The strange, evocative poetry of Paul Celan seems impossible to translate from German into English while retaining its unique twists and inventive word-combinations, yet poet-author Pierre Joris did just that! You get a glimpse in the title and will see more in a moment, but first let’s consider some relevant background on Celan.
When I received my review copy of Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, the Introduction reminded me that only Rilke had an impact comparable to Celan’s. Both were major poets of the 20th century, who wrote in German, and both penned poetry that was prolifically reviewed, studied, written about, and annotated, then and now.
Born Paul Antschel in what became the Ukraine, Celan grew up in a Jewish family, speaking German but learning many other languages as well. As a young adult, he worked in forced labor camps until they were closed and he could continue his studies. By then, both of his parents had been killed.
Other hardships and devastations followed, including the death of a child, which created, no doubt, unimaginable influences on the poet and his work. Some deemed the resulting poems as surreal, but Celan saw his poems as rising from the real with clarity as “law.”
Again, in the Introduction, Pierre Joris says, “Radically dispossessed of any other reality, Celan had to set out to create his own language – a language as absolutely exiled as he was himself.” The author goes on to explain that “Celan’s ‘language,’ as I have tried to show, is really a number of dismantled and re-created languages.”
What does any of this have to do with us now – as poets or as poetry readers? A lot! Not only was Celan ahead of times in compressing and reducing the elements of a poem as poets often do today, his work presents the essence, the essentials, the core of life, the crux of being stripped of superfluities and the superficial.
That was a mouthful! But Celan’s poems, amazingly rendered by Joris, give us beauty and a breathturn into brevity. For example:
YOU MAY confidently
serve me snow:
as often as shoulder to shoulder
with the mulberry tree I strode through summer,
its youngest leaf
I have no idea what that means! Nevertheless, impressions and images arise, recreating a mood and interesting experience.
For another example of this and of the composite words I mentioned earlier:
above the grayblack wastes.
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
Incidentally, both of those examples present the complete poems, which consistently remain sans title. Interesting, too, both of the poems begin or end with levity, belying the “shriek” and “grayblack wastes.” So, even if we’re pretty sure what’s going on here, we’re never really sure of either the mood or the experience.
The same can be said for poems offering a visual encounter:
endless shoelace – at
the ghosts gnaw –
binds two bloody toes together
for the road’s oath.
The city can be seen. The shoelace can be pictured. The ghosts can jump to life as they gnaw, but are they gnawing the toes bloody or were they already oozing when the shoelace bound them together? And how does this influence a road to make an oath?
Again, I have no earthly or ghostly idea what this means, but I have impressions of how ongoing hardships – bloodying hardships – can bind together people who normally might not be going in the same direction, but now have a similar goal or purpose they vow to accomplish before the road ends.
We’d better hurry, though, as it’s already evening, and the dark will soon be upon us. We might need a flashlight, but I hope you’ll read these poems until the darkness lightens and impressions arise to appreciate, ponder, and recall.
Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, hardback