Thursday, March 24, 2011


Before Paul Antschel adopted the name Paul Celan, he lost his parents to Nazi deportations and was, himself, a captive laborer in the Old Kingdom (of Romania) until 1944, when the Red Army, self-sprung from Wehrmacht encirclements, pressed into the region. He spoke Romanian and German as a child, acquired Russian during two Soviet occupations, and later mastered French, after settling in France, and marrying an artist. His earliest poems, to my knowledge, were published in Romanian, but the bulk of his works, including his most famous poems, appeared in German: the piece “Todesfuge”, or “Death Fugue”, for example, published in 1948, may be most-cited, and is a stark reminder that Jews, under the Nazi regime, suffered a series of well-orchestrated reductions until the tattered remnants, in the poem, are whistled out as a pack of dogs, by a camp commander who forces them to dig a grave “in den Lüften”, in the wind. Later poems grew clipped and cryptic, perhaps as the poet attempted to corrupt or reinvent the German tongue; he also succumbed to mania and despair. A few years before his death, Celan wrote “Todtnauberg”, a piece that commemorated his meeting with the philosopher (and former Nazi) Martin Heidegger, on the German’s rural property. In this poem, he hoped “for a thinker’s / word / to come, / in the heart,” (of his host, Heidegger) but the twin evils of Nazi genocide and postwar indifference must have been costly to Celan’s wellbeing. Heidegger was said to remark upon the man’s erratic behavior a couple years later, “Celan ist Krank—heillos,” sick with an incurable disease. The poet threw himself into the Seine in 1970, drowning, leaving behind his wife and child. Maybe this deterioration, resulting in suicide, can be traced through Celan’s verse. Small, introspective weights such as “De voi depinde” (it’s up to you), from the Romanian poems, build into greater acknowledgments of darkness and burden. An excerpt, “Die Welt ist fort, ich muß dich tragen” (the world is lost, I must carry you), from a 1967 collection, Atemwende, may additionally refer to the biblical dilemma faced by Abraham, when called upon to sacrifice his son, Isaac, even as the reader may conjure the poet’s mother, instead, lost to a bullet from an Einsatzgruppen rifle. Later, Celan would write, “Vertag dich nicht, du,” or “Don’t adjourn yourself, you.” Paul Celan’s titles, in the collections that followed Atemwende, include Fadensonen, for Thread-suns; Lichtzwang, for Light-strength; and Schneepart, for Snow-part. The titles, in translation, approximate spectra, sensory fusion, meters that compute natural units. The word, Atemwende, itself, which translates to “Breath-turn”, nourishes many Celan aficionados, who cherish the sense of exhilaration that accompanies the genesis of poetry. Call it exhilaration or corporeal necessity, but the “bloodblack” edges throughout Schneepart, for instance, are tempered by a “magnolia-houred halfclock” that keeps unorthodox time as the speaker promises, “I’m wintering over to you.” Perhaps my reverence for Celan’s writings (poetry, prose, translations, letters) springs, in some small way, from my own (inept) Jewish militancy, misplaced angers over the loss of mother’s-side family members to the Shoah, Holocaust, or what Celan termed, “that which happened.” Celan concluded a poem, written to his wife in French, on the occasion of her birthday, by reflecting upon his hand, how it drew “l’un, l’unique / cercle”, the one, the only circle. They were, apparently, living apart, but very much in love, and yet, a short while later, Celan would take his own life, rounding-out an anguished, solitary circumference. Reading and re-reading is a circle of its own, and in so doing, fulfills a poignant request: “Trink aus meinem Mund”, the poet wrote, drink from my mouth——this wisdom——and I do.