jewish men during morning worship, except on Sabbath and holidays” (Joris, notes). To avoid over-determining the German compound word with the more specialized term in English, Joris opted for the related though archaic “philactery,” meaning “amulet, reminder.” What strikes me in the opening lines is the placing of holy writings on the body, on the head and the arm. My knowledge of Judaism is limited, but I see these juxtapositions as bringing into relation the divine, the word, the mind as spirit and as flesh; along with the arm and, by way of the hand, the arm as human agency. Not to be overlooked are the ritualistic and religious connotations. In the poem itself, I go directly to what I cannot ignore: “was geschah” | “what happened”: two words that, in Celan’s poetry, speak with startling eloquence. They speak of the unspeakable loss of millions of human lives, they speak of what remains amidst the losses, and they hold in silence what other Celan poems break apart in search of a new wholeness.
Within the context of Breathturn, these words speak in a sort of conversation with the lines that end another poem, “Ashglory,” which closes Cycle III.
bears witness for the
“There is ash, perhaps, but an ash is not,” according to Derrida in his Shibboleth speech (43). I understand this to mean that ash owes its very existence to consumption, to a cancellation of being. It is this link by which Derrida goes on to relate ash to the inscription / annulment / encryption at work in a poem of witness, such as “Ashglory,” and to ask: “Is witnessing true? Does it have any truth? What is kept if anything true in the inscription, consigning experience to ‘iterable marks’?”
I am still pondering an incineration so total and final it threatens to destroy what it leaves of what was, even the smoke, even the ash, and so even the truth of traces in art and poetry. I am pondering my role, as a human body, a human heart, a human mind, a part of humanity.
To wrestle with what I now feel in reading On the white philactery, I will limit my discussion to the first stanza—that of “what happened.” I continue past it, with difficulty, and on, to “my climbing mouth, bit in, once more”—a brief standing point, for invigoration, even hope. Because in this climbing, biting, insistent mouth, I hear a fierce lifeforce, in the face of, in the teeth of extermination, of the unacceptable, the unlivable. I hear in this mouth a handlike grasp upon grasp, in a concerted direction, towards survival; I hear the will of this speaker. I hear the urgency of this address, seeking you. You—an addressable thou? You, you, and also you? So, a superposition, perhaps, a density of meaning, but… also… “smoketrace”… Now this addressing, speaking mouth is looking, seeking, “you,”—“up there”—perhaps because such a “place” overlaps with that of “what happened,” by the poem’s bringing “what happened” into relation with heaven and God and positive absolutes by its juxtapositions with “philactery” and “Lord”… Somehow in my uncertainty, I feel certain that this voice does speak to “…you, up there, in woman’s shape,” and in “you” I hear, through this intensely reaching mouth, this fiercely vital mouth, the word, Mother— “For you are stillness, Mother, shimmer from the deep.” Which is to say, I hear a possible you, a primal you that nonetheless does not exclude other possibilities. At the same time, I grope for the semantic and referential and existential meaning of “smoketrace […] in woman’s shape” through one woman’s shape, through my own body, through everything I can muster to fathom the incommensurability of almost-nothing (smoke, trace) and of the shape of woman (the bodily, the spiritual, beloved, lover, mother, sister… the feminine element of the divine…).
Now I stop for a moment, I breathe. I rest. I realize that in my effort, I have resolved nothing, but I have taken a small step. And this refreshes me; I allow myself to move more fluidly through the next few lines, through “firethoughts” “blackgravel” “cleftwords” and, somehow, I pass through these pulse-words, these sign-images. I do not question this for now. Rather, I move steadily, I even rush a bit, perhaps like the poem in Celan’s Meridian speech; I move towards what calls me: “[…] through / which I saw you walk.” I have thus moved swiftly through that which the/a “you” was seen to walk, with the first occurrence of “I” (though hopefully what I’ve written above suggests what is evident to me: this poem’s speaker already calls, resists, seeks). This “I” seems to coincide with (at least the memory of a) witnessing.
But, the poem has already revealed to me the pulse of a human will, and now I feel some measure of relief, despite the terrors the poem also confronts me with. Things seem for a moment assured, even though “I saw you walk” is not: I see you walk. Nonetheless: “I saw you walk”. I hold on to this witnessing, to its witness. To this human being. And then I gladly take the next step. What follows is complex syntactically; I expect a verb, but there appears to be no verb, unless one considers “high-legged” as a sort of verb, and one assumes it applies (though the syntax could be interpreted differently) to “you,” whom the poem’s witness has already seen walk, and so now adverbially I see “you” walking, walking on, held high, bringing to bear the “you,” sought “up there.” I see a woman walk forcefully, propelled forward by the uplift of her station; and this, informs the inchoate body below. I believe this to be the witness’s body, a human body, even though it is also a disjointed body, a disfigured body. But this human being most definitely speaks, with all of its confoundedly wounded self, a mouth climbing with the grasp of hands, speaking with the ferocity of having bit in, bit by bit, up, up—I hear it! How this witness speaks to “you”! And so—as “my climbing mouth” works in strange harmony with “my deadly accurate hands”—this human witness becomes, for me, the “living body” of the final line. I believe, now, in the heart and mind of this human witness, so intensely that the “heavylipped own head,” even as these words suggest alienation to me, a struggle… to wake up, to gather one’s wits… even as I myself struggle as a reader, as I read and re-read through my own struggle, somehow this difficult stanza of the poem opens, slightly, in how it links this strange, estranged head to the human witness I sense. And so, when this strangely human “head,” alone on its own line, abruptly plunks down on, or even clanks against “the by my / deadly accurate / hands,” it stops them, holds them there. At least the poem stops me. Just for a breath, the sharp inhale then exhaling… so I venture this: “my deadly accurate hands” point disturbingly up, in their disturbing, yet contained potency. By relation with the speaker’s graspingly witnessing mouth, these lines hold, with the underlying vital force of the final line, its “living body.”
Despite atomization, despite a being thrown into disarray, I see a witness fighting for integrity and continuing to live, humanly, on many levels. The level I have spoken to least is the hardest to express; allow me to call it the level of a wholeness (for this complex poem has another stanza which I will leave undiscussed for now). The first stanza strongly suggests to me that this level is not, or not primarily that of the head. I also hesitate with the word “mind,” preferring to venture heart-head, or even mouth-heart-head… I would also venture that this whole gives its witness the capacity to speak and to seek. To address a human self to what is beyond it, in a call so strangely intense that I hear my own sense of witness in the grasping, upward biting. Does it somehow aspire toward, discern, perhaps even inspire “you” into “woman’s shape,” you, and beyond?… even if said you is only a “smoketrace”… a trace of smoke, a trace of another human being in smoke, as smoke…
what is experience? the nothing as what we cannot keep, silence -Jacques Derrida
Trying to follow the way of this stanza, its lines and its words, I interpret this as a turning to face human annihilation so fundamental it endangers human expression of experience. And at the same time, I cannot ignore the strange act of defiance in this stanza: a positing in the void of a life-giving shape.
Is the shape of woman—one woman, a woman, mother, lover, sister, the feminine element of the divine…—related to the containment of the “deadly accurate hands” inside the body of the stanza that opens “On the white philactery”? I revise my earlier comments here to suggest that the potency of these hands is not annulled, but rather transmuted, by this stanza’s vital upward force, and the human voice of its witness, is then enciphered in the embrace of form, so that the body remains vital, alive.
pulse-words & sign-images across the six cycles of Atemwende (JCELAN)
stand, wound, open, boat, bed, hollow lifehomestead, stone, cottage, houses, cruise, sea, drink, smoke, blood, fire, red, word, rose, name, gaze, etched, eversion-ed, testimony, witness, shadow, you, heart, heart-shaped crater, heart-satellite, heart-fro, heart-teeth, heartdot, hearttones, doom, image, image-doom, heart-penny, coin, groschen, teeth, eternity-teeth, sleep, dream, bread, desertbread, crumb, breadstep, knead, lot, dice, trump, eye, bell, snow, king, clinker game, unplayable, glacier-parlors, home into the dice cup, name, namegiving, shaft, dream, dream-hurdle, dream-weir, truth, metaphor-flurry, delusion-dock, delusion-stairs, mountain, five-mountain-childhood, 12 mountains, 12 foreheads, Biblemountains, stammering, brain, skull, bile, Vagabond Melancholy, melancholy, truth sends word, tree, ashtree, ash, ashglory, ashneedle, testify, testimony, witness
PART II – SAILING THE HEARTSEAS
Trans-reading Across Multiple Translations
ONCE, I did hear him, he did wash the world, unseen, nightlong, real. One and unending, annihilated, I’ed. Light was. Salvation. JCelan
“Once” is the sole poem in the last cycle of Atemwende, and thus the collection’s final gesture. As I wrote and rewrote the first part of this essay, the echo of this final poem, which I have read many times, sounded faintly in the distance, guiding me in my hope of hearing more clearly. In this poem, the speaker recalls something once heard, a washing of the world. The last three words of the first stanza ring out like a bell, and the final “real” seems to resonate beyond what goes unseen under cover of night, suggesting witness even in the absence of light.
The second stanza is more difficult to grasp. Through Derrida’s “Shibboleth: For Paul Celan,” I have come to hear it as a catalyst between the first and final stanzas, by which the speaker’s initial insistence on experience is transformed into the salvation of the closing line. In reference to the difficult-to-translate, transitional “ichten”—or “I’ed”—Derrida writes: “[…] it repeats, in some sort, the annihilated without negation in that which also resonates like the production or constitution of an I (ich), one and infinite, once and infinitely, the step between nothing (Nichts) and light (Licht)” (49).
The resonant constitution of an I… Writing Part I of this essay was self-affirming; I wrote with new clarity and awareness of Celan’s work, which made it more accessible. My effort was intensely upward; I pushed myself to heights where I might grasp, for instance, Derrida’s thought, even if only as a reader of translations. Finding a vantage point where I might perceive Celan’s vast yet dense configurations of presence and absence, I threw back my head—my whole being, really—to glimpse both light and darkness. “Light was. Salvation.” My experience as a reader, and as I wrote about this experience, was one of momentary revelation, and thus dazzling, dizzying, destabilizing. The ground shifted, I stumbled backwards. After a concerted upward effort, I fell toward the opposite pole. Energy ebbed, and once again Celan’s poetry seemed at a nearly inaccessible remove…
GREAT, GLOWING VAULT with the outward- and away- burrowing black-constellation swarm: JCelan, Breathturn, Cycle V, first stanza of the first poem
Such a bottoming out is not limited to my experience as a reader and writer. To spiral, to be spiraled by highs and abysmal lows seems always to be my turn through fate, chance, and whatever I may glimpse of freedom.
“Will we now perhaps find the place where the strangeness was, the place where a person was able to set himself free as an—estranged—I? Will we find such a place, such a step?”
“‘… only it sometimes troubled him that he could not walk on his head.’
Whoever walks on his head, ladies and gentlemen, whoever walks on his head has heaven as an abyss beneath him” (transl. Felstiner, The Meridian, 407).
Towards freedom through estrangement, I must find a way to navigate my own depths. I must brave my own gravities as I attempt to gain direction. But should I head forward or retrace my steps? Ahead lie so many unknowns; at the same time, I can’t fathom going back. Having strained my ear for the fullness of absence and negation, now I must find passage toward my point of departure.
Near the end of the Meridian speech—after moving through the absolute poem, its non-existence, its “U-topia”—Celan reaches a point where, in Felstiner’s translation, “it is time to turn back.” Then, in the next sentence, he announces: “I am at the end—I am back at the beginning.” His path is that of a circle, and in a concise reformulation of his journey, he speaks of “sending oneself ahead toward oneself, in search of oneself… A kind of homecoming.” He saves the best for last, however, seeming to discover his concept of the meridian along with his listeners, as “something that binds and that leads to encounter […] something—like language—immaterial yet earthly, terrestrial, something circular, returning upon itself by way of both poles and thereby—happily—even crossing the tropics (and tropes) […].”
What meridian have I been following as a reader, through this essay, to where I am here and now? Atemwende is of course the key point/points along the way; this collection inspires me with its lingering, groping, turning breath, its driving and subliming breath through crystalline arrays. I sought my own reading stations in Part I, special points along my meridian at which I could stand amidst the figures of otherness, in the “strangescapes” of Celan’s poems. But, as a reader of translations, I also realize that moving across alternate versions may broaden my perspective, by creating a space of reading through a dynamic process of “trans-reading.” Allow me, then, to discover my whereabouts as I go, by considering the multiple translations of various Atemwende poems not as obstacles or detours (“are there such a thing: detours?” ), but complex points along my meridian that should eventually lead me full circle. On this path, it is not a matter of forward or back along a straight line, in a single dimension. It is a matter of reading a specific space into existence, through the abundance and variety of translations of Celan’s work. Indeed, Joris’s translation of the first poem of Cycle V—“Great, glowing vault”—becomes far less daunting when read alongside alternate versions of other translators, here Michael Hamburger and Susan H. Gillespie. In the space of the following page, I begin exploring this four-stanza poem bit by bit, breath by breath, across three different readings.
Stz. 1/4 HCelan VAST, GLOWING VAULT with the swarm of black stars pushing them- selves out and away: JCelan GREAT, GLOWING VAULT with the outward- and away- burrowing black-constellation swarm: GCelan GREAT, GLOWING MOUND with the in-and-out squirming black-stellar swarm:
Hamburger’s translation offers syntactical clarity, by which the vault, its stars, and their expansion begin to sketch out a space. A point of difficulty remains, but is easier to isolate and thus to ponder: the blackness of the stars. The vault glows, the stars are black. Is this an inversion of light and dark, as I have encountered elsewhere in Celan’s work?
Moving to JCelan is like following a different wind through the same vastness, a wind that eddies and swirls. I sense a more complex, less determinate space. No “black stars” here per se; instead, a “black-constellation swarm.” I begin to suspect that rather than a simple inversion, we are witness to an interpenetration of light and darkness, its expansion starting sooner and redoubling at the end of the stanza with “swarm.” The dynamics are more complex: Expansion to be sure, but also swarming, and thus possibly wing-like movement.
HCelan appears to lack the element of “borrowing.” I have no way of assessing degrees of right or wrong. Yet it does seem that Celan’s German contains multiple possibilities that each translator must decide whether to work in or not, depending on his or her interpretation, but also on the limits of semantic overlap between the two languages. HCelan gives me a sky; JCelan makes me wonder whether this is a transitional space between two configurations.
Where am I? Gazing into space on its way to becoming?
In GCelan, “mound” introduces a new element, more terrestrial perhaps, but how to situate a mound that glows? Volcanic eruption comes to mind, but the “black-stellar swarm” suggest something more cosmic. “In-and-out” also suggests interpenetration, perhaps of the elements themselves—air and fire, also earth, and perhaps water, insofar as “squirming,” and Joris’s “borrowing” and “swarm,” suggest living organisms, and “in-and-out” suggests bi-directional flow. Something like the back and forth, or resonance, between different possible states. Perhaps a transformation of space itself: the Big Bang, stars being born? the genesis of life? Or, space simply existing, in all of its active, even chaotic realities.
• Susan H. Gillespie’s selection of Celan’s work, published in 2013, is one of the most recent. • Hamburger’s translations were first published in 1972, but he revised and expanded them until his death in 2007. • Joris began work on Celan’s poetry in 1967 and published his first versions in 1995. His 2014 Breathturn to Timestead includes all of Celan’s later poetry: Atemwende and the four volumes that followed it. • Felstiner published his translations as a literary biography of Celan in 1995, and in a selected works volume in 2001. • McHugh and Popov published their selected works volume in 2000.
Where am I? I gaze up into the distance, into vast brilliance. The darkness shifts and flows around me. Radiating outward, some of the far-off light reaches where I am, despite many incidents along the way, despite absorption, inflection, reflection, scattering. What happens when light encounters darkness, and darkness light? The darkness around me is deep and agitated, both a multitude of forms and one single form. It faces the light with its constant motion—swallowing, turning, mirroring, rippling. Light absorbed, inflected, reflected, and scattered by darkness, an accumulation of gains and losses.
JCelan into the silicified forehead of a ram I burn this image, HCelan on to a ram’s silicified forehead I brand this image, GCelan On the silicified brow of a ram I brand this image,
The second stanza reminds us that we are reading poetry; in the opening lines, the vast protean space we have just encountered is reduced to two words: “this image.”
Furthermore, “this image” is burned or branded into “the silicified forehead/brow of a ram,” evoking both the mineral and the animal, the animate and the inanimate. We are reminded of “Your dream,” from Part I, of writing that “carries / sore readings over” (JCelan), of reading that marks, even wounds the body. Like the “once only” of circumcision that Derrida uses to explain the mystery of dates in poetic encounter, an image is read once, again and again, into being. As Celan says in the Meridian speech, a poetic image is:
“something perceived and to be perceived only now and only here, once, again and again once.”
An image, then, becomes form and breath and possibility, according to who is reading, when and where. A poem is an instance of perception, and to read across different translators’ readings is to become aware of each distinct instance of “only now and only here.” Trans-reading across the first stanza involved expansive, complex, resonant movement, through different dimensions, with both overlap and distance. In the two lines above, there is greater convergence, which carries through to the end of the second stanza. Gillespie’s translation…
Stz. 2/4 On the silicified brow of a ram I brand this image, between its horns, in which, in the song of the windings, the congealed heart oceans’ marrow swells. GCelan into the silicified forehead of a ram burn this image, between the horns, therein, in the singing of the coils, the marrow of the curdled heartseas swells. JCelan on to a ram’s silicified forehead I brand this image, between the horns, in which, in the song of the whorls, the marrow of melted heart-ocean swells. HCelan
The burning of the image into the body of a ram, an iconic animal of sacrifice, results in a singing through its coiled horns, bringing to mind the shofar, a ram’s horn blown as a trumpet by the ancient Hebrews during battle and in high religious observances. The “song of the windings” also evokes electrical current through a coil of wire, generating a magnetic field. Hamburger’s translation is similar. The activation of the horns’ whorls, their potent song melts the marrow of the heart-ocean. Bone, the mineral element of the body, and the heart, the body’s pump for moving blood, are thus inextricably linked. Here they seem to swell with life. In GCelan and JCelan, the “heart oceans” and the “heartseas” are respectively “congealed” and “curdled,” as opposed to “melted” in HCelan; thus, Gillespie and Joris give some indication of the heart’s state before this song of enlivening. Since these two adjectives relate to the solidification of liquid matter, perhaps blood, and contrast with the inorganic “silicified,” the passage from the inanimate to the animate is underscored.
Trans-reading to this point gives me a momentary sense of where I am, of the translation reading space. I am moving, perhaps on the open seas, their darkness churning and glittering with light from the endless expanse of sky above and around me. As I rally my courage, the third stanza signals a radical configuration of this space:
Stz. 3/4 JCelan What doesn’t he butt against? GCelan What does he not butt against? HCelan In- to what does he not charge?
In his notes, Joris draws on the connotation of the German “Widders” for ram, as well as earlier drafts of this poem, to highlight the notions of resistance (“Widerstand”) and opposition (“wider”). To enliven a ram is to energize a resistant force; the creative power of the first stanza becomes destructive in the third, expressed with a notion of negativity that HCelan brings into sharper focus. Whereas JCelan and GCelan both end the stanza with “butt against,” HCelan closes with the less violent “charge,” his emphasis seeming to fall on the “what” that ends the second line. “In- / to what / does he not charge?” The rhetorical answer is: nothing. Or rather, he charges into anything, everything, and as we saw in Part I, Celan’s poetry remains ever aware of the nothing behind the all.
HCelan VAST, GLOWING VAULT with the swarm of black stars pushing them- selves out and away: on to a ram’s silicified forehead I brand this image, between the horns, in which, in the song of the whorls, the marrow of melted heart-ocean swells. In- to what does he not charge? The world is gone, I must carry you. * JCelan GREAT, GLOWING VAULT with the outward- and away- burrowing black-constellation swarm: into the silicified forehead of a ram I burn this image, between the horns, therein, in the singing of the coils, the marrow of the curdled heartseas swells. What doesn’t he butt against? The world is gone, I have to carry you. * GCelan GREAT, GLOWING MOUND with the in-and-out squirming black-stellar swarm: On the silicified brow of a ram I brand this image, between its horns, in which, in the song of the windings, the congealed heart oceans’ marrow swells. What does he not butt against? The world is gone; I must carry you.
The three translations are practically identical in the last line; I’ve positioned HCelan first because of its slight extra emphasis on the nothingness left by creative power worked through a body of resistance. The ram’s burning is not merely a sacrifice, but an empowering of his spirit, through to his bones and heart. We become aware of his world by his will to challenge and to charge, over and over. Until “the world is gone”—and yet we are not stranded in the nothingness. The poem’s speaker, who appeared in order to burn the image into the ram, reappears to close the poem: “The world is gone, I must carry you.” Cosmic and earthly forces have been conjured; petrified symbols, the ram and its horns, have been enlivened; creativity has been transmuted; but the power of an image remains beyond both the poet’s and the reader’s control. It can impart a force so great as to undo a world. We are reminded that renewal and destruction are inextricably linked. Celan’s poetry seeks to write images into experience, into the body itself, thereby destabilizing worlds, but it nonetheless offers the possibility of transport into the beyond. It offers the possibility of other worlds.
Reading this poetry across multiple translations heightens the sense of possibility, as well as the sense of danger. As a reader, I have to trust what is carrying me, while constantly seeking to orient myself. Where am I?
“Origin is the goal.” John Felstiner, another of Celan’s English-language translators, refers to these words of the poet Karl Kraus (as cited by Walter Benjamin) (Survivor 252) to relate how Celan’s poems follow meridians that reach far back in time; for example, “You be like you” (Lichtzwang, 1968), which moves modern German toward the language of Meister Eckhart and even the Hebrew of Isaiah. As a reader living in Europe, my own meridians include a passage by Italo Calvino, cited in Ecrire la faim (Danflous, chapt. I,4), a study of hunger in another poetry of witness, that of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, as well as in the writings of Franz Kafka and Paul Auster. Writing on Homer’s Odyssey, Calvino evokes the danger that Homer calls “forgetting the way back”: “Ulysses must not forget the way he must travel, the form of his destiny: he must not forget The Odyssey. In the same way, the bard who improvises his song, or the rhapsodist who sings poems again and again that he knows by heart, must keep their memories intact in order to find their way home through the song of their poems.” Celan’s poetry carries us forward, it carries us back; it is a poetry of constant motion, of addressing the future through bearing witness to the past. To bring this essay full circle, I imagine myself in a skiff, perhaps one of the “dreamproof skiffs” in “Flowing” (Cycle II, JCelan, Breathturn), sailing the open heartseas of Celan’s poetry, orienting myself through the readings of his various translators, allowing diverse ways of voicing his poems, different winds to fill my sails, allowing different force fields to act on my craft—“with ten nailmoons on the towrope” (“Rest in your wounds,” Cycle V, JCelan, Breathturn).
The course I will chart is aimed for where I started with Atemwende, with my dreams of the voice—in truth the voices—of Celan’s arrays of energy. From “Once,” which in itself constitutes Cycle VI, and from “Great, glowing vault” (JCelan) which starts Cycle V, I will journey toward the origin, back through the cycles, but my itinerary will not be strictly chronological, as the idea is to discover where I am as I make my way. To remain mindful of Celan’s dates, I will note the German titles (with Joris’s translation), as well as the cycles and composition dates (per Joris’s notes), to navigate between poems:
“Große, glühende Wölbung” / “Great, glowing vault” | “Ein Dröhnen” / “A roar”
Guided by my sense of hearing, I head toward the shore, in the direction of a defeaning sound.
JCelan A ROAR: it is truth itself stepped among mankind,
This single-stanza poem has just two more lines, but before moving on, let’s consider the dimension added by Gillespie’s translation:
GCelan A ROARING: Truth herself has gone among mankind,
In JCelan, the source of the roar seems relatively simple, at least initially: the contrast between “truth” and “mankind.” GCelan adds the dimension of gender, with “Truth / herself.” The German “Wahrheit” | “truth” is a feminine noun, and the implicit gender of “mankind” is emphasized by assigning an explicit femininity to Truth in English. But Gillespie’s gesture also opens the way to heightened metaphor, even to the point of personification: Truth walking in feminine form among men. As in “On the white philactery,” the feminine, or “woman’s shape,” in Celan’s poetry embraces a wide range of meanings: from mother and sister, to lover and beloved, to the feminine element of the divine, and also perhaps to language. By simply choosing “herself,” rather than “itself,” Gillespie amplifies the metaphorical possibilities. This turns out to be a bold choice, in light of the lines that follow and conclude the poem:
GCelan A ROARING: Truth herself has gone among mankind, straight into the metaphor flurry. JCelan A ROAR: it is truth itself stepped among mankind, right into the metaphor-flurry. HCelan A RUMBLING: truth itself has appeared among humankind in the very thick of their flurrying metaphors.
Hamburger, who avoids the question of gender altogether with “humankind,” delivers the last two lines with the greatest emphasis. Truth appears amidst “the very thick of their / flurrying metaphors”—truth therefore stands apart from the metaphors and may even call metaphor into question. Whereas truth makes a definite, undeniable noise, coupled with the suggestion of movement in Hamburger’s “rumbling,” metaphor is associated with a flurry, possibly wind, rain, or snow, and thus with an obscuring of vision.
The particularities of metaphor, images, and tropes in Celan’s poetry are the subject of much critical reflection. Celan himself wrote in 1958 that “[the poem] does not transfigure or render ‘poetical’; it names, it posits, it tries to measure the area of the given and the possible.” One could interpret this as revealing mistrust toward poetry’s usual means, and/or a desire to expand poetry’s scope through a more direct relationship with reality. According to the French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, the multiple references to blindness in Celan’s poetry indicate just such a mistrust of representation and image (61). As for the German literary critic Werner Hamacher, he explains that the tropes and images of Celan’s poetry are “not metaphors for representations but metaphors for metaphorization, not images of a world but images of the generation of images, not the transcription of voices but the production of the etched voices of the poem itself.” Hamacher’s statement may apply to “Great, glowing vault” (JCelan), in which the transmission of the powerful first-stanza image seems to generate a world as well as its destruction. As for “A roar” (JCelan), could the blast of truth amongst the flurry of metaphors itself be a metaphor for the process of metaphorization, a sort of co-habitation of incommensurables?
I marvel at Gillespie’s daring to introduce the possibility of personification with her feminine Truth, as I doubt she’s unaware of the critical push to redefine various tropes according to the challenges of Celan’s poetry. As she writes in the introduction to her selection of translations, Gillespie considers the influence of the French and Romanian Surrealists, and thus the unconscious mind, to be “more important and lasting” in Celan’s work than is often realized (xii). Does a feminine Truth reflect a possible desire of the poem, perhaps beneath the conscious level, to disturb the very contrast it brings into focus? More than any of the other translators I have read, Gillespie seems committed to the freedom, as well as the difficulties, that Celan’s poetry presents. The title of her collection—Corona—andher introduction refer to Husserl’s concept of “temporal corona” which, according to Gillespie, Celan referred to in his poems and other writings (xxii). The temporal corona is a conception of consciousness as it encompasses the present moment; the corona consists of a continuum of memory and perceptual continuums. Applied to Celan’s poetry, this concept opens the way to a broad spectrum of interpretations. As Gillespie explains: “The temporal corona allows us to ascribe meaning to life experience, including the life and voice of the poem and its accompanying poet. In this way, the poem is free, as its readers and translators are also, and inescapably, free to assemble or intuit its meaning. We do this by drawing on the experiences and other phenomena we have stored up in our linguistic and perceptual unconscious” (xxiii).
Emboldened by Gillespie, but still hoping for greater clarity on what Celan’s poetry is telling me through its use of tropes and images, I let my skiff be carried toward the horizon, directly into a commotion of ambiguity whipping up between the three translations of “Go blind.”
“Ein Dröhnen” / “A roar” | “Erblinde” / “Go blind”
Cycle IV, composed April 6, 1965 | Cycle II, composed March 13, 1964
Here are the first five lines of this single-stanza, ten-line poem (the translation of McHugh and Popov will be discussed on its own, as it is flurrying a little way in the distance).
JCelan GO BLIND today already: eternity too is full of eyes— wherein drowns, what helped the images over the path they came, HCelan GO BLIND now, today: eternity is also full of eyes— in them drowns what helped images down the way they came,
For me, the enigma of this poem is understanding why its addressee would want to go blind. The colon which finishes off the first line’s injunction suggests that the reason relates to eternity and the many pairs of eyes found there. As Hamburger translates, “in them / drowns what helped images down / the way they came.” While leaving open the possibility that eternity itself may be the site of the drowning, Joris’s translation—“what helped the images / over the path they came”—recalls how Celan speaks of the poetic image in the Meridian speech, cited above with reference to “Great, glowing vault” (JCelan):
“Something perceived and to be perceived only now and only here, once, again and again, once. And so a poem would be the place where all tropes and metaphors will be carried ad absurdum” (410).
What is it, then, that helps the images over their path? Immediately prior to this point in his speech, Celan notes that he is speaking about the absolute poem: “I am speaking about a poem that does not exist!” (410) One can then understand the ultimate destination of poetic images to be the absolute poem, as Derrida does in his essay (11), whereas what carries them in this direction is the poetic dynamic toward an Other, or the once-only perception that occurs through an instance of reading, or the poem discovered each time anew through poetic encounter. What helps the images get across, what allows individual fields of vision to coincide, is the poem in its most real, specific sense; and yet, “Go blind” seems to be telling me, as one of its possible addressees, that because this reality is drowned in eternity, or in the eyes therein, I should hasten to lose my sight, the sense that often marshals the other senses and oversees perception.
But this is not the only reason given by the poem:
HCelan GO BLIND now, today: eternity is also full of eyes— in them drowns what helped images down the way they came, in them fades what took you out of language, lifted you out with a gesture which you allowed to happen like the dance of two words made of autumn and silk and nothingness. JCelan GO BLIND today already: eternity too is full of eyes— wherein drowns, what helped the images over the path they came, wherein expires, what took you too out of language with a gesture that you let happen like the dance of two words of just autumn and silk and nothingness.
Something else also “fades,” or “expires,” in eternity, which Hamburger’s translation introduces as “what took you out of language.” Does my hypothesis of the poem, in the most real sense, fit here? The immediate answer seems to be no, insofar as Celan saw the poet as one who went “with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality” (trans. Felstiner, Selected, 396). But if poetic encounter is drowned in eternity, as per my reading of the foregoing lines of “Go blind”—which is to say, what Celan’s poetry aspires to, its poetic best—then one would obviously expect less-than-fully realized attempts to expire as well. Moreover, losing touch with language is something the addressee allowed to happen—“like / the dance of two words of just / autumn and silk and nothingness,” in Joris’s translation. The dancing words remind me of the metaphor flurry in “A roar”; their movement seems disconnected from language as a form of truth, and the nothingness that accompanies them seems to lack depth and dimension. Autumn and silk, twirling and spinning perhaps, but nothing more than words. Here, the speaker might be admonishing himself, perhaps a younger self, for failing to achieve poetic density and veracity. Whatever the case may be, the least realized poem, like the most realized, perishes in eternity.
But does “Go blind” leave the reader of Celan’s poetry, or the poet himself, utterly without hope? Comparing the two translations above, I notice that in JCelan, the addressee is not alone: “what took you too out of / language.” This is the only instance of the word “you,” and it sends me back to the opening imperative: “Go blind today already: / eternity too is full of eyes.” To go blind is perhaps to join the eyes in eternity, and perhaps the eyes in eternity were once the eyes of readers and poets, the eyes of the poem’s perception, the eyes of poetic encounter—of what no longer has life beyond time. And yet, the eyes remain in this realm, suggesting that they see might something beyond the best and the worst in time-bound poetry. Could the absolute poem, where the image’s path seems to lead and which Celan goes on in the Meridian to call “U-topia” (411), also be outside time, and therefore part of eternity? I can only speculate, constrained as I am by time, but it seems possible that the place of ultimate arrival transcends what can be imagined, even through the most fully experienced poetic image.
“Go blind” as translated by McHugh and Popov leaves me even more perplexed. Now in eternity, “what helped the images / overcome their coming” is what drowns. I could try to read this “overcoming” relative to Celan’s statements in the Meridian speech, as I did with JCelan and HCelan above—that is, as the once-only perception associated with poetic encounter. But “overcoming” also seems to correspond to the images’ ultimate destination, which may be eternity itself. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to understand why one would consent to going blind. Similarly, what took the addressee out of language, in the two translations above, here “spirited you away,” and it is in eternity that “the fire goes out of” this spiriting force. Which makes losing touch with language more ambiguous, possibly even desirable. Again, why would one willingly go blind, willingly leave time’s realm when doing so means losing what helps images overcome or transcend themselves, along with some sort of spark that apparently frees one from language? On the other hand, the syntax of the second five lines makes an alternate reading possible, in which the speaker is telling himself to go blind out of frustration with his own negligence. That is, the gesture “you let happen” can be read as the loss of the fiery power to rise above language, leaving only a pair of waltzing words with no substance…
MPCelan GO BLIND at once, today: eternity too is full of eyes— what helped the images overcome their coming drowns there; there the fire goes out of what spirited you away from language with a gesture you let happen like the waltz of two words made of pure fall, silk, and nothing.
Amidst this flurry of ambiguity, struggling to orient my little skiff, I return to my personal experience of Celan’s poetry, hoping to renew my sense of witness, whatever the ultimate limits of poetic image and poetic language. Over time, my own reading of “A roar” in Joris’s translation has taken on unambiguous intensity, which I hope will help me find my way now. I remember exactly where I was when my reading really “took place.” Rounding the final curve of Rue de l’Observance as it opens onto the southern ramparts of Avignon, I was walking along, rereading the poem after studying Joris’s notes. In them, he refers to Celan scholar Barbara Wiedemann, who links the title word, “Dröhnen” | “roar” to an article in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of November 14, 1964, describing the evidence of a witness in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial: “He (Wilhelm Boger) opened them (the canisters of Zyklon B) and handed them on. Other SS-men threw them into the open windows, from which came a roar, as if there were many people below the earth.” Having read this short poem many times, I suddenly felt the roaring truth of what surpasses image and metaphor: instant death on a large scale. Reading Hamburger’s translation later, I connected the sound I had experienced with “rumbling”—with shaking that rocks the deepest foundations. This has become part of my personal understanding of the truth Celan was trying to achieve through his poetry, something as undeniable as an earth-shaking roar, something that not only contrasts with metaphor, but walks in the midst of its ambiguity-flurry, existing against it and yet through it.
What can I really know of human experience beyond my own, especially when it involves the most extreme form of violence inflicted by other human beings? To me, this relates to the irresolvable lines that conclude Celan’s “Aschenglorie,” the final poem in Cycle III of Atemwende, which I alluded to in Part I. In both Joris’s and Felstiner’s translations:
bears witness for the
Celan places us before an existential knot. It seems we have no direct link to experience. To phrase it another way, we have nothing but witnessing, witnessing of witnessing of witnessing. Experience comes down to testimony of testimony. There is no ultimate witness, no absolute that can transform the testimony of the last witness in the chain into actual experience. Paradoxically, Celan’s poetry makes us aware of this impossibility while at the same time attempting to overcome it. At once highly precise and highly dense, his poems offer the possibility of encounter, and while such a heightened reading experience is never guaranteed, it sometimes occurs after multiple readings and re-readings. Poetic encounter has suggested to me that reality is something I can only glimpse during brief moments, and perhaps only when my experience, for example, coincides or overlaps with that of at least one other human being.
“Erblinde” / “Go blind” | “Aschenglorie” / “Ashglory”
Cycle II, composed March 13, 1964 | Cycle III, composed December 15, 1964
Having recovered my sense of direction amidst the possible and the impossible, I position my little craft for a full reading of “Aschenglorie”—“Ashglory” in JCelan, and “Ash-Aureole” in Felstiner’s translation. Like the poems I’ve read so far, “Aschenglorie” exposes the difficulties of reading and writing poetry and has been interpreted in many ways by critics and scholars. I have come to read it as the speaker’s struggle to bear witness to his own experience in time, which seems to shift with the speaker’s temporal perspective. In this way, it is something like the “conversation—often despairing” that Celan refers to in the Meridian speech.
“A poem—under what conditions!—becomes the poem of someone (ever yet) perceiving, facing phenomena, questioning and addressing these phenomena; it becomes conversation—often despairing conversation” (410).
By addressing his experience, the speaker expands the perceptual timeframe of the poem:
“Even in a poem’s here and now—the poem itself really has only this one, unique momentary present—even in this immediacy and nearness it lets the Other’s ownmost quality speak: its time” (410).
The Other can be encountered in “Aschenglorie” not only as other points beyond the poem’s momentary present, but also as an allusive web of personal friends and literary influences. Celan scholars link the poem, among other events, to the summer of 1947, which the poet spent with friends in Mangalia, on the Black Sea. One of these friends, Lia Fingerhut, would later drown in the Mediterranean off Israel. In his correspondence, Celan expressed great sadness at her death, a possible suicide. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam also spent much time on the Black Sea; through Celan’s distinctive translations of his work, Mandelstam became a sort of literary kindred for Celan.
Each stanza in this six-stanza poem can be viewed as a different temporal vantage point from which to recall or consider an event in the past. The difficulties confronting the witness are present throughout. While my reading runs into the existential difficulties of bearing witness for the witness, the availability of multiple translations in English expands the possibilities. For example, I rely on Felstiner’s translation to provide a sort of “co-witness” that helps me to read and bear witness to the experience of Joris’s witness. The two translations are similar, and where they diverge they can still be read in a complementary way. Alongside JCelan below, I’ve included FCelan at certain points of divergence, where the translators’ different choices offer insight into the difficulties of experience and witness in time. For each stanza, I’ve also tried grasp the temporal vantage point in a few words, which I use to guide my reading.
1. “then” + destiny – At the center of this stanza is a joining of hands, perhaps a pact between the speaker and two other intimates, as suggested by “your shaken-knotted / hands.” Behind the linked hands is the suggestion of brilliance, perhaps the glory fate promises the threesome, but also the ultimate fate of ash. Felstiner’s “ash-aureole” makes the presence of death more keenly felt, as an aureole may be a “heavenly” reward bestowed after a glorious life, especially to a martyr.
1. “then” + destiny JCelan ASHGLORY behind your shaken-knotted hands at the threeway. FCelan ASH-AUREOLE behind your shaken knotted hands at the Threeways. 2. “then” into now Pontic erstwhile: here, a drop, on the drowned rudder blade, deep in the petrified oath, it roars up. 3. “then” as now (On the vertical breathrope, in those days, higher than above, between two painknots, while the glossy Tatarmoon climbed up to us, I dub myself into you and into you.) (On the plumblined breath cable, back then, higher than on high, between two pain knots, while the gleaming Tatar moon climbed up to us, I dug me into you and you.) 4. “then” + destiny augmented Ash- glory behind you threeway hands. Ash- aureole behind you Threeways- hands. 5. past / chance / future The cast-in-front-of-you, from the East, terrible. Before you, the easterly dicethrow, frightful 6. the witness in time No one bears witness for the witness.
2. “then” into now – “Pontic erstwhile” begins by situating the first stanza in the past, as “then,” and provides a topical reference to the Black Sea. It also brings “then” into now, into present circumstances: “Pontic erstwhile: here.” This entry of past into present begins as “a drop.” The significance of a single drop is revealed as the prepositional phrases make their way through the lines: the drop may at first seem insignificant, situated as it is on the “drowned rudder blade,” suggesting loss of direction or guidance; movement and change is also hindered by the “the petrified oath.” Yet in the final line, this single drop resurfaces with a roar, imposing its own time and taking the reader from an oath perhaps too deep in the past to be felt, back to the pact of the first stanza, so that the next stanza is the present of a resurfaced past.
3. “then” as now – By contrast with the roar that closes the second stanza, the parentheses of the third stanza suggest a certain quietness, perhaps a moment of special importance for the speaker, whom the last line reveals as the subject of the winding, preposition-laden sentence. In JCelan, the verb is in the present tense, as was “roars up,” but this seems to be an earlier moment, an earlier now, as confirmed by “in those days” / “back then” in line two. The “vertical breathrope” / “plumblined breath cable” recalls “my climbing mouth” in “On the white philactery”; the reader experiences a climbing, upward dynamic, which Felstiner underscores with “higher than on high.” This might allude to the glory or aureole the poem opens with; the connection between stanzas 1 and 3 is also suggested by the “two painknots” and the speaker’s position between. A threesome, then, at such heights that, in another reference to Mangalia which was partly peopled by Tatars, the “Tatarmoon” must rise to their vertical positioning. In the last line, the speaker enacts his connection with “you and you.” Joris’s use of the verb “dub” suggests a kind of naming that makes the threesome one, whereas Felstiner’s “dug” emphasizes the action of the hands—joined, even knotted together in the first stanza. Once again we see the link in Celan’s poetry between the mouth and the hands: naming, by speech, through the mouth, can also be expressed as digging, grasping, holding with the hands. The speaker reaches toward his addressees—intimates and yet figures of the Other—seeking a close, enduring connection. This is a fundamental yet subtle dynamic in Celan’s poetry; a poem in one of the first books he published (“Praise of Distance,” Mohn und Gedächtnis) includes this line: “I am you, when I am I” (Trans. Felstiner, Selected, 24).
4. then + destiny augmented – After the eruption of the past into the present, and a reliving of “then as now,” stanza 4 suggests that the past as it stood in stanza 1 has been altered. The later stanza is similar to that which opened the poem, but the initial compound word comes apart in lines 1 and 2: “Ash- / glory”—which in Felstiner’s translation is paralleled in lines 3 and 4 with “Threeways- / hands.” These hands are no longer proceeded by “your,” but rather “you.” A sense of ownership and agency is lost and the syntax loosened. Now, in addition to the background of ash and glory, the threeway clasp of hands may also be read as “behind / you”—farther away, perhaps more irretrievably in the past, out of reach, ungraspable. In this way, I read the destiny suggested in the first stanza as “augmented,” that is, more manifest, more acutely felt.
5. past / chance / future – Reading JCelan and FCelan as co-witnesses in this stanza brings into relation the past, chance, and the future. The reference to “the East” / “easterly” may be linked to the other Black Sea references and thus to specific past experiences, or it may be related to the rising light of day. In addition to seeing a possible connection between glory and the sun’s light, between ash and solar heat, I read Joris’s translation as follows: With the sun at my back, what looms in the background—the past—casts its shadow before me, onto the path I walk into the future. “The cast-in-front-of-you” is terrifying in its ever-presentness; the future offers no release from the past. Or, alternately, as Felstiner suggests, is it the element of chance to which each new day subjects us that is most frightful? Does his “easterly / dicethrow” tie our destiny up in contingencies, such as the sudden resurfacing of a past event into the present? Reading the Joris and Felstiner translations together gives a fuller, and more daunting sense of time—past, present, and future—as well as of the paradox of chance and fate. We are now ready to read the final stanza from this complex temporal perspective.
6. the witness in time – One way to understand this last stanza is that the witness is essentially alone with his or her experience, unable to impart its significance to others, and equally unable to partake in their experience. Moreover, to consider the witness in time is to realize that s/he is also subjected to time’s alteration of experience. In “Aschenglorie,” through the process of “then” surging into “now,” evoked in the second stanza, the way in which the lived experience in stanza 3 stands in memory seems threatened; stanza 4 is a repetition of stanza 1, but with a semantic and syntactic loosening that suggests the past may be slipping, shifting. The penultimate stanza, however, confirms time’s ever-present shadow: the ultimate destiny we cannot escape, and the vagaries of chance we must contend with day after day. But just as poetic encounter offers the possibility of experiencing momentary reality as a kind of “co-reality,” different translations of the same poem, of one witness struggling with his own experience, may offer the possibility co-witnessing, thereby enriching the reader’s understanding of poetic experience.
“Aschenglorie” / “Ashglory” | “Landschaft” / “Landscape”
Cycle III, composed December 15, 1964 | Cycle III, composed Aug. 3-16, 1964
After attempting to read in the dimension of time, my skiff drifts toward a desert shore, that of “Landschaft.” This poem confronts us with the “ultimate witnesses,” those who have experienced death, the ultimate and universal fate of humankind. They may witness for each other, but who among the living can bear witness for them? A complex relationship develops in the poem between such ultimate witnesses and the bedlamite, or madman, a relationship which seems to hold a glimmer of hope, but which each of the three translators—Felstiner, Joris, and Hamburger—read in different ways.
JCelan LANDSCAPE with urnbeings. Conversations from smokemouth to smokemouth. FCelan LANDSCAPE with urn beings. Conversations from smokemouth to smokemouth. HCelan LANDSCAPE with urn creatures. Conversations from smokemouth to smokemouth.
The landscape of the first stanza is one of ash, although here, the ashes are only implied, by the urns that have become beings or creatures, and by the words that pass from one “smokemouth” to another. Although the stanza is without verbs, it conveys a sense of otherworldly existence.
(Stz. 2/5) JCelan They eat: the bedlamite’s truffle, a piece of unburied poetry, found tongue and tooth. FCelan They eat: the bedlamite truffle, a piece of unburied poesy, found tongue and tooth. HCelan They eat: those madhouse truffles, a chunk of unburied poetry, found a tongue and a tooth .
In JCelan and FCelan, the “bedlamite’s truffle” seems to be found by the smokemouths, becoming the “tongue and tooth” which allow them to eat. Hamburger also refers to “Bedlam,” one of many names for what was once the Bethlehem insane asylum in London, but he does so less directly, and without implicating the madman himself. (Paul Celan was hospitalized several times in psychiatric facilities, notably in 1966 and 1967 for several months, during which most of Fadensonnen and Lichtzwang, the volumes that followed Atemwende, were composed.) Yet in HCelan, it is “those madhouse truffles” that have “found a tongue and a tooth,” presumably through consumption by the “urn creatures”; there is also the suggestion that the “unburied poetry” from the madhouse may have found a means of being heard, albeit through the tongue or language of a “smokemouth.” That this poetry is “unburied” may in itself link it to another dimension; does it still live, or is it dead? Or is it something in between? Whatever the nature of this strange poetry, by the communion in the second stanza with the urn creatures, what proceeds from madness, and what is merely ash or its recipient, find a certain wholeness, even a certain relief, as indicated by the third one-line stanza, identical in all three translations.
Stz. 3/5 A tear rolls back into its eye.
As is often the case in Celan’s poetry, it is unclear to whom this eye belongs. But if the smokemouths do more than simply eat, if they also become a means of expression for the poetry of the bedlamite, it is perhaps the madman who finds consolation. Or perhaps his poetry restores some measure of life and human feeling to the urn creatures. As the focus switches from mouth to eye, one could also elaborate on these possibilities of witness: perhaps the bedlamite’s writings have succeeded in bearing witness to the ultimate reality of the urn creatures, who in turn bring witnessing full circle by giving ghostly voice to the bedlamite’s experience outside the norms of society.
The penultimate fourth stanza introduces the pronouns “they” and “you,” which may correspond to the urn creatures and the bedlamite, respectively, while widening the poem’s reach, to the reader but also perhaps to the speaker of the poem, who may be addressing himself as a writer of “unburied poetry.” Here are the first three lines of this stanza, as Joris and Felstiner translate them:
JCelan The left, orphaned half of the pilgrim- mussel—they gave it to you, FCelan The orphaned left half of the pilgrim shell — they gave you it,
Jakobsmuschel (“pilgrim-mussel” or “pilgrim shell”) refers to the symbolic scallop of the pilgrims of St. James’ Way, as Joris indicates in his notes; but perhaps because it is the left half, the orphaned half, that is bestowed, Joris also notes that Muschel also evokes Mauscheln, the Jewish speech of the exiled, of the wandering pilgrim Jew. As the next lines reveal, the shell is linked to both hearing and sight.
JCelan The left, orphaned half of the pilgrim- mussel—they gave it to you, then they bound you— Listening to it illuminates the space: FCelan The orphaned left half of the pilgrim shell — they gave you it, then trussed you up — illumines the space and listens: HCelan The left-hand, orphaned half of the pilgrim’s shell — they gave it to you, then they fettered you— listening, floodlights the scene:
After receiving the shell, the addressee is “bound” in JCelan and “trussed up” in FCelan. Whereas the binding in Joris’s translation can be either physical or moral, or both, Felstiner’s term is more specifically physical; however, it may imply securing, or clothing, or support. Hamburger’s translation, on the other hand, is less ambiguous in its suggestion of hindrance. Fettered, the poem’s addressee may be unable to undertake any sort of pilgrimage. Nevertheless, the shell listens, and possibly the urn creatures, if indeed “they” have passed the shell along. The listening “floodlights the scene,” whereas both Joris and Felstiner translate this line with references to illumination and space:
JCelan The left, orphaned half of the pilgrim- mussel—they gave it to you, then they bound you— Listening to it illuminates the space: FCelan The orphaned left half of the pilgrim shell — they gave you it, then trussed you up — illumines the space and listens:
While in FCelan it is also the shell that listens, in JCelan, “listening to it illuminates the space.” This implies some degree of choice, and the way in which light enters the poem in both Joris’s and Felstiner’s translations is more neutral, possibly even benevolent, by comparison to the “scene” drowned in light in HCelan. The final one-line stanza is identical in the three translations, but because it seems to be revealed in JCelan and FCelan, rather than made suddenly, even starkly apparent in HCelan, a range of interpretations is possible. Below are the three poems in their entirety:µµ
The final reference to a game introduces the possibility of chance but it is a game against death, and death obviously wins in the end. As in “Aschenglorie,” we are placed before contingency and destiny; there seems to be little margin for individual free will. Fettered and forced to see by the listening of the orphaned half of the pilgrim’s shell, the addressee in HCelan seems unable to even set out on the doomed path through life and must focus instead on our ultimate fate. Given the link between the shell and the urn creatures, the sense of communion and consolation of the foregoing stanzas may only be achieved at the expense of an undiluted awareness of death. In JCelan, the addressee may have entered into a binding relationship by which the realities of life and death are illuminated, but some choice is preserved by a shell that is listened to, rather than one that listens. There remains some latitude for taking one’s chances in the game, even when losing is assured. Finally, in FCelan, the pilgrim shell “illumines the space and listens.” This ear, so to speak, doesn’t necessarily flood one with stark realization; rather, given that the addressee is “trussed up” and thus perhaps outfitted for the journey, the pilgrim shell, and by extension, the urn beings, may provide some sort of presence or support as the wanderer or exile, or madman, makes his or her way. Their knowledge of what death actually is may even provide an uncanny source of comfort.
“Landschaft” / “Landscape” | “Unter die Haut” / “Sown under”
Cycle III, composed Aug. 3-16, 1964 | Cycle II, composed June 3, 1964
In the case of “Landschaft,” then, translation widens the spectrum of interpretation through readings that have different existential implications. While the translations of “Aschenglorie” allowed a more convergent reading, both poems place us squarely before our own mortality. I feel somewhat relieved, then, to be directing my skiff toward a more life-affirming poem, “Sown under” (Joris’s title). As so often in Atemwende, this poem highlights the connection between the hands and the poetic word. Celan apparently considered a poem to be like a handshake, and in this one a name has been sown (or sewn) under the speaker’s very skin. The will to keep this word alive, and thereby preserve the speaker as well, starts out with clarity and force; here are the first stanza and the beginning of the second in the translations of Gillespie, Joris, and Hamburger:
GCelan SEWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands: your name, comforted with hands. When I knead the clump of air, our nourishment, JCelan SOWN UNDER the skin of my hands: your name comforted by hands. When I knead the lump of air, our nourishment, HCelan SEWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands: your name that hands comforted. When I knead the lump of air, our nourishment,
Reading across the translations, we sense the semantic density that opens the poem; whereas each translator apparently had to choose between stitching or seeding, the German seems to encompass both ideas, which trans-reading enables bringing together. The speaker’s hands are enriched or marked with the addressee’s name, which, in turn, is comforted.
The following two lines are similar across the three translations: air as “nourishment” evokes the importance of breath and silence in Celan’s poetry. While Gillespie’s “clump of air” recalls her more earthly translation of “Great, glowing mound” and differs slightly from the “lump of air” in JCelan and HCelan, there is also a subtler difference, which I noticed only after re-reading the three translations several times: Hamburger’s slightly heavier fall from the first line to the second seems to prepare the way for the divergence of his translation in the closing lines. Ending with “the” (“When I knead the”) creates a pause I find more unusual in English than the corresponding line breaks in GCelan and JCelan; I thus associate a slight let-down with the “lump of air,” realizing it is breath, not the makings of real bread. Such a slight difference in emphasis becomes more pertinent when we read through to the poem’s final lines.
GCelan SEWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands: your name, comforted with hands. When I knead the clump of air, our nourishment, its leaven is the alphabet glimmer from the absurdly open pore. * JCelan SOWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands: your name comforted by hands. When I knead the lump of air, our nourishment, it is leavened by the letters’ shimmer from the lunatic-open pore. * HCelan SEWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands: your name that hands comforted. When I knead the lump of air, our nourishment, it is soured by the letter’s gleam from the dementedly open pore.
In GCelan and JCelan, the clump/lump of air is leavened by shimmering letters under the skin, presumably the letters of the name in stanza 1. What appears to enable this is a pore that Gillespie translates as “absurdly open” and Joris, as “lunatic-open.” Obviously, Joris’s translation is more ambiguous, linking the speaker’s openness with insanity. Still, it is this openness or permeability that allows a simple lump of air to be leavened by language, more specifically the “letters’ shimmer” (JCelan), which recalls the last line of Celan’s earliest known poem, cited in Part I in Felstiner’s translation: “For you are stillness, Mother, shimmer from the deep.” To be so porous to language and breath may drive the speaker mad, but still the result seems to be poetic nourishment.
In Hamburger’s translation, the lump of air is not leavened, but rather “soured” by the letters that shine up through the skin. In this context, “the dementedly open pore” seems to alter the nourishment the speaker shares with his addressee such that it seems less palatable than in the other two translations. The range in the different versions suggests the original poem contains ambiguities that the translator cannot always maintain in their fullness, at times having to choose between opposing interpretations.
In general, Hamburger’s translation of references to madness in Atemwende, of which there are many, including the “madhouse truffles” in “Landschaft,” tends to set him apart. Although I can only speculate as to why this is so, Hamburger was the only translator among the five studied here who knew Celan personally. He alone was witness to the darkness of the poet’s final years; in 1968, Celan actually forbid him to continue with his translation work. In his essay, “On Translating Celan,” Hamburger explains the misunderstanding and attributes Celan’s basic mistrust to the tremendous strain and paranoia caused by Claire Goll’s outrageous plagiarism accusations (412).
“Unter die Haut” / “Sown under” | “(Ich kenne dich” / “(I know you”
Cycle II, composed June 3, 1964 | Cycle I, composed January 9, 1964
I will let Hamburger introduce my last trans-reading, which involves a short poem translated by all five translators who have helped me navigate the heartseas of Celan’s poetry. This is the final push through difficult waters, before the breathturn that should bring us full circle along our Atemwende meridian. This last poem is the penultimate in Cycle I and consists of four lines set off from the surrounding poems by parentheses. There is much critical commentary concerning this short text, and some of the readings are less personal, or more complex, than Hamburger’s. Nonetheless, his brief commentary, in what turned out to be his final preface to Celan’s work, written in 2006 (the year before he died), provides insight that will lead us into the straits of the poem. Referring to its four lines, he wrote:
“What they confessed—very sanely and very concisely—is the madness to which Celan’s personal extremity had reduced him. As other poems attest, in the tug-of-war his work enacted, life was inseparable from his marriage and fatherhood; and the madness was to separate him from his wife and surviving son, so that the tug to death prevailed” (20).
Hamburger saw how madness endangered the primary I-you relationships of Paul Celan the man, and he also implicated it in Celan’s death. At the heart of the short poem is a question, which Hamburger translates as “Where flames one word that for us both could vouch?” The poem itself seems to serve as a frame for this question, rather than providing a definitive answer.
Below, then, is how the question is worded and framed by the five translators. I will first read the opening two lines across the different versions, before circling back through the final two lines.
HCelan (I KNOW YOU, you’re the deeply bowing, bowed, I, the drilled through, to you am subjugate. Where flames one word that for us both could vouch? You — wholly real. I — all delusion, mad.) JCelan (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 delusion.) FCelan (I KNOW YOU, you’re the one bent over low, and I, the one pierced through, am in your need. Where flames a word to witness for us both? You — wholly real. I — wholly mad.) GCelan (I KNOW YOU, you are deeply bowed, are sad, I do your bidding, am pierced through and through. What flaming word could witness for us two? You—who are wholly real. I—wholly mad.) MPCelan (I KNOW YOU: you’re the one who’s bent so low. You hold me—I’m the riddled one—in bondage. What word could burn as witness for us two? You’re my reality. I’m your mirage.)
The first two lines reveal the speaker, who is profoundly wounded—“drilled” or “pierced through”—to be subject to or dependent on his addressee. In Joris’s translation, the “you” is “deeply bowed,” whereas in HCelan the two possibilities implied are made explicit: “bowing” and “bowed.” In other words, the addressee seems also to be showing submission and also to be weighed down by a burden, the possible explanation for which becomes clearer in the final line. At any rate, the speaker-addressee relationship is one of mutual hardship. In Felstiner’s translation, instead of using a word such as “subjugate” or “subject,” the speaker calls attention to his dependence on the addressee: “I, the one pierced through, am in your need.” Gillespie’s translation stands out by giving the addressee’s bent-low position an emotional tone of sadness. The word order of the second line in GCelan, where by the submission or dependence is expressed first—“I do your bidding”—highlights the speaker’s wounds as a possible result of this submission. Or perhaps the same weight that acts on both causes the addressee to be bent low and the speaker to be transpierced. This, however, does not apply to MPCelan; it is the addressee who holds the speaker “in bondage.” Here it not simply a matter of wounds; in other words, “riddled,” which describes the speaker’s state, implies less acute wounding in that it might also suggest that the speaker is overcome by enigma. This carries through the final lines of MPCelan, which reveal the addressee to be the speaker’s reality, for which the speaker is the corresponding mirage. Does reality need mirage; does mirage offer some sort of balance through links with the illusory, the unattainable, even the visionary? Whatever the case may be, this more metaphorical reading takes us away from the intimacy of the poem’s I-you relationship, with which the other translators follow through to conclude the poem.
Felstiner’s concluding statement on this relationship may be the simplest: “You — wholly real. I — wholly mad.” Hamburger’s commentary, with which I introduced this poem, starts to become clearer in his translation: the final line is, “You — wholly real. I — all delusion, mad.” The overall impression: what merely burdens the addressee, wounds the speaker to the core. This might be read as reality itself; the addressee in Hamburger’s translation seems to submit, to bow to some burdensome force, and may thereby maintain a coherent sense of reality. Alternately, it may be the speaker’s madness that affects them both, leaving only the addressee intact. It bears noting here that Hamburger’s use of the word “vouch” in the core question sets his translation apart, as the other translators refer to witness or testimony. “Vouch” carries a sense of guarantee or support, as if Hamburger sought a word that might protect the I-you relationship from the speaker’s madness,
|GCelan (I know you, you are deeply bowed, are sad, I do your bidding, am pierced through and through. What flaming word could witness for us two? You—who are wholly real. I—wholly mad.)|
which Hamburger emphasizes doubly with two words—“I — all delusion, mad”—whereas the other translators, aside from McHugh and Popov, use either “delusion” or “mad.” In JCelan, the final gesture is slightly more emphatic with regard to the addressee’s reality: “You—all, all real. I—all delusion.”
Finally, in Gillespie’s translation, the syntax once again offers an alternate reading. The use of “who” in the first the sentence about the addressee, and its absence in the short concluding sentence about the speaker, opens the possibility that “You” might be the word sought for dual witness. The other translations differentially highlight this possibility through their simpler constructions in the final line; outside a trans-reading context, this possibility might not be apparent.
However despairing this short poem may seem, it leads us to the conclusion of Cycle I, to a poem of undeniable redemption: “Weggebeizt,” which Joris translates as “Eroded” and the other three translators as “Etched away.” (McHugh and Popov do not include “Weggebeizt” in their selection, which may partially explain their divergent translation of “(I know you”; that is, the less despairing, more balanced ending. Perhaps they saw fit to conclude with greater closure to better serve the overall coherence of the poems they did translate. As I indicated in Part I, their approach seems to favor or at least allow some degree of distance with regard to Celan’s original poems.) “Weggebeizt,” or“Etched away,” is the source of the striking neologism—“atemkristall,” or “breathcrystal”—which gave an earlier publication of Cycle I its name. “Etched away,” along with the series of poems that precede it, contains words linked to the art of etching, which was the art of Celan’s wife, Gisèle. Early in Part I, I discussed their collaboration—between artists, between husband and wife—and how it bore witness to their resolve to preserve their relationship despite extremely difficult odds. This effort continued beyond their work together on Atemkristall, as attested by the following excerpt from a letter Celan wrote on May 20, 1965, the day before his release from a psychiatric clinic. (Celan would complete “Once,” the last poem in Atemwende, in September 1965, and prepare the manuscript for publication in 1967, during yet another hospitalization. After 1965, the letters of Paul and Gisèle Celan no longer contain a phrase which, previously, they often included in their writings back and forth: “Wir sind es noch immer” (Badiou, II, notes, letter 106, No. 2). This phrase can be translated as “Still and always us,” and concludes a poem in Cycle IV: “Schaufäden, Sinnfäden” (“Sight threads, sense threads”, Breathturn, JCelan). As Hamburger indicates in his commentary, their marriage ultimately suffered due to the difficulties they faced. Nonetheless, Atemwende remains a special testimony to their struggle and to their collaboration.)
“And we will pick up our work again. I have seen your etchings being born next to my poems, being born of those very poems, and you know well that ‘Atemkristall / breathcrystal,’ which has reopened the path of poetry for me, was born from your etchings” (Joris, introduction).
I would like to bring my journey along the meridian of Atemwende full circle with “Etched away” and the miracle of witness that concludes it. My exploration of a space for trans-reading across the multiple translations of Celan’s poetry has allowed me to travel his heartseas far and wide, through divergences and convergences that have given me greater insight into how the breath of one Celan poem can be rendered by different translators with different dynamics, toward different vistas. As I approach the point at which I began, I return to the reading of a single translation, in this case that of John Felstiner, who passed away in February 2017, so as to allow him, and Celan’s poem, the final word.
Etched away by the
radiant wind of your speech,
the motley gossip of pseudo-
experience — the hundred-
poem, the Lie-poem.
a path through human-
through penitent cowl-ice, to
welcoming chambers and tables.
in the time crevasse,
there waits, a Breathcrystal,
|FCelanWhere flames a word to witness for us both?Where flames one word that for us both could vouch?HCELAN your irreversible witness Where flames a word, would testify for us both?JCELEN your unalterable testimony. What flaming word could witness for us two?GCELAN your incontrovertible witness.|
 According to Daive, Clair Goll told Jürgen Serke: “I killed three people: my mother, Kurt Wolff, and Paul Celan” (my translation from the French, 116).
 The last line of a sonnet that Felstiner sensitively translates, but only in part, in Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. This sonnet is Celan’s first known poem (1938).
 Bremen speech, trans. Felstiner, Selected, 395.
 My translation from the French.
 Transl. Joris, Breathturn into Timestead, introduction. In response to a questionnaire sent by a Paris bookstore, the Librarie Flinker, to contemporary writers in 1958.
 Transl. Joris, Breathturn into Timestead, introduction.
 Joris’s notes evoke Klinker, a word of Dutch origin, usually connected to a partially vitrified brick; and the German Klinkers, a name for marbles used in games.